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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I think there’s a great divide in the academic world between the tenured and the non-tenured. Practically all of the criticisms of the academic life are justified about the tenured. Practically none are about the non-tenured.

  2. James Joyner says:

    There’s merit to that in the abstract. Certainly, there are old professors who are dead weight, teaching from yellowed notes and contributing little as scholars or even as teachers. But a high percentage of even tenured full professors continue to do serious research and most of those at teaching institutions at least keep up with the professional literature so as to be effective in the classroom.

    Indeed, doing the things that get you tenure often distracts from doing the things you need to do to be a good teacher.

  3. King of Fools says:

    Very interesting observations – both on the topic as well as the personal anecdotes. I agree it is critical to feed “the life of the mind”.

  4. King Fools says:

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  5. I think there’s a great divide in the academic world between the tenured and the non-tenured. Practically all of the criticisms of the academic life are justified about the tenured. Practically none are about the non-tenured.

    I think that this is true in terms of the perception of those doing the criticizing.

    However, speaking as one who has lived as both a non-tenured (both an a non-tenure-track instructor and a tenure-track assistant professor) and a tenured associate professor, I can say with some authority that getting tenure does not equate to a decision to stop working hard. Indeed, i have been busier since getting tenure than I was before I earned it, serving three years as Faculty Council President and having written a book, amongst other things plus everything else I did pre-tenure.

    Now, granted, I still have full professor to shoot for, but that is mostly a prestige thing, as it does not affect my tenured status nor does it equate to a substantial raise in pay (indeed, it amounts to a rather disappointing raise in pay :).

    Even once I hit full professor, which I very much expect to happen, I don’t forsee any special change in my work habits.

    And I would note, that I observe similar behavior from my colleagues at my university, and from my colleagues in broader academia.

    James hits on a key reason:

    There’s a job to be done and professional pride motivates me to do it.

    And really, to be a Ph.D. in the first place requires a great deal of self-motivation driven by something other than monetary renumeration, so by the time one has hit tenure, it isn’t like one’s personality changes and one gets lazy.

    Look: the academic life is a good one, and that was part of my motivation for entering it. I certainly am not complaining, but it does get a bit tiresome when one is told that one isn’t working very hard, as is frequently the case in public discourse about the professoriate.

    On the one hand, most people don’t like to be accused of not working hard (especially when one knows that one does, in fact, work hard), but on the other, it beats digging digs and has a schedule that is radically more flexible than those of the vast majority of the population.

  6. Anon says:

    As a pre-tenure professor, I think a huge distinction needs to be made between pre-tenure and post-tenure.

    Post-tenure, it is true that one could slack off, but there are also slackers at companies. Also, there is a lot of dead weight in the staff at my state university, who essentially cannot be fired.

    Post-tenure, if you don’t do research, you would end up teaching two courses per semester. That is four lectures per week. Each lecture probably takes 5 hours to prepare for. That’s 20 hours a week right there. Add in grading, office hours, making up assignments, writing recommendations, meetings, and just keeping up with your field, and you can easily hit 40 hours a week, even with a TA to help out.

  7. Post-tenure, if you don’t do research, you would end up teaching two courses per semester.

    That, of course, depends on one’s institution–where I teach the load is a 4-4 (to those outside of the profession, that means 4 courses per semester).

  8. Anon says:

    Post-tenure, if you don’t do research, you would end up teaching two courses per semester.

    That, of course, depends on one’s institution

    Yes, certainly, sorry for misleading anyone.

     where I teach the load is a 4-4 (to those outside of the profession, that means 4 courses per semester).

    So that easily sounds like 40 hours a week to me. Of course, the prep time will depend on the course and the field, but still…

    And, I forgot to also mention student advising. I currently have 5 Ph.D. students. Let’s say I meet with each student an hour a week, and spend an additional hour per week thinking about the problem they are working on. That’s 10 hours already.

    Or, how about proposals? The current acceptance rate at NSF is about 2%-10% in my discipline.

    Then there are papers, of course. Let’s say I publish five good papers a year. Each of these papers easily takes a week just to prepare, even with grad student assistance.