I’m Professional Where It Doesn’t Count

I just got an email from a “concerned” mansplainer, chiding me for my tone and commending the Tone Police. He (of COURSE it’s a he!) is certainly welcome to his opinion, as is the smattering of individuals who have, in the past eight months, chided me for being “unpfrofessional,” as if I give a fuck about the rules of a “profession” that wants nothing to do with me. But thinking about my horrible, unacceptable unprofessionalism–and participating in some hilarious Twitter conversations about bad conference-paper-giving behavior–has reminded me of something.

The only–and I mean only–thing about me that’s unprofessional is my conscious, measured decision to speak about ‘the Profession’ in a blunt, uncensored fashion. That’s it. Literally everything else that I do, both in what is left of my academic life and my post-academic life, would be considered the height of professionalism, if it weren’t actually more “professional” in the Profession to act unprofessional. Wait, what? Here’s what I mean.

  1. I have never, and I mean never, missed a deadline in my life. Every single piece of writing I have ever submitted to anyone, from the stupidest unpaid column for The L Magazine in 2003 to my academic monograph, has been submitted on time, and by “on time” I mean the actual deadline requested by the editor, no exceptions. Yes, this includes graduate school, during which I never, ever, ever took a single incomplete, and was aghast that it was the norm in other departments (and I was even looked down on for my department not issuing them regularly!). On the very rare occasions I’ve needed an extension (like when my boyfriend dumped me on the same day my column was due in 2005), I’ve asked for one in advance, and then filed punctually thereafter. When I submitted my paper to the moderator of my first panel at the German Studies Association in 2009, three weeks to the day before the conference, as stated in the bylaws, I was laughed at. Classic grad student noob move there, Schuman. Don’t you know that Real Academics treat deadlines like flaccid, laughable “suggestions”? Most academics I know are 100% comfortable making the entire staff of the journal or book publisher re-arrange their entire lives to wait on tenterhooks for their stupid work to come in whenever the fuck the Academic Muse allows it. This behavior is the height of unprofessionalism, and yet it is de rigeur in academe, and the fact that I never participated in it once actually made me an outsider.
  2. The person I sleep with is not, and never has been, one of my students. You know what’s unprofessional? Schtupping people you grade. You know who does this anyway, all the fucking time? People who have, I am 100% sure, called me “unprofessional” in the past eight months.
  3. When I was lucky enough to have my own office, I kept it neat and clean. Oh, but Real Academics are too busy using their big, smart brains not to have their office look like something on Hoarders.
  4. I actually worked in my office and was seen around campus at times I wasn’t teaching. Real professors in The Profession abscond the second their five-person seminar is over, not to be seen again for another week. That’s what cracks me up about the insanity of academic hiring–“Oh, but we’re going to be in close contact with these people for FORTY YEARS.” You will not. You’ll see these people once a month at meetings you make difficult on purpose. Speaking of which…
  5. I am on time to meetings and never, ever, ever make trouble in them. There is an unofficial rule in higher ed that if you show up to a meeting early, you’re not spending enough time working–and yet, there’s another unofficial rule that if you don’t bring up some inane personal vendetta that stretches the meeting an hour longer than it should be you’re ALSO using your time wrong.
  6. I write my conference papers well in advance of the conference, practice them ahead of time (with a timer!), and edit and cut them until they are both suitably interactive and suitable in length. I cannot count the times I’ve seen an MLA paper where the writer said, “I wrote this on the plane,” or went on for 20 minutes (of a 20 minute paper!) and then said, “In this paper, I will argue…” And most moderators don’t have the balls to call time on anyone, so it cuts into the next schmuck’s time, and yet the person droning on doesn’t give a fuck, because THOSE SENTENCES ARE PRECIOUS. The result is that your average MLA paper is utterly incomprehensible to anyone, including the person reading it, and way too long at that. And I did this for my papers when I was a graduate student finishing a dissertation, when I was an adjunct writing on my own time and dime, and when I was an incredibly harried VAP with new courses and other publication deadlines (all of which I also met). And yet, if you come to a conference and deliver a well-rehearsed presentation, your audience will immediately dismiss you as an amateur. It’s “unprofessional,” again, to be professional.
  7. I beckon students to my office hours on purpose and thus have a constant stream of them in there. Many “real” academics I know, unless they’re advising (which, by the way, how’d they get stuck doing THAT? What a waste!), hold their office hours on Friday at 8 a.m. with the express purpose of never seeing a student out of class once.
  8. When I was given a Fulbright grant to write my dissertation in Austria, I wrote 100 pages of my fucking dissertation. When I was given a dissertation completion grant the year after that, I fucking finished it. I cannot count the number of people I know who used their years and semesters off to do literally anything but produce work whatsoever–and still felt entitled to their money. And a bunch of them have tenure-track jobs now.

