What It's Like to be a Conservative Professor
It would be too easy to begin by quoting the famous line from DuBois's Souls of Black Folk, "what is it like to be a problem?"
So pretend I didn't just quote that. Let's start somewhere else.
Like here, for instance: An April 4, 2012 article in The Blaze reports on Bill Ayers commiserating with Occupy Wall Street protestors:
We've got a militarized society and its become so common sense that, getting on the airplane coming out here [...] uniformed military get on first and thank you for your service [...] let's let the teachers and nurses get on first and thank them for their service.
What a bind. I am both a teacher and a soldier (Army reserves). Self-proclaimed conservatives thank me for my service whenever they find out that I am military. Only two or three have ever thanked me for serving as a teacher.
In truth, teaching is a lot harder. I would rather be beaten senseless in combatives by a 240-pound meathead (again) and waterboarded than forced to go through a tenure review.
I suffered a closed head injury while in uniform, hurt my shoulder, got stitches over my eye from laceration, and burned a permanent scar into my leg while sliding down a rope in training. Heat stroke, suicide watch, tear gas, whatever. Other soldiers would scoff if I tried to make a big deal out of such inconveniences because that's life in the Army. Those scars heal eventually. Pills and doctors can do wonders, especially if you have the stamina to deal with Tri-Care paperwork.
Coming home from active duty to my English department office and finding my door vandalized by anti-military leftists was far worse. I stood looking closely at the grooves carved into the door, guessing whether it was a knife or a screwdriver the vandal dragged over the flag and Army stickers. That imaginary knife hurt more than an actual stab wound could have. Even worse were the emails calling me "vendido," "asshole," and alluding to the murder of women and children.
Snipers threatened me less than snarky liberals. If shunned from the tenure track, I lose decades of academic investment and have to spend half my life in miserable poverty and humiliation. Snarky liberals delight in nothing more than provoking conservatives and then getting them fired.
Your comrades may lose their heads and assault you in a moment of pique, but students will smile at you for a semester and then sabotage you on course evaluations. I always have to worry about the ones smelling of marijuana smoke with big O buttons on their backpacks, who Google gossip about me posted by liberal provocateurs while I am trying to lecture about Poe.
When a colleague authored a slapstick farce about a Puerto Rican academic forced into military contract by state budget cuts and sent to Afghanistan -- a premise with wildly coincidental resonances to my own life -- it was a different kind of pain from a swollen brain. Pills cannot take care of that. The icing on the cake was the 14 brightly colored posters promoting said play, on the thirty-pace walk from the mailroom to my office.
Nobody in the English department said, "thank you for your service" when I came home from active duty. I am glad they didn't. (They did roll the red carpet out when Dan Choi came to give a paid speech on campus, but that was very strange.) They thanked me, instead, for forming new literature programs, organizing events I didn't have to, loving students enough to tell them when they are being petulant and lazy, correcting extra drafts beyond the catalog requirements -- for rising to the occasion and teaching American literature and writing to young people, which is what I have sacrificed much comfort and treasure for, because of a sense of duty and love of tradition.
Liberals are invested in higher education as a whole and respect people who do homage to it, even with all its medieval flaws inherited from the monastic cloisters of Europe, where the "doctors" of the church laid down the ascetic principles that would evolve into the modern professoriate.
It would be nice if such a "thank you for your teaching" could come from someone other than a leftie devoted academically to destroying everything that matters to me personally. Then again, "you're a great teacher but I hate your politics," while back-handed, beats "I agree with you politically but what the hell are you doing in that ridiculous profession?"
At a conference in 2011, I told a roomful of academics gathered for a conference on torture, "academia is much worse than being clobbered and burned with cigarettes. The span from beginning your MA to the end of probationary status and tenure is typically 12-15 years, far longer than a deployment or even the time most prisoners of war will spend in GITMO. The aftereffects are worse." The crowd laughed uncomfortably and then fell silent when they realized I wasn't joking.
Now, I am not rallying behind Bill Ayers. When he tells Occupy Wall Street to thank teachers and nurses, he wants to foster a smug "thank you" club among progressives worse than the smug "thank you" club among conservatives. Boarding an airplane before other people is a silly gesture anyway. Soldiers would benefit instead from shorter deployments and professors would benefit instead from a less sadistic tenure process. Pandering helps nobody.
But there is something to be said for thanking teachers for sticking it out in a profession that remains ideologically toxic. Especially the rare conservative ones. Liberal professors invariably agree on pacifism, multicultural identity politics, and anti-plutocracy. With a liberal consensus on all that, what's left to argue about it? Somehow the academic left is quarrelsome and internally divided, yet perpetually fascinated with itself.
A small dose of such intellectual self-importance would do the right wonders. Or maybe just say thanks to a fellow conservative who's willing to live a life this pathetic.
You may ask, where are they? I can't tell you. The academic right simply doesn't exist. Conservative professors are frightened, invisible, and often embarrassed. Ideological exile is scary. It gets tiring when colleagues ask you to defend birthers, the Westboro Baptist Church, Rush Limbaugh, George Bush, George Zimmerman, and David Horowitz before you've even had your morning coffee, especially when they are going to vote on your tenure. The ignorant asides about Fox News are usually thrown in during department meetings, somewhere between announcements of the latest conference about homosexuality and elections to the personnel review committee. Hold your tongue and count to ten, then scream as you jog at dawn the next day.
I posted on Facebook: "I am not agreeing with Bill Ayers but I wish people would say, 'thank you for your service,' for my teaching rather than my soldiering. Teaching is the way I have been able to change the lives of thousands of students."
The response from a right-wing Army wife: "Your thanks for being a teacher is your paycheck and your pension. Shut up and be grateful."
Elsewhere, a retired Air Force officer wrote, "I detest people like you."
That's what it's like to be a conservative professor.
Robert Oscar Lopez teaches American literature and Classics at CSU Northridge. His book, Colorful Conservative: American Conversations with the Ancients from Wheatley to Whitman, came out in 2011.