Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Just average

As someone on the downside of the parabolic curve of male life expectancy in the United States, you would think that I have learned enough over time to make the mid-course life corrections necessary to make my remaining 29. 5 years on Earth better for everyone involved, including me. Funny, though, that a recent conversation I had with a friend who has about .3 less years left on his contract with Life about how 45 seems to be the age when you first start to feel like you're getting a handle on things came the day before I received my "merit letter" from the university assessing my "productivity" as a teacher, scholar and citizen. My friend and I were discussing how 20 or so years of trial and error in our personal and professional lives had put us in the position of making better decisions and approaching our work with greater care and skill.

Apparently not.

For the first time in my 19 year career of professing, writing, talking, listening . . . doing whatever it is that professors do, I am, in the view my university, an "average" teacher and a "below average" scholar. Don't get me wrong. I'm certainly not above being "below average" or even "poor" at something. As much as I used to like basketball when I was younger, I could never play it very well. I got cut from my 8th grade team and suffered through the indignity of being the "team manager" (waterboy is more accurate) for a season so I could hang out in the gym and work on my free throws. By the end of the season, I was an excellent free throw shooter. Problem was I was still pretty bad when I had to play against other people. In a scrimmage, in which I was allowed to participate, the coach encouraged me to drive the lane so I could get fouled and go to the free throw lane. This led to problem two . . . I usually had the ball stolen or turned it over before I could launch my 3" vertical jump. So 8th grade marked my retirement from basketball, which was okay because it allowed me more time to work on the other weaknesses in my academic and athletic lives . . . like math, getting a date to the occasional school dance, learning the trombone (really, three weeks of that ill-guided misadventure), experimenting with skin products in the hope that I could somehow make my acne go away and learning the drum part to "Long Distance Runaround," by Yes.

The result: failure, failure, failure, failure and success. A 20% success rate is very definition of failure, except, I think, in direct mail, where somewhere around a five or six percent return is considered quite good. Had I known that 30 some-odd years ago, rest assured that I would have used that argument to defend my incompetence as a basketball player and mathematician. On the other hand, NOT knowing those arguments most likely spared me from further humiliation.

That was then, and this is now. By 46, according to all the "motivation" and "self-help" books on the front table at Barnes and Noble, I should be in the prime of my professional life, earning lots and lots of money and accruing all the attendant benefits (plaques, special parking spots, employee-of-the-month designations, a wall full of grip-and-grin photos with very important people, and so on) that go with it. I can live quiet well, thank you, being bad at certain things. I don't consider the fact that I can't help my 9 1/2 year-old teenage daughter with her math homework a personal failure, just like I am unperturbed by my inability to "review" my son's science homework. Neither of my children is as good at me at, say, cleaning a toilet or getting the stains out of their favorite shirts. And, yes, my wife can fix the garbage disposal when it mysteriously "stops," whereas I can't. But don't ask her which aisle at Giant she can can find her favorite Caesar dressing because she doesn't know where any of our local grocery stores are -- even, or especially, the one next to the DSW in Bethesda.

So incompetence, sucking or simply plain failure is fine, as long as it's something you don't really care about or actually secretly believe that it's not you who is flailing away, but a conspiracy, headed by The Man, that's beating you down.

But to be "average" or "below average" at this point in my career is a tough nut to swallow, especially when, for the better part of my career, I've been "above average" and even, every now and then, "excellent." Just three years ago, I was the SPA Scholar-Teacher of the Year. That was, it now appears, the beginning of the end. A year later, I taught the five highest evaluated courses in SPA, yet earned a second quintile designation in my annual merit reivew. Translated, I was, at best, the ninth best teacher in SPA, even though my courses were the highest evaluated in the school. For the first time in my professional life, I asked my administrative superiors how that could be, since the be-all, end-all of "quality" teaching at our university is the three-minute drill on the last day or two of class when students fill out their evaluations. The answer I got was this: through a complex formula this committee or that committee came to its conclusion that you were not among our best teachers, even though the course evaluations said otherwise. So what happens a year later? I received a "first quintile" rating in my merit review, even though my teaching evaluations were not as good as the previous year when they were better than everybody else's. Now, because three or four students in one of my GenEd classes decided I was the anti-Christ, as opposed to the 28 or 9 who thought the class was very good to excellent, the free-fall continues.

