By THOMAS H. BENTON
The salary, one said, was "extremely competitive." Plus there were "generous stock options." The health plan was "comprehensive." What's more, the other said, "our company really cares about its team members. We provide an essential service in a rapid-growth sector, and we are poised for a major expansion. This is a great chance for a young person with the right skills to get in on the ground floor." They paused and adjusted their jackets and ties, just a bit nervously.
The kid made gurgling sounds with his straw as he finished his cola. "Your company sounds OK and all that," he said, "but I'm not taking anything below, like, six figures plus all the other stuff."
There was a pause. Then, one of the older men said, "Well, that's certainly something we can, uh, discuss."
Was that kid some kind of genius? If so, there were thousands like him all over Boston at that time. Once in a while, I wonder what happened to all those high-tech wunderkinds since the NASDAQ bubble burst. I wonder how many are waiting tables at T.G.I. Friday's?
I'm tempted to gloat. I now have a reasonably secure tenure-track job. But in 1999 I had three part-time jobs: teaching, freelance writing, and researching property titles at the county courthouse. None of these jobs provided any benefits. If I was lucky, I'd make $22,000 that year after taxes. I was about to finish a humanities doctorate, but it looked like I had no realistic job prospects after 10 years of graduate school. Almost all of my classmates were striking out on the academic job market.
During my years in grad school I had several old friends who went into the computer industry. One of them was a millionaire at 28. All through the '90s, while I was scraping by, they were making and spending the big bucks: Dodge Prowlers, Lincoln Navigators, Caribbean vacations, motorboats, McMansions, all the latest high-tech gadgets. Periodically, they would breeze through Boston and take me out for drinks (they always offered to pay, the bastards). All of them told me that I should get out of the academy:
"You gotta think outside the box. Who's going to pay you to analyze poems? Go to computer school, man. In a year you'll be all set."
How could I respond when the whole decade kept proving them right? But with each semester I was more invested in grad school, and I hesitated to cut my losses and enroll in a one-year computer program. (Maybe the economy would go bust before I could finish!) Instead, I stuck it out and finished my doctorate. It took another year, but I finally landed a tenure-track job. It doesn't pay anywhere near six figures, but it enables me to continue doing the work that drew me to grad school in the first place.
Almost none of my friends in the computer industry are working full time anymore. And their paper fortunes have evaporated. Still, if any of them find themselves in my part of the country -- after all, they now have lots of free time -- I'll be glad to put them up. And the drinks are on me.
C'mon, can you really deny me some schadenfreude?
Most teachers are ambivalent about money and "success" as the world typically defines it. Unable to obtain salaries comparable to other professionals, teachers convince themselves that under-compensation confirms their moral worth.
"We're not in this for the money," they always say. And it's true.
But teachers must function in a larger culture that equates income with moral worth. Tell me we don't sometimes resent the students who drive better cars than us, wear better clothes, go on better vacations. Tell me we don't sometimes resent the siblings and friends who have become lawyers, doctors, or investment bankers.
Sometimes, the rhetoric of economic self-sacrifice that prevails among teachers reflects what the old Marxists called "false consciousness." There is an artificially constructed "supply-demand imbalance" between faculty positions and qualified candidates. So, in the desperate competition for academic jobs, wages can be lowered and benefits eliminated (with the questionable promise of a "real" job later). Seeking to preserve their dignity and enhance their status, many teachers come to believe that their unrequited toil is a form of good citizenship or even spiritual devotion. The intensity of their rhetoric is often in direct proportion to the degree of their exploitation.
Despite all the talk about the "heroism of teaching," I have never found that under-compensation and difficult working conditions confer any moral stature on teachers. On the contrary, the battered cars, small houses, and unfashionable clothes worn by many teachers make them seem vaguely disreputable, particularly to students raised in a culture of uncontested marketplace values.
I have a good academic job now, and I'm very happy with it. I do believe that my service to my students and my institution has a meaning beyond economic considerations. I'm glad that my career choice has protected me from the volatility of other professions. But sometimes I worry that the computer kid and my friends were right all along -- at least about the treatment of teachers in general. Will the day ever come when teachers hold positions of unambiguous respect comparable to other well-educated professionals? If so, money will probably have a lot to do with it.
I lean back and picture myself talking to some Business Week-reading, Armani-suit-wearing, weekday-golfing/weekend-sailing, Grand Cayman-vacationing, mahogany-office-suite-with-burgundy-leather-chair-occupying college administrator:
I say, "You have a nice place here, but I'm not taking less than six figures."
I can dream, can't I?
Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He will write occasionally about academic culture and the tenure track and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at email@example.com