Assuredly, you have had one of those weeks where it started off stressfully and ended with you in an emotional vat of ennui. I knew this week was going to be tough. I had been eagerly anticipating this week for it was make or break time. I was pumped. I believed I had this.” Then the moment came and indeed I was good but I was left feeling down. I rose only so high to the occasion. Afterwards, I was emotionally spent and plain old exhausted. By Friday, there was no trace of the exuberance that had existed a week prior and no amount of coffee was going to help. Despondent and deeply sunken into the couch, I was flipping through the evening news channels when I stumbled upon the segment memorializing the actor Russell Johnson, who had played “the professor” on Gilligan’s Island. I tweeted my thoughts on his passing and then it hit me like a cannonball. I was the professor and there was thus no wonder as to why I was feeling a tad bit put upon, listless and exhausted.
Gilligan’s Island followed 7 characters who boarded a ship, ended up shipwrecked on a deserted island and years upon years found no way off the island. The characters were caricatures of a captain and his first mate buddy (Gilligan himself), an old millionaire married couple, a pretty but empty-headed walking sex symbol, a farmgirl and a professor. In a way, this could have served as the archetypes for MTV’s Real World series where they disingenuously keep it real, you know what “I’m sayin”? On Gilligan’s Island, they were all well-meaning albeit a bunch of bumbling fools. Can’t really say the same for the Real World cast of archetypes. Actually, Gilligan’s Island could have been a hybrid pre-prequel to Real World meets Lost. I only have watched Gilligan’s Island in reruns but the zaniness, despite being a show that is over 40 years old, still holds up. Well, to a point. Watching the clips mourning the Professor’s passing threw me into an enlightened fog.
The professor was the brain. He was funny. He was somewhat charming and obtuse. The professor was a classic American character. Those on Gilligan’s island depended on him. Week after week there was a new contraption and a new rescue plan. Yet, plans were thwarted by self-inflicted shenanigans and miscommunications. Tell me that doesn’t sound like some of your workplaces? The professor had to steer the castaways, despite there ostensibly being a captain on board. He was always inventing something. He even invented, crafted out of coconut shells, a shortwave radio. Yet, for some ungodly reason he “couldn’t figure out how to patch a hole in the boat hull.” Of course, what would be the fun in working through the simplest solution?
On the island, he was known as having a BA, MA and a Ph.D- an alphabet soup according to Mr. Howell, the millionaire castaway. His credentials were always up front and center both distinguishing and also isolating him. Yes, he was the go-to guy who could reliably have an answer but because of that he was slightly different. In the first season of Gilligan’s Island, the professor was not mentioned in the opening theme song. He was considered an “other”. His original purpose on the boat was to serve as a botanist who was writing a book called Fun with Ferns. How much esoteric can you get? Upon being shipwrecked he became the one that had to know everything and upon whom the fate of the castaways rested. I think you can see where I am going.
Oftentimes, in the workplace you have that sole individual upon who’s shoulder the company’s future and viability rests. And if that person is a lone “breed” -meaning no other like them with certain skills sets or credentials- the workplace is mired with mine traps. When you go through a PhD program it is often expected that eventually you will end up in the Ivory Tower with similarly degreed others so you can bask in minutia of your field. What happens when you forego the traditional career route in favor of being a bit more applied and embedded in the everyday functioning of society? The answer is that you become the professor. I, am so often the only PhD in certain meetings that I don’t even remember having said credential until I get called out as either “doc”, “princess” or “Ms. Thing.” The sense of being labeled an “other “ is most definitely part of being the “professor”
Another aspect that is part and parcel to being the workplace “professor” is being relied upon for everything. That may very well go with the salary that is afforded the credentialed position but having to decide everything from job descriptions, to program design, to toilet paper color can by Friday afternoon be physically, mentally and spiritually exhausting. When there is a big make or break day in the workplace and the Captain cedes the major heavy Lifting to the Professor, at some point the professor is going to crash and not address the obvious hole in the hull. That was how I felt this past week. I wondered out loud as to whether I had performed to the previously exceedingly high expectations set for me by myself and the conspiring universe.
A few years back before I attained my PhD, I worked for an office at the Department of Justice. I was not a lawyer as were the majority of the staff there. However, when it came time to crunch some numbers and testify before congress based on those numbers, no one stepped up. Except for me that is. Apparently, knowing how to count using my my ties and fingers designated me the in-house statistician. Yes, having gotten my undergrad degree in psychology and having run small research studies meant that I could use statistical software and understand its inputs. I did not understand, however, how I could be the only one. Thus, starting way back when, I have had that Professor role. I left that office after a couple of years because being the professor amongst a group of lawyers, who vocally labelled themselves part of the intellectual elite, was quite disturbing. That was a sinking ship I just wanted no part of.
Lastly, there is a certain loneliness to being the Professor. On Gilligan’s Island, the Captain had his first mate. The millionaires had each other and the girls (although different values and background) had each other for girlie endeavors. The professor often sat alone with his thoughts fully engaged in a schizophrenic internal debate. Being the workplace professor is a lonely undertaking necessitating an outside support system where you can wax philosophical to your heart’s content.
Now, this need not just apply to the “professors” out there. This is about all the workplace outcasts and how the weight of responsibility, the acute loneliness and the assignation of “otherness” impacts morale, burnout, and well-being. Being a professor is essentially akin to being a big fish in a small pond. Now when this phrasing is invoked it often brings images of an arrogant person who is taking advantage of their status. This is not what I am driving at. there are those out there that relish that big fish status whip. What I am referring to is that big fish that is so because of label inherent to their being. The question becomes would it be better to be part of a larger group or organization where there is less weight afforded to your opinions and intellect? For some people, the answer is a mighty yes. They move on and feel free and unburdened. For people like myself, the thought of being a small fish in a big pond is unnerving and cause for an ulcer. The answer is to develop systems that bring on similar fish. Although systems change of that magnitude can be a huge undertaking, akin to trying to find a way off the island, but may be worth your sanity.
Next week will be a new set of problems and solutions to tackle and generate. If you are the professor, don’t fret. Just don’t forget that sometimes the simplest solution entails just patching up the hole in the hull and providing the Captain with the confidence to navigate that boat on out. We need not always be the smarty pants outcast.