If This Be Treason, Make the Most of It: the Joys of Academic Labor

It’s 1 pm on a Monday and I am still at home. I just finished my class preparation for my seminar later this afternoon, made myself a tuna melt and took the dog for a walk around the block. Presently, I will change into teaching clothes, walk up to my office to hold office hours and finish some grading before my class starts.
Yep, that’s right: I was at home on a weekday, working in my pjs. If this be treason, make the most of it. There are actually private consulting firms that university administrators pay to advise faculty not to be seen grocery shopping or walking dogs in the middle of the day. Because, I guess, it might look like we are enjoying ourselves too much?

I know: putting “joy” and “academic” anything in the same subtitle is asking for trouble these days. Those of us who work in the university are instructed to frame our work strictly in terms of its utility to generating revenue for the region. We are repeatedly cautioned that “the public” doesn’t understand what we do: that any freedom we enjoy in our work lives makes people outside the university “angry.” Heaven forfend that joy enter into it!
These warnings contain elements of truth. From public education to clean public transit to a comfortable retirement, the social warrant is currently under siege. It’s tough to discover, for example, that tuition has increased exponentially in the UW system, making affording a college education a stretch for most and out of reach for many. There are a lot of reasons to be disappointed and angry these days. A lot of that ill will winds up being mustered against the very public institutions hardest hit by policies of austerity.
So here it is, and if it’s treason, do by all means make the most of it: despite all terrors, I love my job. I am honored to teach University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students, who brilliantly juggle work, school and family and still manage to be insightful in and outside of the classroom. And I am grateful for my dauntless colleagues: faculty, staff and graduate students.

It is in the spirit of my commitment to the UW system and public higher education that I offer the following, possibly treasonous, assertions:

1. It’s not illegal to like your work, or not yet anyway. But it may incriminate me further to say first that I choose my career intentionally, because I was attracted to the freedom of academic labor; and second, that I devoutly hope that both my students and my children have access to similar choices.

2. This freedom is also known as workplace democracy: the idea that workers and employees should have some say over the conditions of their labor. And workplace democracy is scarce in this era of precarious employment and diminishing labor rights.

But, as fast food workers all over the country have shown in their “Fight for Fifteen” campaign, precarious work conditions necessitate a struggle for better wages and workplace democracy.

The erosion of workplace democracy – at the university, of academic freedom and democratic governance – serves no one. As a place that trains students to think and prepares them for their futures, the university should also model workplace democracy.

3. Yes, I do try to change my students’ minds. I do this in every class, each semester. I try as hard as I possibly can to come up with things that will jostle my students out of their complacency about how they see the world. A good education challenges students to rethink their worlds.

And you know what happens? Reliably, every semester: some students tell me that the class changed their lives. Some students argue with me. Others engage little, eking out a low grade or dropping the class. Regularly, students praise how “balanced” the class is on their evaluations.

Because here’s the thing: students are not blank slates, upon whom faculty can impose our ideological agendas. They are students: they come from particular places, have their own points of view. The job of an educator is to get students to put what they already think into the broad perspectives afforded by education. This breadth is why education is so central to democracy.

4. Because of this connection between education and democracy, I oppose further tuition hikes, because they would put the wonderful resources of the UW system out of reach of even more of our students. Not only that: I think the UW system should be free for everyone. Students should be able to earn their degrees joyously, without incurring life-altering levels of debt and/or holding down two or three jobs, as they do now.

5. Yes, free public higher education would be supported by taxes. That is how, in past generations, a college education was available to most people: universities were heavily subsidized by the federal and state governments. The assumption was that this support was an investment: in our young people, in our collective future. The current regime of austerity imposed on public education is short-sighted and mean: it penalizes young people who are, after all, the future.
In 1765, twenty-nine year old Patrick Henry responded to hecklers in the Colonial Assembly of Virginia by asserting: “If this be treason, make the most of it!” His speech was not recorded, so no one knows what else he said.

What we remember about the speech is Henry’s fire in defense of freedom. At a time of massive assault on public education nationally and in Wisconsin, we can muster no less.

Rachel Ida Buff

Associate Professor, History

President, UWM AAUP

4 thoughts on “If This Be Treason, Make the Most of It: the Joys of Academic Labor

  1. So, how are you serving your colleagues, your department, and your university when you are in your office only during office hours? How can you contribute to a healthy departmental working environment when you are only there during office hours? There is more to a faculty job then being in your office for “office hours” and teaching your class.

      • This is the general perception you create when you write something like this. It does not serve our profession well when you portray it like this. The public, our legislators, and even our university administration does not know what we do, as you stated. By telling them that we work in our pjs at home does not appear professional and gives them more ammunition to make even deeper cuts.

      • I see your point. Just so you know, I do all kinds of service and governance work while wearing professional attire. But I have some of my best thoughts and do some of my best writing at home in informal attire, and I do not think I am alone. Why should we pretend this is not the case? Perhaps when we are walking dogs we are solving global problems. Life is complicated, you know?

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.