Class Notes

How to Do What You Do?

The life of a professor isn’t what it used to be

By Paula Marantz Cohen | April 2, 2013


I recently received an email from a former student who is working as a writer for a nonprofit company. He reminisced about the courses he had taken with me a few years back, and then he got to his point: I would like to know how to do what you do? What would be involved in achieving this goal? Do you think it would be feasible for me to aspire to the life you have?

The life I have? The questions, which made me laugh at first, were, I realized, fundamental questions. I had asked them myself after college as I thought about what I wanted to do with my life. At the time, it seemed natural to want the life of my professors. They were my most impressive adult role models. I saw them regularly outside of class—in their cozy offices, in the library, over lunch, or in town, where they’d push their children around in strollers. At the end of the term, they’d sometimes invite us students over for dinner. Their homes, though not luxurious, were inviting. And their lives—full of reading, writing, and good talk—seemed just the sort of life I wanted.

But the professorial life is not what it was when I was in college. There are fewer jobs for Ph.D.s, especially in the humanities, and the demands are greater, or at least very different from what they were when I was a student. Today, there are more prescriptive elements involved in becoming a university professor: metrics regarding what has to be done to be hired, to pass a third-year review, to get tenure and promotion. The pressure to publish is greater, the demands of committee work and grant-getting more fierce. Moreover, many tenure-track positions are likely to be replaced by contract positions that involve more teaching and less scholarship, larger and more online classes, and more introductory and survey-course teaching. Is it desirable, or even feasible, for a student now to aspire to do what I do? Probably not.

The more I considered my former student’s questions, the luckier I felt to have squeezed through the door before it closed. But it also made me feel old, not in the swing of things, engaged in a way of life that is fast becoming obsolete. I love the seminar I am teaching now, with 15 students who write a paper every week (to be turned in in hard copy), who come to class for lively talk, after which I go home to write about topics in literature and culture that interest me. What I do is fulfilling and, in its way, useful, but I feel guilty about it. What I’m doing seems out of joint with what the world is doing.

I’m sure that people will find a way in the coming years to make a career in higher education rewarding, but I am pretty certain that it will not take the form that my career has taken. In short, I explained to the student who emailed me, I don’t think it is possible for him to do what I do.

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