Academic Jobs I Have Loved
What few people discuss about higher education is the startling differences between institutions
Since today is Labor Day, I am semi-taking the day off. But social media is full of people starting new academic jobs, so I wanted to resurrect an edited version of a post from my former blog about what it felt like, not just to change jobs, but to change worlds. Enjoy! And if you know someone in transition to a new campus, please:
The other day I read a comment on Facebook to the effect that, after changing jobs, many academics experience intense regret. The author of the comment timed this moment of regret at about six months into the new job, when the losses and the difficulty of the transition becomes truly apparent.
Not me. I was happy as a clam.
I didn’t go in the other direction either: my previous job was not incredibly flawed. Although everyone collects grievances, mine vanished almost entirely as soon as I loaded the last box in my car, and I now remember only the things I liked about working there. In fact, one of the interesting things about my reflections on Wesleyan University, where I worked until I went to The New School in 2012, is that I came to appreciate how well they do a lot of things, how smoothly it ran most of the time, and the many things I learned to do. I now appreciate how collegial a place it was, and how people who were often in conflict with each other on a range of issues also managed to work together pretty efficiently. I appreciate how much they taught me about how to function as a teacher, a scholar and (yes) a minor league administrator.
I have also come to realize how different these two jobs I have had are. Elite private institutions are fundamentally different places to work than sprawling, cash-driven, urban universities. So without further ado, for those of you who are in transition or mulling job offer, here we go:
If you work at a liberal arts college it is a lot like being in a club. Physically, the resemblance is undeniable. There are the lawns, the gracious buildings, the sumptuous athletic facilities (tennis and squash courts, pool, skating rink, etc.), and the large private offices where you can keep thousands of books. There are the security and postal people nipping around in golf carts, the free umbrellas, and the faculty dining room.
And the offices -- oh the offices!!! As a former program chair, I can attest that people at Wesleyan used to complain bitterly about offices that faculty at The New School would slit your throat for. Of course, the point is: elite schools are a club, which is why we use the word “elite,” or more commonly, “selective,” to describe them. It is why people who work at them, for all that they decry the “corporate university,” also often take on a kind of corporate mentality that is defined by the institution, its prestige, and its ways, all of which are cushioned by wads of money.
Even when they oppose administrative initiatives, faculty tend not to do so from any deeply held views about education, but from an adherence to educational traditions and pedagogical values that are fully defined and produced by the elite values of the institution.
If you work at a sprawling, urban university it is a lot like working for municipal government. People are spread out in dozens of buildings and rented office spaces, and—at least, pre-pandemic—the people who run the place (otherwise known as “The Administration”) can often be seen bustling from place to place.
We all share space with strangers, as well as colleagues. Provosts and deans are often trapped on deathly slow elevators with the rest of us plebes. There may be a great place to eat at the student center, but you share that space with students as a matter of course, and everyone mingles at restaurants around the university. And last year, when it appeared that none of my students had done the reading, I didn’t soldier through the class anyay: I took them to a local museum instead.
Furthermore, there is no grass. Students do not ask to “go outside” on warm sunny days, because that would mean having class on the sidewalk, and no one wants to do that. Nobody knows how many faculty there are, and three years after I arrived I was still meeting new people: they often greeted me by saying they have “heard about” me, and often I can honestly respond that I have “heard about” them. While in a sense, you might say we share an identity because we work for The New School, the different parts of the university are -- well, so different -- that often what we have in common is a predilection for one barista over another.
If you work at a liberal arts college you get to both complain about your students and humblebrag about them. Why? Because these students have been curated for you. They are mostly fabulous, and students then become a subtle reflection of your own fabulousness. Liberal arts college faculty boast about the specialness of their students and the likelihood that they will go on to top graduate programs.
Liberal arts college faculty often say they are “lucky” to have such wonderful students. That’s true, with one caveat: luck played no role in it. It was money, social class, alumni parents, intensive recruiting by the admissions office, student creaming programs, unpaid volunteering, and intensive academic coaching that got you those students.
At a sprawling, urban university, you teach whoever enrolls, and it is considered unwise and mean-spirited to complain about their abilities. It’s a liberating, compassionate, and interesting experience. And not to go overboard with this, but it gives education a much more democratic feel on a daily basis because you can do really creative things without anyone thinking you are ignoring the entire Western canon.
The pleasures of the other (see above) are incalculable: sometimes I think it was a strange dream that I did that for years, but mostly I think I did not appreciate it the way I should have at the time. On the other hand, it prepared me for the pleasure of what I do now. Each student that I have actually is different from every other student, in a way that highly curated students are not. Classes are incredibly heterogeneous in a way classes of highly screened and selected students are not, and I have to think on my feet every time I set foot in a classroom in a way I never did at Wesleyan.
If you work at a liberal arts college they never change the name, and alterations to typeface, signage and stationary are so minimal as to be undetectable. This is called “tradition,” and it binds current students to past generations. The most radical change they made at Wesleyan was to put the word “Wes” in front of everything to make a new word that described some service, activity or facility. This is a kind of branding, but subtle -- like the little alligator on the Lacoste shirt. But when they tried referring to the school as “a little Ivy,” to reflect the high qualityof the education delivered there, everyone freaked out and made them stop.
At a sprawling, urban university, change is the order of the day. Marketing and branding are a constantly evolving process. Practically everything we do passes through marketing at some point. The stationery changes constantly. They regularly rename divisions, schools, and the whole university. Some years ago, we adopted a new typeface and logo, which was rolled out to great aplomb, with free tote bags and everything. And here is the coolest thing: a student showed me a Metro Card with our new logo on it. Pomona doesn’t have that, do they? No, they do not.
Tradition is ok, but it’s kind of refreshing and fun to see what marketing will come up with next. The truth is everyone knows who we are regardless of the typeface. When I say I work at The New School, people brighten up and say: “Hannah Arendt!” Happens every time: talk about a chick who created a brand. It reveals a critical fact about higher education: all of the things that are recognizable about any institution of higher ed are window dressing, and what really matters is what goes on inside the buildings.
At a liberal arts college, you have a mascot that represents your long tradition and heritage. This also means you are spending mucho buckos on athletics, about which the faculty complains liberally, even though they are being paid quite well compared to most academics.
At a sprawling, urban university, there are few sports and the mascot is hard to remember. In fact, the sports program is limited to uncoached basketball, tennis, and soccer teams who receive no money from the university as far as I can tell. There are free yoga classes, sponsored rock climbing and bike trips, and a group of undergrads who build wherries and occasionally row them to New Jersey. The sports with the highest participation are elbowing your way onto an L train and running away from people who want to put you on committees.
The New School’s mascot is The Narwhal, a cheerful cartoon aquatic mammal, but no one can tell me why it was chosen. Personally, I think our mascot should be Hannah Arendt. Can you imagine how cool it would be to be in a Bickram Yoga smackdown against Cooper Union and having Hannah Arendt revving up the crowd?
Readers, have you ever changed jobs? What were the differences you noticed -- and did you regret the change?
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