how are professors citizens?

Contrary to what my students thought, I did occasionally do things that were not teaching. They were always shocked to discover I had anything like a life, and they also often assumed that such a life, were it to exist, would somehow be connected with the other teachers. (Generally it was not, though there was one biology teacher who made a truly valiant effort to give me some sort of fashion sense: I will never forget Mr. P’s valiant effort to save this now still sinking ship of mismatched clothes.)

The point is: I would go to parties. And at these parties, sometimes people found out I was a high school teacher and said, “Wow, I wish I could do that.” Now there are specific skills involved with high school teaching: classroom management probably most of all, but also lesson planning, familiarity with subject material, and an almost mystical capacity to communicate knowledge to young people in a way that makes them excited, alive, and slightly less alienated than they were before they got to your room. It’s a hard job. You also have to be able to return papers on time (no small feat if you’re giving 120 essays a week), and the thing I kept forgetting, you have to remember to turn in the attendance card from homeroom every morning. (Computers, I hear, have changed everything since those bygone days of the early 0’s).

But the folks I was talking to: this wasn’t their worry. The problem was that being a teacher didn’t pay enough, wasn’t prestigious enough, didn’t give them the kinds of capital (social, cultural, and financial all at once) they felt they needed. There were all sorts of subtle and unsubtle ways this was communicated, but one of my favorites was assuming that I was doing TFA (I wasn’t). The assumption, which I guess I should have taken as a compliment, was that someone who could talk about Dostoevsky must be teaching as some sort of elite program. They can’t just be a teacher. (I know, I know: I’m sorry. I talked about Dostoevsky at parties.)

And look: I’m as guilty as anyone. I didn’t keep teaching, at least not at the high school level. It wasn’t really because of the money (it’s not until this year that I’m making a salary instead of getting a stipend). I taught English at a Catholic all-girls high school in downtown Brooklyn. The kids were working-poor and lower middle class, nearly all of them people of color. My work mattered, and it was exhausting because it mattered. I went with the kids to a lot of speech tournaments, and this one Saturday we were at a high school with just all these damn signs for clubs I knew my students didn’t have. I got so angry at that difference I think I might have hit the wall. Or maybe I fought back tears. I remember being sad and mad at once.

So I tried. We brought back the newspaper. We wrote plays with all-female casts that were relevant to their communities, and then we put on the plays. We did all kinds of stuff. And there were others teachers there who really cared too, people who slogged a lot longer than me. And there were people who just went home, some because they had families or other jobs or other things; others because they had just had enough. I was in my early 20’s and it was easy for me to judge anyone.

But I was trying to be a writer. And I did a little bit of freelancing, until I realized that for me to write the kinds of stuff I want to write, I’d need to get a Ph.D. So I applied to programs, I got into Yale, and I was off. And for a while I thought I’d go back to high school teaching, but I eventually realized I was pretty good at this stuff, and that teaching college, while not as intense and relational as teaching high school, can still be very meaningful.   And I had time to write. And research. And I had access that I just could not have dreamed of having as a high school teacher. I’d call for an interview or a meeting and somehow I would get it. That’s me being a white male too of course, but a white male from Yale versus a white male Catholic high school teacher with a generic middle-tier Jesuit university degree are two pretty different white males. Except I wasn’t. I was still me. When I first read Bourdieu, it was a revelation, but not necessarily a happy one.

And so I think about this. A lot. And I wonder how different I am from those people I judged at those parties. I think in an ideal world we all do the work we feel called to do, but I’m increasingly aware that everyone just dancing to the beat of their own drummer can excuse all of us from the hard work of solidarity and citizenship. As a professor, I think I’m still able—in some ways more able—to be a citizen than I was as a high school teacher, so it’s not that I regret my decision. But I do wonder about it: about my motivations, about whether it’s as good for the world as I like to think it is.

Dorothy Day famously was an anarchist not because she thought it wasn’t her problem that there were poor but the exact opposite. To her, it was everyone’s problem that others suffer, and a big government allows people (especially the rich) to throw the responsibility at someone else. Despite the influence Dorothy Day has on my thought, I’m still basically a big government liberal. But I think she’s right that we lose something by letting other people do the kind of work that needs doing (Before teaching high school, I worked with Child Services in New York City for a year: that was even more exhausting, and even more necessary, and also tragic and coercive and sometimes thrilling and sometimes even hopeful).

I don’t know what the answer is here. Division of labor is good. Following your passion is good. But what if nobody has the passion to help others as a full time job? What if we could no longer pass that off? I think about this, and it reminds me of an amazing scene near the end of Don DeLillo’s White Noise. The main character meets a nun and wants her to tell him about heaven, and she responds in a long tirade, including the following:

“…We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure that they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.”

“You’ve had a long life. Maybe it works.”

She rattled out a laugh, showing teeth so old they were nearly transparent.

