What Do you Do for a Living?



This morning I was reading the comments about the firing of a university professor in Missouri. This post is not about that situation. What I was astounded by were the comments people were making about university professors. Here are just some of the lovely words: stupid, dumb, libtards, ideologues, brainwashers, faithless, godless, lazy, cushy jobs, all deserve to be fired, not worth our time, not worth our money and I could go on and on.

It’s not the first time I’ve railed against the way people talk about this profession. But, maybe I do not do enough to educate people about what exactly the job of a university professor entails. Maybe I do not do enough to dispel the stereotypes (like we are all sitting in our ivory towers, collecting a pay check doing nothing). But, then again maybe this wouldn’t do any good because it seems that these days we are happier with our over-generalizations of the world and explaining the world through sound bites and memes.  I’ve certainly seen it with other professions. But, I’m going to try.

I’ll tell you this much. These perceptions of our profession matter as we are going through this budget battle. It matters if our legislators believe these stereotypes because they will make decisions based on those and not the reality of the university professors across this state that devote their lives to educating our young people so they can compete in the 21st century economy. Research tells us that it is often perception, not fact that rules the halls of policy making.

I first want to start with the perception that we do not want to be here. Or better yet the perception we do not want to be in the classroom teaching. Like any profession I encountered some that were better at the art of teaching than others. But, they always had time for me and were passionate about the material they were teaching. I encountered professors that did not spend much time in the classroom. Why? Because they were doing brilliant research and making a difference in our social world in that way. They were making the key medical breakthroughs. They were inventing the next round of engineering technology. I also encountered wonderfully passionate graduate teaching assistants (who, by the way, contrary to public perception all have a Master’s degree and are working on a PhD. They are not just some person off the street we stick in the classroom. In fact, as a starting point they all have more education than many of the hard working teachers in K-12). Are they young? Mostly. Are they inexperienced? Yes. But show me a profession where new people are not inexperienced. I also work with wonderfully committed adjunct faculty who, in some cases are practitioners in their field, but in other cases are the under-appreciated and under rewarded backbone of our universities. . In my lengthy educational career I’ve encountered 1 professor that I thought should probably retire and their heart was just not in it anymore. I’ve encountered professors that probably needed some work on their social skills. I’ve encountered professors that are not always the best communicators. But, I do believe every profession in our economy has the same. It’s called working with people with different personalities.

I’ve debated hard ideas in the classroom as a student and as a professor. It is not brainwashing to talk about different perspectives. It is not brainwashing to ask students to consider how empirical research matches up with public perception. It is not brainwashing to ask people to stop over generalizing. It is not brainwashing to ask students to critically reflect upon the messages in the media. It’s not brainwashing to help them develop good analytical skills. It is not brainwashing to teach in an in-depth way about the effects of social structures on our daily lives. It’s called education.

My colleagues work HARD to provide relevant experiences, internships, study abroad, community based research, community partnerships, for our students. These things do not just happen. It requires us to be in the community making connections so that we can place our students. I spend just as many hours evaluating the quality of an argument made as I do correcting grammar, helping to make them better writers, providing opportunities for public speaking, teaching basic math so we can do statistics. I spend time in my office talking about ideas one on one. I spend hours preparing good lectures, activities, and readings for students. More times than I can count I was quickly restructuring class because of a major event in the world that they needed a space to discuss what happened. I also spend a good deal of my time as a cheerleader telling them they CAN do this and they CAN become a college graduate. I spend time connecting them with career counseling, financial aid, mental health services, been called on to accompany students to a difficult court hearing, written dozens and dozens of letters of recommendation, cried with students who’ve experienced loss, jumped for joy as they’ve accomplished their goals. And, in my spare time I also do research. I serve our local community and university in my position as professor. I serve on boards, committees, attend multiple events just to support the residents of our city. I do all of this in the capacity of a professor. The idea that we are all sitting around “doing nothing” is preposterous. The idea that we only teach 1 class a semester is ridiculous. We wouldn’t be educating the sheer number of students we do if every professor in the United States had a teaching load of 1 class per semester. Professors that have that kind of load are in their labs the rest of the time WITH students. Just because they are not in the traditional classroom does not mean they are not teaching.

Let me say again—I am modeling the experience I had in higher education from my Bachelor’s Degree, Master’s degree and PhD. My colleagues are modeling the same thing. We learned this from our professors. I am listening to the activity going on in my halls right now. I’m hearing advising appoints happening, calls being made to bring more classes to our students, and I am about to start a morning of skype and conference calls with my students who I teach online as I do every Friday morning. I am modeling what I experienced—the great professors I had that did the same for me.  And, I’m not giving this laundry list of what we do as a list of complaints.  I am giving it for people to understand the role we play.

If you do not know what is happening in our halls of higher education—ask. Visit. Come see for yourself.

Do we get this business of higher education right all the time? Absolutely not. Are we sometimes our own worst enemies? Sure. Do we heatedly debate the ideas of what higher education should look like? Yes. Does this debate get ugly sometimes? Yes. Do we have people that do not always represent our profession in the best light? Yes.  As an institution do we need to be more flexible to change?  Yes. Do we work with people we do not always agree with?  YES.  Do we sometimes view the world differently?  Yes.  But, is that really a terrible thing?

