Saying Goodbye to Pasadena City College

I will not be returning to my teaching position at Pasadena City College, a position I have held since 1993.

I am on medical leave for the entire fall semester, and in early 2014, will transition into disability retirement status. I do not anticipate returning to the classroom at PCC, or anywhere else for that matter.

UPDATE: To be very clear, I’m struggling with an ongoing problem with mental illness. I have been hospitalized on involuntary holds five times this summer. The repeated insinuation that I’m not really ill is infuriating: people who’ve never met me offer diagnoses as well as assertions that I’m “faking it” all. I’m on five medications: Zyprexa, Depakote, Invega, Lexapro, and Lithium. I’m meeting with therapists constantly.

This is a desperately difficult time for me and my family, and in the view of my psychiatrist, it is a time for me to take disability retirement. (A disability retirement is processed through the State Teachers Retirement System, not the college.)

Second UPDATE: My wife and I have agreed to separate. Eira and I are pledged to an amicable and cooperative divorce that prioritizes the well-being of our children.

Navigating Pornography at The Atlantic

I’ve written about my Navigating Pornography course before (I Don’t Need to Know if You Masturbate), but today at the The Atlantic, I give a little overview: I Teach a College Class on How to Think and Talk about Pornography.. Excerpt:

Even more than history lessons and an introduction to feminist debates, my students need and deserve the tools to combat sexual shame. I never ask how many of my students use pornography, nor do I inquire about any of their other sexual habits. A safe classroom environment hinges on respect for students’ right to privacy. I don’t need to pry, however, to hear stories—as I invariably do—about confusion, guilt, and fears of “addiction” to porn. Millennials may be more tolerant of sexual diversity than earlier generations, but many grow up in homes where masturbation—which is, after all, almost inextricably linked with pornography viewing—is still seen as shameful or sinful. Many worry that they watch porn too much, or watch the “wrong kind,” while quite a few have had bitter arguments with romantic partners over the ethics of porn use in a committed relationship.

Students need more than history and theory. They need safe spaces to think through—and in some instances, talk through—their fears, desires, and uncertainties. When it comes to a subject like porn, a safe space means a place where they won’t be judged, mocked, or sexualized regardless of what they reveal. Of course my classroom is not a therapist’s office and I am not a therapist. The safe space they choose to talk through those fears, desires, and uncertainties probably won’t be in class, in front of me and their fellow students. What I want them to take from my class is a vocabulary with which to initiate the conversations so many people find impossible to start. For better or worse, we live in a world seemingly permeated by the pornographic. In such a culture, there are few more valuable skills than the capacity to talk with candor and insight about what turns us on, gets us off, shapes and shames us.

On James Deen and Jackie Robinson: UPDATED

Is porn star James Deen more familiar to today’s college students than baseball legend Jackie Robinson? In an interview with the local paper in February, prior to Deen’s visit to my classroom, I suggested that he was. Both Deen and Robinson attended Pasadena City College and rank among our best-known alumni; an informal survey of my students at the beginning of the semester revealed more had heard of the 27 year-old actor than of the late athlete and civil rights activist.

Last night at the monthly meeting of the Pasadena City College Board of Trustees, representatives of the NAACP complained that my comments had unfairly maligned Robinson’s legacy, and demanded a public, written apology from me. (I was also offered a free ticket to see “42,” the new film chronicling Robinson’s role in integrating our national pastime.)

I stand by my original statement that — based on an entirely casual survey of a few dozen students — James Deen was a more familiar name than Jackie Robinson. I want to make it clear that I intended no disrespect to Jackie Robinson, and that I honor him as an important and remarkable figure in our nation’s history. Students everywhere ought to learn about his accomplishments both on and off the field, particularly here in his hometown and at the community college he attended.

At the same time, I want to make it clear that there is nothing inherently disrespectful about comparing Jackie Robinson to James Deen. Deen is a celebrity, an activist, and a mold-breaking star who is redefining erotic possibility. He too is worthy of celebration as an alumnus of Pasadena City College, and I reject any insinuation that his profession makes him unsuitable for recognition and honor as one of our most famous and accomplished former students.

