On being a professor at a small college.

“Welcome to our fancy committee meeting at our famous institution, everyone. Where do we throw our money next?” – how I imagine the meetings go at research-1 universities

I have been at Saint Mary’s all of two years, but it took me about two weeks of being here to figure out that most of our faculty are quite talented, could move on to anywhere, and chose not to. They chose this place and these students. They’re not “stuck” at all.

That was the rumor. In grad school. That professors who never left the small place where they began either weren’t talented enough or somehow got too distracted. No professor I knew said that outright. (Okay, a few did.) Mostly the impression was given through career advice that included, “You’ll start off at a small place. Then you can move on.”

Meanwhile, at an actual small place, all kinds of perfectly skilled people didn’t want to move on. I’m sure our location in California helps, but if that were the only thing Saint Mary’s had going for it, we would have significantly more faculty transitions than we do.

I always wonder why.

My faculty elders feel a certain ownership of the place, have thrown in their lots with it. They complain about how certain things are not as good as the old days, and it warms me up inside because it means they care about being something specific. No one who doesn’t care tells stories of lament.

There is definitely a certain type of academic who finds their way to a place like this. Someone who cares in certain ways. Without realizing it, departments seem to select a kind of temperament: an academic willing to care passionately about students, a sociable and interactive sort, a scholar with genuine people skills (so rare!). Someone who doesn’t need a million things and accolades to be happy. Not that every professor is universally gifted at all those traits. I am profoundly shy, for example. It is simply that as a faculty, we’re far more articulate and friendly than many academics I’ve known. I wouldn’t go so far as to call us “cuddly”… But kind of, yes.

Or I’m projecting that onto us. I’m definitely a softy, and students definitely like to tackle me with hugs to watch me scowl and pretend I hate everything.

Students expect a certain degree of attention, interaction, and involvement from their professors. Unless the professor is willing to intimidate them away – some do, and I kind of admire them – students want a chance to write multiple drafts of a paper to feel prepared. They are significantly more willing to walk into an office and speak with their professor. They are accustomed to running into professors on campus – where is there to hide anyway? Indeed, so many faculty are willing to give the time that students assume it’s standard. They can be so aggravatingly entitled sometimes. Students who transfer in sometimes become resentful and assure the others that faculty are not nearly as available elsewhere.

You’ve got to have an ease with and affection for students if you want to survive at a place like this. They’re literally in our faces, bumping into us in hallways.

We have no freaking space. Our library is small. Faculty regularly share offices – including senior faculty. We have the one cafeteria, mildly expanded over time. It reminds me of Hogwarts by its size and age, the long tables and the old art. Somehow three thousand undergraduate students wander around our campus anyway.

The place is like a small town. It has all the strengths and weaknesses a small town has. Most people know most people, nobody much minds sharing except for when they don’t, and we have our own little internal language. Rumors abound swiftly and insanely. Once my students watched me give a paper in which I challenged a nun’s theology. That quickly became the time Professor Carpenter totally destroyed a nun. And I swear the next time a student tells me what all the other TRS 097 classes are doing, I’m failing that student. Maybe all of them.

“My friend, in her class they get to bring their Bibles to the exam. And notes.”

“That’s nice.”

“They have to memorize dates, though.”

“Hmm. Interesting, huh? How you don’t have to do that.”

We’re not the best at everything. As a college, I mean. Nobody can pretend we’re the most amazing ever and strut around like an idiot peacock, fancy and preening. But there’s sincere pride in a long history of excellent education, a long history of being very good against all kinds of odds. We typically punch above our weight, though unevenly. Pretty much everything in Performing Arts literally kicks the world’s ass right now. And I want to steal science’s best students into theology. Or at least borrow them for a minor, dammit.

We cost too much. Faculty have the heart to actively worry about it.

We discuss the classroom all the time. Faculty regularly trade successes and failure, everyone trying to figure out what the hell our students know and don’t know. Or why they do the things they do. We do all the grading, and I can never decide if I’m proud of that or if I want to burn everything and give everyone a B. Sometimes I wish I had a Teaching Assistant/Slave to do all that while I do something fancy and scholarly. Still, I like the blue collar academic chip on my shoulder that I get to carry around.

I doubt that at many places other than this I could be so open about struggling with mental illness, and still feel valued and safe. No one wants to drop me from the tenure line. My work for the college is very good, if I may say so myself, and while this is a community that can be as inhumanly academic as any other, for the most part it’s human too. They let me be imperfect and yet very good at my job. I also highly doubt that at many places I could lose my cool at a very, very important committee meeting in front of my own provost and live to tell the tale. And even be appreciated for it.

That still bewilders me.

Scholars can be vindictive and manipulative as hell. You have no idea. I’m telling you, you have no idea. It can be all Game of Thrones in the Academy. I don’t know why I haven’t been punished more for refusing to play the game. I suspect part of it is my damn soft and sincere affection for human beings. Somehow I get away with being pals with departments that have no love for each other. I also suspect it’s something about the place.

Sometimes I think I’m beginning to understand why people would care enough to stay. Why they’d freely accept a situation that will make scholarship harder.

I have a colleague who is downright paranoid about the possibility that some other college will snatch me away. He mutters about it to himself almost anytime we talk. I just smile. It’s not as if some places haven’t begun to test the waters with me. It would be tricky to acknowledge more than that. All I know so far is that I start to think, “But would I see Brother Charles ever again? And what about Paul? And would the students be as irreverent? And there’s Michael, and…”

And everything that isn’t things and accolades. Everything that makes a college real.

So I just smile.


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