The late Rodney Dangerfield was one of our greatest standup comics. His classic line, of course, was: "That's the story of my life, don't get no respect."
He had hundreds of very funny jokes that underscored the "no respect" theme. Here's one culled from a performance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 2001.
"The other day I called suicide prevention and they tried talking me into it."
Here's another one from Dangerfield's classic DVD, I Can't Take It Anymore: "My wife's afraid of the dark, then she saw me naked and now she's afraid of the light."
These days many, if not most college professors and secondary school teachers, and here I certainly include myself, often feel like Rodney Dangerfield. The story of our professional lives is that we don't get much respect -- from students, administrators or the public.
You think I don't have any examples?
The other day I am in my office preparing a classroom PowerPoint when a student, a young man, bursts into my office. He doesn't bother to knock on my door.
"Excuse me," I interject, "aren't you supposed to knock on a closed door before you open it?"
He ignores my question. "Are you Dr. Jones?
"Wrong office. Gotta go."
On another occasion, a female student did knock on my door. I had just posted final grades for my introductory anthropology class.
"You're the professor for my anthropology course aren't you?" she asks.
"I could be, but you don't look familiar. Have you been coming to class?"
She ignores my question. "I don't like my grade."
I ask for her name, which she gives grudgingly. I look up her failing grade. "Looks like you stopped coming to class two months ago."
"I had issues," she explains.
"If you don't take the exams, how can you get expect to get a passing grade?"
"I can't fail this course."
"I'm sorry, but I can't pass you."
She stood up abruptly. "We'll see about that! I'm going to the Dean."
On her way out, she slams my office door shut.
It's not just the students, How about our institutions? Do administrators, whose legions have continued to grow by leaps and bounds, respect those of us who labor in the classroom? Do they provide us with good working conditions?
Several years ago my late mother, a woman known for her delightfully direct comments, came to visit my university office. She noticed paint pealing from the ceiling, and a water leak above a bank of tall windows. She pointed to ice caking on the coils of my ancient air-conditioner.
"This place is a dump," she stated. "How can you work here?"
When my tech savvy students pop into the office and see my 10-year-old computer, they stare at it in disbelief.
"Is it as slow as it looks?"
"Slower," I say with resignation.
I'm lucky, I have a rather spacious, albeit temperamentally heated and cooled, office. My newer colleagues work down in the basement. Most of them correct exams and talk with students in overheated windowless cells. Some them at least have a ground-level window. Most do not.
Just last week our information technocrats, who have never experienced the pleasures and pressures of the classroom, scheduled a day-long upgrade to our campus-wide learning system. We use the system to post messages to students, monitor on-line class discussions, give class assignments, post articles, receive, read and evaluate student essays, maintain class rosters, and record grades. With little or no regard for the peak times of faculty activity, they scheduled the upgrade on the last day of final exams, the most labor-intensive time of the semester. We get a note, not to apologize for the utter idiocy of the upgrade's timing, but to make sure we make the proper work adjustments so that our grades get submitted on time.
But then there's the public perception of those of us who work in education. Having not witnessed how hard professors work (course, development, class preparation, ongoing research, writing research reports, essays and books, not to mention time in the classroom, interaction with students during office hours, advisement, grading exams and research papers, and not to be forgotten, an endless array of "assessment" exercises and evaluation routines), the public has a perception that college professors get paid a great deal of money for very little work.
If you've labored in the classroom, you know that the work is hard. If you receive a professor's paycheck, you also know that the amount of money paid to most tenure track, not to forgot adjunct faculty, is negligible. Even so, these general perceptions, based on myth rather than reality, encourage politicians like Governor Rick Scott and their administrative cronies to cut funding for such "irrelevant" courses of study as philosophy, foreign languages, English and art history and sociology -- all schemes designed to reduce the number of expensive faculty and replace them with cheaper part time instructors and distance educators who teach online -- very efficient.
What are the costs of this lack of respect? They are quite significant when you consider that an increasing number of anti-intellectual politicians, narrow-minded technocrats, and feckless administrators are slowly but inexorable eroding the foundation of our system of higher education.
If we continue to accept the virtues of people who malign those of us who are knowledge-seekers, and respect only the results of audits and the "outcomes" of students processing, we will one day wake up and no longer know where we are let alone where we are going.
In that scenario, we will all feel like Rodney Dangerfield. Maybe we're already there.