UPDATED:

I sent this link to the entire board of trustees as well as the college president, Mark Rocha, and legal counsel Gail Cooper. I have not received a response from any of them. Here’s the cover letter I included:

“Dear trustees,

I’m told that last night, the NAACP asked for an apology for remarks I made to the Pasadena Star-News about two of our distinguished former students, Jackie Robinson and James Deen. I’ve placed a statement on my blog, writing entirely as an individual and not as a representative of the college. It is pasted in below and is available at http://www.hugoschwyzer.net/2013/04/04/on-james-deen-and-jackie-robinson/

I note that many members of the administration and the board of trustees have expressed concerns about the content of my Humanities 3 course, but that none have contacted me directly. I would be happy to chat on the phone or in person about the class, and I extend an invitation to any and all of you to sit in on one of the remaining lectures. This might be helpful in clearing up concerns and clarifying what it really means to ‘navigate pornography.’

I appreciate the college’s long and deserved reputation for the vigorous defense of academic freedom and bold intellectual inquiry, and am confident that you are as committed as I am to upholding that aspect of our mission.”

Erotic Disruption: on James Deen and my students at Daily Life

At Daily Life Australia, a column on porn star James Deen and his merrily disruptive sexuality:

“It felt really good to be in a classroom where we could openly acknowledge that women get horny too without it being unsafe or weird,” one student wrote in an email.

“What I got out of his talk was encouragement not to be ashamed of ourselves,” said another student. “We fear living out our true desires, and we fear the shame that will most likely shadow us if we do. Our college’s reaction to James Deen shows us exactly how much they’re still invested in perpetuating that shame … at least for women.”

It would be wrong to equate criticism of the industry that has made Deen a superstar with a refusal to accept that women are visual creatures, too. It’s possible to be against both porn and shame. At the same time, there’s no denying that Deen’s meteoric rise reflects a cultural shift towards acknowledging that young (and not so young) women are as hungry for sexual pleasure as men.

As the unprecedentedly nervous administrative reaction to Deen’s appearance on my campus showed, that shift is profoundly threatening. When men realise that women aren’t just sexy, but sexual in their own right, the fear of not being able to live up to female demands can become overwhelming.

The more we deny and shame women’s libidos, the more we insulate men from the pressure to satisfy them. That’s what makes Deen such a destabilising, even dangerous cultural figure.

Read the whole thing.

On the James Deen event at Pasadena City College

For the second consecutive spring semester, I’m teaching my Humanities 3 course “Navigating Pornography” at Pasadena City College. A year ago, I brought in many guest speakers with widely differing views about the adult entertainment industry; among those speakers were porn performers Kelly Shibari, Alana Evans, and Chris Evans.

In Spring 2012,I attempted to book James Deen, the hugely popular award-winning porn star who grew up in Pasadena and attended PCC a decade ago. His schedule didn’t permit a visit. This year, we were able to agree on a date, and James is expected to come and speak to my students tomorrow, February 27.

As has been common practice over my 20 years at Pasadena City College, professors often invite the public-at-large to attend guest lectures by prominent public figures. Since the mid-1990s, I’ve co-sponsored events with the Associated Students whereby speakers address both my class and other interested attendees in a larger space than my classroom normally provides. We’ve often done this with very controversial speakers; in 1999, for example, a Humanities class which I team-taught brought in the late founder of the Jewish Defense League, Irv Rubin. (Rubin would later go to prison for a plot to murder Congressman Darrell Issa. He committed suicide in custody.) The administration at the time had no problem with press and non-students attending Rubin’s lecture, and did not require special permits. In teaching other controversial classes like Lesbian and Gay History, I’ve brought in other speakers (like Sheila James Kuehl,the first openly gay woman elected to the California State Senate) for events co-sponsored with the Associated Students.

