[Slate] Diary of an untenured prof: doing the devil's work

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Thu, 25 Feb 1999 11:01:11 -0800


By Anonymous

Anonymous is an untenured is an assistant professor at a well-known
private American university. To read this diary from the beginning, go
to http://www.slate.com/diary/99-02-16/diary.asp.

Today, as I struggled through the dual and mutually exclusive demands
of my day job and my gig moonlighting for Slate, I find myself making
the following unfortunate comparison:

Writing for Slate is:
1) paid
2) instantly published
3) read by large numbers of indulgent readers
4) finite
5) paid

Academic writing is:
1) unpaid
2) hardly ever published
3) read by small numbers of unforgiving readers
4) infinite
5) unpaid

This provokes a terrible revelation: Not only do I live in hell, but I
do the devil's work.

Today, this was quite true. After numerous hours meeting face to face
with the undergraduate students to discuss their paper drafts, I
entered the infernal realm of the Ph.D. oral exam. To understand what
this entails, you must appreciate that graduate students suck up time
like vampirous vacuum cleaners. They cannot help it, it's not their
fault, but even the slightest contact with them translates into
temporal losses of catastrophic magnitude. The typical graduate
student Ph.D. exam begins with flirtation and flattery. They spot you
in the hall, sidle up to you and, in dulcet tones, they whisper: "Will
you be on my exam committee?" Or they call and say, "I need to see
you. I can't take my exam without you. Only you can help me."

O vanity of vanities. I am a colossal sucker for this kind of sweet
talk. The very minute you sign on to their committee, the notion of
"office hours" turns into wispy smoke. They come waving lists of
obscure titles one pretends to have read, but hasn't. They want to be
examined on these great works. They need to talk about them. But when
they roll in to discuss the books, they are timid, they are
frightened, they are lost. The more lost they become, the more they
need expert advice. I am the expert here, but for the life of me I
can't remember anything about the damn book they're working on. Or
I've never read it. I try to be brave, and compensate with time and
attention. Each meeting usually takes at least an hour or two. We meet
for weeks, months, sometimes almost a year as they postpone their exam
and change their books. But all this is mere foreplay. As the dreaded
date of their exam approaches, they become even more hungry and
desperate for time. I catch the crazed look in their eyes. Their
panic is contagious, and I start making evening appointments.
Weekends. They have no limits.

By the time of the exam, I am a nervous wreck. The titles on their
exam list snicker and sneer at me, contemptuously. Subliminally, I can
hear their singsong nya-nyas: "You don't know anything, you are a
faker, you are a fraud." "Snuff it," I snarl back. "I am the damn
expert." "Yeah, right, whatever," they mumble. And then we walk into
the room. Where there are experts.