THE OLD GUARD

A hypothetical scenario for a college professor.

Bob is a graduate student. One semester he gets seriously depressed and misses several weeks of class. For reasons beyond anyone's comprehension, I, the professor, cannot simply talk to Bob and come to an agreement about how to handle the work he missed and his grade. The obvious choice would be to give him a grade of Incomplete and require him to make up the work later, but I determine that the course is just too important and he has fallen irredeemably behind his cohort – which means he should be withdrawn from the class and required to take it again. Instead I decide to email the entire cohort of graduate students to poll them on what should be done with Bob. I say, "One of your classmates has depression and missed a bunch of class. Should I give him an A, B, or C? Should he get the grade he had at the time he stopped attending? Should he be given zeroes for his missed grades and given a final grade accordingly? Help me out here!"

Look at that story. It's like a game: circle all of the things that are illegal, against university policy, or just plain inappropriate. I revealed personal information about one of the students to his classmates, information that is likely to embarrass him. Of course they all know who has been absent, so efforts to "anonymize" the situation are silly at best. I decided to poll students about a grading decision that I should make based on established university policy – after all, it is not likely that this is the first time as student has ever missed classes for personal reasons.

The only thing that could make this more inappropriate – with the potential exception of the phrase "One of your classmates has a burning chancre on his penis" – would be for the professor to discuss the details of this situation with the whole grad cohort in class. With Bob in the room.

While this is not the most realistic hypothetical, if you replace "depression" with "pregnant" and "Bob" with a female this is essentially what happened in a graduate program at UC-Davis. A pregnant female student had her personal situation and grade opened up for discussion by a male professor who, despite being fully tenured and with many years of experience, has apparently never had a pregnant woman in his class. Or perhaps even met one.

There are several problems here, not the least of which is an ancient, tenured asshole who probably longs for the days when a male professor could tell female students "This is a man's field. Go study anthropology" without consequences and with the unanimous approval of his colleagues. The bigger problem is the extent to which academics (and other people in highly competitive fields in the non-academic world) are not-so-subtly dissuaded from having any sort of life outside of academia. While I'm sure that many departments are good about the issue, female graduate students are usually informed in indirect but certain terms that having a baby in grad school – heck, any time before tenure! – is not a good idea. It is an inconvenience during grad school and a burden on the job market. After all, who wants to hire a woman who will constantly be taking breaks to breastfeed and leaving at 5:00 to spend time with her children? That's valuable research time! (Male academics who have children, on the other hand, are simply expected to ignore them. Mommy can take care of them. You can stay in the office.)

Academia expects us to have no life whatsoever outside of the campus, although professions like teaching, law, medicine, and nursing (to name a few) are similarly difficult on people during the typical marriage-and-kids years of one's life. That the professor's actions here were inappropriate and probably illegal goes without saying. That graduate programs and attitudes toward young faculty try to shame and punish people who dare to, you know, have a child before it's biologically too late is more disturbing. The message is clear: your job is the most important thing in your life and everything is secondary to the demands of your employer. You know this is wrong and that you should prioritize your family and life over your job. That said, the fact that employees in this country have no power whatsoever (especially in a lousy job market) has a strange tendency to subsume any holistic sense of self-interest and promote one that is defined solely as the need to do whatever is necessary to keep one's job.

Sure, universities could push back against these pressures in our society…but given that the upper tiers of the profession are composed of people who were educated in the 1960s Old Boys' Clubs there is little interest in doing so. Have fun working at Borders after we deny your tenure, Missy. Hope those kids were worth it!

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32 Responses to “THE OLD GUARD”

  1. anns Says:

    My immediate reaction to hearing this was "holy crap, that sounds illegal" and "i'm glad that's not representative of female experience anymore".

    I will also say that I think the single best possible policy initiative we could do in terms of redistribution is free, safe, educational daycare for everyone. Preferably with dental and vision and on-site healthcare and food.