As local and national media are reporting today, college administrators informed me at noon today that they were closing the James Deen event to the public, requiring me to hold the event in my classroom for students only. Though I had pulled a valid activity permit with the Associated Students (the exact same permit I acquired for speakers like Rubin and Kuehl, etc), the college legal counsel and vice-president for academic affairs overrode that authorization. Other faculty members who have sponsored similar public events with the same sort of permits were as stunned as I was. Whatever else might be said, the decision was not in keeping with long-standing traditions of the college. (We’ve had a lot of turnover among the administrators in recent years; the two “suits” with whom I met are kind, competent, and both relatively new to the college.)

Gail Cooper, the college’s legal adviser, told me that she had received word that there might be up to “100 protestors ready to march” on the event, and that the college had decided they lacked the resources to prevent disruption. I told her I was surprised; when James Deen’s own PR firm publicised the event, I’d received a few critical phone calls from conservative community members, but no threats of protest. I’m no stranger to controversy; I told Cooper I thought it odd that none of those threats had been directed towards me. I frankly have no idea if the college did receive legitimate threats of protest, or if right-wing members of the board of trustees (or other prominent campus leaders) balked at offering a welcome to James Deen.

I do want to say that both Cooper and Robert Bell, PCC’s VP for Academic Affairs, stressed that I was within my rights to invite Deen to speak to my class only. I appreciate that they recognize and support academic freedom. But I’m mystified by the refusal to extend a welcome to Deen, now widely recognized as one of the college’s most famous alumni. I have seen no verification of the threats of disruption or protest, and remain unconvinced that the event could not — like so many other similar events in the past — have come off safely and without any hitches for students and the public alike.

I told Cooper and Bell that canceling the public portion of the event would only generate more controversy as I worked with Deen’s representatives to change the press releases and change Facebook invites to which many had already responded. I was left with the impression that they felt that the harm that would be done by hosting someone like Deen (if only because of the “threat of protests”) trumped the negative publicity for the college.

Late today, the college issued this press release. The statement says that we reached an agreement to move the event to a closed classroom. I want to make clear that there were no negotiations; I was simply told that the public event was off. This was a decision unilaterally imposed rather than negotiated. I respect that the college gets to make decisions based on student and public safety, but I contest the implication that James Deen’s appearance posed a potential threat to that sense of good order on campus.

I teach “Navigating Pornography” because I want to equip students with tools to think critically about a pornified culture. I want them to step into a safe space that is neither sexualized nor prudish, that is neither blithely celebratory of porn nor puritanically condemnatory. I want them to wrestle with a wide variety of texts, images, and persons so that they can better understand the role of porn in on our culture. I want them to become advocates for intelligent conversation. Speakers like James Deen, himself an immensely articulate and thoughtful speaker whom I’ve enjoyed interviewing in the past, bring a valuable perspective to both students and the general community.

I am deeply disappointed that all those who were eager to hear James will be unable to do so. I am grateful that my students will still be able to hear him. And I look forward to welcoming other porn performers (and public critics of porn) to my class in the future. I remain proud to teach at Pasadena City College.

UPDATE: I want to note that all the invitations to the local and national adult and mainstream press were made at the request of James Deen and his media representatives. The only reporters I had invited to cover his talk came from the Pasadena City College student newspaper.

First Day Jitters and Imposter Syndrome

An updated version of a post that appeared in 2010.

The fall semester begins today at Pasadena City College. If you look back through my archives, you’ll see that I usually have a “first day of school” post up on the last Monday in August. This year shall be no exception.

My mother tells me that my formal education began forty-one forty-two 43 autumns ago, in September 1969. I was two when I first went to Santa Barbara’s long-vanished Humpty Dumpty Nursery School. Since that year of Woodstock and moon landings and the amazing Mets, I’ve been in school every fall without fail. I went from nursery school to graduate school without a break, and began teaching full-time at the community college while still finishing Ph.D. work at UCLA. I’m in my fifth decade in the educational system, which astounds me. And I’m beginning my eighteenth 19th 20th year as a professor at PCC; this year, many of my younger students will have been born after I started teaching here.

