Monday, May 24, 2010

Whining As A Way of Life

One of the things that I observe a lot among my fellow academics is how much they love to complain. A life of a regular academic is a constant self-pity party. Whenever two or more professors get together, they immediately engage in gleeful comparisons of whose life is more pathetic. Everybody tries to prove that it is hardly possible to be more miserable than they are. Of course, their colleagues passionately dispute the title of the most miserable person around.

Objectively, we all know that a professor's life is not that bad. Tons of people have it a lot worse than we do. We only have to be physically present at work seven months out of a year and then only two or three days per week. Of course, when one brings this up, the academics who fight for the title of the most miserable person alive immediately exclaim: "But we have to do research!" Well, first of all, if you chose this career in the first place, you are supposed to enjoy research, not spend your life complaining about it. Second, lying on the sofa at home reading books or watching movies (which is what research means in my area) is really not the same as slaving in some stuffy cubicle 40 hours a week 50 weeks a year constantly terrified of being fired.

To be completely honest, those of us who manage to finish our dissertations and end up getting tenure-track jobs are pretty fortunate. We get good salaries (if you don't think your professorial salary is good enough, check out the median salary range for a full-time worker in your area, and stop whining already), a high social status, a lot of free time, and the constant company of colleagues who - albeit whiny - are mostly intelligent, kind, progressive individuals.

We, the college professors, are very far from being miserable. We just like to pretend we are. This weird tendency starts when we begin our academic careers as undergrad students. My students at Cornell told me that it was considered bad form among them to say you are not completely exhausted. It is considered some sort of a badge of honor to claim that you haven't had any sleep in a week or haven't rested in a month. Then, the insanity continues in grad school. "I keep slaving over this dissertation," fashionably dishevelled grad students sigh. "But I still need at least 6 more years to finish it." In my experience, grad school is actually non-stop, endless, exuberant partying but, somehow, we are not supposed to mention that.

This process of ever-intensifying self-pity reaches its climax when one gets an academic position at a university. Now academics can finally indulge in the joyous recitation of every little thing that makes their lives oh, so difficult. "I'm so exhausted but I have this conference in a month and I've yet to prepare my talk. I don't know how I'll manage that",  the pity-partiers whine. Sure, what a tragedy. The poor, fatigued academic forced to read a book, write a ten page talk based on it, and go hang out with some colleagues (all trip-related expenses paid by the university, of course), drink cocktails, and blab about literary theory. Sounds like a really miserable existence.

When I think of all the fine, intellectual people who had to drop out of grad school for financial or personal reasons, everybody who didn't manage to get a tenure-track position because of the jobs that were lost as a result of economic crisis, all of my talented colleagues who keep going to the MLA conference for yet another round of job interviews and getting nothing but rejection letters, it makes me very angry to hear my fellow academics complain of their sheltered, happy existences.

15 comments:

profacero said...

Caveat: I don't think everyone has as much of a social life in graduate school or is as well funded later as that.

I don't know where the graduate school suffering ethos comes from but it is there and it is weird in my view. It carries over into assistant professordom and you're right, a lot of it is some sort of put-on. I've found that a lot of older faculty don't think like that, and it's a relief.

There's also some sort of perverse delight people take in saying, "Can you believe this has happened?!" That can be sort of fun, because insane things do happen and they are funny, but there's this weird self-importance about telling "horror" stories sometimes that really puts me off.

Yet I do think a lot of people have concrete frustrations, like lack of access to the things they would need to really do their jobs, or strange office politics that make work life hard. A friend of mine who is in business sort of nailed it when he listened to descriptions of what goes on from me and interestingly (to me) some of his other friends who work K-12. He said: "Having to deal with that much immaturity and chaos for such a large part of the day really would be draining."

But: when one is in a place that's decently managed, it can be a great job even when not well funded.

sptc said...

P.S. I am getting fascinated with this and should post on it myself instead of hogging this thread.

I am *so* of two minds on it, namely, half utterly agreeing (and being really sick of the complaints of our newest hire, even though I understand what a shock it is to get to a place like ours) -- and half saying well, if we could all be in situations with as little discomfort and as much fun as what you describe, then sure...

Clarissa said...

"even though I understand what a shock it is to get to a place like ours"

-What's so shocking about your school? :-)

profacero said...

What's so shocking in my main department is a long story but it has to do with the political situation and the obstruction and harassment situations, all of which have been quite bad and very opaque. I came with experience but for a new person with enthusiasms it is completely demoralizing. This is the reason I complain and am depressed sometimes, and it is legitimate.

I've been thinking about your post though in another vein and I think you're referring to a kind of complaining that is veiled bragging. Complaining is a way of saying your work is demanding, that your presence is in demand, that you are above the humdrum, that you have authority and coolnesss, etc. The response to that is to say brightly, "Great! I'm glad your business is booming!"
Because really the best way to say you're happy is to say you're happy.

There is also another kind of complaining that has to do with fear or guilt, perhaps. I don't know whether I fully understand it but I know people have tried to teach it to me. It may be related to the Cornell complaining you speak of. It's sort of like this: you have learned that if you are enjoying life you will get into trouble. People will try to say it means your work is not good, or is not valid, or that you are otherwise unworthy, lightweight, worthy of derision, and so on.

