Monday, September 16, 2013

Teacher's Anonymous (a new organization to help the troubled)

Drug addiction can be a serious disease.  It disorders one's life in so many ways.  Drinking may seem to many just to be fun, it may make you friends and even gain you respect (if you can hold your liquor better than the next fellow).  But to many others it can be tragically destructive.

The severity of alcohol addiction and its effects of people's lives was the impetus behind the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It has worked for many people, with a structured path of self-help, plus the support of other AA members whenever the urge to drink seems overwhelming. A major part of AA is self-recognition and admission.  Covering up, and pretending is an obstacle to recovery from the horrible addiction and its toll.  At least within the protective help of the organization, you are not anonymous.  A drinker seeking help goes to an AA meeting, and stands up and publicly announces:  "I'm [his/her  name], and I'm an alcoholic!"  Confession is the first step in redeeming the soul.

It turns out that this success has stimulated other organizations to help those with problems like drug use, over-eating and so on.  It's a path to recovery for many who are plagued by an annoying compulsion.  And now there's a new group forming.

Teacher's Anonymous (TA)
One of the worst things that can afflict a university professor is the urge to actually teach.  Being a good teacher is the foremost criterion for being denied tenure.  In the same way that social drinking is encouraged, but excess is discouraged strongly and shamed, nominal teaching is encouraged, to give a patina of concern for students, but putting any real effort into it is as bad as alcoholism (or maybe even a sign of alcoholism, because why else would a sane person do it?).  It can cost you your job and be a disaster to your life.

The swath of destruction that follows those who actually play by the rules and don't pay any attention to teaching, that is, the path of relentless pandering after grants, forcing oneself to write more papers than one has content to put in them, bragging to the news media about one's every minor thought, and so on, is a path of self-damnation.  It impedes having a sane life.  But it has one redeeming feature: it puts food on the table (even if one's spouse and kids are long gone from the table, owing to lack of attention).

Now, just as with drinking, here and there one runs across someone with the guts and talents and strength of character to actually like teaching and to be good at it.  It's an art and a skill, and to do it right takes a hell of a lot of work.  That's why it is so suicidal in our reward system--that is, because it doesn't reward Deans and Chairs with lots of overhead money to spend.

But we happen to know a few truly remarkable people who are afflicted with this set of talents.  They're societal gems, contributors to the well-being of students rather than just themselves and their administrations.  They may be rare, and they may be, well, sick in the way we describe.  Yet, the very best of them also manage to do original, thoughtful, creative research and scholarship (yes, believe it or not). Though few in numbers, such people do actually exist.  We think they deserve to be 'outed', but we shouldn't do it ourselves.  They need to do it for themselves.  That is what the new organization, Teacher's Anonymous is for:  Indeed, we just heard that sort of confession by our MT confrere, who epitomises the problem:

"I'm Holly Dunsworth, and I'm a teacher!"

Let's give a hand to this unusual confession, and the other TA members like her!


Holly Dunsworth said...

Thrilled to epitomize this problem! Thanks Ken.

Ken Weiss said...

I just was sent a link to a brief article by an Oberlin College professor (where I and our daughter went to college). It bemoaned the pressure to be an entertainer rather than to present seriously thoughtful material (even if there's no actual objection to having content in one's course!).

He supported the professor who, though perhaps boring, had something of substance to convey. There may be some correlation between lively presentation and content, but it's far from clear how high a correlation that is.

In your case,and my comment doesn't rest on our being friends and colleagues, you have demonstrably been doing 'all of the above': clearly engaging the interests of students and at the same time providing serious level content. And you've been doing research with serious impact, both in the modern social media forum and regular research media.

That's a kind of magic.

James Goetz said...

Hmm, I heard rumors back in 1990s that winning a Penn State Faculty Teaching Award before earning tenure was a bad career move. If you want respect from your collegues, then do not accept one of these (

James Goetz said...

Thank you for posting this. Please do not think that I endorse this attitude.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I inherited much of my destructive tendencies from family and mentors of 36 years. That includes Ken and Anne! The environment doesn't help either! I've got heavier teaching loads than many of my colleagues and that sort of opportunity for over-indulgence combined with a disinterest (let alone disability) in pumping out bits of research relatively quickly with relatively little ramifications from my teaching-addicted colleagues... well, I don't think I'll ever get clean. I'm only getting worse and worse the further down the teaching hole I go.

Holly Dunsworth said...

enablers. that's the word I needed up there.

Ken Weiss said...

This kind of full confession will help you rid yourself of the habit.