I always thought academia would mean more liquid lunches. As a child, the great god television taught me that professors spend their time drinking dry martinis at midday and scaring the wits out of undergraduates. That rather comfortable groove, I figured, would evolve nicely into that posttenure rut and, by the time of my early retirement (at 55, naturally), I would be inhabiting a veritable canyon of lethargy and inertia. (Of course, my “retirement” would be strictly rhetorical and highly theoretical, since I would merely pass from one sort of inactivity to another).
Living the professorial life has certainly disabused me of those childhood notions. Undergraduates turn out to be far scarier than I am. They are also surprisingly demanding. Many of them assume that I ought to behave according to normal, “real world” standards of competence, attending to tasks in a timely fashion, returning emails promptly, and giving useful comments on returned papers. A few have the annoying habit of complaining when I don’t do these things, and others even assume that I ought to dress professionally, at least judging by the fashion tips I get on student evaluations.
Can someone explain the source of these strange ideas? Surely it can’t be television? I’m a serious devotee of the medium, but I have yet to come across an HBO special titled, “My Well Dressed Professor”. Nor, to my knowledge, has a hip-hop group raced up the charts with their latest download, “The Historian Who Was On Time”. So why don’t undergraduates realize that it’s a major innovation just to be sober during that 1 pm lecture?
And speaking of dry martinis, my lunch hours are typically spent wolfing down cold pizza while checking email, polishing off that crappy lecture, and reading over drafts of dissertation chapters. This level of multi-tasking requires marshalling all four appendages at once, so to fit in a dry martini, I’d have to be a penta-pus. No doubt my colleagues in biology are already working on a way to improve the human design, while the Research Office is developing a plan to commercialize the innovation. In the meantime, however, I’m left with pizza stains on my lecture notes.
And early retirement? Oh, please. With the economic downturn and the recent lack of university hiring, this doesn’t seem likely. By the time I hit my mid-50s, they will have instituted mandatory non-retirement, where you qualify for a pension if your age and years of service total somewhere around 288.
Yes, martinis at noon, intimidated undergraduates, and early retirement are so last millennium, but the academic good life resists all efforts at updating. Last month, I tried to “go acoustic” by actually speaking to students and colleagues on a regular basis, but almost all our conservations began with, “Why haven’t you answered my email?” Next, I did an experiment in “monotasking” (doing one thing at a time, perhaps even doing it properly) and ended up at the front of a lecture hall with nothing but a piece of pizza in my hand. Nor was my department warm to my plan for a scholarly “cap and trade” system, so that conferencegoing, frequent-publishing keeners might sell off their excess output to post-tenure rutters like me.
Yes, almost a decade into the new millennium, a new basis for the academic good life remains shockingly elusive. It’s really too bad. Right now, I could definitely use a drink.
Steve Penfold is Academic Matters’ humour columnist. He moonlights as an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is The Donut: A Canadian History (University of Toronto Press, 2008)