So make no mistake: I’m professional. I’m professional as fuck. Just not where it counts.

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47 thoughts on “I’m Professional Where It Doesn’t Count

  1. Amen. The conference presentation thing is the bane of my existence. Who thinks it’s fine to get up in front of a crowd of people and waste their time? If you are going to monopolize a big group of people’s time, make sure you have something to say–preferably something intelligible and interesting. The being on-time for every meeting and having my time wasted while waiting for everyone to roll on never fails to irk me as well. I just can’t bring myself to come late like everyone else. It’s so unprofessional.

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  2. Well said. Also, for what it’s worth, it’s pretty darn tough to be professional about a profession that’s so infuriating. It’s as if the folks who were ever in the shoes of early career people have completely forgotten what it’s like to be on the bottom of the food chain. Except when those guys (and it was mostly guys) were on the bottom of the food chain, it was jobs jobs jobs for days. Now, it’s crowded crazytown for new PhDs and folks wonder why we rant like maniacs as if that’s how we would always conduct ourselves. Great post.

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  3. Total takeaway point: it *always* matters to hit deadlines. If you can’t hit the deadline, call up and say so: I also think that is cool, within reason. But most people who are late don’t — they just go incommunicado. There is nothing more maddening than having to chase down someone who has opted to completely disappear so that you don’t know whether you will get their work or not. Part of why people hate academic publishing is because it takes so long. Why does it take so long? Because half the people who are involved in any given project (not the copyeditors or the production people mind you) don’t do what they are supposed to do, and because the editors have to build in gargantuan lead times to account for that.

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    1. YES. LOOK EVERYONE, it’s one of the 85% of The Things in the World Claire Potter and I agree about because soon we will be friends!

      My first job after college was as an Editorial Assistant at St. Martin’s Press. I know academic publishers run a smaller operation, but there is still a staff–production, editorial, art, publicity, marketing, etc. Every time a writer misses a deadline, it screws all those people.

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      1. Rebecca and Claire, about working in the office: do you have windows that open, or air conditioning, or heating? We do not, by and large, although a-c and heating are turned on in classrooms when students are present (4.5 days per week, 8-5) and it seeps to offices, depending on how well the ductwork reaches you. We also do all painting, repair, and cleaning of own offices — janitorial work stops at the door. What does the administration say about this? That we are expected to work at home. This is not that great for people who cannot afford a home office and have other people living in their houses, no.

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      2. My current office, which I share with two other people, has visibly peeling lead paint, erratic temperatures, and a computer that runs Windows XP. I still work in it on the days I’m allowed to use it. But my post wasn’t talking about institutions that provide bad spaces. I’m talking about Ohio State, where we worked in a palace that had its own Starbucks, and people still absconded the second they weren’t teaching anymore.

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      3. University of Oregon-Eugene is the place I’ve worked where faculty was the most absent outside of class. And offices are nice in Friendly Hall. Is it that unusual to have an office computer running XP? It is what we have at my place.

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      4. Yes, XP is eight years old. It’s unconscionable. I’ve heard awful things about the Dept. at the UO, and that’s from an instructor there. That’s my home town; I know Friendly Hall well.

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    2. I’ve missed tons of them, and gone incommunicado, because of not knowing what to say. It is one thing to have something come up and need another 24 hours. It is quite another to have a much more complicated situation and to know that what you need to say is not what anyone allegedly sensible would tell you you could.

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      1. As someone who works with a lot of editors (I do proofreading and copy editing as part of my living, plus I do oral histories with Chicana editors) I can help you. First, make the call. Apologize. You clearly feel bad so that will come easily. Then set another deadline, one you’re confident you can keep. When they agree to it (they likely will unless there’s some reason they desperately need it sooner), thank them. Put keeping that new deadline on top of your priority list.