    However, this recalls for me the little tug of war I had internally when reading this excellent book: http://www.amazon.com/Moral-Underground-Ordinary-Americans-ebook/dp/B003N63PMS/

    It's about how various ordinary Americans break the rules to help people they're supposed to be victimizing as the agents on the ground of unrestrained capitalism. And one of the themes in the book is that the response of people to the stories of hardship in the book is frequently "well, why did the stupid c-word have the kids, then?" A response the author thinks is horrible and disgusting.
    On the one hand, yes. On the other hand, um: No. If you are in a situation where having children is unwise or unworkable, then don't freaking have children. You don't have to. We don't need them. Don't act like you didn't make a completely voluntary (assuming you weren't going to get an abortion but were foiled by evil righties) choice. Don't act like having children you can't take care of isn't a crime against them. It's not a tragedy if you don't have kids, ever. It's a tragedy if other human beings have to suffer because you made a selfish choice; the fact that you supposedly love them and wish you could do better does not alter or excuse this.

    And, in this case, how the hell is it a good idea to have a kid in a situation where you have no time and likely no money? Not nice.

    So, yeah, I actually do think that when women are in a situation where they shouldn't have kids… don't. hello.

    And on that subject: http://www.amazon.com/Get-Work-Life-Before-ebook/dp/B000OVLIMO Ladies, quit with the attempts at juggling baby and dreams. Just learn to love the mountains of disposable income and awesome free time. hey, you hear that? it's the sound of no one whining at me.

  2. HoosierPoli Says:

    Tenure just means you can't be fired without cause. In other news, there's a tenure-track position open at UC-Davis. Start polishing that CV!

  3. Jeff C. Says:

    I’m floored by the stupidity (and there is lots!) of the comments on Isis’ original post– especially from supposed Davis students. It seems to me that the public has powerful reasons to squash discrimination wherever it may surface. So, contrary to the claims of alleged students that this incident should have remained concealed from outsiders, the broader community has a vested interest in ensuring appropriate remedy.( Where the hell do people pick up the monstrously stupid idea that social issues are private matters?)

    It may well be the case that Dr. Feldman is fair and balanced on most occasions, but that is not evidenced by the known facts surrounding this particular incident. For that matter, exonerating him should be a remarkably simple and straight-forward affair: make the full context and details surrounding the incident known. Instead the response is to circle the wagons, bash the whistleblowers, and insist, without argument and evidence, that no discrimination has taken place.

    Brilliant.

  4. Monkey Business Says:

    Once upon a time, I worked in the corporate office of Major National Retailer With Lots of Name Recognition But Poor Industry Performance (Major National Retailer for short). They did semi-annual reviews, in which one was a "progress report" and the other an actual review.

    At my progress report, I was told in no uncertain terms I was not working enough. Not that my output was unsatisfactory or or anything like that, but that I was not spending enough time in the office. I responded that I was the first person in the office at approximately 7am, I took shorter lunches than literally everyone on the team, the director included, and regularly declined invitations to both the morning and afternoon "team breaks" which could take up to a half hour each. I was living in Major US City at the time, I would leave around 4-5pm, but stayed until 6 when necessary. Simply put, if I was spending less time in the office than the rest of the team, it's because I wasn't spending my time dicking around.

    My director replied that, because I was 24, unmarried, and had no children, the expectation was that I would stay until at least 6, work through lunch, etc. The EXPECTATION was 12+ hour days, every day, regardless of output. I replied that that was entirely unrealistic, as I would be looking at a 2+ hour commute home almost every day and would not arrive home until approximately 8pm, which would give me roughly two hours before I had to go to bed, because I had to be up at 5am. He responded that, as a young person, he had frequently done this, to which I replied that that may have been the case for him, I had an active social life outside of the office, and had no desire to compromise that significantly in the name of my career unless Major National Retailer was prepared to renegotiate my terms of employment, specifically my compensation and vacation time. My reasoning was that if Major National Retailer was expecting me to work 60+ hours a week, then my compensation to reflect that extra 20+ hours, and I would need additional paid time off to prevent becoming completely burned out. Needless to say, my director did not accept my logic, and in fact stated that not only would my compensation package not be reworked to reflect the new realty he was imposing, but in fact was unlikely to be reworked anytime in the near or forseeable future.

    Within a month of that, I was first put on a "performance improvement plan", which my manager (who hated my director) acknowledged as total bullshit and, in no uncertain terms, stated that it was my director's way of forcing me to stay late so he wouldn't look bad, or to force me out of the company. Because the market had begun it's descent, I played along and adjusted my hours accordingly. Within two months of that, despite my manager giving me glowing reports every week when we met, he was forced by my director to terminate me at the height of the market crash.

    That termination ultimately killed my career in Major US City. It's a small community, and word gets around. I couldn't get interviews. I couldn't even get people to talk to me. I contemplated moving home, but I couldn't get out of my lease for another 6 months. I ended up running up significant personal debt, trying to get by, to no avail.

