Meet the new boss …

While reading the back-to-school posts of fellow blogging academics Chuck Ryback and Rachel Ida Buff this week, I realized I was hesitant about my own writing because I hadn’t yet figured out which question I was trying to answer.  Then, an attitude common to each of their blogs — a readily apparent, fierce dedication to serving students — pointed the way like Scott Walker directing billionaire donors to the pork barrel.

Just who is it I’m working for?

Same as the old boss. (YouTube video)

Ask any dedicated teacher and you’ll know the answer for the rest of us.  The idea that it’s all about the students becomes such a mantra that it can appear as no more than lip service, but the most committed among UW System faculty make clear, over and over, that our calling is to help students become well-rounded, capable citizens who think critically.

Yet those of us who teach also realize there’s no simple answer to the question of who we work for.  We’re here to serve students, but this is not a master-servant relationship; while they try, students can’t tell us what to do.

It’s not really a parental relationship, either. We’re not responsible for these young people in the same way we’re responsible for our own children, although there’s certainly a great deal of both fawning and tough love involved.

I’ve approached this year not exactly sure of who’s in charge.  State politics aside, it’s also my first year since 2011 without serving on UW-Stevens Point’s now-defunct faculty senate, which voted itself out of existence in May.  That alone would have been enough to bring on a mini-existential crisis as I try to figure out my role as a member of the UWSP faculty.  (An aside: I’ll soon be writing a bit more about the former senate, whose dismantling still makes my blood boil.)

The way most faculty I know seem to view their role is that they work for a university as an idea (or an ideal — take your pick) rather than an employer.  We work for the public good, but not necessarily the individual or even collective members of the public.

We have department heads and deans and others who are technically our supervisors, yet we select them through search committees or direct faculty votes — or at least used to.  In theory (if not in future practice), they also serve at our pleasure, as we have the power to make their lives difficult and even run them out of office if need be.

That’s a power that has been enshrined in the ivy-covered walls for a long time.  It’s best summed up in this statement by the American Association of University Professors, which explains the role of faculty as a check against the power of both administration and boards of directors.

That role was also spelled out (although vaguely, one might argue) in Wisconsin state law until this summer, as we know.

Faculty realize that both administrators and regents always have had more power than any of us as individuals, or even as individual departments or areas of study.  Faculty also know that, collectively, we can do something about it when some other power’s actions are not in the best interest of the university ideal.

When we work in concert, our power can topple the king of the mountain — or erode enough of the base to cause a landslide.

Yes, we work for our administrators and our regents. We work for taxpayers and parents; we work for business and the economy.  We work for medical miracles and literary landmarks.  We even work for our governor and his cronies and our other so-called leaders.

We work for the people of the State of Wisconsin.  Most of all, though, we work for students.

We only work for all of these people, however, when they are also working for the university ideal.  When they turn their backs on the purposes of a university education, we grab the the rudder and try to right the ship.  Others at the university may help, but steering is the faculty’s responsibility.

The moment “the university” as a mere employer tells faculty what to do, and the faculty believe they must do just so, is the moment when the university ideal ceases to exist.

That’s also when “the faculty” as an effective force for social good and progress is dead.

Sometimes, our primary collective response to the Wisconsin Troubles seems to echo the sound of moving vans slamming their big doors and pulling out onto highways, bound for anywhere beyond the borders of the state.

But then I read a fire-and-brimstone piece from Sad Iron or a compelling appeal from atlasofadifficult, or any of number of other savvy, rational, humorous, thoughtful, informative posts from blogs like Dissent and Cookies or  Ragman’s Circles  or marniere.  Then I remember that there are a lot of good folks still here and still fighting.

So this year — in addition to working  for the students — I’m working for those colleagues and others.  These two groups are among my three top priorities.

The third is my family. I will camp and hike with them more — and not put in as many work weeks of 60 hours plus. I mostly will ignore the vapid, baseless accusations by members of the public and our so-called leaders that my colleagues and I need to “work harder” or “teach more” while they allow (or cause) my take-home pay and benefits to erode.

There are plenty of responses to these charges (see here, here and here, for instance), but even though I see my career as a calling — my work is my life — I will explore more thoroughly what we generally identify as “work/life balance.”  For the time being, my own response to the preposterous stereotypes of faculty can wait.

To my students: you know where I am (and you also know what you need to do before you seek me out).  To my faculty colleagues:  let me know how else I can help you.  To my family:  be there in a minute.

Everyone else: please e-mail or call our so-called leaders.  I’m sure they’d be happy to ask me to place you on my priority list.  In the meantime, I invite you to click on the above YouTube video of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and think about the lyrics while I try to get back to you.

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