Section: Opinion

Kenyon campus is not just for students, but for faculty too

My kids visited campus last week and had a blast. We toured Gund Gallery, watched the dance team practice, crafted valentines and enjoyed green tea ice cream at Peirce. A small group from upper Norton even took us sledding. But the highlight for my daughters was the Norton common room, where they could hang out with the decidedly cool college students. “We’re totally part of their group!” said my pint-sizer. “I think they like us,” said my more self-conscious grade-schooler, who had been concerned earlier in the week with her social status.

After business hours, we didn’t see many faculty members on campus — hardly any, to be completely honest: none in the dining hall and one or two, if that, at both the women’s and men’s basketball games. Kenyon is not an outlier in this regard. Liberal arts colleges across the country are struggling to both reconceive and maintain their communal cultures in the face of two realities — the fact that good research is more heavily incentivized than good teaching and the fact that fewer and fewer employees arrive with their own domestic support systems.

Some professors do what they do because academia is the only environment in which they’re paid to read their favorite books, while others do what they do because they’re enervated by young people, teaching and the electric collegiate atmosphere, with its undammable stream of lectures, concerts and programs. My overwhelming experience has been that the best college professors are both selfish and unselfish, i.e. they fall into both categories. At most schools, you’re let go after your third year if you can’t teach, and after your sixth if you can’t produce. Research is certainly prioritized, because it’s the ultimate deal breaker, but tenured faculty members have to meet both thresholds. This is the Big Show, and survivors must have all the goods.

More interesting is the fact that faculty members these days have partners who work equally long, hard hours outside the home. In the olden times, professors could attend exclusively to their work, while domestic saints handled the rest. Today’s faculty members have significant responsibilities in the home. In fact, if one’s partner is a physician, for example, the (full-time) faculty member is often conceived, within the context of the family, as the primary caregiver. And caregivers’ schedules are tight.

Faculty participation in supererogatory service — community service beyond committee and departmental work — is a touchy subject. I can only speak of it, in fact, because I’m a visitor. Professors who live off-campus, to give their loved ones better schools and job opportunities, recoil at the suggestion that they’re betraying the college community or losing sight of the concept of the public. It’s coercive for an institution to ask employees to sacrifice their marriages and kids’ futures for the rare good of a tenure-track academic job.

Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill hopes that education will grow our feelings of unity, help us to see that our fates are bound up with those of our fellow creatures and encourage us to aim for the general happiness over that of our own families. But even Mill qualifies that, in most cases, “private utility, the interest or happiness of some few persons, is all [anyone] has to attend to.”

In a rare philosopher’s turn to empirical data, I opened the campus directory and started to count the number of faculty members who live beyond the Gambier/Mount Vernon metroplex. I stopped at the “M”s, when it became clear that only one-third of the faculty seem to live more than thirty minutes away and that many of those are adjuncts, visitors and music instructors. (Moreover, I had to put my kids to bed and grade logic quizzes.) It seems to me that approximately half of Kenyon’s faculty is tenured, nearby and available to join students in their activities.

So faculty — when you can (and I know sometimes you can’t), bring yourself and your loved ones to the common room. You’ll have a blast.

Alexandra Bradner is a visiting assistant professor of philosophy who lives among students this year as the faculty- in-residence. She will occasionally report her experiences in this column. She can be reached at bradnera@kenyon.edu.

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