Explaining our “normal”

I had a meeting with our dean last week to talk about various facets of life at the U. We had recently undergone salary equity issues and I found that apparently our administration felt I, unlike 92 percent of my college-wide colleagues, was equitable enough to not merit any additional dollars.

The discussion was awkward for me, as I grew up in a home that was populated by a teacher and a factory worker. Talking to anyone about my salary in any way always made me feel like Latrell Sprewell bitching about how $21 million wasn’t enough to feed his family.

I started to explain to the dean why I wanted to talk to him but that I didn’t want to be there and he cut me off.

“I get it,” he said. “I came from a family like that too.”

He told me a story about how he once tried to explain to his uncle what life as a professor was like. He said he was teaching three classes per semester and how that was about 12 hours in the classroom plus about 12 office hours per term.

“Don’t worry,” his uncle told him. “If you keep working hard, eventually they’re going to give you more hours.”

Years later, when he became a full professor, he called his uncle and told him the good news.

“See?” the man replied. “I told you if you worked hard enough, they would make you full time!”

We talked for a while about the state of the U, especially the public perception of it. The Legislature in this state lost its mind last summer when it saw the university as hoarding cash. The folks around our area also lost their mind when the local paper posted the salary of every university worker to its website. In most cases, including mine, the money was way off. Still, that didn’t mean it wasn’t enough to freak people out. He understood the same way that I did how hard it was for people who worked 40 hours a week (or more) to not look at college professors and ask, “You only spend HOW MANY hours a week in front of a classroom?”

It’s also hard to explain to people that this is like asking a cop, “You only arrest HOW MANY felons a week?” The preparation, the research, the effort, the attempts and other elements take time but don’t seem to matter in the subsequent bean counting.
It can be even harder to explain that teaching isn’t all we do. I remember getting my first scholarly article published and calling home to tell my folks. My dad’s reaction was Classic Dad: “They pay you extra for that?”

He couldn’t understand that I do get paid for that. It’s called my salary. The same is true of the books I write, the meetings I attend, the class prep I do, the grading aspect of those courses and 83 other things that happen to be required of me if I didn’t want to suck at my job.

Life was different for Dad.

He would come home at about 3:30 or 4 p.m. every day and take off his safety shoes. He’d grab the paper and lie on the couch, reading about the state of the state and how the Brewers were doing. He’d eat dinner with the family, drink a few beers, watch TV and go to sleep.

The next day, he would do it all over again.

I wouldn’t trade my job for his by a damned sight, but I do wonder sometimes what it would be like not to be tethered to a computer full of work and working at the behest a group of people demanding more and more time. I also wonder what it would be like to not have people complaining that I was overpaid, regardless of what I did.

In the ESPN film “Broke,” Jets linebacker Bart Scott outlined how he explained his salary to his childhood friends in one of the more dangerous parts of Detroit. He noted he didn’t hit the lottery. He earns the money. Given what we know about concussions, crippling injuries and the early onset of mental disorders in former players, I’d say he’s probably right.

Still, it’s hard to tell people that I earned my money. Nine years of college (which is pretty minimal for a full run through a Ph.D.) coupled with grad student servitude and cheap labor as a teaching assistant kept me out of the labor market for almost a decade. Meanwhile, people who bailed after high school or an associate’s degree were earning an actual salary for most of that time. In some ways, what I have now might best be viewed as deferred compensation: school came first, money came later.

Even so, I get it when people look at me and don’t want to think, “Hey, he earned it.” Or “Wow, it would be great to have that.” Instead, it’s easier to think that we teach 10 hours a week, get our summers off and pretty much live the sweet life. It’s also easier to channel those feelings of discomfort or anger into a sense of how as a “taxpayer” my money comes from their sweat.

Later that week, I went to go pick up my kid from school and met up with one of the parents I tend to pal around with as we wait for dismissal. I was still stinging a bit from the “We like you but we aren’t going to pay you any more money” discussion I had with the dean.

As I saw the guy approaching, I asked him how things were going. He was a guy who did construction, dug wells and worked throughout the area as a fix-it man. On good days, he was able to get home for a change and a shower before he had to pick up his kid. I could always tell when he had a rough day, as clay would cake onto his boots and dirt would be all down the front of his hoodie and jeans.

“Pretty good,” he said. “We got to work inside today. How about you?”

“Yeah. Pretty good too. Just getting stuff done. Y’know…”

2 thoughts on “Explaining our “normal”

  1. Great, great post.
    As a land-grant, P&S employee, I feel your pain . . our salaries have been public for well-on 20 years hear in the less tropical midwest.

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