The Ajax Dilemma, desert, and the professor’s job

My friend Jesse Richardson from Virginia Tech and one of my graduate students alerted me to the kerfuffle surrounding this piece from Susan Adams on Forbes, which caused a bit of a firestorm. The awesome quote:

Unless they teach summer school, they are off between May and September and they enjoy long breaks during the school year, including a month over Christmas and New Year’s and another chunk of time in the spring. Even when school is in session they don’t spend too many hours in the classroom. For tenure-track professors, there is some pressure to publish books and articles, but deadlines are few. Working conditions tend to be cozy and civilized and there are minimal travel demands, except perhaps a non-mandatory conference or two. As for compensation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for professors is $62,000, not a huge amount of money but enough to live on, especially in a university town.

Oh boy.  Some of the ire directed at this piece is deserved, but some is not. First off, I think all jobs are stressful to some degree.  Going up for tenure is a miserable process–it’s like having your performance evaluation last for five years.  No, you aren’t picking lettuce in 100 degree heat, nor are you shooting screaming animals in the head at a meat-packing plant or risking getting sucked overboard while pulling in crab traps.  If you like to teach and you like to write, being a professor is a wonderful job.

I also have to wonder about the entire set-up: why would being stressful versus not stressful itself be an indicator of quality of life? There are people out there bungee jumping. Surely the notion that one does better or more work when one is stressed is silly.  Why should we want people who write and think and work with learners to be stressed in the first place?

Here’s the reason why everybody’s all up in Adams’ face and she’s getting some heat that perhaps is overwrought:  Professors are just sick to death of people like her deciding they know how to do our jobs, and that those are jobs are cake.  There is so much misinformation out there about what professors do, it’s hard to know where to start.  The academy is a unique context.  Incentives are different here than in Adams’ world.   For instance, one thing that needs to get said right now to absolutely all writers of TV crime dramas:

No professor ever has committed murder so that he or she could become department chair. 


Now, somebody might commit murder to AVOID becoming department chair, but that’s harder to fit in a 45 minute drama format.

Furthermore,  all you people in private business:  get over tenure. 

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you live in the hard, cold world where people have to work or get fired.  Um, yeah, right.  That’s why we can all identify with why Wally in Dilbert is always in danger of  getting fired…..wait. Yep. In my experience, it’s actually way easier to get rid of professors at tenure time, even though it’s a one-shot deal, than it is to get rid of incompetent staff at universities because the tenure process is a formal, if very high stakes, evaluation process with lots of oversight.

People from the private sector in conversation will carp at me about tenure and then, two sentences later, blather on about how their company put them up at the Ritz/paid for first class/gave them a fat bonus for their last junket–things professors seldom get, if ever.  I get it: your perks are all *earned*, but mine are all unearned, and we all think we know what other people deserve to get and what they don’t.  Only, like Adams writing in Forbes, most of us have no idea what other people do or how difficult it is.

Why this behavior is anything other than simple bad manners and hubris is a bit beyond me. We live in world of tremendous complexity. That’s why we let labor markets do their thing.

I’ve been reading a wonderful book called the Ajax Dilemma by Paul Woodruff. Ajax, if you recall, lost to the big cheater Odysseus a priceless set of armor, and then went on a rampage and killed himself. The Greeks thus lost a wonderful asset because they failed to reward him.   Ajax represents the loyal rank and file worker;  Odysseus the strategist who knows how to play the system. It’s really hard to know how to reward different types of performers in such a way that faith in social life and systems remains intact. I’m not far into the book yet, but I’m far enough along to know that assigning desert, like most professions, is much harder than it looks.

4 thoughts on “The Ajax Dilemma, desert, and the professor’s job

  1. Since Librarians are ranked #9 on the list, does that mean that being a Professor is 9x easier than librarying?

      • Yes! I’m a librarian and have been mildly amused at the ire that list has caused within the community, mostly because it feeds into the “nobody understands us” and “we’re under appreciated” lines of thought. I really like the Ajax/Odysseus analogy and will pass this along to my librarian friends.

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