    With a week after I left Major US City and returned home to Minor US City, I was inundated with interview offers, more than I had had in six months in Major US City. After another six months I was able to land a position that, although significantly less compensated than my previous position, gives me significantly more PTO and flexible hours, as well as a management team that recognizes that it doesn't matter how many hours you're in the office, but what you do with them while you're there that counts.

    My point of this very long story is that the circumstances of being expected to have no life outside one's career is not limited solely to academia. If anything, it's worse in the private sector. Workers are treated like disposable resources; when you've worked one to the breaking point, you discard them and hire another. The ones that do not break are rewarded by more responsibility, then a slight pay increase. It's not until you hit management that it begins to even out. Basically, if you're not killing yourself working, you're not trying.

  5. Maren Says:

    Yikes. UCD is my law alma mater, and the vet school has a stellar rep, so I'm of course personally disappointed to read about this, though not surprised. I also remember vividly the discussion we had at a faculty-student women's gathering when the professors told us about how we would all be grilled about our reproductive plans in job interviews, regardless of how illegal that is. Half the reason I haven't fully entered the legal field, besides the economic shitstorm, is that I'm the cusp of starting a family and I don't want to deal with that headache.

    As for a job at Borders when your tenure is denied — ha. My creative-writing-degree'd husband has spent five grim years there and the company will be lucky if it lasts the year. Try Amazon.

  6. John Says:

    To extend Monkey Business's train of thought:

    It is very telling that, in many workplaces (particularly corporate ones), workers are now referred to as "resources". They are not "workers", they are not "staff", they are not "employees", they are not "people, they are not "humans", they are "resources". Outsourced workers are "offshore resources".

    Simply put, the American worker is no longer a human being, but rather a sub-human productivity-generating device. You can kill yourself for your job, but if you don't meet some arbitrary standard which may or may not be in the realm of healthy human activity, you are replaced by someone who will. Because in an economy where workers have no power at all, in a society full of people desperate to pay their bills, there is *always* someone who will put in slightly more insane hours than you will.

  7. Xynzee Says:

    A friend of mine tells this story of a major Australian firm where if the director saw you in the office earlier than he was (abt 7:30 or 8a), and stayed later than he did (abt 5:30 or 6) and/or worked through lunch (1hr) on a regular basis you would be called into his office for a chat to discuss why one wasn't getting their work done during the allocated work hours. >sigh< so much for the Australia of the 60s and 70s.

  8. Xynzee Says:

    Hmm got cut off…

    I'd try to suggest unionizing but, Reagan but the kibosh on that as his first act as president. Americans don't get the importance of a block vote.

    Even Australians are losing site of their importance too. I'd say that the current generation has had it altogether too easy to understand/remember the lessons learnt from the industrial movements.

    My bro is in the AF and he's opposed to a lot of these things, usual free market crap. When I say it's easy for him to say that with a nice fat govt paycheck and benies

  9. Xynzee Says:

    Did it again :-/

    Coming in. I tell him to *Wake me*! when he quits and goes into business for himself. "Oh, no, no, no! Can't do that!" he says.

    Bunch of soft cocks the lot of 'em.

  10. Cokehead Says:

    Wait, you're all getting work that wants you there more than 40 hours? You lucky bastards. Every week the managers post on the wall a list of everyone that's over their scheduled time. The expectation is to cut it by leaving early, coming in late, or taking a longer lunch.

    Those that don't have been known to get their hours cut and/or get fired.

  11. Jane Says:

    I'm going to respectfully disagree with at least some elements of your account. First, for the sake of fairness, let me say I am a David faculty member. Second, and I want to be entirely clear about this, I do not condone the professor's actions. I think, regardless of university policy, they were indefensibly wrong

  12. Jane Says:

    I'm going to respectfully disagree with at least some elements of your account. First, for the sake of fairness, let me say I am a David faculty member. Second, and I want to be entirely clear about this, I do not condone the professor's actions. I think, regardless of university policy, they were indefensibly wrong

  13. Jane Says:

    Hey, can you fix your interface so someone can leave a full comment? And feel free to delete those last two partial comments. Jane

  14. Jane Says:

    I'm going to respectfully disagree with at least some elements of your account. First, for the sake of fairness, let me say I am a Davis faculty member. Second, and I want to be entirely clear about this, I do not condone the professor's actions. I think, regardless of university policy, they were indefensibly wrong — most evidently in regards to gender politics and power relations. I am not defending his actions in any way.

