Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll, and the American Professor
From the June 2002 AAHE Bulletin
Populated by pompous deans, ineffectual presidents, petty or eccentric faculty members, and efficient secretaries, American universities are a hotbed of conspiracies and politicking, substance abuse, and sex scandals. Well, not really. But such is the world of the academic novel, a type of genre fiction that always takes place in a university setting.
someone who works in the world that academic novels portray, I thought it might
be helpful to look at how teaching is portrayed in this popular form of fiction.
Three novels in particular seem the most relevant to analyze because all were
published in the 1990s and are set in American universities. They are Moo by Jane Smiley, Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon (made into an Academy Award
nominated film starring Michael Douglas in 2000), and Straight Man by
three of these books are, of course, fiction. So before I look at them in more
detail, I want to consider, for comparison’s sake, a nonfiction source of
information about teaching, the U.S. government’s National Study of
Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF). Gathered directly from 974 higher education
institutions and 31,354 faculty members who were employed full-time in the fall
of 1992, this study’s data on U.S. faculty and their work is roughly
contemporaneous with the three novels and might serve as a benchmark by which we
can judge the more literary evidence found in the academic novels.
We Spend Our Time
left column shows the percentages for all types of universities, from Research I
institutions to two-year community colleges, whereas the data on the right are
specific to comprehensive universities, institutions like those that comprise
the California State University, where I am employed, that focus primarily on
undergraduate instruction with some master’s degree programs. In the
comprehensives, faculty members devote 60 percent of their time to teaching,
with the rest roughly divided between research and service.
is the academic world as seen through the eyes of the U.S. government. What
about life at the university as seen through the eyes of novelists?
Characters Spend Their Time
caveat: In analyzing the activities depicted in the novels, I must confess to
feelings of inadequacy in always distinguishing between what constitutes
administration/service and what I’ve defined as “politicking and
conspiring.” Although I feel confident that I can recognize drinking and sex,
I am not always clear about where to draw the line between being on a committee,
which is designated as administration/service (and helps you earn merit pay),
and general politicking and conspiring (for which you earn no official rewards).
importance of both in the academic life can’t be underestimated. In Moo,
for example, the time spent politicking and conspiring (12 percent) is just
about even with time spent on committee work (11 percent). Compared with the
data from NSOPF, Moo, set in a research university, shows a pretty fair
representation of research activities — at 17 percent — only a bit less than
the 18 percent characteristic of the total universe of institutions. Time
devoted to external consulting is also comparable — 4 percent at Moo U, 3
percent in the federal study.
second novel, Wonder Boys, is mostly about getting loaded — as you can
see from the figure of 12 percent in the drinking/drug-taking category. But it
also falls into a fairly predictable range in the research and service
categories, with 9 percent devoted to research and 6 percent to service. The
main service activity is the annual gala called WordFest, in which English
majors get to meet editors and publishers from New York City, which also
probably explains all the drinking and sex.
set in a comprehensive university, shows itself to be pretty much like my home
institution — heavy on the service component at 16 percent, which is close to
the NSOPF’s 18 percent, and also, traditionally, with a demanding teaching
load, lighter on research and scholarship, with only 4 percent of faculty time
devoted to these latter activities.
the most striking aspect of a comparison of three 1990s academic novels with a
survey of faculty work in the 1990s lies in the top row of Table 2: the
percentage of faculty effort devoted to teaching. If you look at the top line
across all columns, you can see what academic novels tell us about teaching, and
that is: very little. They tell us about research and service in roughly the
same proportions as they occur in real life. They tell us about sex, drugs, and
rock and roll in probably even greater proportions than they occur in real life,
at least in my real life. But they don’t tell us much about teaching — 60
percent of faculty work in real life, but only 9 percent in all three of the
survey data (as well as our own experiences) tell us that faculty devote much of
their time to teaching, so it is striking that teaching shows up so infrequently
in books that purport to represent the academic life. Why isn’t teaching more
thoroughly and comprehensively portrayed in these books?
main character Hank Devereaux says:
is privacy with a vengeance.
are probably at least two reasons why teaching is such an intensely private
activity. First of all, the academy has few institutionalized, formalized
structures to make teaching a more public and a more accessible venture, which
is not the case for the other major parts of faculty work: scholarship and
research is done in the privacy of an office, study, laboratory, or library
carrel, and research results are often written up by a single individual working
alone, the articles and books generated are submitted to journals and publishers
for others to read, review, and comment upon.
with service. Faculty members may read a tenure candidate’s dossier in the
privacy of their offices, but then they go to a meeting and talk about it.
there is no comparable mechanism for teaching. Teaching usually involves a lone
professor. Teachers may share and discuss and form a community with their
students, but scarcely ever with their colleagues, their peers, their equals.
This is the reason to feel hopeful about the scholarship-of-teaching movement.
we believe that free exchange of information makes for better research; if we
believe that discussion and conversations make for better decisions about tenure
and promotions and curriculum; in short, if we believe that discussion can
improve research and service, then it seems likely that discussion can also
improve teaching and learning.
to the definitions used in NSOPF, teaching is at least five separate and
distinct activities: preparing for class, performing in the classroom,
developing new courses, advising or supervising students, and grading or
evaluating their work. Although NSOPF identified teaching as comprising these
activities, it didn’t collect data about them individually.
Interestingly, however, a 1994 survey of Cal State faculty did collect data to show what percentage of time was devoted to each of these activities, and they are shown in Table 3. Like most faculty members at comprehensive universities, professors at CSU campuses devote almost 60 percent of their work time to teaching — 59.43 percent, to be exact.
these percentages show, Cal State professors spend as much time preparing for
class as they do actually performing in a classroom, and they spend even more
time — almost 21 percent — interacting with students outside the classroom,
either by evaluating their tests and papers or through conversations during
office hours and in the hallways.
the focus has been on only one aspect of teaching: performance in the classroom.
When assistant professors are considered for tenure, faculty peers observe their
classroom performance. When job candidates are invited to interview, they give a
classroom lecture. Often neglected or overlooked are the other activities that
actually take more time and may even be more demanding and more meaningful for
students. What makes a good syllabus? What makes a good test? What kinds of
research projects are likely to help students learn? What constitutes a helpful
comment on a student’s paper? Questions like these have often been
overshadowed by an emphasis on only one activity — performance in the
three novels don’t say much about teaching, but when they do, they give full
justice to the range of activities that are teaching. The portrayals of the
various activities of “teaching” in academic novels suggest that we need to
disassemble the black box; that we need to look more closely at all the
components that go into teaching, and not emphasize classroom performance to the
near exclusion of the other activities that are equally critical to student
success — how we prepare syllabi, how we design assignments, how we grade
papers, and even how we talk with students in the hallways.
do academic novels tell us about teaching? That it is invisible; that even
though teaching is the most significant part of academic work, it is the least
visible, the least discussed, the least shared experience. It is legitimate and
professional to talk about scholarship and committee work, but teaching is not
yet a respectable and respected topic of conversation. And before we can improve
teaching, we first need to make teaching a fit subject of conversation.
Lorie Roth is assistant vice chancellor for academic programs for the 23-campus California State University system. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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