Disconnect, Angst, and Opportunity: On Being a Professor on Bad News Days

David S. Heineman
14 min readJun 28, 2018

In one of the best cuts on what is arguably R.E.M.’s most underappreciated album, Up, Michael Stipe penned a few lines that were meant to capture the angst of middle-aged professordom:

“This may be a lit invention
Professors muddled in their intent
To try to rope in followers
To float their malcontent.
As for this reader,
I’m already spent.

Late afternoon, the house is hot.
I started, I jumped up.
Everyone hates a sad professor.
I hate where I wound up.”

Long before I ever started pursuing an academic career, I felt that “Sad Professor” offered a kind of fascinating peek into an aspect of the profession that few people talk openly about: the mental and emotional toll that grappling with large social problems, often via nuanced and dense theory, and often to audiences that are not always receptive to new ideas or to the intensity of work used to understand or generate them, can take on someone over the years. As someone who has now spent his professional life on a college campus (first as a student and then as a professor) longer than R.E.M. stayed together, I have found, time and again, that the kind of creeping malaise that Stipe describes comes into sharpest focus on “bad news days.”

The first time I recall experiencing the feeling that I am trying to describe in this essay was on what is probably the modern “bad news day” par excellance (which is an admittedly odd way to phrase it): September 11, 2001. At the time I was a graduate student in the first semester of an M.A. program and was literally in my second week in the classroom, teaching about the basics of public speaking, when one of my students arrived late to class and explained that it was because they heard something about a plane crashing in New York City (or “maybe Washington DC,” they were unsure) on their way to class. I noted the sad news (which still sounded like a story about a plane crash, not one about a terrorist attack) with a comment something to the effect of “that’s awful, we’ll have to see what other news there is later…” and then immediately (regrettably) soldiered on with the day’s planned course content. As a fresh-faced 21 year old instructor with some students that were older than I was, I was not going to let the threat of a long tangent about the day’s news move me off of my lecture or away from the carefully planned/structured class that I had put in place to try and establish my very new and very fragile authority.

I have two other very clear memories from that bad news day. The first occurred some hours after class, once it became clear what had happened in New York, Pennsylvania, and D.C., as I walked across the campus of Syracuse University and saw people openly weeping on the academic quad. Many of the students who attended there hailed from places like Long Island, Manhattan, and northern New Jersey, and for them the news of the World Trade Towers’ collapse was first and foremost the news of a personal tragedy. I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness on that walk, a sadness that was amplified by the juxtaposition of the physical beauty of the university and all that it represented (a commitment to spaces of learning, the value of public art, the enshrinement in sculpture of humanitarian ideals, etc.) against the intense sorrow of the students who occupied that space at that moment. This is a searing memory, to this day: I felt hopeless — I wanted to help, I wanted to offer answers, I wanted to provide meaningful comfort — but I did not know how.

The other clear memory of that day took place a few hours later, in a graduate seminar on the Rhetoric of Public Memory, wherein I found a model of how to offer a meaningful reaction to bad news. The university did not cancel classes that afternoon, so our seminar session offered a kind of welcome opportunity to try and put some critical perspective on the moments that were unfolding in real time. I don’t know how the professor for that class thought about the challenge in front of him that day, or how he prepared to face the class, but I do remember that the class session was immensely comforting. It was extremely helpful, I recall, to have a conversation that offered some initial historical and political contextualization to the tragedy that had spawned the scene I experienced a few hours earlier on the academic quad. Talking about Hannah Arendt’s writing about the function of “tradition” in mid-century Europe and about Cicero’s view of shared memories amongst Roman citizens offered a chance to understand how scholars in the past had thought about the public problems and social upheavals they had witnessed. Reflecting back on that reading for this essay (and, also, on our current “bad news day”), I find that Arendt’s writing about the place of tradition against the rise of modern science is especially prudent for headlines that bewilder:

“ When the trust that things appear as they really are was gone, the concept of truth as revelation had become doubtful, and with it the unquestioning faith in a revealed God. The notion of "theory" changed its meaning. It no longer meant a system of reasonably connected truths which as such had been not made but given to reason and the senses. Rather it became the modern scientific theory, which is a working hypothesis, changing in accordance with the results it produces and depending for its validity not on what it "reveals" but on whether it "works."”

Bad news days — whether they be days where terrorists attack or days where Supreme Courts make bad decisions — are days where revelations about what actually “works” in practice come into conflict with our understanding of what theory “reveals” about the supposed connections between reason and truth. In other words, people like me who spend their professional careers teaching critical thinking and scholarly analysis experience a disconnect between what we believe to be, theoretically, the ideal way for the world to function and the way that it functions in reality. Furthermore, it is a disconnect between how we teach our students to engage their world and how the world actually unfolds; it is a disconnect between the theoretical ideals we embrace and the practices to which we bear witness.