In August 2004, I wrote about still having butterflies in my stomach the first time I met a class. Eight years later, things remain very much the same in my innards. I wrote then of the reasons for my nervousness:

The obvious question is this one: why, after all this time, do I still get so nervous about the first day of school? It’s not stagefright; public speaking has never been a fear of mine. It’s not new material, at least not this year; all four courses I am teaching this fall are courses I have taught in the past. It’s not fear that my students won’t like me; though I do struggle with vanity, it’s not at the root of my jumpiness this morning. All three of these might be small factors at different times, but the core reason for this almost-pleasant state of anxiety is more basic: I still believe that I have the best job in the whole dang world, and I can’t believe they pay me to do it.

Even after all these years of full-time teaching (the last 14 with tenure), I still expect someone to show up, and with an apologetic and yet officious tone, tell me “We’re sorry, Hugo, we made a mistake hiring you. There was this terrible mix-up, you see; we intended to get someone else. Though I can assure my readers that I did not lie or stretch the truth when I applied for this job, somehow after all this time I still suspect that I “got away with something” when I was hired to teach here.

I’ve talked about this with my parents and other colleagues who teach. My father (who taught philosophy for forty years at Alberta and UCSB) calls this feeling the suspicion of one’s own fraudulence. That phrase seems to sum things up nicely. Whenever I share these feelings, I note that it is often my most talented colleagues, students, and friends who say Really? That’s how I feel too! (One of the worst teachers I ever worked with, now thankfully retired, claimed never to feel this way.) I wonder if there isn’t some connection between periodic bouts of self-doubt (the imposter syndrome) and the drive to prove one’s self. Actually, that’s silly: I don’t wonder that at all, I know it with total certainty!

My office is a cheerful mess, I’m caffeinated and be-BrooksBrothered and readier than ever to begin the grand journey again.

UPDATE: Both in person in the hallways, and on my Facebook page, former and soon-to-be-current students have wished me “good luck” today. This isn’t new; I’m wished good luck each time a new semester begins. It might seem odd to wish it to the tenured professor; I’m not applying for anything, I’m not being evaluated this semester, and I’m not trying to get into a class. But I’m wished luck nonetheless.

I like to think it’s more than just a pleasantry offered when someone begins something new (or in my case, resumes an old and familiar task.) I like to think that it’s because even the very young recognize that there is an element of chance and mystery in teaching; some classes sizzle with chemistry while others, as we all acknowledge, are duds. Perhaps they are wishing me great students, or wishing me success in avoiding spilling on myself or teaching with my fly unzipped. Or perhaps they know that anything really can happen in the classroom, from the marvelous to the heartbreaking, and they are wishing me luck and grace and strength to cope with whatever comes, and to be as present and effective as I can be for all whom I will call my students.

UPDATE #2:

I will be teaching Women’s History this fall, and again in the spring. Though I did seriously consider dropping it from my schedule during last winter’s controversy, conversations with faculty and students on campus have changed my mind. For the foreseeable future, I will continue to offer History 25B, the college’s main intro to women’s studies course.

The First Day of School and Imposter Syndrome

An updated version of a post that appeared last year.

The fall semester begins today at Pasadena City College. If you look back through my archives, you’ll see that I usually have a “first day of school” post up on the last Monday in August. This year shall be no exception.

My mother tells me that my formal education began forty-one forty-two autumns ago, in September 1969. I was two when I first went to Santa Barbara’s long-vanished Humpty Dumpty Nursery School. Since that year of Woodstock and moon landings and the amazing Mets, I’ve been in school every fall without fail. I went from nursery school to graduate school without a break, and began teaching full-time at the community college while still finishing Ph.D. work at UCLA. I’m in my fifth decade in the educational system, which astounds me. And I’m beginning my eighteenth 19th year as a professor at PCC; this year, my youngest students will have been born after I started teaching here.

