I have school spirit to burn, even if it doesn’t always show itself in the most obvious ways. Don’t bother looking for me at pep rallies. I don’t have a rack full of neckties in our school colors, black and gold ties, though I suppose that will have to change if I’m never named head basketball coach. Which seems unlikely, given my utter lack of qualifications and the fact that in five years at UWM, I haven’t attended a single UWM Panthers basketball game (though I wish them well—really!). And to be completely honest, emails with subject lines like “Show Your Panther Pride” don’t tend to grab my attention for long.
But that doesn’t mean I lack Panther Pride, any more than my failure to wear an American-flag lapel pin makes me unpatriotic; I just don’t find flag-waving to be the most compelling form of patriotism. And having moved to Milwaukee five years ago knowing little about either the city or its only public research university, I have come to love both. I have nothing against going to UWM sporting events, wearing black and gold ties, or, for that matter, wearing UWM lapel pins. I just tend to show my Panther Pride in other ways: some of them silent and invisible, but some, given my role at the university, vocal and visible. Now that I have a blog, and now that UWM is poised to be decimated by massive budget cuts and structural changes, this seems like a good time to spell out what a few things I love about this institution. Unable to say all of it in such a short space, let this serve as a short love letter to my colleagues.
College professors often get a bad rap these days, particularly in places like Wisconsin (and North Carolina, and Indiana, and Kansas, and Arizona, and…). We can talk about why this has happened until the Chicago Cubs win the World Series, but one reason is that few people appreciate the qualities that it takes to land and keep a full-time academic job in the first place. Note that I write “qualities,” rather than “work” or “time” or “effort,” considerable as all of those are. Those issues also suggest some of the qualities of successful faculty, tenured or not: their perseverance; their tenacity; their ability to focus on distant goals, often with little or no financial payoff. And all of this often at the expense of short-term earnings, comfort, and sometimes even happiness.
I applaud those qualities, and surely America as a whole, with its vaunted Protestant work ethic does too, no? But the focus on time and effort tends to overshadow the traits that lead people to pursue a career in academia in the first place. Why put up with six or more years of barely scraping by during graduate school, only to compete in an increasingly uncertain job market? For most academics I’ve encountered, the answer is a variation on “Because nothing else would be as meaningful to me.” What makes academic work meaningful varies, but it tends to come down to the agony and ecstasy of toiling away for years so that one can ultimately add a brick or two to the edifice we call human knowledge. For many academics—at least the ones who land tenure-track jobs in a research university like UWM—the privilege of being able to devote one’s professional life to that quest is the great reward for all the effort and sacrifice.
The quest that takes place in the archive, or the laboratory, or the field, or simply at one’s desk, intertwines with the quest to share one’s knowledge with students. While the mysteries we unlock in our research is the main thing that gets us hired and promoted (hence the phrase “publish or perish”), it’s with students that we see the most immediate fruits of our labor. That helps account for why I spend far more time talking to colleagues about individual students, students in general, and what is or is not working in the classroom, than about the research projects we’re working on at any given time.
One’s teaching and research often feel as if they’re worlds apart. But at the end of the day, the main thing that connects them is what I love most about universities and most of the people who work in them: their idealism. Universities like UWM were founded and are operated on the premise that they improve the lives not just of the people who work and study there, but also of the wider communities that they serve, and the many fields of inquiry housed on their campuses. Against so many odds, faculty and staff come to campus every day and embrace that premise. They explore and share ideas. They make discoveries, individually and in collaboration with others. They agonize over the well-being of their students. They figure out ways, even as budgets get slashed time after time, to do the proverbial more with less, whether it’s a grossly underpaid lecturer teaching classes filled beyond capacity, a dedicated staff member finding every more creative ways to stretch diminishing budget dollars, or a librarian judiciously ordering materials to keep the library’s holdings as robust as possible.
As in any crisis, the one currently facing the UW System has shown the best and worst of human nature. On one side we find the malicious collective character assassination of public servants dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, the betterment of society, and the well-being of their students, an attack aided and abetted by smokescreens, evasions, lies, tricks, and an utter disregard for the widespread damage the proposed changes will bring—not just to the system, but to so many other facets of the state. On the other side are thousands of educators and staff members stoically carrying on in spite of the relentless denigration of their efforts, and the complete distortion of what they do and who they are. In this post I’ve tried to sketch a few key features of who they are. In the next, some observations on what academics do. Spoiler alert: no Marxist indoctrination involved.