    But many responses reveal to me a second problem, which is how, in this situation, people feel very comfortable with the position, well, he should have just fulfilled his obligations as the master in the room, not involved the apprentices who are in no position to weigh in, and acted in general as the boss, the executor of the university's policies, and minister keeping confession private.

    Which of course is NOT the position into which one should allow oneself to be pushed by these events. In fact, the model of collaborate and mutual evaluation, and collective process in deciding how to proceed when anyone faces a complexity…this is exactly the condition to which university classes should aspire. I cannot see into the professor's soul, so I have no idea what he was thinking. And again, he should never have done what he did. But this is true in part because it was an exception, and so marked the whole event as an exceptional one, worthy of shame and moral judgment and censure.

    However, the impulse to collectivize decisions, and treat each other as colleagues rather than as one master and a bunch of independent, atomized apprentices, is fundamentally the right impulse. In a different hypothetical, when every previous grading and similar decision had been put forward for group discussion, it could have been not just fair but useful to have a group discussion — with all parties involved — about how the class group could best support the student in question.

    And learning groups in general — classes, reading groups, and so on — should be struggling toward that goal, not taking a moralizing stand in favor of secret-keeping hierarchies. I hope this is plain.

  15. ladiesbane Says:

    @Cokehead: when I first started in insurance, I was an hourly (non-exempt) employee and 100% (or more; never less) of the assigned production rates were expected within the allotted shift. Overtime was utterly verboten, and bathroom breaks were timed (two at five minutes each, or expect a visit from the supervisor.)

    When I moved to a different company and a much higher position (non-exempt), it was expected that we would work the job, not the clock…and, as people had medical emergencies, babies, and family troubles, we were expected to take over their workload as well, so they wouldn't lose their jobs. For over a year, a handful of us worked sixty hour weeks, for the same pay as everyone else. The rate per hour worked was close to what it had been when I was still working a non-exempt 40. When we were bought by a larger company, they made that change permanent. But that was when we could all simply move to another company and thumb our noses at bad employers. These days, any employer looks good.

    Unless we start businesses of our own, we are at the mercy of whoever wants to pay us. Is the book The Grapes of Wrath still taught in school, or do they go straight to The Fountainhead and Looking Out for #1?

  16. Monkey Business Says:

    @Jane: Your statement "…the impulse to collectivize decisions, and treat each other as colleagues rather than as one master and a bunch of independent, atomized apprentices, is fundamentally the right impulse." is fundamentally antithetic to the human condition. Were it not for individuals that had shown the ability to organize people into a functional society, we never would have dragged ourselves up from the caves. This is why we have governments to lead us, rather than anarchy. We are not islands alone.

  17. A Says:

    Please start again with the correct response?

    When I was in graduate school, there was a heavily pregnant student in one or two of my classes. She would deliver before the end of the term & as such, did all of her work ahead of schedule; therefore, she did all of the work to earn a grade based on her work product.

  18. ildi Says:

    Well, from what I understand from the vet students' comments over at the super-duper-long Isis thread was that the student's pregnancy was mentioned in order to accommodate her, because the policy already in place for that course was taking it over the next year if you missed any of it. The question then is; why is pregnancy more special than, say, being in a car wreck, or having surgery or any other condition that keeps you from attending the class as required? Under FMLA, 12 weeks is 12 weeks, no matter what family/health condition drives the need for time off. Either everyone needs to follow the policy, or have the same grading system in place for all covered absences.

  19. Jane Says:

    @Monkey Business, your reply is as nonsensical logically as it is inept at a historical/empirical level. Let's see:

    "Were it not for individuals that had shown the ability to organize people into a functional society, we never would have dragged ourselves up from the caves. This is why we have governments to lead us,…"

    Well, we are both talking about organizing people into functional societies. But you seem to believe that "the human condition" requires us to have governments to lead us, proven by the fact we have always had governments to lead us. Really? What kind of governments does the human condition mandate? Because, historically, we have had a lot more monarchies featuring the divine right of kings, and tribal orders led by a chief, than we have had, say democracies. So is the nature of the human condition that it requires monarchies? Tribes with single leaders? If not, why did we have so many for so long? If so, why don't we have one now?