In August 2004, I wrote about still having butterflies in my stomach the first time I met a class. Six Seven years later, things remain very much the same in my innards. I wrote then of the reasons for my nervousness:

The obvious question is this one: why, after all this time, do I still get so nervous about the first day of school? It’s not stagefright; public speaking has never been a fear of mine. It’s not new material, at least not this year; all four courses I am teaching this fall are courses I have taught in the past. It’s not fear that my students won’t like me; though I do struggle with vanity, it’s not at the root of my jumpiness this morning. All three of these might be small factors at different times, but the core reason for this almost-pleasant state of anxiety is more basic: I still believe that I have the best job in the whole dang world, and I can’t believe they pay me to do it.

Even after all these years of full-time teaching (the last six 13 with tenure), I still expect someone to show up, and with an apologetic and yet officious tone, tell me “We’re sorry, Hugo, we made a mistake hiring you. There was this terrible mix-up, you see; we intended to get someone else. Though I can assure my readers that I did not lie or stretch the truth when I applied for this job, somehow after all this time I still suspect that I “got away with something” when I was hired to teach here.

I’ve talked about this with my parents and other colleagues who teach. My father (who taught philosophy for forty years at Alberta and UCSB) calls this feeling the suspicion of one’s own fraudulence. That phrase seems to sum things up nicely. Whenever I share these feelings, I note that it is often my most talented colleagues, students, and friends who say Really? That’s how I feel too! (One of the worst teachers I ever worked with, now thankfully retired, claimed never to feel this way.) I wonder if there isn’t some connection between periodic bouts of self-doubt (the imposter syndrome) and the drive to prove one’s self. Actually, that’s silly: I don’t wonder that at all, I know it with total certainty!

My office is a cheerful mess, I’m caffeinated and be-BrooksBrothered and readier than ever to begin the grand journey again.

UPDATE: Both in person in the hallways, and on my Facebook page, former and soon-to-be-current students have wished me “good luck” today. This isn’t new; I’m wished good luck each time a new semester begins. It might seem odd to wish it to the tenured professor; I’m not applying for anything, I’m not being evaluated this semester, and I’m not trying to get into a class. But I’m wished luck nonetheless.

I like to think it’s more than just a pleasantry offered when someone begins something new (or in my case, resumes an old and familiar task.) I like to think that it’s because even the very young recognize that there is an element of chance and mystery in teaching; some classes sizzle with chemistry while others, as we all acknowledge, are duds. Perhaps they are wishing me great students, or wishing me success in avoiding spilling on myself or teaching with my fly unzipped. Or perhaps they know that anything really can happen in the classroom, from the marvelous to the heartbreaking, and they are wishing me luck and grace and strength to cope with whatever comes, and to be as present and effective as I can be for all whom I will call my students.

Risk, Reputation and being Judged by Our Enemies

As we come to the end of the first quarter of 2011, I note it’s been a personally challenging start to the year. I’ve had a series of health difficulties, mostly revolving around a respiratory infection that has lingered for the better part of two months. Last week, I popped out a rib while coughing; it popped right back but the pain was excruciating. Middle age is certainly upon me.

It’s also been a terrific three months in terms of reaching new audiences. In late January, I was hired as a featured columnist at the Good Men Project, and my pieces there are regularly syndicated at Alternet, the Huffington Post, and The Frisky. We’re putting the finishing touches on Beauty, Disrupted: The Carré Otis Story, a memoir on which I was privileged to serve as collaborator. I’ve been doing some more speaking. And next month, this website will undergo a dramatic transformation to reflect those changes.

And with the good fortune of becoming ever more public, the criticism grows harsher. The hate mail has increased exponentially in the past three months. I won’t link to them, but google my name with the search term “mangina” and you’ll find plenty of men’s rights advocates (MRAs) working themselves into venomous fits. Most of what’s out there is laughable, a little of it is disturbing, and all of it is is par for the course.

