Afshan Jafar: Gen Xer, Professor, Cry Baby

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…

Professor J has this on the wall in her office, right next to her diploma from UMass.

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.

Snooki was inconsolable when she learned Professor J missed an epsiode of Jersey Shore.

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.

Artist's rendering of Professor J's awful working conditions. Where's OSHA when you need them?

32 thoughts on “Afshan Jafar: Gen Xer, Professor, Cry Baby

  1. Yesterday I did my normal 8.75 hrs followed by a delightfully hellish 2.5 hr. council meeting. Complete with name calling, threats, ultimatums and stupidity! Back at the office at 8:00 AM today. I had another lay-about day! Crouching in fetid pools of water peering into collapsed storm water pipes, discussing too tall weeds with a barely human resident who’s house is literally filled with dog and cat poo-poo ( the city has an annual office budget of $150.00 for Glade), chatting with a near death employer reeking of bay leaf hair tonic and getting to check on the sodders. (People who unroll sod for a living) So, yes I admit I can’t even begin to know about the sacrifice of Professor J. I’m just glad I’ve got the Life of Riley! Did I mention chipping spilled concrete out of a storm water manhole lid on Monday?

  2. Well, I don’t know. I got home at about 9:45 PM. I’ve never watched DWTS, Survivor, American Idol or Jersey Shore. My wife tapes shows for me including Redeye. I watch it in the AM before I go to my heaven-on-earth gig

  3. Well let’s face it, you only have a Master’s degree; even if you were home in time to catch DWTS or the Jersey Shore, how could you possibly appreciate this intellectual fare, so beloved by professors of sociology.

  4. Well, you are clearly not a fan of DWTS. It’s on twice-per-week, and that requires up to 4 hours of viewing commitment. In addition, I would point out that not everyone has the service that replays episodes on demand, or can afford a DVR.

    I think the professor has also short-changed herself in terms of parking lot chit-chat of professor crossing paths. These required social networks may require another hour or two per day.

    Any good professor must also spend much time at the nearby Snack Bar where a good coffee is always washed down with an hour’s worth of gossip.

    Administrators, whose job is one long coffee break, seldom recognize the problems of faculty who must put hours of uncompensated time into the obligations of kissing the tails of those who will vote on their tenure.

    • You know you’re on to something with the parking lot chit chat. The meeting the other night was over at 9:20, but the post meeting parking lot conversation ( not optional) went another twenty minutes. I do have a pretty serious commitment to River Monsters (Sunday night) There’s something compelling about large, voracious predators being yanked from their comfort zones by their own hunger and arrogance. Just think of the bait as big, fat juicy college trust account

  5. It’s hilarious that she repeatedly emphasizes that the definition of sacrifice for her (and the ‘non-academic friends’ from whom she apparently fruitlessly tries to elicit sympathy) is “not turning on the television” for several weeks. I find freedom from television – particularly the asinine shows she refers to in her column – a positively life-affirming choice.

    • It’s also kinda funny that she doesn’t (can’t?) name the PBS shows she lets babysit her kids, but does know the names of shows at the bottom of the pop-culture barrel.

      • Hey, I got to talk to two architects, two engineers and a lawyer today I almost felt positively professional!

  6. “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 34.5 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.””

    How do you figure that out? Most profs I know (in soc) have at least 1 course that’s a new prep a semester (I had 2 per semester for the past year), and it takes a MINIMUM of 2x the amont of the classroom time outside the class to prepare. You don’t just walk in a teach, you have to re-read readings, prepare discussions and lectures. That easily takes me an extra 15 hours per week. So, after teaching, preparing to teach, answering gobs of student emails, and holding office hours, that leaves me about 15 hours a week to do service AND research/writing. And when you’re expected to do original research and publish a minimum of 2 articles per year (I’m not tenured yet), that’s not enough nearly time. Let alone enough time to read literature and keep up with your field, AND apply for grants and submit abstracts to conferences, review journal articles and books, write letters of rec for students, etc. etc.

    I’m not complaining– I love my job, and consider myself very good at time management compared with a lot of my colleagues. Your math just makes no sense, though. On an “easy” week I work something like 40 hours. On hellish weeks (before a conference, end of the semester, article deadline. etc) I work 80+ easy.

    • Wendy, Thanks for your comments and presenting a compelling and honest response to my arguments. I take issue only with you on one point, though. You seem to be suggesting that the creation of a new class takes place as the class itself is unfolding. I agree that any new course is a bit of trial and error, and often involves (I apologize in advance) course correction during the semester. However, I have no sympathy for any faculty member who isn’t using the summer months to create her courses and do
      the lion’s share of the re-reading for her upcoming classes. I am also dubious about service commitments and the amount of time they drain from teaching and research; was there ever a faculty member who was granted tenure on the basis of excellent service, as opposed to excellent teaching and research?

      I have no doubt that as the semester ends you and many others put in 80+ hour weeks. And then you regain 100% control of your time for a blissful 3+ months in which you can throw yourself into research and reading in your field. Pity the rest who work in professions where 40 hours are just the minimum, any reading in our fields however job-related is expected to be done off the clock, and sabbaticals are verboten. I know it sounds like I am fomenting class warfare between faculty and those of us in other professions that require us to use our brains, keep current in our fields, meet deadlines, and satisfy competing demands. That’s not my point. I guess what my point is–and thank you for helping me clarify it–is that for some strange reason academics are the only ones who seem to have enough hours in the day to bellyache about how hard they work.

