Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Business of Professorship, Part 2

I started writing last time about certain abiding misperceptions about what college and university professors actually do with their time, misperceptions that allow the governor of Arkansas to fear no political fallout when he forbids public universities from giving pay raises or bonuses to their faculties.  These misperceptions are hardly unique to the state of Arkansas, and they are hardly new.  As I mentioned in my last post, essays have been written detailing the cliched ideas about college professors that have been fostered over the decades, and keep getting fostered, by American cinema.  [One such essay is "Box Office Poison: The Influence of Writers in Films on Writers" by Wendy Bishop, which is included in the edited collection Can It Really Be Taught? (Boynton/Cook, 2007).]  I encountered the misperception just a couple years ago when I visited my brother in Houston for his daughter's wedding.  At a day-after get together at my brother's house, his brother-in-law felt so convinced of the misperception that he freely opined, in my presence, that it must be awfully nice to be a professor at a university and thus not have to work very hard!  The crazy thing is that the man actually did not mean to insult me but to state what he clearly thought was an objectively understood fact.  I think, according to his own skewed perception, my brother's brother-in-law actually thought he was offering me a compliment.  To his eternal credit, my brother stepped in and told his brother-in-law he was wrong, but I doubt the man went away much convinced.  After all, the myth is just so strong.

One hears all the time about how in this or that American industry, workers are constantly expected to work more than 40 hours per week.  More than 50 even.  More than 60.  I have no doubt this is true.  American workers, on average, work longer than workers in any other country in the industrial world.  But here's the thing: Please include college professors in that reckoning.  College professors routinely work 50 and 60 hours a week--and for no extra pay.  Extra pay isn't even considered. (Trust me when I say that any college professor who asked for overtime pay would get laughed out of any administrator's office.)  Not only are we expected to work 50, 60, and sometimes more hours per work, but we are also asked--and I mean constantly--to also serve on this or that panel, on this or that commitee, on this or that task force, on this or that board; to write this or that report, to write this or that grant, to write this or that policy statement; to show up at this or that important university event; to host and introduce this or that visiting artist; to pay for this writer's meal; to be interviewed on this campus news show or by this newspaper reporter.  For no extra pay or teaching release time.  And understand this is in addition to all of our usual teaching, advising, and committee work.  (Just yesterday at my church, I barely escaped from a guy who was angling to get me to read and critique his short stories for him.  For nothing, of course.  We get these requests all the time too, but that's another subject.)

All that most people see of college professors is the few hours we spend on a given class per week in the classroom.  What goes unseen and unrecognized are the many hours spent preparing for that classroom time and the many more hours spent reading and responding to student writing.  Any good college student knows that the time spent in the classroom is only a fraction of the actual total time taking a class demands.  The standard rule of thumb for students is three hours outside the classroom for every hour in it.  Well, if that's true for the student, imagine how it is for the professor.  Try doubling
or--in some weeks--tripling that equation.  (Teaching writing is extremely labor intensive.  No multiple choice tests, I'm afraid.)  And realize that at schools like UCA, four classes per semester is the standard teaching load.   Realize too that working for our classes is at most only half of the work of the college professor.  The other half is serving on a variety of committees: some on the behalf of one's department, some on the behalf of one's college, and some on behalf of the entire university.  Realize that committee work is not optional.  You don't get not to do it.  And realize that in some departments--my own included--the number of hours demanded by committee work exceeds that demanded by one's teaching.  For some reason, my department--as busy as we all are--is mad about committee meetings.  More and more and more meetings, we cry.  We always have important business to figure out and policies to nail down, forgetting that we already have very important and pressing business: teaching our classes.   Finally, realize too that a college professor--at least a tenured or tenure-track one--has a "third half" to his job description as well.   And that's carrying out research and/or creative activity.  Even at a school like UCA, where four courses per semester is the norm, tenured and tenure-track professors are expected to keep up in their disciplines, to attend professional conferences, to remain active in their chosen creative fields, and/or publish articles and books on a regular basis.  No surprise, this takes a great deal of time to do successfully.

So how does one work 3/2 of a job each week?  Easy--by barely ever resting.  Contrary to the notion of the lazy college professor, most people I know in the profession have hardly a minute to breathe.  Forget down time.  Forget leisurely hours spent mentoring students in our offices.  Parents, I regret to say that no such time exists at the University of Central Arkansas.  Forget even going out to lunch.  I eat a brown bag lunch literally every single day in my office.  Put aside the fact that, on a fixed income (see my last post), I can't afford to go out to lunch, what I really can't afford is the time away from my office.  Once classroom time is over there is simply too much other pressing business that needs to get down: papers to grade, emails to answer, articles to submit to magazines, committee reports to write, grant applications to finalize, prep work to review for my next class, student advisees to meet, etc.  It is literally never ending.  I leave work everyday feeling lucky if I have managed to stay on top of the wave.

So what does my day look like when the semester is on?  Here's a characteristic snapshot: 4:45--rise; 4:45-5:30--read professional material; 5:30-7:00--write at my desk; 7:00-8:00--wake my sons, give them breakfast, walk the dog, get showered and dressed, take one of my sons to school; 8:30-3:00--teach, attend commitee meetings, meet with students, work in the office; 3:15--pick up one of my sons; 3:30--walk dog; 4:00--check email and/or read professional material; 5:30--prepare dinner; 6:15--eat dinner; 7:00--help my wife clean-up dinner; 7:30--supervise my son's musical practice and help with his homework (or attend a required evening event at the univeristy); 9:00--read in bed and fall asleep.  For the record, most days, by 3:00 in the afternoon I've already worked a 10 hour work day and usually have additional professional work ahead.  And of course that work carries over into the weekends as well.  The blue collar work ethic?  Don't tell me about the blue collar work ethic.  What I witness, day in and day out, is the white collar work ethic.  And, trust me, I am no unusual case.

What about summers, you say?   Don't you profs all have the long, lazy summer to enjoy?  Well, actually, given how poorly we are paid (see my last post), many of us teach in the summer too.   Those of us who don't--well, they don't.  But as my friend and fellow writing teacher Tony Gifford likes to say: "I don't have the summers off: I have my weekends all squished together."  Far from being lazy and unproductive hippies, your average writing professional who is also a college teacher--and that's many of us--is among the hardest working human beings on the planet.  I don't expect everyone to get this.  I just wish the governor of Arkansas did.


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