Monday, November 07, 2005

Would you?

In procrastination mode the other day, I read back in some blogs, including the Chronicle of a Medical Madhouse, one of my favorite medblogs. In this entry, Mad House Madman asks, "But Would You Do It Again?" after reading (in Red State Moron's post) about a program that has pre-med students shadow physicians, chaplains, nurses, social workers, and business administrators.

(The program apparently tries to help students decide early on if they're really cut out for medicine. The blogs respond, Red State Moron to the question of whether the program is aimed at weeding out students, rather than at recruiting the best potential doctors, and Mad House Madman to the question of whether he would have gone into medicine if he'd really understood what he was getting into.)

Mad House Madman notes that practicing medicine isn't quite what he expected, being tougher and lots less glorious, scarier and way more stressful than he'd imagined or been told as a kid.

Now, I don't have to stick my hands anywhere really scary, and the worst smells I'm exposed to are whiteboard pens and moldy old books. But like physicians, professors are seen by most people in a fairly limited way. Just as patients see physicians primarily through direct patient contact, and don't "see" the paper work physicians do, the consultations, studying, research, meetings, and such, so students (much less their parents or other people in the community) see professors primarily during class hours or office hours, and don't "see" committee work, mentoring, grading, class preparation, research, conferences, studying, and the other things professors do as part of our day to day lives.

Several years ago, some local high school students asked to "shadow" me for a career day activity. I was, at the time, a spanking new tenure-track faculty member, and I didn't say "no" to anything the department chair asked without a darned good reason, so I agreed, though a bit dubiously. The students showed up shortly after 8am; I introduced myself, offered them coffee (my drug of choice), and sat down in my office with them. We chatted a bit, since I wanted to give them a chance to ask questions, but, alas, they really didn't have any questions. And then things got awkward, because my work plan for the day involved rereading a play, prepping classes, reading some other texts, and in between, teaching three or four class hours. At least I didn't have meetings, too, that day! And I was saving grading for later in the evening.

Happily, my chair back then dropped by, figured out that the students didn't want to shadow a prof so much as they wanted to get a tour of the college, and sent them off to the recruiting office with a friendly student. So we were all saved from what would have been interminable boredom for them, and strangeness for me.

You see, I completely disagree with Mad House Madman, who thinks that his is the greatest job in the world. The truth is that I have the greatest job in the world. I mean, I get to read Shakespeare, and talk about Shakespeare with a group of students! I get to talk to cool, smart, interesting adults about their interests and education. (And they have to at least pretend to listen to me!) I get to think about things that interest me, read about them, try to write about them, discuss them with other interested people. I largely get to choose what I teach, when I teach, to organize and manage my life and schedule in ways that work for me.

Some of my work is pretty visible to undergraduate students. But they don't see me at the office late on a Sunday night writing a tenure letter, letter of recommendation, or struggling with my research. They don't see me in teaching meetings, figuring out how to use new technologies to make my teaching more effective, or learning some new strategy to teach writing. They don't see me in department, committee, or senate meetings working on curricular or governance or scheduling or whatever else. And they generally seriously underestimate how time-consuming, stressful, and frustrating grading is.

Students often assume that professors find writing easy, but boy, are they wrong. Sometimes in my more advanced classes, I share my drafts with a class, so that they can get an idea about how much big picture editing I have to do, how many drafts, checking quotations, and so forth. Sure, I'd find the assignments I give my first year writing students easy, but then, I've also written essays for most of them just to make sure they're reasonably clear, do-able assignments. But writing itself is torturous.

In grad school, I began to get a sense of some of the other work professors do by working as a research and teaching assistant, by asking mentors about how to write letters of recommendation (thanks, Lola), by serving as a grad student rep on some committees, and by watching mentors go through the tenure process. But I really had little clue of the level of responsibility I would have to my colleagues. And I had no concept of the importance of academic governance.

Like most students, I had little sense of my professors as people outside of class, and I had no intention of going on to graduate school, much less into academics. It took me five years out, several years at a community college, a year in an MA program, and an enthusiastic professor's off-hand remark encouraging me to think about going on to a PhD program.

Even then, I didn't understand the academic market in English literature (but that's another post), so I didn't realize that for most new professors, moving far from "home," family, and friends was a basic requirement of taking a job.

But would I do it again? Yep, in a minute! (Did I mention reading Shakespeare and talking with a class full of fun students about Lear?)

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