July 19 2024

This Is Not a Professor

by Kate Blanchard, Alma College

blurred image person taking a photo of a mirror

When it comes to the time-related aspects of achieving work/life balance, I’ve been luckier than basically every working woman—certainly every working mom—I know. My graduate program in Christian ethics was necessarily supportive of its procreating students, so my “good years” were not “eaten up” by grad school. I got a job at a family-friendly college, highly understanding about parental duties (even to the chagrin of some of my child-free colleagues). My family has inherited enough money to enable us to live well in this rural town on my modest salary, such that my introverted spouse has happily been a stay-at-home dad for years. I almost never have to leave work early to pick up my kid from school or take him to the doctor; I can work at admissions events on weekends without needing to find a babysitter; I can stay late to hear visiting lecturers, when and if I am willing to sacrifice the precious bedtime hour I usually spend with my son. Best of all, everyone in my family is healthy (so far), so my time and energy are not consumed with motherly worry. I can, in short, focus on work from September to May with very few interruptions and little guilt. “Summer’s coming!” is our mantra.

I’ve had a much harder time achieving balance with regard to my sense of identity. I went to grad school hoping to become a professor because I believed being a professor would mean something. I would finally feel glamorous or significant or at least useful. But now that my luck has actually brought me to the enviable state of tenure, I still find myself feeling like a nobody. I’m a satisfactory teacher, a mediocre scholar, and all my “service” has been grunt work without any real authority. I have a few exceptional students who make me proud, but I believe they would be equally amazing regardless of their professors. I had put all my eggs in the professor basket in hopes of having an identity I could feel good about, and I somehow the basket was still empty.

This problem is certainly not unique to me. I think lots of folks in higher education have a “vocation” problem (likely exacerbated by an ethicist’s primary concern about how to be a good person) whereby we imagine that our job—unlike most other jobs—is some kind of higher calling that should define who we are. Higher education is an ostensibly mission-driven industry, where our “product” is adults who are, we hope, better people than they would have been without education. It goes against our values to admit that we work for the money, to say nothing of the health insurance. As it turns out, though, my work doesn’t always seem to have deep meaning; most days I feel just like everyone else in the world whose job title does not tell the whole story about who she is.

Achieving work/life balance in my sense of identity therefore involves a daily struggle to remind myself that I (in so far as there is an “I” to speak of) am not just a professor, any more than my co-worker is just a custodian or a secretary. If I may paraphrase Chuck Palahniuk’s immortal words from Fight Club, “You’re not your job. You’re not how highly ranked your college is. You’re not the peer-reviewed articles you publish. You’re not 89% of your average male colleague’s base pay. You’re not your f***ing regalia. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.”

In my case, the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world is a mix of small town living, long winters, feminist anger, craft beer, Star Wars Legos, cat hair, wide hips, a lawn full of dandelions, air travel, Netflix, time with friends, aging parents, fretting about the environment, laughing at inappropriate jokes, satellite radio, increasing arthritis, Buddhist aspirations, rich white guilt, beautiful bike rides, and far too much Facebook. It is also committee work, editing, grading, Power Point slides, discussions about religion, students who love me and students who don’t, reading and writing, academic conferences, clashes with my higher-ups, friendships with colleagues, and wondering why I ever became a professor. None of these things is I; I am none of these things.

At the same time, I am all of these things and much more. Work/life balance means letting go of the hope for a stable identity, giving up the imposition of pre-approved meaning, and instead learning to see and embrace all the messy things that make up a life.

Kate Blanchard is associate professor of religious studies and departmental chair at Alma College. Her area of research includes American Christianity and the economy, with a focus on Christian attitudes toward the free market and environmentalism. She is the author of An Introduction to Christian Environmentalism, with Kevin O’Brien (Baylor University Press, 2014) and The Protestant Ethic or the Spirit of Capitalism: Christians, Freedom, and Free Markets (Cascade, 2010).