Post Academic

Down With the Academic Martyr: Why a Little Selfishness Might Help You

Posted in Absurdities,Breaking Academic Stereotypes by Caroline Roberts on January 21, 2011
Tags: , ,

PhotobucketWhen I told my family I was taking time off from grad school and looking for a career that didn’t involve teaching, one of my relatives said, “Good.”

“Good?” I asked. “I thought being a teacher is supposed to be noble, or something.”

“Yeah, but it means everyone tries to take advantage of you.”

My loved one had a point. When I thought about my time teaching and what I’ve heard from friends and other professors, I remembered how often I felt pushed. Can you take one more student? Can you give me one more day on the paper? Can’t you give my precious child another chance?

I often caved. I thought, if I didn’t give every last bit, I was letting someone down. I might be blocking a student’s right to knowledge. The one time I did push back, when I joined a picket line for rights I deemed perfectly reasonable, one of the school’s administrators compared the work of a grad student to the work of the kid down the street who mowed his lawn. To him–and many others–strikers were whiners. I held strong, but I felt guiltier than a character in a Philip Roth novel, and when I started teaching, I worked even harder, thinking my labor could erase the perception that I was another whiny slacker.

Sutton Hall interior view of faculty quarters, two women reading, circa 1900. Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

One of the most convenient lies for parents and taxpayers is that teachers are lazy slackers. Criticizing a teacher for endangering the minds of children (Oh! Won’t someone think of the children?) has a powerful effect: It makes teachers work harder. If a student fails, it can’t possibly be the student or maybe the student’s parents–it must be the teacher.

Many people who choose to serve others for a living, whether they be teachers, nurses or social workers bear the brunt of the meanest, nastiest critique. It is as if people have contempt for those who serve, as if there must be something wrong with them if they aren’t acting out of pure self-interest. So more is expected of them … which is why so many teachers suffer from burnout.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Teachers, professors and grad students should expect respect. A majority of hamsters expect respect. If they don’t get it, they quit or they call a lawyer. For that reason, it is time for teachers to set boundaries and expect them to be followed. It’s one thing to do your best, but it’s quite another to let people take advantage of you.

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