You know the sound that a piece of errant chalk makes on a blackboard? Ever wonder what that sound, translated into words on a page, would read like? I can help you out with that.
If you cruise on over to Inside Higher Ed and read “The Life and Work of a Professor,” by one Afshan Jafar, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College, you’ll have your hands covering your ears in no time flat, just like you do when the chalk meets the blackboard.
Professor Jafar’s topic is one near and dear to the hearts of academics: how hard they work and how misunderstood they are. Here’s a sample from Jafar’s essay:
[W]hile my non-academic friends can take a break to watch Jersey Shore, or The Apprentice, or Dancing with the Stars, should they feel like it, I find myself spending most of my time between 8 pm (when the kids go to bed) and midnight (when I go to bed) staring at stacks of students’ papers, keeping up with the readings, or preparing for class for the next day. There are many nights when my husband finds me asleep at the laptop or with a student’s paper in my hands: my body finally giving in to the exhaustion of a long work-day as well as a long commute (we are an academic couple and commute in opposite directions).
Now try squeezing in research and service commitments to this model. Most of my summer and winter break is spent catching up on my research and even some on-going committee work. But research and service are such intangible concepts, especially to those outside of academia. People don’t understand how time-consuming conducting research, applying for funding, or pursuing publication can be. When I explain to my friends, that my husband and I go for several weeks sometimes without turning on the TV, except for the kids to watch their PBS shows in the morning, they gasp in disbelief. But clearly, my situation is not unique, since some of my fellow writers at University of Venus [Inside Higher Ed’s column for and by “GenX Women in Higher Ed, Writing from Across the Globe”] find themselves leading a similar lifestyle.
So I find myself quite frustrated when people casually imply that we have an easy job. Not only do they not realize what our day to day lives as academics entail, but they also don’t understand the sacrifices involved in being graduate students for the 6+ years after college: living on meager stipends, having minimum healthcare (if we’re lucky!), not having any savings…
Even I can be sympathetic to somebody who defines a job as not “easy” because it precludes her from watching the “Jersey Shore, or The Apprentice, or Dancing with the Stars,” and I am sure that you probably can, too, but I draw the line at feeling sorry for somebody who is so hopelessly inept at time management as Professor J. “What most people fail to realize,” she opines
is that our jobs as full-time faculty have at least two other components to them besides teaching: research and service. But putting that aside for a second, even if we look only at teaching, the time and energy we put into it goes far beyond the “contact-time” we have with our students in the classroom. Even when I am teaching only three courses in one semester, the reading, preparation, grading (oh, the grading!), the emailing back and forth with students, take up many, many, more hours.
Okay. She’s teaching three courses. Let’s do the math. A typical course meets for 150 minutes per week, or two and one-half hours. Multiple 2.5 hours for each course by 3, the number of courses she’s teaching. That comes out to 7.5 hours per week. Now, subtract 7.5 hours from 40 hours, the length of a standard work-week, and you see that the professor has 32.5 hours remaining in her work week to attend committee meetings, advise students, correct their papers, keep up on her research and reading, and perform her “service.” I have yet to meet a sociology professor who assigns a paper a week to her students, let alone one due after every class, so the idea that night after night Professor Jafar is missing Dancing with the Stars or her other favorite programs because she is correcting papers just doesn’t fly. And even if she did assign a weekly paper, presumably she could arrange to have it due on a day other than when DWTS is on. Problem solved.
Then there are office hours, which faculty members are expected to hold so that students in their classes can visit them with questions about the subject matter. Again, the rule of thumb is one hour per course taught. So we are now up to 10.5 hours accounted for in the work week, with 29.5 left to fill. I’ll even give the good professor a pass on whether students actually show for the office hours. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. A wise professor would TiVo the Jersey Shore to watch while she sits in solitary splendor in her faculty office, waiting for students who may never arrive. Or maybe even use that time to correct papers from students in her courses, which according to Connecticut College’s fact sheet, average no more than 18 per class.
Research can be as grueling and time-consuming as it is exhilarating, and to do it well demands an uninterrupted block of time, which is why sabbaticals were invented. Even so, most faculty do not teach five days per week, so let’s be generous and give Professor J eight hours, one full work day, for her research during a given semester. She has a remaining 21.5 hours to fill in her full-time work-week. Most colleges have a two-hour block of time built into the week for “governance,” the time when committee meetings are scheduled. Let’s for the sake of argument double that, and assume that Professor Jafar spends four hours per-week in committee meetings (which is what the typical academic defines as “service”). This arduous schedule leaves her 17.5 hours per week, two full days and then some, to prep for class, correct papers, email students, and do all those other always unspecified things that busy, busy professors do. Keep in mind that “prep for class” means reviewing material you have already prepared or should have prepared if you care enough about your students to have given them a detailed syllabus, reading literature related to your research and professional interests, and thinking about inventive tactics to keep your students engaged.
In the end what irritates me about Professor Jafar’s rant is not simply its lack of originality–if she thinks Gen X faculty are the first to think they are misunderstood, she is grievously uninformed or self-absorbed or both–but rather her willful misunderstanding of what non-academics mean when they make envious comments about her job. She is clueless about two realities: 1) most people work forty-plus work-weeks with little or any variety let alone flexibility in their schedules, whereas the life of an academic–even one who works that same forty-hour-plus schedule–is blessed with flexibility unheard of in the rest of the working world. Of her “full-time job” Jafar has to be at a specified place at a specified time exactly 12.5 hours per week. How she uses gainfully or fritters away the remaining hours is left completely to her. If she chooses to correct papers at night so she can work out in the afternoon is her decision–and a choice many working stiffs can only but dream of having.
So why is Professor J falling asleep over her laptop? Because she has a long commute she makes two to three days a week? Because she expends incredible energy worrying about being laid off? On this count too I’ll give her a (temporary) pass, because she probably doesn’t have tenure, but once she does, then her worries are over. I don’t know why she’s falling asleep. But one thing I am very sure of—when she’s dozing she’s not in Never-Never Land, because that is the landscape she inhabits in her waking hours.