About Time


The most enduringly popular image of the college professor is that of the lovable, tweedy goofball. Comedic and familiar, that icon of 1978’s Animal House doesn’t do the same kind of political work as the contrasting image of the sleezy, radicalized elitist, barely working six hours a week and utterly contemptuous of students. It used to be said that egghead professors couldn’t operate a toaster, but no one ever asks me to demonstrate my mad skills with the four-slice bad boy on my kitchen counter.

Instead, most people wonder if I work at all. State legislators are agitating for higher teaching loads. Apostate faculty and armchair sociologists insist that we care more about writing than teaching, that we have oodles of free time, that we are a waste of taxpayers dollars, that we dole out “easy As” to ensure student happiness, so that we can get on with whatever else we want to do.

It is hard to teach four classes a semester at a small liberal arts college, where students expect a lot of face-to-face time with faculty, and where the borders between home and work are impossibly porous. It is hard to take up adjunct teaching jobs at a handful of colleges and universities, to hustle back-and-forth, cobbling together a barely living wage. It is hard, even, to work at the much-ballyhooed elite research universities, where the old adage of “publish or perish” is still a lot closer to truth than to folklore, and where students and their families have significantly more robust expectations and involvement than, perhaps, they once did.

The stakes are different, but the effort isn’t. The degree of hardness isn’t.

It is harder for those who care about the inner lives of our students, about their sense of purpose, about their future, and, most importantly, about their present state of mind. For those who have the ambition to be better teachers, better writers, and better public intellectuals. For those who care about this country and this world. And for those who also wish to love their families, to care about their friends, to attend to their own needs.

It is hardest of all to make time for everything. For everything that we want to do – and that we have to do.

In my case, I scramble around, like a kid checking the couch cushions, hoping to discover time to pick up a paintbrush, to drop off dry cleaning, to get an oil change, to put expenses in a checkbook. Sometimes, when a meeting is abruptly cancelled, I just close my office door and fall asleep. Meetings are rarely cancelled, though.

So I cheat time constantly. I know, for instance, exactly how long it takes me to ride my bike from my garage to the front door of my building (5 minutes), and how long it takes me to walk to my car when I drive and park six blocks away (7 minutes). After dropping my kids off, and driving to work or driving home, I often rehearse the sequence of actions that await me, listing them in order because I have exactly 15 minutes before class: “Grab that book from the office, take it over to the other department, put it in a student’s mailbox, make a copy of that form, put it in the registrar’s slot, then run to class.” On a day where I have very little time, where I am, as I say before I leave my wife, “wall-to-wall,” I wear shoes for running, shoes with very soft soles, soles now worn thin.

It has taken a Herculean effort to make the time to write this.

I make that effort a lot, though. In twenty years of sprinting around campuses, I have written over two thousand pages of published prose. I have taught roughly the same number of students. Every page and every student is precious to me, but I don’t imagine that my readers and my students feel the same when they think about my place in their lives. I don’t run, or hustle for time, and steal away from family, or cheat sleep for thank you notes from students, or for reviews, or book sales.

I do it because I believe.

I want this belief to be infectious. We are all under pressure, struggling to modernize a medieval institution in the midst of tectonic, global changes. The pressure is intense. Students cry. Colleagues despair. I push myself to do everything better, faster, and harder, to be the best, most available, most imaginative version of myself, to give back to my former teachers, my current colleagues, my cohorts of students, and my family and friends. I am like an acrobat, high up in the circus tent, trying to inspire everyone, who looks up to discover that everyone else is up on the high wire, too, all vainly trying – and trying harder and harder – to do the same: to inspire and provoke, to compel and to instruct, and to prove their worth.

Up there with the rest of the busy acrobats, I believe in what we are doing. I believe in my colleagues and in our staff, in the thousands of people who come to our bricks-and-mortar “truth spot” every day and who work hard to make possible the most amazing transformation of the modern age: the full awakening of the future citizens of the world. And I believe in the students – friends, peers, and colleagues – who do their own hard work, inside and out, and under the considerable psychic weight of youth, to prepare for their entry into the modern economic disaster that is “the real world.”  I believe in those who teach at the proverbial small liberal arts college and the community college, in my contingent peers who labor everywhere, in my comrades at R1s and elite Ivies. I believe that all together we are doing something important.

And I have no time for people who don’t believe.

5 responses to “About Time”

  1. I so identify with your description of your rigorously scheduled day! Yes to the exact number of minutes your commute will take, how long it will take to walk from your car to the office, etc. But I worry about the dailiness of the frantic pace you describe–this can’t be good for you, Matthew.

    But, no time for unbelievers–I also identify with this completely!


    • It doesn’t often feel frantic, Historiann. (Though it does this week, with commencement around the corner). But it does feel like a response to these more global changes around us, and to the general assaults on higher ed. And, again, I don’t think I’m alone in this.

      I appreciate the concern!


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