Professorial Work Loads
Mark Bauerlein argues in the Chronicle of Higher Education that college professors don’t work particularly long hours once one excludes the 40 hours a week or so they devote to work he personally considers worthless. Michael Bérubé retorts that, yes, there’s a lot of scutwork that produces little social value beyond the walls of the academy but that this is nonetheless a professional obligation and that the same is true in most white collar professions. This has, as of this writing, generated 122 comments.
Discussions about how hard professors work are always likely to fall on deaf ears. From the perspective of the college student, let alone the working stiff, it’s a pretty easy life. People think professors are paid more than they are and work less than they do.
That’s true, to a lesser extent, of attorneys and physicians, but people seem to especially resent the easy life of professors. Partly, it’s because more of the work (the committee work and other “service” requirements Bérubé details) is invisible and only tangentially related to teaching students but partly it’s the sense that professors are somehow isolated from society within the ivory-covered walls of their campuses.
I’m always reminded of the line from the Sean Connery character in Just Cause: “Why is every f-ing thing the real world except teaching?”
Having taught college for a number of years sandwiched in between “real” jobs, I can attest that there’s plenty of work — and plenty of time wasted doing seemingly unproductive things — on both sides of the campus walls.
As an Army officer, I spent an inordinate amount of time doing so-called “additional duties” and getting ready for inspections and so forth. It was especially apparent to me when we got back from Desert Storm and tried to return to the pre-war daily grind how much of it was unrelated to readying my men for combat.
As an acquisitions editor for a book publisher, my first job after teaching, I pretty much worked 8-4. While I’d answer the occasional email or have the incredibly rare weekend meeting to accommodate an author’s schedule, my out-of-office time was my own in a way that it wasn’t when teaching.
As a defense contractor doing office work side-by-side civil servants and military personnel, it was much the same. There were cycles of heavy stress and lulls with little real work to do. But even when we were frantically trying to get big presentations ready or prepare materials for conferences and trade shows, I never really got the sense that it mattered in any real sense. Certainly, no soldier was going to die in Iraq if our PowerPoint slides sucked nor was al Qaeda’s ability to harm Americans diminished if we wowed them at the big technology conference.
I was writing and managing my blogs full time for eighteen months or so. Being self-employed, as I often joked, meant having a jerk for a boss. And the boss always knew when you were screwing off when you should have been working. There’s a great freedom that comes with setting your own schedule but the corollary is that your work is never done and there’s anxiety that you should have done more. That was true as an academic, too, for much the same reason.
I’m now working at a think tank while doing the blogs on the side. It’s the closest thing to the academic life that I’ve had since leaving teaching. The hours at the office are good and I’ve got quite a bit of flexibility as to when I come and go. There are after hours events to attend with some regularity and there’s work to be done that follows me on evenings, weekends, holidays, and vacations. Mostly, though, it’s self-assigned: There’s a job to be done and professional pride motivates me to do it.
Blogging, which I started as a hobby shortly after I moved to the D.C. exurbs to take the publishing job, quickly became more than that. I didn’t make any significant money from it the first couple of years and, indeed, I never expected to. But it became an outlet for living the “life of the mind” that initially attracted me to graduate school and teaching and tends to take up a great deal of time. And it’s why I’ve been reading and writing for two hours early on a Saturday morning. Were I still single, I suspect, I’d be doing even more of it evenings and weekends that I do now.
The academic life, whether in the narrow sense of teaching college and taking on the various non-teaching responsibilities that entails, or in the broader sense of some of the other jobs PhDs do, is a constant one in a way that few professions are. It’s also, frankly, more leisurely in its pace than the other professions. It’s a pretty pleasant existence, which is why there are more people clamoring to do it than there are jobs and why wages are low compared to the barriers to entry.