So, in a prophylactic manner, you learn to say you are not having a good time, or you even learn NOT to have too good a time. That way, you hope, you will have control over your suffering and will only suffer in ways you determine you can stand -- which is better than the alternative of leaving yourself open to tortures that others may inflict and that may be more radically disabling.

I realize how neurotic that is but I think a lot of people do it and I know I've been trained to do it to some extent. There has to be a better form of self defense, though, because this one, being destructive, is not effective as self defense.

I also think people affect disaffectedness because they know things can go South. So many people didn't get to finish graduate school, didn't get jobs, etc., and one always knew that could be oneself. So one did not want to say one liked what one was doing too much, because one never knew how long it would last.

profacero said...

Or perhaps another way of saying it is this: academic jobs in themselves aren't hard or unpleasant if one has landed in a good situation, but what is hard is what a lot of people have been taught to transfer onto them.

And at another level, the enterprise isn't "sheltered" at all but full of sacrifice and risk. I mean: for the sake of an ideal people use their savings to move across the country to jobs whose salary is low enough that their kids qualify for low income lunch! And yes, they have chosen this, but that "choice" has come about incrementally. And many *are* still saying it's the best job in the world, and do not even *dream* of situations in which their institution paid for them to go to conferences.

Clarissa said...

I want to specify that in this post I was only talking about TT or tenured faculty. What I say does not refer to adjuncts, lecturers, part-time faculty, etc. Those people are horribly exploited and it's a shame how they are treated.

TT and tenured faculty usually have their moving expenses paid for by the hiring institution. Nobody should sign a contract where the moving expenses aren't specified. The salary of TT faculty is, in my opinion, very decent. But then again, I come from a 3rd world country and 50,000 a year is a fortune to me. People who were born in the US probably have a very different standard.

Clarissa said...

I agree that the whining is a form of bragging. The question is why misery is seen as something to brag about while happiness is not. Must be the legacy of the Puritans again.

SPTC said...

Actual salaries, benefits, and working conditions elsewhere are not what you say you have and it is not because we don't know how to negotiate. I really think the aspect of your discussion that's interesting is the one about people in actually good situations complaining. What I find interesting is how those same people condescend to those of us whose situations are less good and say it must be because we signed a contract without reading it or something like that!!!

Clarissa said...

I would never suggest that my colleagues are to blame for getting offered a substandard contract. It's always the fault of the administrations that are willing to do anything to rob teachers and students alike.

I haven't heard of this tendency not to cover moving costs for TT faculty. If this tendency has started to appear, we need to fight it. There are many other disturbing tendencies in academia that if not combatted will end up destroying the system of higher education. Casualization and Internet-based courses are just two examples.

V said...

Interesting...
It amazes me how diverse the conditions are even among the TT faculty across the disciplines...

I got my moving expenses covered even when I was a postdoc. And when I became a faculty, I covered the moving expenses of my own postdocs. And it did not occur to me it can be any other way. Because everybody but complete jerks do that...

Speaking of the complaining culture - I think it is a back side of the competition. If you do not work 80 hours per week or do not pretend you work 80 hours per week, you become "not motivated enough" in the eyes of many decision-makers and reference-letter-writers. Of course, eventually this attitude gets partially internalized...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for specifying that what you say applies to TT faculty only, which in the humanities now means a minority of the teaching body.

As a VAP, I will teach five days a week next semester. I will also teach the courses with the highest enrolment. I am not complaining, though. I love my job:)

Ol.

Brianna said...

You come from a third-world country? I thought you were Canadian. Which one?

MPMR said...

I am TT and I work five days a week, but I've commented on the difference between our work loads before.

I think another group, perhaps especially among assistant professors who are feeling overwhelmed by their jobs, might complain about being busy in order to avoid getting more tasks handed to them. In my department, there is always someone asking me to be on another committee, another course revision, another textbook committee, another community service project, etc. (It is partly my own fault in that I am involved in such a wide variety of service commitments and in the past always said yes. I am trying to say no more often now for my own sanity.) They are all part of my job, and I love my job, but pointing out that I'm already working 50-60 hours a week helps cut down on the number of requests and makes it easier to turn people down without offending them or their project. It might come off as complaining to some, but I also frequently point out that I love my job.

NancyP said...

One source of faculty stress can be dealing with unethical behavior by senior colleagues or chairman. Another can be the feeling of being shut out as "the affirmative action hire" (POC) or "not our kind" (working class) or "working on unimportant topic" or "just another woman over her head".

profacero said...

My latest thoughts on this complex matter.

http://profacero.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/academic-mondays-further-advice-to-new-faculty-what-not-to-say/

Academic jobs are a mixed bag and I really don't think it's a moral failing to be unhappy with quite a few tenure track and tenured situations. Depending upon where they are located, I think it takes a lot of talent (and some resources) to figure out how to manage and/or leave these.

What interests me is the way in which many seem to have been trained either to believe they must perceive themselves or get themselves perceived to suffer, or alternatively, that they have to say everything is wonderful.