Reality vs. Perception in Academia

I put up this picture on facebook last week.  It made me laugh for a few reasons, hence putting up a photo.  It made me first think of elementary school and when you were bad, sometimes you had to sit in the hallway in a ‘naughty chair’ of just sit on the floor.  In truth, the office staff put it out because my office neighbor and I see a good number of students and sometimes we run late and they show up extra early, so she put out a chair so at least one could sit while waiting. I also realize that I have no nameplate as of yet and it’s my own fault.  I have not ordered one. Printing out my name on a piece of paper and taping it just seemed so much easier and cheaper.  I also just unpacked the last boxes about two weeks ago and considering I moved into this office in December of 2011, it was a long overdue task.  Again, my own fault for doing other things besides unpacking boxes, ordering a name plate or business cards (which I believe are antiquated but that’s for another day). Even my immediate boss noticed the unpacking had finished at our next meeting and he made a comment about it.  It takes me a while to get to this stuff.

Anyway, back to the chair.  So, I posted this photo.  A facebook friend commented on it and it got me thinking.  His comment was:

“I thought you worked at _____ not an online university. They should be able to get you a better waiting chair and at least a bigger piece of paper to put your name on.”

My comment back to him:

“While I don’t disagree w you, perhaps the publics perception of the state of academia is skewed.”

Perception of academics revolves around pipe smoking men in cardigan sweaters who wax on about philosophy while wearing loafers with tassels.  When I see one of these men, I will be sure to stop him and ask to take his photo.  I don’t know where this ideal began or who is still fostering it as reality but as I sit and stand to write this post I assure you I’m not male, I’m not wearing a cardigan sweater, and quite frankly: I can’t afford the loafers with the tassels. They’re probably not that comfortable anyway.

No folks, academia is NOT Ron Burgandy, we do not have many leather bound books and no office I’ve ever been in smells of rich mahogany and rarely do I see anyone laughing on the way out the door. It’s mostly of blood, sweat, and tears while on deadline and trying to make it home in time for a real meal with your family before bedtime. I would also argue that most online unversities (AKA: for profit) probably have nicer furniture than my university because they are in the business of turning a profit.  We could argue all day long and night about profit in R1’s like mine, but so far, I haven’t seen anyone ‘retire early’ or ‘hit the jackpot’ in academia.  Most of the faculty who I interact with all drive sensible cars, albeit the family ‘beater’ to get to campus and back. Their kids all go to public school because private school isn’t an option financially, and in most cases, consulting within the university rules is done to earn holiday money and vacation money and not to pad the 401K. I have yet to hear of any extravagant purchases, European holidays but instead I hear chatter of people who are saving to put a new roof on their house, pay off some tuition of their own from 20 years ago, and perhaps, throw a few bucks into a ‘just in case’ fund.  The undergraduate students are the ones who drive around campus in their BMW’s, Mercedes, and Land Rovers, and eat out regularly. The faculty can be spotted from a mile away with their lunch bags.

Public perception is skewed on what academia really is.  Some of it is our fault (academia). When your child visits our universities, we show them the best, we feed them the best, we give them shiny things along with the promise of a top notch education for a price.  We show them the nicest, newest dorms, let them eat all-you-can-eat buffet, and then show off our outstanding athletic facilities.  One could argue that good food and a great living space are important to an education.  I have yet to see a tour of students go through my office building, get marched through a dorm that is ‘older’ and is on slate to get remodeled, or anything of the sort.  The 70,000 seat football stadium and brand new, state of the art facilities trump academics.  They usually come third or fourth in the conversation.  So, what are we selling?  Lifestyle? Perceived wealth?  Convenience?  A meal plan where you can buy lobster?

The public thinks that academia has all of this ‘money.’ I put money in ” because it’s also smoke and mirrors.  The field of higher education (and education as a whole) took heart breaking cuts due to the poor recession.  Before you go screaming about politics, stop.  That’s not what this is turning into.  Whether you want to cry republican or democrat, it’s too late for that.  The damage is done.  It began a long time ago when standardized testing took off (mid 80’s) and then really catapulted into the spotlight with NCLB (mid 90’s) so all parties are to blame on this one.  Standardized tests drive education in the pre k-12 and now in higher education.  No one is left behind for sure when it comes to accountability. The public cries that academia has all of this money and let me be the first to tell you: no, it doesn’t.  Any time a faculty member is awarded a grant, the university takes anywhere from about 25%-65% of it and calls it ‘overhead.’ I have no idea where it goes, I can speculate, but I’m pretty sure my office furniture is particle board and the only thing made in the last decade is my computer.  The university distributes it to various outlets to cover costs that most faculty cannot even fathom.

So, let’s agree to disagree on any point that you didn’t like.  But, as a new faculty I would like it if you learned only one thing from this post:

Take the notion you have of academia in your head and erase it.  With the changing economy, changing population, and changing state of education, it will not look like the picture in your head ever again.  That’s not a bad thing either.  We are busy teaching your children for jobs we don’t know exist and we arm them with technical knowledge and foster them as human beings while they feel through their own identity.  It’s an exciting time to be in education, even if we don’t have nice furniture, name plates, or business cards.  I didn’t get into this field to get rich, be famous, or wear loafers.  I did get into this business to help students uncover their potential, help them become productive members of society, discover how students learn through research and scholarship, and make sure I can keep driving my trusty Toyota’s for a while. I may even pay off my student loans in the next 20 years but odds are I’ll still be paying them when my own kid(s) go to college.

As a new faculty, how do you handle questions or statements when people have a varied perception that your job is one thing, but is really another?

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