        I swear, if you do this, editors will forgive you. What’s terrible is the amount of time wasted trying to track someone down.

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      2. No, Annemarie: that only works if you actually are interested in the project and believe in it, and you have a clear enough situation such that you can make a realistic deadline and stick to it. In the period I am discussing (years ago), I did what you suggest more times than I can count, knowing it was the “correct” thing to do and what I should be able to do. The real answer was: look, I don’t believe in this project, am not interested in this project, do not know when I can realistically do this or any project, I need to back out. If I had had the Internet in those days, someone would have told me this earlier on, I fantasize. But it took me 7 years to partially understand. This is what happens if you are socialized to function like a publishing machine.

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  4. Side note: I was also like that before I got onto the tenure track and suffered the kind of disabling abuse one suffers THERE. (And which is the reason why the TR is against the tenure system … which I am still not, I am against the corporatization and administrative bloat.)

    But, main comment: yes, great post, very good points.

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    1. Good point (above). Yes, knowing how and when to back out of projects is a definite skill. I’m currently working on how to say “no.” To be honest, I’m still so pleased to be asked to do stuff I find it hard to refuse work. But that’s got to start happening soon.

      Rebecca: yes, I think we all need variations on the DON’T HIDE speech. It’s a way we can connect with our students.

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      1. Yes — and this is one of my complaints about the way graduate students are raised, to never say no. Don’t hide sppech, yes.

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  5. At fear of my own life, I have to ask: Why “of COURSE it’s a he” ? Is chiding exclusively a male thing? Oh, one other thing…why be professional since it really isn’t a profession? (I completely agree with you on that as well as many other things).

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  6. You are 100% sure that people who have called you unprofessional in the past eight months have sex with their students “all the fucking time”?

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    1. I am 100% sure that at least one person who has called me “unprofessional” or some permutation thereof in the past eight months has had sex with a student at some point, yes. Given that many senior male academics are married to people who used to be their graduate students, this is not a huge stretch.

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      1. Ah. I thought you were saying it was something that was characteristic or to be associated with people who disagree with you. “All the fucking time” threw me. My mistake. (And yes shtupping your students is disgusting, wrong, and unprofessional.)

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  7. ” Given that many senior male academics are married to people who used to be their graduate students, this is not a huge stretch.”

    – I have always found this phenomenon to be extremely disturbing.

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    1. Me too, and luckily, so did my former adviser. But the “eminent scholar” at my former employer had a wife who was a former grad student; several of the muckety mucks who write me good readers’ reports do too.

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      1. Those are really amazing readers’ reports, by the way. I almost cried when I read them because the appalling stupidity of people who are destroying Germanic Studies (as well as French, Italian, Slavic Studies, etc.) in this country just slaughters me.

        I’m sure you will be very happy and successful away from this field but the field will not be happy or successful without you and other talented scholars.

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  8. As far as mansplaining, see Rebecca Solnit’s piece “Men explain things to me.” As for sabbaticals, etc., one former coworker of mine read 28 self-help books and put the titles in her sabbatical report; another remodeled her kitchen; a third (in her fifties) picked up men in bars in Venice for the best sabbatical project ever, “Fucking Strange Men.” No publications from any of them resulting from the sabbaticals.

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    1. In regard to that (the sabbatical thing), life does happen and people are not robots. Lots of people are so burned out (and so deep in sleep debt) by the time they get to the damn sabbatical that it takes 2-3 months to recover the full use of their brains and/or enter the library without having a panic attack. (One reason why so many people try to leave campus/town altogether when they’re lucky enough to get a sabbatical.) Others unexpectedly get pregnant, or fall in love, or get divorced, or get sick, or lose a loved one to cancer, or…..

      On the “leaving campus when nothing is actually on the calendar” point, lots of academics are introverts (and enter academia precisely because their introversion makes them successful academically, since they aren’t attending a lot of parties) and reach an overload point after a few hours of teaching/meetings/advising/office hours where they need to flee campus because they can’t handle the thought of interacting with a single more person. These people are not “unprofessional,” in fact they’ve wisely taken one of the few jobs where this personality type can actually thrive.and even make a real contribution.