Last week, however, one well-known MRA posted a Youtube video about me. It’s a typical rant of the sort I’ve heard countless times before: veiled accusations of sexual impropriety, cheap psychoanalysis, and misogyny. What was different was that this MRA put up a sort of slide show during his ten-minute talk, mostly using photos of me and my friends that I’ve put up on Facebook. In two instances, he included pictures of me with young feminists, including a group shot taken and reposted widely as part of Feminist Coming Out Day. (Strangely, he didn’t include the pictures of me dressed as a White Swan, which I would have thought would have been a source of great delight to that crowd.)

Two of the students who were in those pictures contacted me (it was one of the ways I first found out about the MRA video). They were horrified and creeped out by what was said in the rant, as well as by seeing themselves on the screen in this way. “Why are people so hateful”? one asked.

I reminded my students that activism comes with a price. Sometimes, college campuses can seem like sanctuaries; we need to remember that in the outside world, progressive ideas are still regarded with contempt and suspicion. There is a small but vocal group of men who regard feminism as the single most destructive ideological force in the modern world. Frequently hiding behind pseudonyms, these guys will say truly hateful , hurtful things. The goal is to shame, the goal is to silence, the goal is to use a heckler’s veto to derail thoughtful discussion. And sadly, I know that it sometimes works. Some young activists will reconsider a life of public advocacy when they see what can happen. And while it’s easy to tell people to grow a thicker skin, it’s heartbreaking that some folks will and do decide it’s simply too high a price to pay.

I’m lucky. The MRAs can’t threaten my job. (My division dean tells me the college gets regular calls and letters complaining about me, but they’re always anonymous and never from my own students, so they get ignored.) Most people who do this work don’t have tenure, don’t have the security I have as well as the steadfast support of an entire community. When an indignant anti-feminist reads about my curriculum, he can say “I’m going to complain to your college”, and I’ll happily help him by providing him with the address. That’s a privilege others don’t enjoy. Threats to someone’s livelihood can be very, very real.

The MRAs do work tirelessly to threaten my reputation. I’ve made it clear time and again that I’ve been sober for nearly 13 years and that I haven’t slept with one of my students since that time. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: accuse me of something that happened before June 27, 1998, and it’s probably true. (I’ve forgotten a great deal, and remember other details all too well. One thing I will say is that my relationships with students, as unethical as they were, were with chronological peers, slightly younger or older. I wasn’t exactly a middle-aged lech chasing teens.) But while I am not perfect, I can proudly answer for my sexual boundaries since that date. Still, folks insinuate that I’m a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” yet (a common charge thrown at male feminists). And while that tired old charge doesn’t bother me, it does impact people around me.

One of my female mentees sent me a FB message yesterday. She asked if she should stop visiting my office hours so regularly. She’d seen the hate video, and though she wasn’t in it, had picked up on the cheesy intimation of sexual impropriety. She wrote:

You know I think you’re safe. I KNOW you’re safe. But I’m worried about your reputation and mine if I visit you so often. People see me coming into your office, or they see us walking to the Pass (where they sell sodas on campus). I worry that they’re talking about us and will think something is going on that isn’t. I still want to see you but I don’t want to damage your reputation. I also hate it that people might think something is going on that isn’t. I don’t want to be judged! What should I do?

I told her that of course she could continue to come. I also told her that if she’d rather talk more on email, that was fine too — she needed to assess her own comfort level. But it left me sad and angry, angry not at her but at the success this particular nasty tactic had had in rattling a young person.

If no one hates you, you’re not doing your job. I first heard that truism from the late Senator Alan Cranston, of all people, though the sentiment is millenia old. I’ve always been proud to have the friends I have — and proud to have the enemies I do as well. We judge people by the company they keep, and by those who won’t keep their company. By that calculus, I’m blessed.

“We’re going to Chicago because of Fukushima”

A student I know well, who is taking his second class with me, called me an hour ago, very apologetic. “I won’t be in class tomorrow”, he said, “and I’m not sure when I’ll be back. Hopefully next week.”

His parents, the young man told me, are panicked about the prospect of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear reactor reaching California, and they’ve decided to go and stay at least through the weekend with family in Illinois. They fly out later today.

