Photo courtesy of Kathleen Battles.
On August 15th I stepped into the Chair role in my department. As both a newly minted Department Chair and media scholar, everyone in my orbit kept asking if I had seen the new Netflix series, The Chair. A quarter century of reading, writing, and teaching about media has taught me to avoid an “accuracy” discussion, but there were a few moments that felt painfully true. It was a moment later in the series that particularly hit me in the feels. The fictional university has decided to gain student interest by bringing in actor David Duchovny as a guest lecturer/instructor instead of the titular chair’s choice of a rising scholar. The clueless celebrity (kudos to Duchovny for spoofing himself) offers the Chair (played so well by Sandra Oh) a series of increasingly ludicrous ideas of what he will teach, until she states simply, with quiet confidence and rage, that “teaching is not a pastime, it’s a profession.”
This moment continues to stick with me as we face a truly brutal year of contract negotiations. Underneath all of the administration talk is a lingering attitude of contempt, the sensibility that somehow our labor as faculty is ultimately expendable – as if faculty labor is not the “true” work of the university. After all, floating out there is that saying, “those who can do, those who can’t teach”. But I want to pause for a moment to reflect on what it means to say that teaching is a profession. Teaching as a profession means that as scholars with higher degrees in our fields of expertise we keep up with the latest knowledge being produced in our disciplines to bring to our students. Teaching as a profession means that faculty across campus meet to discuss and update the curriculum being offered by their departments. Teaching as a profession means wrangling dense theoretical and methodological frameworks into formats accessible to learners new to our subjects. Teaching as a profession means regularly updating course material, be it finagling with readings, updating/changing assignments, revising lectures and course plans, or revisiting procedures for evaluation (I’m still polishing my syllabus for this semester). Teaching as a profession means being engaged with students inside and outside of the classroom – in person or virtual – responding to questions or ideas that force us to think of and present the materials in new ways.
But teaching as a profession also means that faculty are knowledge creators. Where does the content of a university degree come from? It comes from the work of faculty around the globe who devote years of their lives to learning, mastering, and contributing to their chosen disciplines. I spend time with faculty from around campus whose passion and commitment to knowledge building floors me. I served on the university wide faculty promotion committee, reviewing hundreds of pages of documents about faculty work (for each individual faculty member!) in teaching, research, and service. Rather than feeling exhausted, I felt energized and humbled by the world class faculty here. I mean that literally – I have read enthusiastic letters of support for OU faculty from prestigious universities around the globe.
Teaching is a profession. It is literally a job we do to support ourselves and our families. Oakland might indeed need to find ways to save money (it is honestly hard to trust them), but it must find ways to do so that maintain the dignity and value of its workers.