Professors, time management, and summering

There’s some trouble brewing in Texas about how faculty are spending their time in their cushy jobs, as this Chronicle of Higher Education piece explains, “Efforts to Measure Faculty Workload Don’t Add Up.”  It’s behind the firewall, but basically, it rehashes a lot of the problems that have been around for years about measuring faculty work time.  This discussion is also covered a bit in “Texas Coalitions Spar Over Scholars’ Time, Research, Pay.” And basically, critics of the Texas system are saying that faculty don’t teach enough, don’t work with enough students, don’t work enough in general, etc.

People who don’t really know what the job is about tend to think that a professor who teaches three classes a term basically works about 15 hours a week:  those classes plus office hours, and that’s about it.  The problem is that the people who don’t now better also tend to be the people who ultimately control budgets:  regents, legislators, voters, etc.  Professors, of course, dispute this, arguing that no-no-no, they work more like 100 hours a week because working as a professor is much MUCH more than teaching classes.  A lot of this is reflected in the “What I Do With My Time: Pamela S. Gossin,” which is a diary of her work in the course of a week at the University of Texas at Dallas.

I’m not going to go into great detail explaining why this notion of “lazy professors” is wrong because a) if you are reading my blog on a regular basis, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve read that here before, b) there are a lot of other places to read about this in more thoughtful ways, and c) anything I say here as a professor will sound defensive anyway.  I have a “reverse ethos” problem.  I’ll just note that for the most part, I agree with the defenses that professor-types make about the amount of work they do, and, whenever I contemplate it, I am always surprised how much of my work really has nothing to do with teaching and even scholarship.  There’s a lot of paperwork shuffling and meetings and such in this job.

I think one of the biggest problems professors have is that we have a lot more in common with people who work out of their homes and/or who are “telecommuters” than people who work in normal white collar settings, even though we’re most visible to people when we are actually teaching and/or on campus.  This is different from K-12 teachers (who are generally at the school all day long, even when they aren’t teaching), and this does vary from university to university and even among faculty in my department.  I once applied for a job at a university where the administrator-type interviewing me said he expected all faculty to be on campus five days a week, and at least one of my colleagues actually uses his school office to work.  And with my department moving back into a newly remodeled building this fall, maybe working in the office will become an increasing trend.

The idea that most professors work outside of their classrooms, labs, and dingy university offices doesn’t register with the popular imagination and/or “as seen on TV” image of professors, and it is also out of sync with most student interactions with professors.  I will run into students in the “real world” once in a while, and it is always a little odd– particularly with undergraduates– when they spot me in a restaurant or on the street or wait on my in Target while I’m buying toilet paper.  It clearly doesn’t fit their assumptions about me (“I thought he only existed on campus”).

The other problem that lots of professors have– myself and Pamela Gossin included– is time management and/or the leaky borders between “work” and “life.”  Here’s a passage from Gossin’s diary:

7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Answered e-mail and coordinated summer research project, a digital-humanities project. Prepared for a forthcoming conference and read reports on a Texas bill that would allow concealed handguns on state-college campuses. Also read new information about the university’s retirement plan.

9 p.m. to 10 p.m. Watched a television special about John Muir for her class in nature writing: “I needed to watch it so I would know if their extra credit was valid.”

10 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Sent e-mails and did more preparation for summer research. Made contact with a research assistant she hoped to hire.

Now, I totally relate, understand, and resemble this work schedule.  But part of the problem that I have (maybe Gossin has this problem too, maybe other academics out there can relate) is I am not good at limiting my email usage.  Not. At. All.  And every efficiency/productivity guide out there will tell you that if you want to get things done, you need to ration/limit the time spent on email.  As with most efficiency advice, this is perhaps a good intention rather than something that can realistically be put into practice, but still.

This diary also demonstrates the fuzzy definition of “work” in academia.  I get what Gossin is saying here about watching that John Muir show:  it is work, but my guess is that she might have watched it anyway.  There’s lots of reading, web surfing, writing (is this entry work?  maybe?) I do that is in that in-between space, which is not surprising because I like what I do.  But generally, people (especially Texas bean counters who want professors to account for all their time) define “work” as “something you would otherwise not be doing if it wasn’t for the job and/or the money.”  So I would bet that if some Texas efficiency wonk sat down with Gossin and looked at that entry about watching the show on John Muir, that wonk would say “that ain’t work.”  And that wonk would be kind of right, kind of wrong.

And then there is summer.  My extended family– who are all college graduates but who are also not academics– have learned by now that the best way to get an earful from either me or Annette is to say something about how it must be great to have so much “summer vacation.”   That’s not vacation, buster– that’s time for the work! the writing, the scholarship, the research, the clawing and fighting to get tenure and then promotion and then beyond– work work work work!

Well, I have a confession to make.  It really ain’t all that bad.

Oh sure, it is true for many academics that the space between winter and fall is time to write and research, and I have a couple of scholarly projects on the back of the stove right now.  While it is technically possible for faculty at EMU to completely check out (we’re on an 8 month contract here, more or less) for the entire spring and summer terms, realistically, there are still meetings, students to advise, paperwork to be done, etc.  And then there’s spring/summer teaching.  We can’t really afford to not teach at least one of the 7.5 week terms (the pay is essentially overtime), so that’s obviously work.

But even with all of that, I can’t really complain.  We’ll be doing some traveling soon, I finished today (while procrastinating and writing this post) my painting work on the back part of the house, I play a little golf, etc.  There is time off, and in a few years– when Will is through Greenhills and onto college (it’ll be sooner than we think)– I am sure that Annette and I will take advantage of all four of those months.

Though oddly, I get antsy for work.  I’ll probably spending some time planning one of my classes for the fall after I post this….

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