“Soon no more. You will lose your believers.”

“You’ve been praying for nothing all these years?”

“For the world, dumb head.”

“And nothing survives? Death is the end?”

“Do you want to know what I believe or what I pretend to believe?”

“I don’t want to hear this. This is terrible.”

“But true.”

“You’re a nun. Act like one.”

“We take vows. Poverty, chastity, obedience. Serious vows. A serious life. You could not survive without us.”

I’ve been thinking about what would happen if we met teachers at parties, or homeless shelter staff, or activists, or anyone else who does the work we so admire. What if they answered us like this? What if they’re the believers that keep us afloat?

I don’t think the answer is for me to stop being a professor, or for bankers to stop being bankers, or any of that. But I do think the answer is for our lives to become a bit less compartmentalized. How can we be full-fledged citizens? How can we be in relationships with the marginalized? How can we make the people we care about when we talk about them a bit less theoretical? How can we then have those relationships in ways that don’t feel instrumental, that aren’t about assuaging our guilt, that are actually about solidarity and working together? How can we do the work we admire instead of simply honoring it from afar? That’s not to say we professors can’t be citizens in all sorts of ways as professors: look at the impressive work done by the folks in the Social Science Research Network. The academy continues to matter, not least because it can provide a space for truth, beauty, justice, all the things worth caring about.

But I often worry that’s not enough, or that it’s sometimes, for some of us, too theoretical. There are a lot of political implications from the Trump election, but I’m increasingly convinced a focus on small politics is one of them. In my life, that might just mean a few hours a week. But I know that sometimes I find myself thinking “I wish I could do that” about someone I admire who does activism or community work. And I know I often mean “I choose not to do that.”

Is that a maximization of efficiency? I’m simply better at being an academic than I am at working at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen downtown, helping at a runaway center for teens, getting signatures for a petition, making phone calls, etc, etc, etc. But I think that’s not the point. I think we might be too atomized, too myopically focused on what makes us excellent: career, family, friendships, good dinner parties, etc. That’s me. And I don’t think that’s bad in and of itself. I’m not calling for hairshirts here. But I am saying maybe we (or at least I) ought to do the citizenship work we admire in others. Maybe we all have to do the work of believing–and then acting on that belief.




Written by jeffguhin

April 30, 2017 at 9:37 pm

Posted in sociology

Tagged with , ,

3 Responses

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  1. This is a lovely essay.

    I’ve always been a professor and have always felt that everyone has an obligation to give back to the community and advocate for justice regardless of occupation. Many people have jobs that lack an obvious “doing good” component, like construction workers, UPS drivers, grocery store clerks, gardeners and everyone can both do her job in a way that adds rather than subtracts from the social fabric and can make contributions to the social fabric outside the framework of a job. Being a professor is no different in this respect.

    Seems to me that some deeper structural issues are: (1) Why are the working conditions in the “doing good” professions so onerous and draining? Can we advocate for structural reforms that make them better jobs? Pay is only part of this. More is how the work itself is structured and respected. I’m thinking of articles about Finnish schoolteachers here. Smaller teaching loads, more professional autonomy, and a context of lower social/economic inequality can all make this job less draining while social respect and pay can make it less of a personal sacrifice. Wouldn’t society as a whole be better if the wage and prestige gap between professors and school teachers were lower? (2) The degree of social connections between people of different occupations and occupational backgrounds. I am not from elite origins but years of being a professor has given me largely elite social networks. My own recent work has had a large advocacy component that has put me into contact with people who have been incarcerated, and has expanded my own sense of connection to people of different educational and economic levels. My husband’s volunteer work has further expanded my knowledge of other people’s lives.

    Liked by 1 person


    May 1, 2017 at 2:28 pm

  2. generally like the essay and for sure appreciate the sentiment. only critical thing i’ll say is that hopeful entreaties to do more are, i suspect, doomed to fall on deaf ears. or, rather, ears that are swept along by the many institutional tides that flood our lives with a host of obligations and demands. i’m guessing you would agree with me on this.

    for this reason, i’ve often thought about ways to institutionalize this sort of “good behavior.” i remember talking with a friend about some sort of national service – akin to mandatory military service in other countries. it could take the form of one continuous year of service over the course of a lifetime (maybe w/ exceptions for financial need, or whatever – the details would be complicated). or maybe we move to a 4-day workweek and use the fifth day as a service day, i don’t know.

    i think this is all interesting to consider in light of schor’s work (and others) which grapples with what an alternative political economy might look like. a lot of these approaches advocate for shorter working hours, reducing the amount of goods and services we get from the market, and greater community involvement (which could take a bunch of different forms). maybe these things seem naive to some observers, but i wouldn’t be surprised if a viable-looking model starts to coalesce as we deal with the effects of automation and population pressures. and i think extra-market “good works” may play a central role.

    Liked by 1 person


    May 2, 2017 at 12:18 am

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