That is not to say that bad news days are surprising or that professors are naive about the world outside of academia. One of the things that a quality education provides is a sense of the historical rhythm of bad news days, the knowledge that they will come time and again, and that they will always be unsettling. The disconnect and its ensuing angst will be regularly reproduced. Indeed, the very pull and push rhythm of theory against practice is dependent on the continual production of this disconnect; confronting bad news days help us to better define (and better appreciate) good news days where theory and practice at least appear to be in closer harmony.

Still, it is worth unpacking the disconnect on bad news days so as to better understand its impact on our teaching and our scholarship in both the present and the future. If the intensity of a bad news day muddles our thinking and moves us towards a feeling of being “already spent,” then perhaps by “floating their malcontent” we can move towards a framework that allows us to escape malaise for a time and do our work with a new purpose and new vigor. So, I will float:

Bad news days make us question our effectiveness as educators.

As a general principle, the idea of an educational system is to prepare students for the world in which they will hopefully find meaningful and gainful employment, function as productive members of various publics, and work to improve their lives and those of others. Education should provide both the practical tools and the theoretical concepts that feed into this kind of life, professors as a general rule try to impart both to students in ways that resonate. But, things don’t always work as we’d expect. For example, we know that (especially white) voters who had at least some college (and/or a degree) are very much to blame for many of our recent bad news days.

When we see these kinds of statistics, it makes us ask questions like “why hasn’t my pedagogy been able to reach these students?” or “have my students abandoned what they learned in my class when their formal education ended?” More broadly, we may turn our critical ire to those institutional forces that shape modern education. Was a particular bad news day the inevitable result of the gutting of the arts in high schools, or the rise of standardized testing, or the efforts to excise “controversial” history from textbooks? In what ways have we failed our students, either as individual instructors or as an institution, that would lead them to make the kinds of decisions that generate bad news days? Was it that they could they not see the writing on the wall…or that they could and did not care…or, perhaps, that they were eager to help do the inscribing?

These questions are important ones to ask, and bad news days provide us all of the incentive we should need for answering them across our teaching, scholarship, and service. However, it is also unfair to place more blame than is due on the institution of education per se when confronted with bad news. Indeed, formal education is but one factor that influences someone’s public engagement, and no amount of education can override the full influence of one’s class, race, sex, gender, geography, religion, income, etc. (nor should it, probably). What we might take away from a bad news day is not that people have not learned in our classrooms, but rather that they haven’t recognized the relationship of that learning to the many other areas of their lives. Perhaps, to address this angst, we might work more to ensure that when a former student casts a vote for the “economic interest” or for their “personal values,” their formal education serves them as a type of gnawing conscience which insists that they constantly evaluate the certainty of their position and the consequences of their political choices.

What we might take away from a bad news day is not that people have not learned in our classrooms, but rather that perhaps they haven’t recognized the relationship of that learning to the many other areas of their lives.

Bad news days make us question what we are doing with our time outside of the classroom.

One feeling that weighs especially heavy on bad news days (and, more than any other, prompted this essay) is the feeling that the insular nature of the work of academia is a chief contributor to the events that we see unfold. Instead of re-reading dense passages of Derrida to try and truly understand it this time, instead of attending a small academic conference on an esoteric subject in a far-flung corner of the globe, instead of writing about the construction of some -ism or some -ity in some bygone era, and instead of pouring hours into editing a document that maybe no one will ever read or cite, this feeling tells us that we should all be more directly involved in civic life. Perhaps, this particular line of thinking often proceeds, we need to extend our arguments to new audiences that might respond to it, act on it, and improve the world because of it. “Surely,” we muse, “there is a place for prominent public intellectuals in all of today’s bad news — we must find a way to get on to television news programs, on to a trending podcast, on to a public stage, and into the hearts and minds of the larger public!” Nevermind, of course, that many of the same skills which work very well to engender discussion in a classroom of 10 graduate students or that enliven a lecture hall of 300 freshmen are sometimes antithetical to those needed in our current mediated public discourse. No, “we must get our good ideas out into the world, so that the masses will seize on their brilliance and effect meaningful change!”

Of course, there are already a great many public intellectuals who do this work and do it well; I am not certain their is a dearth that needs addressed. While the impulse here towards more immediate public work is perhaps a noble one, too often I fear that professors fail to consider how the very tedium of scholarly work is exactly the process that allows us to become more effective educators, more helpful colleagues, and better writers for (sometimes small) audiences of people who can and do in fact act on our ideas. The angst of “What is the ultimate purpose of my career?” and “Who am I really helping?” is strong on bad news days…but it must not function to permanently disconnect us from the larger ethos of academic work — the very work which enables us to feel the depth of the bad news itself, to assess its emergence, and to theorize how things might get better.

Bad news days make us question our chosen profession.

