Does Bauerlein have a point, or is he just a jerk?

I’m leaning toward the “jerk” part, but before I get there, let me contemplate the post Mark Bauerlein has on his “blog” of sorts at CHE, “Stop Pushing Yourself.” He starts with a story about a professor speaking about the work week and claiming that she works over 60 hours a week. Then Bauerlein starts to wonder, “can this be true, 60+ hours?”

Let me quote and comment as I go:

Maybe for some segments, such as teachers with a 4-4 load that includes heavy writing assignments on the syllabus. And maybe for assistant professors struggling to get the book finished before tenure time, or researchers in the sciences working on a timetable because of funding.

In other words, “maybe this is true for some people who aren’t working at places like Emory or who aren’t full profs, but it ain’t true for me.” But of course, I would bet that 85% of people who work in higher education (and sorry Prof. Bauerlein, but places like EMU and community colleges and a whole bunch of other places that are not elite and overly privileged institutions still count as “higher education”) actually do have work loads similar to the “exceptions” he seems to be dismissing here.

But if we look at tenured professors in the humanities and in many other disciplines, it seems to me that much of the work they do is entirely self-generated. The conference papers that have to be written, the scholarly articles they want to complete, the book projects that hang over them . . . these are not required. They are elective. Yes, they can enhance a career, extend a CV, or even contribute to the historical record—sometimes.

There are plenty of tenured professors who have indeed “opted out” of this supposedly elective scholarly activity. At EMU, which is certainly not a “publish or perish” kind of school, the only way you can opt out of scholarship and still not be considered “dead wood” is if you make significant service contributions. So sure, you don’t have to do these things; if you are willing to be thought of as irrelevant by your peers, go ahead and check out of the scholarly thing.

But the fact is that the degree to which the vast majority of conference papers and articles in the humanities effectively change the working conditions of professors doesn’t come close to justifying the number of hours they spend on the projects. These projects fill their afternoons and evenings, and in my experience inside academia and out I have never heard any groups speak as loudly about how “busy” they are as professors do. Plainly, the situation makes many of them unhappy.

Okay, here I actually think Bauerlein has a point. There are BOATLOADS of papers, articles, and books produced by academic-types that are probably not worth it in all kinds of different ways. And yes, there are many professor-types who are constantly busy. But I have to say that some of the folks I’ve worked with over the years who claim to be constantly busy don’t seem to get that much stuff done.

So why do they do it? Is it really worth sweating all those months getting that manuscript in order—which upon publication will sell only a few hundred copies—just to boost your annual raise a few hundred dollars?

Caught! It’s all about the money! Yes, I went to school for a decade to earn the salary and benefits of an experienced GM factory worker– that is, I’m not complaining about my lifestyle, but I’m not getting rich for doing nothing either.

To be honest, I don’t really know how many hours a week I work, and it clearly varies from week to week. No meetings and a week of in-class work on web sites or essays? Probably not 40 hours. Three meetings, 5 student appointments, a report on a new writing major, a big batch of essays and web sites to comment on? Probably over 70.

But it seems to me that all of this “just how much do you professors work” stuff is problematized by two realities of the work that is inherent for nearly every academic, happy or otherwise. First, we all work weird hours and in weird spaces. I’m in my office for about six hours a week, but that’s because I do almost all of my work at home, in coffee shops, in the library, etc. I work during the day one day and at night another, often on Saturdays, sometimes not at all on Thursdays. Even academic-types who are more tied to a particular place– most science folks, I imagine– get to work weird hours and in environments like laboratories or in other facilities or “in the field” or whatever. Given that the vast majority of Americans live in a Dilbert-like world and see work as a “place” they go to (e.g., the office, the factory, the fast food restaurant) on a very particular schedule, it is no wonder that they don’t get it when a professor says they work so many hours (“But you’re never in your office! How could you be working?!”).

Second, academics have really strange and fuzzy lines between “work” and “aspiration.” Never mind that it’s hard to define just what exactly this “work” is in the first place. I mean, is this blog post academic work or just something “for fun?” What’s the difference?

So the suggestion that professors write or give conference presentations or whatever for the money is goofy, and Bauerlein has to know that. Sure, professors do these things to earn and maintain cred in their discipline, but the main reason why they do these things is because they want to. And again, that’s another thing that is foreign to most non-academic types: after all, why would you do something for “work” just because you think it’s interesting?

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