An average teacher. Can't I just flat-out suck or be the best one ever? At least, that way, your students will remember you. Now, I've turned into one of those dreaded, "I have some guy for civil liberties but I can't remember his name," or "I don't really remember much about that class from last semester . . . it was just . . . AVERAGE." Think about it: can you name the number 3 or 4 starters on the Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros or Minnesota Twins without looking? Me? I'd rather be the number 1 starter for the Tampa Bay Rays (the best team in baseball) or the number 5 starter for the Atlanta Braves (who just flat-out stink) than just get lost in the shuffle. They say unchartered waters are always the choppiest, something, having never sailed or taken a boat ride beyond a whale watching expedition in Nova Scotia four years ago, I'll just have to accept as true, since I'm not much of a boatsman.

Getting inside my head, it doesn't get any better, because, apparently, there isn't much there. Universities -- not just this one -- evaluate the scholarly achievements of their faculty based what they've published over the previous year and where they've published it. I got a little credit, I suppose, for having a co-edited book still "count" because it was published within the last three years. But the book before that was published in 2004, again co-edited, so that doesn't count anymore, although it still sells and is used in undergraduate and graduate level classes, and was sufficiently well-received to merit a new, second edition. The two-volume textbook I published in 2001 and 2002 doesn't count either, even though, again some teachers still use it, even though I've told them it's going out of print. The publisher I worked with dispensed with its conlaw list several years ago and cut my book loose. And while I have had offers from other publishers to move the book and relaunch it, I decided against it because there are plenty of good conlaw books out there and no one would stand to benefit from another one. And, as strange as this might sound, I've already done that, so I wouldn't really get anything out of doing it again. I now have new book underway about jazz, civil rights and the American South after World War II that I am really excited about doing. But . . . that's a multi-year project that won't see the light of day until 2011 or 12. So, until then, I will remain unproductive and below average, even though I am working on a project that a number of people find interesting and creative. None of them, though, is a political scientist, who tend to treat the seriousness of an idea based on whether your "findings" (more research is needed, we can't be sure about what we know, this is just a preliminary finding, etc., blah-blah) are published in a peer-reviewed journal with a circulation of about 382, about six of whom actually open the journal and maybe one of whom actually reads the article beyond the index to see if their name was mentioned in the research bibliography, than for what it has to say. Even though every book I've written, edited or co-edited has been peer reviewed, arguably more rigorously than any article I wrote when I used to publish in journals (34 reviewers on my conlaw book alone), that work isn't considered "peer-reviewed" because it is not considered serious or scholarly.

Or, as professional academics like to say, work like this "doesn't count." So . . . books used in college classes that are written and edited by scholars who were recruited to do these projects because they proposed an interesting way of thinking about something aren't really serious, even though we like to tell our students to take the work we do in class seriously. You are better off designing a complex statistical model that, for example, "explains" the relationship between where a Supreme Justice went to pre-school and the likelihood that he or she will favor criminal defendants in cases involving warrantless trunk searches than developing materials that undergraduates can use to stimulate their interests or learn something they didn't know. This, despite the reality that nothing really explains anything else.

Make sense? Good.

So, as the school year gets underway, I would like to apologize to all my students in advance, including the ones I wouldn't overload into my classes, for the completely forgettable experience you are about to have this semester. You are being taught by an average teacher with below average scholarly credentials who apparently, despite being on several committees and sponsoring several student clubs, doesn't care about the university (bottom quintile) that continues, against all better judgment, to employ him.


1 comment:

Vanessa said...

When we read this post, my somewhat conservative friend, who you grilled mercilessly (as you grilled us all), had this to say. He'd sign it himself but he works for AU and is worried they would fire him if they read it.

I don't really care what AU has to say, because they have no claim to me and already don't care about anything I worked for while I was there, so I post on his behalf. We know that you don't really care whether people rush to your defense, but we couldn't help ourselves:

Dear SPA,

Maybe if you were more concerned with whether or not your students were learning and less so with whether or not they paid the most recent installment on their tuition you would know that Professor Ivers is much more than an average Professor. He, unlike many of his colleagues working as professors in the School of Public Affairs, actually encourages his students to think through what they say and believe; not simply regurgitate some fact they highlighted in the over-priced text book they only read because they know the material covered will be on an exam or quiz. He neither hides his personal beliefs nor wastes time side stepping issues because, again unlike some of his colleagues, his own personal opinions do not outweigh the merits of student’s well articulated thoughts.

In fact, the reason I can write a letter such as this one, which I believe to be a relatively well constructed criticism of your recent description of Professor Ivers as “average” is because professors like Dr. Ivers demand a higher standard of work than the truly average "just assign them a book to read" asinine adjuncts you parade through the building as connected DC faculty.

Please enjoy cramming the $160,000 I spent at your university firmly up your ass.

Sincerely, X

I agree... except I was on full scholarship, so I guess they'll have to cram something else.

Hope all is well.