If, on a “normal day,” the growth of anti-intellectualism isn’t enough to make professors worry about the social value of their work, then bad news days bring this angst into an especially sharp focus. This line of thinking goes something along the lines of “If I am so smart, why don’t I work in a context where people will respect and act upon my arguments?” Why would someone do the hard work of writing about the threat of climate change if, since they are clearly intelligent persons, they could work to craft policy that addresses it? As a rhetorical scholar, this question is something like “Why not run for office or a lead a movement to try and try to fix things instead of teaching students how they might do it?”

The truth is, of course, that politicians, community organizers, and other positions of social influence are often themselves subject to even more vitriolic dissent and general public dissatisfaction than even academics face. We might be in an age of growing anti-intellectualism, but that public sentiment is mostly symptomatic of the general growth in the mistrust of institutions (and their representatives), a mistrust that has been on the rise since at least the late 20th Century and which shows no signs of abetting (today we see this mistrust targeted especially towards journalism, for example). Certainly, it is not hard to find those on the Left and the Right that support this general trend towards a healthy public skepticism of those who might claim institutional authority. Additionally, as effecting social change typically means working both within and against existing institutions of power, leaving one institution for another may merely be a case of a sort of “grass is always greener” perspective on the world.

We are well prepared to “despair like a pro” when we are greeted with a bad news day.

Bad news days make us question the future of our society.

As is the case with some of the points below, feeling this way after a bad news day is not unique to professors — despair creeps in for most people when they are greeted with news that directly challenges their agency, their ideology, or their ontology. For professors, though, this feeling is often a kind of exacerbation of the type of water-cooler talk we too often hear in departmental hallways and faculty meetings. “These millenials have a poor work ethic!” “ Do you see the kind of students the high schools are sending to us?!” “My students don’t want to read, unlike the students of the past!” In other words, our profession often trades in the discourse of despair about the future — our “bad” students make us worry about how bad the world will be once they are running it. There is an undercurrent of pessimism that seems, unfortunately, endemic to much of academia.

This kind of talk about our students is almost always harmful, misplaced, and in stark contrast to the facts. But, because we do it (or hear it done) so often we are well prepared to “despair like a pro” when we are greeted with a bad news day. Bad news days invite us to forget history more than recall it, to focus on the worse aspects of our daily interactions with students rather than our best ones, and to wonder if any amount of syllabus tinkering or critical writing can right the wrongs we read about in the headlines.

As professors, this short list of anxieties is certainly not the extent of the kinds of feelings we might be grappling with on a bad news day. For many of us, and depending on the headline, there can also be anxiety about job security, immigration status, classroom safety, etc. For professors, a bad news day — or a string of them — can absolutely be a catalyst towards becoming Stipe’s “Sad Professor” (“Everybody hates a bore. Everybody hates a drunk.”)

The ensuing disconnect and angst can be a catalyst for dramatic change in one’s professional life and, perhaps in some cases, it should be. That is, I am not suggesting that dramatically revising pedagogy, becoming a public intellectual, or changing careers are necessarily bad decisions, only that they may not really be the best ones. For most of us, I think the answer is that if we want to decrease the number of bad news days and work towards a better future…

We are probably exactly where we need to be.

Despite the fact that we may feel powerless in the wake of upsetting headlines, professors still have a tremendous amount of influence on shaping the future — more than almost anyone else in our culture, I’d argue. Not noticing that is akin to not “checking our privilege” as academics and not recognizing the enviable positions we have.

These students might not all retain their critical mindset or go on to make political choices that we might agree with — but many will, and that is rewarding.

The truth is, most people believe that — outside of voting or joining a protest — they have very little agency to either change the kinds of circumstances that create bad news days or to grapple with their effects in the weeks, months, and years to come. The nature of our 24/7, always connected, always working (or available to work) society means that most people lack things that they might need to effect change: time to develop and disseminate arguments, sizable audience(s) that are interested in hearing those arguments, and the freedom to focus their work on things that they are passionate about. Professors, however, have this opportunity.

In a time of social upheaval and general unrest, professors have positions that allow them to welcome new students who ostensibly seek to learn about these conditions so as to make their way in the world within and against the contexts that they create. Even if students arrive to our classrooms as apathetic or “apolitical” thinkers , professors have the opportunity to show them why they shouldn’t be. This is a kind of agency that many people who feel frustrated by the implications of bad news days unfortunately lack access to in the kinds of work they do. Especially in pockets where ignorance flourishes and counter-narratives are deemed controversial, the power one wields in being an educator is an especially enviable one. This is a power and a privilege that is reinforced every time a student asks a smart question in our classroom, every time a student stops by to discuss a challenging reading in our office, and every time a student turns in work that shows that they have a command of the connections between theory and practice that we have tried to impart. These students might not all retain their critical mindset or go on to make political choices that we might agree with — but many will, and that is rewarding.

There are many people who understandably feel powerless to effect change in the wake of bad news days; professors, objectively, should not.

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David S. Heineman

Professor & documentary filmmaker whose research and teaching focuses on rhetorical and critical theory, new media, and visual culture. | www.davidheineman.net