      Others who are not introverts (I’m not, myself) find that if they sit in heir offices all day they can’t get any real work done (and thus are doomed to miss deadlines) because they are sitting ducks for any question that suddenly occurs to anyone who might think they can answer it. I have to actively avoid my office on non-teaching days because if I set foot there the dept. administrator will immediately importune me to help fix her computer, explain the menus in MS Word, opine as to what she should do about a certain email, answer questions that are actually the province of the department chair and which I don’t have the information to answer without extensive research, or listen to lengthy and excruciatingly detailed narratives concerning the health problems and other issues currently being experienced by her cats. As a human being, I OF COURSE always listen/help/etc. with a smile (or whatever facial expression seems most appropriate), but if I want to get any work done myself, it HAS to be elsewhere. Sorry I wasn’t in my office when you randomly stopped by outside of my listed office hours, but I had professional obligations to met so I decamped to a secure undisclosed location….

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      1. In 25 years I have had 2 sabbaticals, both when major cuts to the state education system were announced. I spent the first on the job market, like most of my then university; had an offer from UCLA that lasted 24 hours until *they* got a hiring freeze before contract was signed, other interviews at similar places, busy. I only got 1 article out; actually 2 but 1 was rejected and still does not have a home, it is somewhat controversial.

        Second sabbatical was on reduced salary. I had saved to be away but a hurricane came and repairs to house ate up my travel money. Stayed home and read and could hardly afford gas to get to research libraries, I was so broke. Got a series of bullying phone calls from new asst. prof., saying my sabbatical was ruining his life since I was not there to defend his (crazy) proposals in meetings, which it was my job to do according to him. He had made friends with my ex, the stalker against whom I had had to take out a restraining order, and found out what words to say to scare me the most. I read a lot and gave some conference papers, but was too stressed-out to write.

        I remember my father’s first sabbatical. We the kids had a bunch of diseases, my mother had two serious health problems, he had major accident that I think was stress related due to caring for my mother. And, in those pre internet days, a book came out that was substantially his sabbatical project; someone else had the idea.

        It would be nice if my office were a comfortable place to work, but it isn’t. I can do some things in there at some hours, and do mechanical things like update the departmental website, do bibliography, etc. It is only possible to read and write, anything that takes sustained concentration, when the building is quieter than it usually is.

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  9. I’m the same about being in my office. I work better at home, and am not around when I do not have scheduled office hours, nor meetings, nor classes. Of course, I have some real jackass colleagues with whom I do not care to make hallway talk, much less expect to have useful/meaningful/reasonable disciplinary discussion. I make it very clear to students that I will meet them anytime outside of office hours, just about anywhere on or near campus. AND, as far as sabbatical, my understanding is that it once was meant to be a legit break for hard working had-put-in-their-time scholar/teachers to decompress and recalibrate, not the scholarly production business it is expected to be these days; I’m all for more time off for everyone, all around. Some European countries have this exactly right.

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    1. Yeah, and some non-profit jobs still have THAT kind of sabbatical — the “Take 2 months off and travel or whatever it takes to decompress and blow away the cobwebs and let your brain resume its original shape!” kind — built in. I think it’s recognized in many spheres that the “mental health break” involved in such time away pays dividends in productivity and creativity over the long term.

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  10. I’m reminded of Neil Gaiman’s comment to the effect that to be a successful writer/artist/creator you need to do at least two of these three things: 1. Do amazing work. 2. Do everything on time. 3. Be genuinely nice to work with.

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  11. Man, now I feel even more guilty for missing my first deadline ever this week. Trying to tell myself that it’s better to give the book I am reviewing a thoughtful and considered treatment, but I know I should have given it that treatment before moving to a new house last week.

    Sometime I should try to calculate how many minutes of my life I’ve lost to unprepared or overlong conference papers. I still remember the time I moderated a panel when one of the presenters never gave me his paper, and then when he showed up just talked out of his ass for twenty minutes. He obviously never wrote a single word. When the session was done he high-tailed it out of there while I shot him daggers. Oh yeah, this guy also had the most prestigious university affiliation of anyone in the room, so I guess he thought we weren’t worthy of an actual paper.

