While I was waiting for the cable guy to arrive, I was thinking about the question posed by several people last week: why is quitting is such a big deal in academia when it’s an expected happening in most other workplaces?
I came up with two reasons for the anti-quit mentality. The first is some people’s belief that academia is the world’s only genuine, functioning meritocracy. Therefore, since it selects only those who deserve to stay, leaving means you didn’t deserve to be there in the first place. Yeah, okay, let me just finish LMFAO. Sure, you have to work hard to get ahead, but you can work hard and still end up with a subpar job in a location you’ve never heard of. Or no job at all. At this point it’s just oversupply, plain and simple.
Then there’s the related but more insidious ‘vocation’ argument, viz. that academia is a calling not a job. This was the basis of most of my graduate education. Worse yet, ‘teaching is a vocation’ is a comment I see repeated over and over and over again in online forums and articles on education. Great, so we’re basically going to limit educators to those who are divinely inspired?
This idea needs to be taken out back and shot. Right now. Here’s why:
In the first place, ‘vocation’ is a sentimental ideal that has no place in real-life job requirements. Look, I get it. Every parent wants to think they’re putting their kid in the hands of someone who’s special, who really cares, who’s not just doing this for the money. Sorry, but that ain’t gonna happen. Asking for only vocation-minded employees is like asking for only A+ students; the numbers simply don’t exist. And for my money I’d rather train enough B-grade professionals — and compensate them adequately — than count on the ‘vocation’ requirement to weed out the unworthy, which seems to be the idea right now: ‘Hey, if we don’t pay people enough, only those who really care will get into the field!’ Do people think that works? Have you read about those priests? Yet there are many competent souls who will do right for the money — if it’s enough money.
Yes, money is rather important in this scheme. I don’t know if anyone has noticed this, but many people come their true vocation later in life, after they’ve made sure they’re not going to starve. Penelope Trunk says you should never make what you love into your job, as it guarantees you’ll be underpaid for it. Even entrepreneurs who advocate doing what you love are careful to add that the goal is still to make money. But I still remember the outrage one of my professors expressed when someone asked him how much a professor would make — a reasonable question, to my mind, but ‘It’s not about the money,’ sniffed said professor.
Here’s another problem: calling something a vocation means it can’t be learned, you either have The Gift or you don’t. And I have heard countless teachers make this argument — teachers, claiming that teaching can’t be taught. Given that the whole idea of teaching is imparting a skill that did not exist previously, I’m not sure I think those teachers should be giving advice.
Finally, the ‘vocation’ argument imbues the profession of teaching with that annoying religious veneer that I so despise. Chastity and humility aren’t enough, now we’re writing vows of poverty — doing it for the money means you must be a bad teacher. Where’s that gotten us? To a place where teachers are more or less expected to buy supplies for their own classrooms, because (I guess) they’re so unconcerned about money they’ll bankrupt themselves for their students. This is not okay.
Yet many teachers are still buying into the idea that good teachers, real teachers, can’t possibly be concerned about money.
(Come to think of it, the most stalwart ‘vocation’ defenders always seem to be pretty well off. They have a spouse with a robust second income, or a trust fund, or they got into the game long before the pay started falling below inflation. I think it’s much easier to throw around words like ‘vocation’ when you’re financially comfortable.)
Okay, fine, you can tell people it’s not about the money, but I’m still going to tell people it is. I’ll keep agitating for employers to pay teachers more, because it’s a damned hard job and a skilled profession that deserves more money than it currently gets. More radically, I tell students to think very hard before going into education because, do-gooder reasons be damned, if you’re not careful it can be financially disempowering field that will destroy your psyche.
On one of my last days in Nashville, a former student told me I had a ‘real knack for teaching.’ I wondered if a knack was the same as a calling, but since I was determined to get out I decided this couldn’t be true. Also, I’d had this student after the rather steep learning curve that happened in the first year of teaching — I’d learned how to teach, you see.
I don’t believe teaching is a vocation. I believe it’s vocational, as in something you can train people to do. As in something you could treat as a means to make money, and actively sell as a lucrative career to talented individuals. And something that you’d damn well better train people to do well, because if you count only on people being born to do it and wiling to accept lousy pay for it, you’re going to get what you pay for.
I won’t claim I was the world’s best teacher — I certainly knew how to minimize my teaching workload to make sure my research time was protected — but I was pretty good. In the end, though, I figured this out: a) I could get paid roughly the same amount for a job that didn’t require managing 50+ students and have another 1.5 jobs built in (profs are technically paid for teaching, but also have research + service); or b) I could get paid a helluva lot more if I chose to pursue management qua management, instead of being a manager cloaked with a title that suggests holy orders. And, not being a martyr, I decided I wanted a comfortable life, both in terms of finances and stress — because that, if anything, seems to be my vocation.