“What do you do for a living?”

If you’re a faculty member like me, when asked about that question about your occupation, you respond in one of two ways:

  • “I teach [discipline] at [institution].”
  • “I am a member of the faculty at [institution].”

The two responses sound similar, but in the current environment of academic program prioritization (or academic sustainability, or whatever euphemism is being used at your institution), the distinction is vital.

When I left graduate school 25 years ago for the job market, armed with expertise in public finance, econometrics and game theory and experimental economics, all I had was my discipline. I was an economist, ready to teach upper-level courses in what I had studied. After 10 years of postsecondary education, I did not know how to think of myself differently as a professional.

When I joined the faculty at a private liberal arts college in the Midwest, I was, if only implicitly, asked to modify that self-definition. I was not asked to be an economics faculty member; I was asked, again, if only implicitly, to be a college faculty member with an appointment to an economics department. The college and the rest of the faculty made it clear that if I wanted to truly connect to the institution and its students, I had to go beyond my own discipline. I needed to teach courses that supported the needs of economics majors and minors, as well as our first-year seminar, honors seminars and other courses that might offer a broader appeal to the rest of the campus (e.g., economic history or environmental economics, both of which were side interests of mine).

What I would come to learn over time is that I was starting to think of what I do as serving the institution, not just economics students. I had entered into a truly Rousseauean social contract with my colleagues: “Each [person], in giving [themselves] to all, gives [themselves] to nobody; [and in so doing, they gain] an equivalent for everything [they lose], and an increase of force for the preservation of what [they have].”

Those were years of strong enrollment. Many students registered for my economics courses, and to begin to fulfill my side of the social contract, I began teaching other courses. By juggling economics course sequences, I was able to create first-year seminars on superheroes and feminism, disability and inclusion, human nature and choice, as well as other courses that satisfied general education requirements. Those courses were interdisciplinary, met students where they were and, quite honestly, were fun to teach. As much as I loved (and still love) teaching and studying economics, there was something special about discussing disability and inclusion with a roomful of students from across campus eager to talk about the assigned reading or something they saw on social media.

For Our Students

Over time, however, institutional enrollments dropped. Those seminars I enjoyed so much saw fewer and fewer students, as did my upper-level courses in economics. Courses began to be taught every other year, or not at all. Then, turning a problem into a crisis, the perfect storm of demographic change, economic pressure and COVID-19 caused our institution (and most institutions nationwide) to reconsider what we offered to compete for a shrinking pool of high school graduates. Indeed, over the last few years, we have been questioning the size of course enrollments, the number of courses offered and the college’s overall portfolio of majors and minors with a focus on what is “sustainable.” In other words, we’ve tried to identify which programs are priorities, not for us as a faculty but for our students, so that the institution can survive.

Decisions about academic prioritization are not about the intrinsic value of a discipline or academic subject. After all, the faculty at one time approved each one as part of the curriculum. Prioritization decisions are, rightly or wrongly, about what my institution should be — or needs to be — offering at this time to the students we enroll. I cannot teach something for which no one registers, and I cannot simply wish more students into my program.

But thinking about the need to downsize a department or eliminate a major is never easy, while it is all too easy to make it personal. I may think only about losing my program, rather than the issue of sustainability: Is my disciplinary major sustainable if only two students take my upper-level courses every year? Not really. In such circumstances, we faculty need the space and time to grieve the loss of something very close to us but, at the same time, we must admit that our program is not viable at this institution at this point in time. For any faculty member, all that is hard to do.

Of course, everyone worries about their colleagues in addition to themselves during these discussions, but we have to come up with a better, more comprehensive and more effective way to think about prioritization and its results. Our collective belief in the social contract — and how we answer that initial question about what we do for a living — is the key to moving ahead as a cohesive, united faculty. If my program is eliminated and I lose my job, there isn’t much I can do; I am forced to move on. If my program is eliminated yet I remain employed as a tenured faculty member, however, I may be faced with an existential crisis. If “I am an economics professor at …” is a crucial part of my identity, then my identify is directly tied to something that no longer exists at my institution. That is devastating. What do I do now? Losing my professional identity may force me to either resign or admit that I have no idea what I will teach next.

In contrast, if “I am on the faculty at …” is how I think of myself, then I will grieve the loss of my program, to be sure, but because my identity is not wrapped up in one single thing on campus, I am more likely to reinvent myself. I continue to shift my mind-set. I think about collaboration with colleagues to create interdisciplinary, integrative course work and programs. Should I work with colleagues in English, history and political science to create a cultural studies program focused on disability and inclusion? Should I return to my childhood love of superheroes and their depictions in graphic novels by working with an art colleague who teaches graphic novel design?

It can be scary to reach out to others in an attempt to create not just a single new course but also an entirely new (inter-)disciplinary home. In doing so, I am taking a gigantic leap of faith and leaning on the social contract I metaphorically signed when I began teaching. It is not just me that has to change what I teach; my colleagues also may need to modify what they teach to accommodate my prioritization-induced self-reinvention. I am looking to my colleagues not just for support but also for real assistance in rethinking my professional identity.

This social contract has the potential to help me see that prioritizing programs is not about me — it is about the entire faculty, and it is about the institution. Faculty members on each campus share the important responsibility to work together to help new faculty members understand this social contract. And they must genuinely and actively help their colleagues who are grieving the loss of their program to find a new outlet. Obviously, individual faculty members can find new courses to teach, but it will take the entire faculty’s collective will to change the curriculum. Faculty affected by prioritization must not be accommodated in what is currently taught; they must be included in what may become a new curriculum. And that will likely take revisions to many courses from many faculty members, not just from the displaced.

A retired professor at my institution was rumored to have said in response to the question posed at the beginning of this essay, “I teach students.” I might borrow that phrase from him.

So what do I do for a living? “I’m a member of the faculty at Central College. My colleagues and I work together to teach students.” That may be the best way to answer the question — and the best way to grow together as a faculty body.

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