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  12. I’m always boggled by conference presentations read in a drone from a piece of paper. Look, just let me read it in print if your sentences are so precious. Otherwise, why don’t you use your presentation skills to get and keep our attention by speaking directly to your audience, maybe using a little audiovisual if appropriate, and keep us awake? I shudder to think what these presenters are like in the classroom. Oh right, teaching is not what “real” academics try to be good at. Wait, what is it that “real” academics do well? If they can’t be bothered to present or teach well, they’re supposed to write well. Right? Uh…..whoops! Sorry, I agree with Rebecca that much of the vaunted professionalism of many professors is just hot air.

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    1. I had a department chair call me unprofessional in writing because I said to a student, exasperated: “Look, this is college, not high school. And even in high school, a good test takes a sample of what you know, rather than ask you to recite your total knowledge of a subject.” Unprofessional to imply the said student was not working or thinking at the college level.

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    2. Me too. I’m not in an MLA field, and our conference presentations consist of a 10-15 minute presentation, usually using PowerPoint. That doesn’t mean that some people don’t do it on the plane (in fact, I wager a good 45% of them are done on the plane, with another 30% done in the week before the conference) – but I’m betting it’s easier to put 15 slides together on the plane than write a 15-page paper.

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    3. It’s too bad we can’t hire some of those MOOC actors to read the profs’ conference papers. Who cares if the research is original and exciting in and of itself — their job is to keep me awake, right? I feel sorry for the students, too. Wow, fifty minutes of their day without info-tainment. Shuddering!

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      1. I don’t believe anyone here is advocating putting on info-tainment instead of a conference paper, or a class. I have written entire columns about that, actually, and one of my favorite grad school profs was debilitatingly boring. What I am talking about are papers that have no recognizable thesis,poor organization, strange rabbit trails, etc, because they were written on the plane or in the hotel the night before. There is no such thing as “original and exciting” research that’s been slapped together in five hours, and to foist that upon other people with no respect for their time is the height of unprofessionalism.

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      2. Suggesting that academics make an effort to keep audience attention is not the same as advocating for “infotainment.” Presentations are different from essays. Why do so many academics insist on writing conference papers in a style more suited to reading on the page? Developing strong speaking skills includes considering the differences between presenting ideas orally and on paper. Personally, I would never read from a page, ever, but I do write out my entire conference paper, highlight key phrases, and then present it extemporaneously, making eye contact with my audience, having rehearsed and timed it repeatedly. Preparation, as Rebecca points out, is the key element here; and I am only adding that consideration of format and audience is important too. Like making deadlines and meeting times, speaking well to an audience seems to be another one of those standards many academics don’t feel like they have to meet. Sigh.

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  13. re: the last couple sentences of #6: as a freshly-minted PhD I got shortlisted for an insanely competitive faculty job at my dream R1 and flown out to campus for a finalist interview. Naturally I wasn’t going to squander that kind of chance if I could help it, and I spend days crafting a beautiful research talk (that has since garnered uniformly top-notch comments), timed and prepped it carefully, and knocked the thing out of the park during my campus visit.

    I was then rejected (in favor of a breathtakingly-less-qualified person with a slightly shinier pedigree) and told by one of the committee members that they thought my research talk was “too polished”.

    It is a sign of just how thoroughly I had been indoctrinated into “the right kind of professionalism” that I did not throw something at that man. WTAF.

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  14. 6. I HATE WHEN PEOPLE GO OVER TIME. I hate it so much. I was at a conference recently, and this (unsavory adjective) grad student droned on and on about what I can only assume was their dissertation for FOURTY MINUTES. This was the last presentation before lunch, and after 25 mins of lit review, I yelled, “FUCK YOU” in my head and left. I checked back and they were STILL TALKING at 40 mins in. And not even on to the Q&A portion. An aside: this person won some award for Most Awesome Abstract and their little grad school chums whooped and hollered for this person at the plenary in which that was announced.

    2. I am totally grossed out that this is A Thing. I was totally grossed out to learn of this in my own department, and hoped it wasn’t A Thing but just character flaws of the people involved. But no, it appears that it’s A Thing, and now I want to vomit.

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