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The Collegium of Feudal Lords

Ask non-academics, or students who want to be academics about their picture of the professoriate, and I suspect their picture will be like mine was, once. I had a somewhat romantic notion of mostly slightly socially awkward introverts who nonetheless liked to gather with each other over some mild refreshment or socially acceptable vice like pipes and scotch to chat informally over esoterica on any number of subjects, sometimes with good-natured heat.

Enter the reality.
The modern academic is basically a mini-CEO or minor feudal lord, who with few exceptions, sticks to themselves, except when a seminar is given (with coffee and cookies). They tend to view administrative actions with (usually well-grounded) antipathy and suspicion. Mentorship of junior faculty is spotty, and may be nothing but a sink or swim observance. And so on.

The reasons for the difference are manifold. First, the expectations are higher than they were decades ago. There are more new Ph.D.’s looking for appointments so schools can be choosy, which forces junior faculty to prove they belong with the ‘big boys,’ and makes the bar even higher for the next round of junior hires. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t seek to have better and better faculty, but I’m pointing out the shift from collegiality to competitiveness, which I think is somewhat unhealthy in the academic setting.

Another reason is the increased demand on the time of faculty members. Technology combined with increasing budgetary restrictions mean that faculty are personally responsible to more people with fewer support staff. The advent of instant communication and desktop publishing mean that students have 24/7 access to faculty, and faculty are responsible for all phases of publication rather than just the content. The technology also means that regulatory requirements have gone up as well, but again with fewer staff to whom the more bureaucratic tasks can be delegated. At the same time, productivity expectations are higher. It is very much akin to the Israelites in Egypt being forced to collect their own straw without dropping the quota of bricks required. My concern is not so much with the increased expectations alone or the decreased support staff alone. It is the combination that is causing a pinch.

A third reason is the change in institutional mindset from one where students are granted the privilege of attending class in exchange for tuition to a more corporate mindset where the student is the customer and the degree is the product. This has led to a significant rise in an entitlement mentality among students that their tuition pays for their grade rather than the opportunity to learn in a mentor-mentee relationship. As a result, course syllabi have expanded from a 1 page outline of course topics, contact info and general grading schema to 4-20 pages of near legalese that essentially represents a contract between the instructor and student on course content. Woe to the professor who makes an unscheduled or unannounced change to the course during the semester, but the students are free to find and demand acceptance of any loophole they worked harder to find than it would have been to just do what the syllabus directed.

Have professors historically been underworked compared to others? Perhaps. But some of it is mere appearance, as their jobs are largely to think, explore, study, teach. The more there is external pressure to become minor bureaucrats, the less mental freedom they have to think clearly, to see new relationships in topics, to build collegial relationships that serve as fodder for new ideas. They tend to retreat into their offices and shut out others, just so they can fall behind in their workload slower.

Have professors historically been minor tyrants lording it over students? Some have, but not all or even most. Transparency has some benefits, but again, policies tend to punish those doing their jobs appropriately in an effort to restrict the few who abuse the privileges, and the abusers still find means of self-expression.

So, what’s the point? For readers who are not academicians, check your stereotypes, and try to look beyond the surface of things. Think about what you want from universities and colleges and their faculty. Learn why the higher education system operates the way it does from a historical perspective before declaring it corrupt. Yes, there are real areas that need reform, but it is dangerous to demand reform without understanding the whys of the culture and the non-linear paths usually required for the desired outcomes.

For my fellow academicians, we tend to hate politics (unless we’re government/poli-sci/law), but it is appropriate to talk about our work and why our system is set up the way it is. Also, and more importantly, as Christian faculty we have the opportunity to form the kind of collegial spirit and rapport with each other and our colleagues that deep down we desire. Yes, it is tough to ‘add it in’ to ‘everything else.’ However, maybe, since we tend to be perpetually behind anyway, we can shift what we’re behind on and bring this forward a bit. The old axiom, “we show our real priorities by what we make time for,” is very true. We all have to choose what not to do. Perhaps there are some things we can choose not to do as much or as well as we used to, to gain the mental freedom and time to help recreate some of the parts of academic life that drew us here in the first place—building relationships with colleagues and students. That is a marvelous way to be both salt and light in our departments and campuses.

When we wisely demonstrate that people are more important to us than mere policy, it gives us a broader impact in the lives of others, inspiring them to aspire to higher things as well. Since many policies are implemented to counteract deficiencies in internal ethics and conduct, the more people aspire to be more than cogs, the better the expectation for their behaviour and the less need for the policies. If we can administer our course policies with wisdom—using them to communicate the expectations, but then treating individual students as human, that inspires similar behaviour and attitudes in our students. And so on.

The more Christ has been removed from acceptable university discussion, the more universities have been forced to replace Him with ethics and transparency. Thus, our challenge as Christian faculty is to live and work in such a way that it demonstrates the Christ is sufficient for guiding us beyond the minutiae of policy, but we can’t demonstrate that when we are hiding behind the piles of papers in our office.

Use this summer to evaluate the various aspects of your professional life. Which ones are consistent with your personal mission and which ones are distractions from that? Of the distractions, which ones are absolutely required, which ones can be done with less rigor, and which ones can be ignored? Make serious decisions about what you will choose to invest your time in, and schedule them first. Fill in the rest of your time with the lesser things, and be sure to leave time for professional recreation—i.e. reading journals, chatting with colleagues, time to just sit and think about the mysteries of your field.

Start implementing changes before the fall routine hits, otherwise inertia will kill your changes before they take hold. Fight to protect your new priorities jealously.

Finally, share with others what you are doing differently—leaving comments below is a great start.


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