College Professors Have It Good, but Perhaps Not for Long
Life as a tenured college professor is the best America has to offer. For now.
Posted Feb 26, 2020
Youth, it is said, is wasted on the young. Likewise, I argue, life in the academe is often wasted on academics.
Here’s a well-kept secret: Life as a tenured college professor is the best America has to offer. Of course, listening to most professors, you’d never know this. Academics love to complain about the academe.
Many of us inhabit a besieged mental space, where haughtiness and self-doubt mix to grating results. Years in grad school, where we were harried transients starved for validation, not to mention powerless and broke, have honed our habits of anxiety and resentment.
What’s more, many academics share the dual curse of being both lifers—having been in school for basically ever—and True Believers, having been fully absorbed into the system that made them. Academe is not merely their living but their life. It’s the only reality that’s really real.
This is unfortunate mostly because it makes for boring parties, but also, in my opinion, because life in academe works best if you don’t care too much about academe, in the same way that a life of wealth is better for people who don’t care too much about money.
I was already onto this dual curse by the time I entered the academe. See, I grew up on an Israeli kibbutz, a small, rural community organized around Marxist principles. The Zionist pioneers who built the kibbutz were True Believers. Kibbutz kids like me were, by definition, also lifers. Our communal ideals were the only legitimate criteria by which to gauge the worth of a life. Kibbutz reality was the only real one.
I left for America at age 26, a high-school dropout and army veteran with neither plan nor money (in a sense, not much has changed...). I knew not much about America and nothing at all about higher education. In many ways, I was far behind my classmates at the Houston Community College, where I took my first steps in the academe.
But in other ways, I was ahead. Once you’ve escaped one matrix, you become hip to their existence. I recognized the academe as a game long before I learned the rules. Thus, it was easy for me, a few years later, to resist the pressures of grad-school propaganda, the insistence by lifers and true believers who had dedicated their lives to academe that the only life that could matter was the one they’ve chosen.
And so academe as a calling—a system of meaning comprising an identity and a set of criteria by which to measure self-worth—held little appeal for me. But I could see how academe might work as a job, enabling, rather than constituting, a good life—a harbor rather than the sailboat.
Before I became acquainted with the academe, I believed that one fundamental choice in life was between freedom and security. On the kibbutz, we gave up personal freedom for the security of the communal embrace. American life is premised on the opposite bargain: Feel free to shoot for the moon, but if you crash, tough luck. What I saw embodied in a faculty position was a new promise: a life combining both security and individual freedom.
For security, you’d be hard-pressed to beat the tenure system. My job and income are practically guaranteed. I also enjoy broad autonomy. Nobody monitors my movements or tracks my whereabouts. I don’t need to watch my back or kiss anybody’s backside. I choose what research interests to pursue and how to pursue them. I also choose which classes to teach and how to teach them.
This combination of autonomy and security gives rise to a sense of control, which, according to the research, is a strong predictor of well-being and happiness. It also helps that my work serves a good project. The educational system may have problems. But education itself is a solution.
Now, granted, being a competent academic requires stamina, aptitude, and skill. But it isn’t lonely, pointless, or boring. And it’s not backbreaking. In fact, my elderly father, who’s been a farmer in Israel for most of his life working in the fields sunrise to sunset, still finds it quite difficult to regard what I do as "work."
As a bonus, the work allows me to spend much time with bright young people, many of whom are eager to learn and grow. Moreover, a college campus is still a rather civilized place in which to spend one’s workday. The grounds are beautiful, and the atmosphere is lively and friendly. If you’re different, a minority, or a mere eccentric, a college campus, more than perhaps any other workplace in America, is where you can feel (and be) safe and welcome.
Still, if I were a lifer and a true believer who lived for academe, then I’d have true cause to fret. Success by the rules of academe means working at a prestigious university, publishing a lot in top journals, being cited widely, and winning awards and large federal grants. I, on the other hand, work at a small, obscure liberal-arts college.
My scholarly output and reach are decidedly small-time. I have around 25 academic publications, which over the last 20 years have garnered about 350 scholarly citations. I’m no rainmaker. The largest grant I’ve ever received was in the low five figures.
Yet if I look at the academe as enabling rather than constituting my life, the story takes a heartening turn. This job provides me with peace of mind, intellectual stimulation, and ample free time, three of life’s highest luxuries. If you like solitude—I do—then you can have it in abundance. If you enjoy traveling (I do), this job affords vast opportunities for travel without demanding it. You can teach abroad, lead travel classes abroad, or just use your free time (which totals about five months a year) for leisure travel.
The job allows me to keep a small, private clinical practice, which I savor as a way to give back and also as a kind of inverted travel—I get to behold fascinating landscapes, internal ones, without having to leave my chair. The job has allowed me time to develop my writing hobby beyond academe—a satisfying creative pursuit, made much more so by the fact that my livelihood is not dependent on it. The job has allowed me to raise my daughter as a single father, to drop her off at school every morning and pick her up every afternoon, to never miss one of her basketball games.
Many of my clients (and my friends) make more money than I do. But in America, money often comes at a price: the cubicles and cliques and cutthroat culture; the relentless pressure to keep up and to advance; the assorted bosses, managers, and supervisors breathing down your neck; the suffocating bureaucracy; the boredom; the long, exhausting hours; the stress of uncertainty.
To my mind, many of those Americans who work themselves ragged do so not because they are greedy, but because they are afraid. Yet fear can damage the soul just as much as greed. Moreover, since the American system privileges money over time, we spend a lot of time trying to make more money.
This may work for some. Yet to my mind, and according to research, time is more precious than money, in part because lost time cannot be recovered. I‘m OK with giving up more money for more time.
Not everything is golden, of course. College professors have their share of brain-numbing tasks. There’s old-fashioned paperwork and its evil digital twin, email; there’s BS, which is to life in academe what dust is to life on the farm.
Committee meetings can warp one’s sense of time and fellowship. Grading is often a chore, apt to beget sinister dreams of oblivion. And academia, like all powerful institutions, has its ample dark side of fraudulent and exploitative practices
Of equal urgency, at least for me, is the growing sense that the future is bleak for my little Eden in obscurity. When students now tell me they want to go to graduate school so they can one day have my job, I tell them they shouldn’t—not because I’m afraid they’ll be coming for me, but because I’m afraid they will be going nowhere.
The charmed life of the tenured liberal-arts college professor is going away; of this, I have little doubt. Online competition, decreasing birth rates, high costs, and the changing economy all point in that direction. I also recognize the subtler signs—the rattle of loosening bonds; the odor of creeping inevitability—in part because I have been there before.
The kibbutz system I grew up in is already gone, vanquished by the invisible hand of capitalism. In this way, I am already a living fossil, the ghost of an extinct species. There’s sadness in that. But sadness is not the end of the world; it’s just the world.
Perhaps the academe will change for the better. The fact that social change upends things we like doesn’t make the change bad for society. But I think that those of us who are lucky enough to have this life should savor the immense joy of it. If we are wise rather than merely learned, in the future, we’ll at least be able to say that we knew what we had even before it was gone.
An earlier version of this post was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (2017).