What I Wish I’d Known About Faculty Life: Departmental Politics, Etc.

Our recent series What I Wish I’d Known About Graduate School has been one of our most popular series to date, and it almost immediately inspired this follow-up series, What I Wish I’d Known About Faculty Life. I am pleased to introduce Dr. Kevin Birth, professor of anthropology at Queens College and one of our ESN mentors. I’ve enjoyed getting to know him through email, Facebook, and other online interactions, and I’m glad he offered to write these three posts. They’ll be a bit different than Hannah’s, as Kevin is applying an ethnographic, storytelling method from his field to the context of faculty life. As a result, each post deals with several, interrelated issues (hence, the “etc.” at the end of each title). Thank you, Kevin! ~ Mike

Not many of you should presume to be teachers… (James 3:1a)

Kevin Birth (Anthropology, Queens College), standing in front of an ancient mass dial at St. Gregory’s Minster in Kirkdale, Yorkshire. (One of Kevin’s specialties is cultural conceptions of time.)

During the last several weeks, Dr. Hannah Eagleson has written about what she wished she had known about graduate school. Anyone who is a junior professor would be well served to read those essays simply because the challenges of graduate school become the challenges of being a new professor—except the pressure of being a new professor is often much worse than the pressure of being a graduate student. Instead of writing a dissertation, one is expected to chug out articles or books. This means dealing with the publishing process—a process where rejection is the pro forma first response, and obsessive revision on a tight deadline is de rigueur. This must be done while developing new classes—often introductory classes that force one to teach outside of one’s specialty. And, finally, there are the service requirements. All too often, junior faculty get stuck with the committee assignments that the senior faculty don’t want to do. So all of Dr. Eagleson’s advice to graduate students applies to junior faculty.

There are some new wrinkles to one’s life when one becomes a professor, however. Often, new faculty are not fully cognizant of these new things because it can be difficult to figure out how being a professor is different from being a graduate student—other than the obvious differences of there now being more courses to teach, and the student loan people suddenly wanting money.

To capture these differences, I’m going to create a set of characters over the three blog posts I’ve been asked to write, and tell some stories. All the characters and stories are fictional, but inspired by real events. Out of respect to my colleagues and acquaintances in academia, I don’t want to simply tell the true stories, which are often more absurd than the fiction.

I think I’ll begin many years ago and before my time with a couple of strangely complementary vignettes that I’ve heard over the years. 

When We’re Running Things…

Simon was fuming. The day before, a senior faculty member had turned to him in a meeting and said, “Shut up if you want tenure.”

Simon’s friends, mostly junior faculty themselves, were sympathetic. They had all confronted the deep factionalism of the department, and feared that they would not get tenure as a result. They wanted to change the department to make it a more pleasant place to work, but meetings such as the one the day before were demoralizing.

“When we’re running the department, things will be different,” one of Simon’s junior colleagues asserted.

Simon sighed. “But will we last long enough to run the department?”

Dining Alone

A couple years after I heard that story, Rachel shared an encounter with a distinguished professor that had made her sad. She was at a conference and saw Dr. Distinguished sitting alone thoughtfully eating lunch. Dr. Distinguished is one of the most famous and celebrated thinkers in Rachel’s field. He had been very kind to Rachel in graduate school, even though she was a graduate student at an institution other than that of Dr. Distinguished, and even though her theoretical perspective was antithetical to his. The only thing they shared was that they conducted research in the same part of the world.

Rachel relayed that when she got to Dr. Distinguished’s table, he looked up and smiled. Rachel sat down, and they talked. He lamented that his department had become like The Lord of the Flies. The junior faculty were running things and ignoring senior faculty. He explained, “I’m dining alone because my friends are either dead, retired, or decided not to come to this conference because the field has changed too much, and my colleagues have put me out to pasture.” Rachel sat amazed that a man so famous and significant could be in such a situation.

Simon did get tenure, and then moved on to another institution where he now feels out of the loop because the junior faculty are running things. Rachel decided that she would make a conscious decision to hang out with the senior members of her department and listen to them—even when what they said hurt. Last I heard, she’s now the senior member of her department, and looking forward to being out of the loop as the junior faculty take over running things once her term as chair is over.


Editor’s note: Click here for the second post in the series.

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Kevin Birth

Kevin Birth is a professor of anthropology at Queens College of the City University of New York. He studies cultural concepts of time in relationship to cognition, and has conducted ethnographic research in Trinidad and on the current leap second controversy. His publications and presentations cover a wide ranging array of topics including chronobiology and globalization, comparative calendars, timekeeping in Roman Britain, culture and memory, cognitive neuroscience, early modern clocks, and ideas about roosters in the Middle Ages. He is the author of three books: Any Time is Trinidad Time (University Press of Florida), Bacchanalian Sentiments (Duke University Press), and most recently Objects of Time (Palgrave Macmillan).

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  • Katelin108@gmail.com'
    Katelin commented on September 6, 2011 Reply

    I thought faculty was the reason I’m going through all this now. It’s even worse?? I give up.

  • Kevin commented on September 7, 2011 Reply

    I’ll be honest, the pressure to publish and the burdens of teaching are worse. Added to this is administrative work. That said, I recall what a dear friend and colleague recently said when he retired recently, “Growing up I never realized one could make a living studying what one loves, I’ve been very blessed to be able to do so.”

    So if one loves teaching, and loves writing, and loves research, then the other stuff is endurable. If one doesn’t like to teach, or to write, or to do independent research, then being a professor is not a good career choice.

  • Katelin108@gmail.com'
    Katelin commented on September 8, 2011 Reply

    For more utterly depressing advice: http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html

  • jws61@lycos.com'
    RedWell commented on November 30, 2011 Reply

    I agree with Katelin: this is dreary stuff. Look, if things are this bad, PhD programs should be financially liable for turning out too many degrees. Given their presumed concern for others, Christian faculty in particular should feel obliged to warn undergrads to not even consider this career path. The “no regrets” entry that appears later in the series hardly makes up for the apparent agony illustrated in the other entries. If I wanted low pay, constant stress and sniping colleagues, I would have just entered the ministry or some other career trajectory with a lower bar for entry.

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