Professor Werk, or, what do professors do like teach?

I’m heading back into the school year and I’m exhausted by all the work I’ve done this summer while not teaching. That’s not a joke, I worked all summer even though I didn’t teach any classes. People can be surprised at this because they see my job as all about teaching. I get that. Most people interact with professors on the front side; as students we see professors do werk by lecturing and leading classes and grading papers. I do that too. I like doing that. That’s a pretty affirming statement from a super introvert like me. In spite of my discomfort with freestyle lecturing, running open discussions, being stared at by forty students for seventy-five minutes, I feel like what I do in the classroom makes a difference. Students will say that what I taught them really changed how they see the world or gave them skills they will use forever. That’s pretty cool. I also get a lot of cat drawings, which is also cool.

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I literally had so many to choose from, you have no idea.

I like the front side. But I would argue that the front side—the teaching part—is a corollary of my actual job. The main thing professors do is create knowledge. I do this two ways.

Way #1: hey, do you like seat belts? What about Google? Heard the term intersectionality used to describe social injustice? All that shit was invented by professors. To be specific, professors thought up that shit, and then figured out a way to actualize it through research and experiments, and then explained it by writing it out clearly and supporting it with persuasive evidence. Then they sent it into the world and now we know!
maxresdefault.jpgPeople that are not professors can invent things at places that are not universities. But universities are locations where professors are paid to invent technology and ideas that could fundamentally alter cultural knowledges, add to society, change the world. When I got hired as a professor, it was with the understanding that I would teach for the university and also that I would think deeply and complexly about the world and its problems, come up with original and novel ideas, and put them into the world. Lest this sound like an easy deal, my knowledge output is measured and evaluated. In other words, professors have to prove that our thinking has led to original ideas and that original ideas have worth. How is such a thing proven? Through articles published in blind, peer-reviewed academic journals, by writing and publishing peer-reviewed books, presenting conference papers at national and international forums, being awarded grant funding, being invited to speak in various prestigious public forums… We have a fancy nihilist term for all this: publish or perish. I keep my job from year to year (and professors get tenured) by showing the material output of my thinking and also proving that a large body of my peers has deemed this output valuable.

Way #2: ok, so professors have to think up, write up, and publish up original knowledge. But the other way I create knowledge is by developing university curriculum. I don’t just teach classes, I work with my peers to grow fields of knowledge and then design curriculum that imparts key elements of those fields to students. When you take a class from a professor, you see the professor teach the content. But before you even get to this part, the professor has decided on the best texts to convey the content, on the units that best demonstrate the content, on the examples and keywords essential to the content. And they have also chosen the content itself. There are thousands of important ideas that make up my own field of Women’s and Gender Studies. My job is to know as much of that knowledge as I possibly can and then decide what parts are most important for students to learn and when they should learn them. When I get all that figured out, I then find texts and examples, write lessons, and design exercises that best convey my decisions. I trained for eleven years, which is the amount of years I spent getting my higher education degrees, to be able to do this. So I have a good background and good skills, but I could also draw on some pre-made resources like text readers and syllabus examples and activity banks. You know who came up with those readers, syllabi, and activity resources? Professors. And you know how I know they’re accurate? Because of my background and skills. In effect, my job is always to know about and sort through all the knowledge of a given field and then use my training to build a new set or unit of knowledge—a knowledgelet if you will—for students learning this field. I create the knowledge that exists in my field, and I create the units of knowledge that teach this field to others. And I grade papers too.

Lemmee wrap up by running some numbers. If you think that the whole of my job is teaching classes (as some human dumpster fire politicians have argued), then you must think being a professor is pretty easy because I don’t teach eight hours a day, forty hours a week. Actually, I teach four classes, twice a week and, at seventy-five minutes per class, that’s ten hours a week. Cool. If you had a forty-hour/week salaried job and one of the requirements was that you lead a staff meeting eight times a week, would you only be working when you were running those meetings? Or would you also be working when you came up with the topic of the meeting, collected materials, organized and wrote out your talking points, made visuals and handouts, sent out email reminders and agendas, and followed up with coworkers? Unless you’re in a really exploitative job, you probably get to count all this as part of your workweek. In fact, all this prep and these presentations might actually be a corollary of your actual job. That is, you got hired to do something in addition to these presentations, and you’re still responsible for doing and completing that something. If yer lucky, maybe you get to make some of your presentations overlap with this other part of your job. But probably not all eight, and probably not every week.

I teach, therefore I profess! Teaching is part of my job and it’s a great part and it’s the most visible part. But I also profess when I create knowledge and launch it out to the world. I don’t have summers off because that creating knowledge part is not contingent on me being in a classroom. Publish or perish doesn’t stop just because I am teaching more students or less students. I can do it anytime, and I do it all the time. This is a really hard and a really time consuming and a really important and a really crucial part of my job. Luckily, I trained a long time to do this work and, super luckily, I get paid to do it. Not everyone that makes knowledge gets paid for their labor. But professors do. It’s what we do.

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About Meredith Heller

The Saucy Scholar is Faculty Lecturer of Queer Studies in Women's and Gender Studies at Northern Arizona University. She holds a Ph.D. in Theater Studies and a doctoral emphasis in Feminist Studies from UC Santa Barbara, and specializes in performance and entertainment, gender studies, and queer theory.
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