Do not take the over-generalizations and stereotypes as the measure of what we do. Do not take that as a measure of the amazing women and men who walk into the classroom every single day to teach the young adults who will be leading our future businesses, designing the latest engineering and medical innovations, solving our hard social problems, policing our streets, teaching our children, making judicial decisions, and creating new ideas about how we want to be as a society.  And, when you hear these misconceptions–speak up.  Just as you should when you hear anyone lumping every single person into a single category.  SPEAK UP.  SAY SOMETHING.

And by the way, I just got off the phone with a former student who just had to call to tell me about a new idea she’s had to work on and see if I had some more information that I could share.  THAT is what your professors in higher education are supporting and doing.


Owning Success



Today I attended a women in leadership conference at my university.  It was a fantastic day of both learning from some very accomplished women in academia and talking with others recognizing  we share some common characteristics when it comes to how we operate as women leaders.

I took a lot away from today.  Women are less likely to own their success.  We are more likely to downplay accomplishments.  Further, we are less likely to apply for jobs if we do not feel we meet the requirements 100% where men will apply for a job when they only meet 50% of requirements.  I gave real thought to what I want to do in academic leadership.  I thought deeply about work/life satisfaction.

But, there was one take away that fit me like a glove and something I’ve decided could be detrimental to the future I want to make in academic leadership.  I am not very good about owning success.  I am terrible at taking credit for things I’ve accomplished.  Anytime someone points out things I’ve done I 100% of the time talk about the people who opened doors for me.  I am not exaggerating when I say I doubt I’ve even uttered the words, “I’m successful.” I am incredibly uncomfortable talking about the time and energy I’ve devoted to my career and the outcomes I’ve had.

Today, I realized that it is ok to claim my success.  Yes, I’ve been very, very fortunate to have amazing mentors.  I’ve had incredible opportunities presented to me. I have a fantastic support system. But, today I recognized that I walked through the doors and I have worked very hard to get to where I am.  It was not luck.  It was not chance.  I intentionally worked toward my success.

I’m a numbers person and three statistics that were presented today really made me think about this idea of owning success.

.3 percent of Native Americans hold a PhD

2 percent of the US population hold a PhD

Only 30 percent of tenured professors are women

When I look at those stats I realize that I need to own my success not just for me, but for the young women I am committed to mentoring. I need to model confidence.  I need to model that it is ok to share about the long road of work it took to get to where I am.

I’ll still struggle with this.  Even now, I read this and think, “UGH, I sound like such a big head. What an ego.”

But, I look at the picture at the top of this post and know that I owe it to my students.  They need to hear about our stories and know our successes to strive for their own.  Until today, I’d never thought about how downplaying my success perpetuates a cycle.

So, from now on I will still recognize the beautiful collaborations I work with, but I will also acknowledge my own hard work.  And, by writing it down and making it public it makes it more likely I will follow through.


Could you Get on the Bus?

do it now


Each time I teach Collective Behavior and Social Movements I show the documentary, “Freedom Riders:  Could you Get on the Bus?”  This documentary brilliantly tells the story of the Freedom Ride movement and gives extraordinary insight into what compels people to join social movements.  But, not only what compels people to join movements but what drives them to put themselves at risk, even in the face of death, for a cause.  I’ve watched this documentary no less than 20 times now over the course of my career and every time it forces me to consider my own commitment and passion when it comes to social justice issues.  But, today it caused me to think, “What is my bus?”  How am I participating in creating a more just society.  Have I lost my motivation?  What am I really doing?

Most often when we think of social movements we think of participation being in the form of protests, petitions, organizations that promote change, etc.  I haven’t participated in a social protest or march for some time.  I don’t often write op ed pieces speaking out on those social issues I am passionate about.  I see fellow colleagues that do those activities quite well.  Their words inspire.  Their participation in protest inspires me.

I look at our global society today and so many situations break my heart.  I still see us wrestle with racial inequality.  I see our girls inundated with messages that are detrimental to their definition of self.  I hurt for the poverty I see not only in my own backyard, but also the world.  I become infuriated when in 2016 a city such as Flint, Michigan is without clean drinking water–a basic human right.  I cannot even comprehend or wrap my mind around the suffering of those children, women and men making the journey from Syria.

Then, I listen to all the noise I hear and see on a daily basis.  I hear the ideologues.  I hear the media screaming.  I see the memes.  So much of this closes off people to really talking through and listening to the reality of people who are unlike us or have experienced life in a much different way.  It causes us to define hard social issues as simple, “either you are with us or against us” causes.  It causes us to think that a simple picture or meme can really explain complexity of social life.  Just because people have a different experience than us does not mean our experience is wrong or their experience is wrong.  But, it does mean that we must talk about why they differ.  It means we have to do more to understand each other.

In all of this I’ve decided that my bus is the classroom.  My bus is allowing students a quiet space to have these debates.  To learn from each other.  To have the opportunity to grow.  By creating that space it may mean I take the hot seat for allowing controversial conversations to happen.  I may make some people mad. I may be told we shouldn’t be talking about those kinds of things.  But, I will stand my ground.  I will take the criticism.  I will allow people to think what ever they want of me.

If I come to the end of my career and I’ve continued to allow a space for students to talk then I think I’ve contributed in some small way to fight inequalities.

I cannot recommend this documentary enough.  It is the story of struggle, determination and love for fellow man.  It is hard to watch.  It is hard to digest.  It is hard to wrap our minds around.  But, it is indeed OUR history.  It is OUR story.  To ignore that does a great disservice to the young people who put themselves in harms way to make a change.  Embrace it.  Own it. Learn from it.