The Best Job In Town?

“Faculty have the best job in town.  They shouldn’t complain.”  I keep hearing this myth, coupled with judgment.  I hear it in the various buildings of Western Illinois University, and at the other end of town, in the doctor’s office.  They complain that we complain, but as a community, we need to debunk this myth together and examine the impulse to judge.

But first, I want to extend an invitation to all community members who have privately or publicly subscribed to some form of this myth:  Please join us in making a voluntary permanent 2% sacrifice of income.  You can donate that money every year to WIU’s operating budget, as faculty and other unionized professionals have voluntarily contracted to do.  A year after the UPI agreed to this permanent cut, the president and vice presidents have finally agreed to follow our lead.  Join us.

If WIU is an economic engine for Macomb, why should only faculty and related academic professionals commit to sacrificing our pay for the university and community?

Having asked these questions, let’s examine the myth of the “best job in town.”

Considering the fact that drastic state cutbacks to WIU have created such a depressing work morale that a growing number of faculty now take pharmaceuticals, it’s worth asking if “best” is an accurate way to portray our jobs.

Every line of work has costs and benefits, so doesn’t the “best” job depend on the individual?  How long you want to go to school? What kind of training you want to do? What kind of work do you like? How much you want to earn?

Maybe the “best” job means the lightest work, but if you believe that’s what faculty have, you’re out of touch with the day to day load of teaching, prepping, grading, researching, serving, recruiting etc. etc. etc. that never ends, not after dinner and not on the weekends or during summer, when we are off contract, for that’s when we catch up on research, write new lectures, grade student work that wasn’t completed before the semester ended.  I often felt overwhelmed in my academic work, like I would never finish it.

And if you’re a woman, mounting research indicates that students are more likely to ask special favors of you—like exceptions to the syllabus—and then react strongly if you deny the exception.  I know from experience that dealing with students “reacting strongly” to course requirements is not the “best” job.

In addition, students often want female faculty to be their mom and counselor.  I’ve been cast in that dual role many times and can assure you it’s one of the most impossible jobs in town.

During the last few years, I’ve watched many WIU faculty jobs become bad jobs.  Professors hang on, hoping that better times await us. When I return to visit the department I belonged to before I was fired, the mood in the office suite is so depressing, so filled with despair, that I feel sorry for them.  They feel sorry for me as well, because my career is apparently over. One colleague who is still employed suffers from “survivor’s guilt,” and it’s real.

The wife of a colleague asked him what they needed to do so that he wouldn’t come home depressed every day.  “Find an associate professorship somewhere else,” he told her.  So, at great sacrifice to finances and family, they are moving out of state.  Others try, but most search committees don’t hire associate and full professors.

One former WIU assistant professor said, “Don’t put up with it. Move.  Other universities don’t treat faculty like that.” She wasn’t here early enough to know the WIU many of us care for and love, the WIU we haven’t given up on.

I began my investment in WIU in 1987, when we registered for classes in the basement of Memorial Hall. That’s where I met Dr. Karen Mann.

Karen exposed me, a Southern Belle, to one of the most cutting-edge novels of the 20thCentury, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness.  What an amazing experience. As a WIU professor, I have imitated Karen—assigning the most cutting edge books, presenting revolutionary ideas to students, doing my best to offer them an amazing experience.  That’s what WIU professors have done and, with sufficient funding, will continue to do:  offer amazing academic experiences.

When that happened, I felt like I had the best job in town.

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This is what I looked as a southern belle in high school. I spent an hour every morning on hair and makeup. After one class with Karen Mann and a semester in Spain with the WISE program, I stopped bothering with eyeliner and hot rollers.