My student told me he had begged to stay, and that he knew perfectly well that the danger to the States from the Japanese meltdown is nonexistent. But his parents through a fit, and so he’s going off, hoping to be back by next Tuesday. If I didn’t know him so well, I’d think he was pulling my leg. But I believe he’s telling me the truth about his parents’ paranoia.

I’m hoping he’s the only one.

Better than I was: in defense of seniority rights for teachers

It’s a month of anniversaries for me. Thirty years ago this March, I was kicked out of prep school, launching an adolescent rebellion that would continue on and off for years. 25 years ago this month, my career as a sex educator began when I started training with Berkeley’s Peer Sexuality Outreach. And twenty years ago, with the beginning of the spring quarter at UCLA, I began my teaching career as a Graduate Student Instructor in the Classics department.

GSIs (or TAs, as they were still known then) often lectured in discussion sections. I remember being so nervous before my first lecture (I was not quite 24) that I threw up in the Bunche Hall men’s room before meeting my students. Most were only two or three years my junior. I was excited and terrified, but knew after the first week of teaching that this was the life I wanted.

Two decades later, I’m still teaching. And though I don’t get as nervous as I did in 1991, I still get butterflies from time to time. More to the point, however, I’m an infinitely better teacher than I was back then. And that brings me to my point.

In the current political climate, it’s become fashionable to attack public employees — teachers in particular. Conservatives who have never been enamored of public education hope to take advantage of a weak economy to strip teachers of their pensions, bargaining rights, tenure, and other job protections. These attacks are odious and indefensible, motivated less by concern with fiscal rectitude or the well-being of young people and more by a desire to destroy the progressive public service unions.

One bit of this emerging conservative conventional wisdom drives me nuts: the idea that teachers are at their best when they are new. Complaining about seniority rules that follow the tradition of “last hired, first fired”, education “reformers” often describe older instructors as “dead wood” and the newest and most vulnerable teachers as the ones who do the most valuable work. Even some ostensibly progressive voices agree, arguing that too many senior faculty have “given up”, while the young (and less well-paid) are the ones who are still engaged.

In what other profession do we express such open contempt for experience? Do people board airplanes, saying “Gosh, I really hope our captain and first officer are new at this — enthusiastic young pilots are the kind I trust most!” Do people go to hospitals, asking “Could you please have a resident operate on my child? I’m worried that an older and more experienced surgeon won’t do the job right.” Of course not. In every other profession, experience is valued. In every other profession, seniority is seen not just as a perk for sticking around but as a resource for the entire community.

I am still an enthusiastic professor. I’ve taught 15,000 students (at the least) since I faced that first class twenty years ago this month. Last fall, my in-class teaching evaluations were higher than they’d ever been before. Even as I’ve given the same lectures over and over again — about Cicero and clitorises, about Gilgamesh and intersectionality, about the Pauline epistles and Betty Friedan — I’ve found ways to change and refine what I say. I know I’d shudder if I heard one of my early lectures now, simply because I’ve gotten so much better at the job of delivering a good talk.

Of course, there’s more to teaching than lecturing. I am more compassionate, more patient, and much quicker to recognize when a student is struggling. (I’m also much more ethical — my infamous and inexcusable sexual relationships with students all happened early on in my career.) I can discern the difference between the lack of motivation and the presence of a genuine learning disability in a way I simply couldn’t years ago. Experience has given me these tools. And if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that no amount of youthful energy can compensate for the benefit of accumulated wisdom.

I make more money now. My first year as a TA, I was paid $1050 a month. My first year as a full-time prof at Pasadena City College, I made $27,000. I have a base salary of approximately three times that now. (Finishing my doctorate in 1999 boosted my compensation nicely.) Am I worth the salary and the benefits? I don’t know, but I do know I’m worth more than I was when I started. And judging by my colleagues whose work I know well, the same is true for them as well. As with every true calling, as with every profession, experience matters for those of us who sweat and strut in the classrooms.

It’s time we push back against the attempt to de-legitimize our profession, and to dismiss the very real benefits of seniority.