      • You have obviously never taught a course or conducted research that must pass peer-review. Summer is a busy, busy time. Bliss? Keep dreaming. I get to work 60 instead of 80 hours a week (I’ve never had a 60-hour week during the academic year) and I’m not paid for it. You doubt that committee work takes away from teaching and research? You might want to shadow a professor. I spend more time in committees most weeks than I spend in the classroom, and I teach a full load. Let’s not forget the service I have to do for my profession. Someone has to edit the books and journals, organize the conferences, and write the book reviews (let alone the books and articles). The scholarship doesn’t create itself. What college students learn has to be created. Professors aren’t paid for that work either.

        That’s not to say people in other professions have it easy. But why pick on professors, especially when your description of what you think our work weeks and our summers look like have no grounding in reality? You’re not making class warfare, you’re just making stuff up. You don’t need to be mean or tell lies to make the point that there are intelligent, hard-working people who don’t happen to be professors.

        The sad thing is that most professors are adjuncts who work on a course-by-course bases (at $2000 a course at my school). If they’re lucky to get 4 courses a semester, they maybe make $16,000 a year, travel from campus to campus or town to town, lack heath insurance, and can’t advance because they can’t get money to do research. That’s really a typical professor. You have no idea.

      • Jay–Thanks for writing. Your comments might’ve made more sense had you actually read my essay, though. But perhaps this is how you prepare for your class presentations: opine first, consider (or not) the facts later. FYI: If you read my blog regularly you would know that I agree 100% with you about adjuncts. Having been one myself (for a period of years I taught at three different campuses, had four different preparations, and snagged every summer or CE course I could to support myself), I have nothing but sympathy for these exploited workers. When I became an administrator full-time, I taught one course (for free) a semester in addition to my administrative duties. So, yeah, I have an idea.

  7. This post is a bit off the mark. I teach college and prepare for my courses each and every week, despite having written my syllabus prior to the semester. I use summers and holidays for my research that I can’t get done during the semester because of the difficulty compartmentalizing teaching and research, even when designating some days as “teaching days” and other days as “research days.” It’s difficult to shift gears that way.

    I have worked in the corporate world in telecomm and was able to leave work and not think about it, nor did I find it so intellectually and emotionally draining as my faculty position. I love my job at university and the flexibility I personally have by not having a family, but your criticisms are poorly informed.

    • Thank you for your comments, Chandra. As to my being “uninformed,” please get back to me after you have worked as college faculty and administrator for the 35+ years I have.

      • There is no need to be snippy – you have no idea my experience. If you truly have faculty and administrative experience, I suspect the difference in our views is formed by the differences between our colleges/universities and their expectations for high quality teaching and research. Though I do not have children, I see the stress my colleagues go through having families and trying to get their work done. It’s not pretty and to denigrate their efforts compared to those outside academia is unfair. I view the Jafar post as trying to add context to the public understanding of faculty lives.

  8. True, course prep does happen to some extent over the summer or winter break. That’s time for choosing books (which means reading more than what you’ll actually assign) and constructing the syllabus, which takes an inordinate amount of time in and of itself. And maybe there is some time to prep the general parameters of each class before the course begins. Maybe it’s bc I teach at a SLAC but I always end up doing the most prep from week to week during the semester, no matter how prepped I am ahead of time. Material might need to be changed during the course of the semester, more time spent on some things than others, etc. That’s the kind of prep that happens from week to week, as you can’t anticipate it. And even when you’ve taught a class before, there is always updating, tweaking, trying a better reading etc. Courses are not something that can be taught the same every single time.

    And yes, summers are a “blissful” time where we have no schedules. But then there is mountains of pressure to write, collect data, conduct research, finish the book etc, all the stuff that didn’t get done during the semester, no matter how well someone plans their time.

    I don’t think anyone is trying to say that profs work harder than anyone else. It is just a different type of work, and the structure doesn’t fit into the typical work week. I find many of my friends and distant relatives assuming things like– that I have my summer off, or that my schedule frees up when classes are over, or that it must be nice to only have to be someplace specific for the few hours I teach a week. And that’s just not the case. Every job is hard in it’s own way, and I adore what I do. Occasionally I get envious of friends who work 9-5 and can come home and forget about work for the weekend, but this is what I chose and I love it. I don’t think anyone is trying to whine that profs work more than anyone else, but unfortunately it seems like you’ve mistaken the Venus post as whining, instead of merely trying to illustrate a very different model of work.

    • You know, once again I find myself nodding in agreement with much of what you say, just as I did when I read an unusually sane comment posted this morning in Jafar’s original U of V post by one Carol Tuchman.

      But I am not at all sure that teaching at a selective liberal arts college is more demanding than teaching at a research university or even at a community college. I think that some of those cc faculty with five classes of 30+ students might also disagree.

      I think the chalk-on-the-blackboard quality of Jafar’s essay is its vapidity and its lack of originality, as I said.

  9. Wow. Who knew it was so stressful and controversial (not to mention thoughtful) to fill 20 something minds with propaganda they’ll forget as soon as they start paying state and city taxes!

  10. I think issue here is not that college professors do/don’t work hard (and BTW I’d throw high school teachers into the mix, too); it’s that so many in the education biz try to make the argument that we are uniquely overworked- fact is LOTS of people work hard- also- and Nancy alluded to this; the work comes in waves- there are times when I am busier than (insert cliche here), other times when I’m not

  11. and from her entry at Ratemyprofessors:

    “She’s alright to look at but it is impossible to sit there and listen to her.”

  12. …which no one would ever write about a male professor. Thanks for pointing out the sexism.

    Ganderson, I think Jafar’s point was not, in fact, that she is uniquely overworked, but that people do not understand her schedule as a professor because so much of the work is invisible to those not on a university campus – service work, course prep – or not as structured – grading time, etc.

    And CallMeMiss, I read Jafar’s post more generally, it’s not that she cares so much about popular television, it’s that others, who think faculty have a great deal of free time (rather than a great deal of *autonomy* over their time compared to others), are surprised when she is unable to participate in the activities others commonly do.

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