    So you have some choices here. You could concede that the human condition historically prefers civilizations with a single unchecked ruler, and that other forms are aberrations, and that we should go back. Or you could argue that humans have a sort of developmental capacity

  20. Jane Says:

    …[continued]…

    — even, uneven, whatever — and can in fact overcome their "condition" and make their own social forms. And then we have no argument, since I am simply arguing for a social form in which groups make decisions like this. Which, before you show off your ignorance s'more, I should note have been perfectly common throughout history. The idea that education is based around one entirely empowered individual making all decisions in secret and executing institutional policies is a quite recent one, existing in a rather limited number of places. Funny thing, that this historically and geographically specific form apparently arises out of some universal character of the human that is true in all situations, places, and times.

    But let us forgive the historical errors, omissions, and incoherence, and look at your logical structure: we should not make collective decisions…because "no man is an island." I guess we can safely deduce that reasoning is not part of the human condition.

  21. Darby Witherspoon Says:

    A similar situation occurred in my undergrad biology class at the local two year university here. Instead of a pregnant woman it was a over-entitled biochem major at the four year university across town. The guy shows two weeks after the mid term begging to be able to make up everything he missed no penalty. His reason: his car broke down and it would cost $200 to fix (The amount of money, he was not ashamed to admit later he spends at the bar in a given night.) The instructor put it to a public vote, in class with him standing there. Of course no one wants to be the one person to raise their hand and say, "yeah, I actually do have a problem with this", causing him to at least have to retake the class for the third time or at most not get into med school.

    Had I known what his attitude was before hand I would have sunk him regardless. His opinion, voiced loudly and often, was that only idiots work for anything. Smart folks buy or scam what they need.

    In addition, the class was (or would have been) heavily curved, and the instructor made a habit of announcing that it was in fact me that broke it after every test if they "wanted someone to beat up". Needless to say, I didn't make many friends that class.

  22. Loneoak Says:

    @ Jane:

    I certainly agree with you regarding the collectivization of *policy* decisions. The students (especially professional/graduate students) certainly should have a say in how the program will treat their cohort when it comes to life's exigencies. However, this was not a policy decision, it was a grading decision that involved personal medical information.

    The question to be debated isn't whether this person should get a given grade, it should be "how to best formulate our program and profession to be equitable."

  23. HoosierPoli Says:

    Can I just recommend that you all look into employment in Germany? Most jobs are only legally allowed to ask you for 40 hours a week; if you put in overtime one day, you can leave early on Friday. Oh, and the standard six weeks of paid vacation per year.

  24. Loneoak Says:

    @HoosierPoli: I know a fair number of European academics (not Germany though) and they say that their universities turn a blind eye toward constant labor law violations. They work just as much as American academics do.

  25. BD of MN Says:

    Truck driver here. Thank god for the DOT regulating that I can only work 60 hours a week… Interestingly, my employer didn't push hard for the first couple of years I worked there, 50 hours/week was the norm, but the last six months or so have been tough. I regularly run out of hours mid-day on Friday, which sounds nice, but after several 13-14 hour days on the road I'm pretty much wiped out…

    /whine off

  26. Waste'o'space Says:

    @Loneoak,

    True re: Euro academics, but they at least get significant paid vacation time.

    @Jane

    Definitely good point re: the decision making process being used by the prof. This is something that should be encouraged in the general academic cultural milieu (at least at the graduate/postgraduate student level, I'm not quite convinced that undergrads count as fully-sentient yet). It's just unfortunate that we only hear about this type of process being used in a case where it really probably shouldn't be used (re: gender-shaming/medical/privacy issues).

  27. vegymper Says:

    Welcome to Fast Food Nation!

  28. Arslan Amirkhanov Says:

    Workers are just resources? Sorry guys, but Marx beat you to the punch about 150 years ago. It only goes downhill from here.

  29. Fifth Dentist Says:

    One quarter in college I took a black literature class. I missed a full third of class days but had a perfect 100 average — one week I spent at the beach IIRC. I, the lily-white student nailed the Booker T. Washington/W.E.B. Dubois debate in a term paper better than any student he ever had, he said.
    My professor, a former president of one of the traditionally black Atlanta colleges sat down with me and told me that according to the rules he should fail me.
    He ended up giving me a "B."

  30. Kelsey Says:

    Yay! Yet another reason to look forward to graduate school.