on funerals, stress, time, and ideas

This week I attended a funeral of a former colleague, someone I wasn’t especially close to but knew just well enough that I wanted to participate in this final ceremony. It was mostly a room of strangers with only a few people I recognized at the service, but it was fine to just sit by myself and observe all that took place. By my own rating system, it was just an adequate funeral with odd twists that made me wonder what it would be like to come to more of these services and document the kinds of things that are said and done. In the midst of that notion, taking the point of view of an anonymous observer, I was comfortable enough just to sit on the bench and take it in. I enjoyed the singer’s rendition of “I know my savior lives,” even if I wasn’t so sure about the sentiment. I thought it was interesting to listen to the different eulogies and think that people should do these things more often — maybe before death — so that more people (including the remembered) could take part. And maybe the eulogizers were thinking the same thing, as much of their stories weren’t so much about the deceased as they were about the still alive speaker. Being along in years, maybe they were anticipating their own funerals and hoping to get in a few words of their own.

The most interesting part, to me and my current state of being, were the repeated descriptions of my colleague’s care for his students and gift as a teacher. I think this was what drew me to the service in the first place — I occasionally run into students in the community who ask about their former teacher and relay what a caring instructor he was. I had imagined that this would be described in various anecdotes, but I didn’t know that it would be brought up so repeatedly. However, it fell a little short when the third speaker said for the third time that the deceased was “an incredibly smart man” and “an excellent physics teacher.” Somehow, even though I would have wanted these same words said at my own funeral, this started to fall short. It didn’t help when the last speaker relayed how his own son took a course form this professor (after not succeeding with another instructor — maybe me?) and ended up earning a B+. He emphasized the “plus,” and then went on to describe that the son has gone on to run his own chiropractic practice. This gave me pause.

I think there’s real, genuine value in the repeated act of sitting down with a student and mentoring them, helping them through the real hard parts, inspiring betterment, and all that. To my mind, this is my most outstanding memory of my passed colleague. Walking past his office and seeing him sitting side-by-side with a student, hovering over the same piece of paper and scribbles, I recognized that act as one that I admire most in this profession.

But… well, this is where I get stuck a little. If all of that leads to a B+ and a chiropractor’s license as the demonstrable evidence that I’m useful to society, well, then maybe the computers should take over. I’m not sure that this outcome is much better than what robots might be able to provide, at least in this day and age. Twenty years ago, when I started down this path, I wouldn’t have imagined this. But now I need to reconsider: What’s my real value?

Before anyone interrupts with, “Of course you’re valuable …” and subsequently provides subsequent pieces of evidence that this is the case, let me be clear. I do know that I’m more valuable than a robot. And I do think there’s more value in sitting side-by-side with a student than a grade or a license. And I do, often, resolve that I should focus more on that art of teaching and mentoring, just like in the good old days, whenever those were, committees and scholarship and service be damned. This would still be an asset to society and my salary would still a good investment of taxpayer and tuition dollars.

But it’s more complicated. Take, for example, the news releases that a few colleagues (those not deceased) have been lamenting of late, that university professors’ jobs were rankedleast stressful” of any career. Of course, that’s silly, and the study that created this ranking and the quotes attributed to it are laughable — as long as you understand what the job really entails. The “most stressful” jobs of this ranking are those in which there are fires, stray bullets, and lives in the balance. My job, certainly, does not generally entail these kinds of stresses. And, there aren’t those typical kinds of deadlines you might find in other places of employment. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; and that’s what makes the life of the academician stressful. You are given, as a friend described it eloquently, all the rope that you need to hang yourself with. There is so much freedom, but such high standards for employment, that the stress comes from the opposite direction. You are free to fail, and many do. People earn the highest degrees in their field and are some of the smartest people in the world, and yet they never make it through a probationary period. Best of all, the people that evaluate them and show them the door are their own colleagues. It’s unique and hard to understand, and that’s exactly why it’s so poorly understood. Take this along with long hours of grading and prep and committee meetings and whiny students and whiny administrators and other charms and you can imagine why academics get so bent out of shape about such rankings.

However, the rankings are right, in a way. Their metric doesn’t measure “stress” in the way that the academic would measure it, and that’s fine. The job requires an incredible amount of freedom, because we’re supposed to be improving the world in ways that have yet to be imagined, both through our own work and through the work of students. There’s a privilege and, with it, a responsibility.

This is where my head has been of late. Actually, it’s the lingering thought swimming in and out of my head, an atmosphere that pokes at the rest of my psyche. For some reason I still haven’t figured out, my concentration has been completely nil for weeks, months. Scraping by on assignments and tasks, I’ve made no inroads on projects. This will pass. I hope. It’s a matter of rebooting, reorganizing, getting a foothold on a few things. But it’s important, not just because it would help me feel a bit more sane, but because I don’t think I deserve to just give out some B+’s and help carve some tracks to a professional school. (Ah, shit; that reminds me that I have three letters of reference to write.) There should be more, and I know that I do some of these things that serve the professional and local communities, but I also have this list of things that I want to get done that just keeps getting added to.

I felt better to open an article this morning to read the words of the New York Times Sunday Magazine editor, who seemed to describe a parallel life. A good, stable, high profile job, but with a long list of ideas that he hasn’t made real. “Ideas … are overrated,” he reminds me. I know. They’re all floating around in my head, on scraps of paper, in task managers, within the commitments I have made to others and to myself. Now I just need to make good on them. So far on these tasks, over my career, if I’m generous, I give myself a B+.


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