By Emily Tai
One of the more difficult myths academics contend with is the myth of the idle professor. Being a professor is no work at all, some insist—a stress-free job, as Forbes Magazine argued, a few years ago. Even studies that grudgingly concede that professors are doing something—whatever it may be—argue that the “flexible schedules” academics have accounts for their low rate of pay—approximately 15% per cent less than doctors or lawyers, according to a recent paper published by Daniel S. Hamermsh, an economist at Barnard College.
Perhaps this is something to keep in mind the next time we pull an all-nighter to meet a deadline, or grade papers: that our flexible schedules allowed us to forego sleep.
Time on Task
Some academics have decided to spend some of their time keeping track of how they spend their time. John Ziker, an anthropologist at Boise State, has described his routine in The Long, Lonely Job of Homo Academicus, and found humorous ways to describe the often excruciating tension between research expectations and the demands of teaching that can create such challenges for faculty. Natalie Kimbrough, a professor of History at the Community College of Baltimore County, has also described her typical day—a marathon of teaching, grading, and advising that may include counseling immigrant students as they struggle to stay focused on their academic careers while worrying for family members who may face wrenching tragedies in their home countries.
Truth or Consequences
The myth of the lazy professor has been particularly harmful as it may have contributed to the plight of adjuncts—whose scale of pay—by the course—fails, like many of those who imagine professors have “flexible schedules,” to take into account the hours of preparation that go into an informative lecture, a classroom activity, or academic writing. The rise of contingent faculty—whether part-time, or full-time but not on tenure track, —can also impose consequences for undergraduates, whose need for mentoring at a critical, inceptive stage in their careers may go unmet while adjuncts struggle to teach enough hours in the classroom to pay the bills, and full-time faculty try to write enough to achieve tenure.
As more and more studies organized by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) have revealed the reality of life in the ivory tower as more pressure-cooker than paradise, colleges like Harvey Mudd, Skidmore, and Scripps College have been exploring the possibility of re-arranging faculty workloads, adopting strategies that include a fuller recognition of service; compensation for the extra work of advising a senior thesis; and reductions in teaching load, to allow more time for undergraduate advising, and research. A similar workload adjustment is in the pipeline for CUNY faculty, thanks to our COACHE survey and the efforts of the Professional Staff Congress, which will reduce teaching loads by a single course, phased in over the next three years.
A workload adjustment could mean more time for students, without sacrificing research time or classroom quality. And perhaps as more students get the mentoring they need, it won’t be as hard to convince a new, successful, college-educated public that they should have more appreciation for what faculty do—and need to get back to, assuming they had time to read this post.
Emily S. Tai is an associate professor of History at Queensborough Community College. She wishes to thank John Verzani, Professor and Chair of Mathematics at the College of Staten Island and Chair of the UFS Budget Advisory Committee, for bringing to her attention several articles quoted in this post.
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Image: Janwillem Snieder from Snieder, R. and Schneider J. (2016), The Joy of Science, Seven Principles for Scientists Seeking Happiness, Harmony, and Success (p. 5). Cambridge University Press.