Ageism in Academe



Senior faculty. It sounds like an honorific. It isn’t. It’s more a sort of stigmata. Being called “senior faculty” stigmatizes you. I’m called “senior faculty” quite a lot.

I have been teaching journalism for 33 years, 29 at the same college. My career in academe, begun with innocent hopes and fearsome ambitions, is nearing its obvious end. I expect to be bid farewell in the style to which I have been made accustomed. Notable work anniversaries—10, 15, 20, 25 years—all passed unacknowledged by my institution.

Are there benefits to being senior faculty? Of course, there are. The exhausting struggle for tenure, and later for promotions, are far behind me. I can remember feeling anxious and driven all the time. Now I just feel anxious occasionally.

Although not about teaching. No. Never about teaching.

A popular stereotype portrays senior faculty as doddering, if not downright demented, and content to teach from old, crumbling lecture notes. Lecture notes! I can act demented without them, thank you, if that’s what’s necessary to make a point in class.

To me, the single greatest benefit of being a senior faculty member is the confidence that comes with 30-plus years in the classroom. When I began teaching, I clung to my lecture notes with the sweaty desperation of an alcoholic clinging to a glass. They were what I had instead of confidence—or a stiff drink.

Now I can approach teaching as a creative act. Every class meeting is something created in collaboration with my students. When things go right, and they go right more often than not, we’re like a jazz combo improvising on a theme. It’s a powerful experience, and one that can’t occur if the primary purpose of class is getting through a prepared lecture.

I consider teaching an art and myself an accomplished artist. Over the years, I had opportunities to become an administrator; I just never had any real desire. I knew that I’d be outraging my true nature. As pretentious as that sounds, it’s not as pretentious as my becoming an administrator would have been.

But this has left me with a problem—and I’m not talking about my attitude toward authority. I’m talking about my feeling of being a displaced person.

A recent piece by the retired art professor Laurie Fendrich argued that other older faculty should hurry up and retire, too. She seems to believe that continuing to teach throughout one’s 60s and possibly beyond is a disservice to students, colleagues, and the higher-education system. From my perspective, the real disservice to higher education would be the loss of all that experience and learning if we took her advice.

Like American popular culture at large, Fendrich makes a fetish of youth. She equates increased age with increased irrelevance, jeering at older faculty that “Keeping physically fit, wearing Levi’s, posting pictures on Instagram, or continually sneaking peeks at one’s iPhone don’t count for squat with students, who, after all, have grandparents who are 70, if not younger.”

Although she is right that age doesn’t guarantee wisdom, she is wrong in assuming that it pretty much guarantees intellectual staleness and ethical vacuity. Fendrich, who is fond of dressing up her opinions with quotations from the classics, would benefit from hearing something the French author Jules Renard said: “It’s not how old you are, it’s how you are old.”

Unfortunately, Fendrich isn’t alone in her impatience with older faculty. More and more I sense a lack of genuine respect or support within college bureaucracies for long timers who have devoted their lives to teaching and writing. Sure, they call you “senior faculty” as if it were a sign of distinction, but what they actually mean is that you’re ancient and decrepit and not worth investing in.

Young sprouts (junior faculty) get watered regularly (with grants, new computers, reduced course loads, etc.). You, on the contrary, get to have your leaves turn brown and drop off.

Junior faculty deserve resources. And so do adjunct faculty, whose struggles to survive in the increasingly hostile economic environment on and off campus have been well chronicled. But senior faculty are people, too, despite all the leaves they shed in the previous paragraph.

I’m suggesting that every stage of an academic career—from lusty beginning through stoic middle to bittersweet end—has its own particular challenges. Colleges, by and large, fail to recognize that. No one seems to give a hoot about the morale or continued growth of senior faculty.

I don’t want to say this constitutes ageism. But it constitutes ageism.

I’m also suggesting that every stage of an academic career has a value. If junior faculty represent the misty promise of the future, senior faculty represent something more concrete and substantial—lived experience. We are the ones who remember what experiments in curriculum or instruction have already been tried; indeed, we are the ones who tried them. We know what worked and what didn’t, and we know what might work next time if tried in a different way.

Administrators have a relatively short shelf life. I have had eight deans—eight!—which averages out to a new dean every three-and-a-half years. The other day I heard a colleague compare administrators to streetcars: stand where you are and another one will soon come along.

I’m standing where I have stood for 29 years, and I have learned a lot about the place in that time and, more importantly, about enduring—as a teacher, a scholar, a person—under all kinds of conditions. But does anyone in charge ever ask what I have learned? No. And when I speak up, does anyone seriously listen? Of course not.

I don’t want to say that this constitutes ageism. But it constitutes ageism.

If senior faculty burn out, maybe it isn’t entirely their fault. Maybe if they received occasional expressions of appreciation from their institutions or an equitable share of institutional resources, they wouldn’t become disengaged and demoralized. When you’re treated continually like an old goat, you eventually start to bleat.

The assumption about senior faculty seems to be that the future is all behind us. Which leads to the further assumption that we can generally be ignored in the perennial campus scramble for recognition and resources. And ignore us often enough, maybe we’ll give up in frustration and retire. The prospect of replacing us with cheaper labor must set administrative hearts aflutter.

Does that sound paranoid? Well, you haven’t worked here as long as I have.

Author Bio: Howard Good is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York at New Paltz.