– Melissa K. Downes and Jeanne M. Slattery
Every time we hear someone pronounce how little we work and how very much we are paid, we gain another wrinkle, another gray hair, or several tensed muscles. Melissa goes and writes an angry poem (or calls her father and vents); Jeanne finds her yoga mat. By this point, teaching in the PASSHE system, Melissa has a lot of angry poems, and Jeanne’s used up several mats.
But we want to go beyond thinking about coping mechanisms we can use to handle the stress of being dismissed, misunderstood, and treated with contempt by various legislators, chancellors, administrators, and others (see the video below). Melissa once had a male student she had never met before refuse to leave until she admitted that she “did not work” during the summer. We’re not working those three months when we do research, finish University and departmental work we had no time for during the term, take classes, attend conferences and conventions, write (less angry) poetry, and prepare our classes? Where do these misconceptions come from?
Many faculty and faculty organizations suggest that professors need to more clearly articulate and more effectively communicate what they do and why it matters in order to combat the widespread misinformation and disinformation. Such misinformation is used to deny us and our students necessary funding and puts at risk our academic freedom, the quality of the work we can do, and our job security. Combating this misinformation seems like an important place to put our energy and our time. But part of the problem we have is that so much of our time is already used up. However, let’s try to articulate some of the things we do during the fifty to seventy hours we work during our “seventeen hour” work week.
Jeanne: This weekend, I will have at least 24 journals, 29 essay exams, and 40 other assignments and papers to read and review. I can’t imagine that I will be able to read and grade all of them, but I will try. My seniors are turning in their résumés, and I will be reading multiple drafts of each. Because their résumés are part of our departmental assessment efforts, I will be using them to consider our students’ professional development and adding these data to our spreadsheet. Of course, I am also working on this piece, preparing for my classes Monday, and responding to emails from students and colleagues, trying to put out fires in a timely manner.
Melissa: It’s Saturday; I’m in Michelle’s Café working on this essay. We’ve probably been working on Hand in Hand for three hours, planning the next few weeks. I’ve edited two other pieces coming up, talking through issues with Jeanne as I edit and as she works on her sections of this essay. Before that, I was at breakfast with friends who are colleagues: while the hour and more we spend at Saturday breakfast gives me pleasure (as does teaching), these occasions are, in some ways, working breakfasts, as we discuss university politics and policies, dissect recent official emails and mandates, and consider thorny teaching and grading problems. Before I got to breakfast, I reviewed discussion board posts in three of my classes and did my federal taxes. Grocery shopping and grading will make up much of the rest of my day: my work life is woven into and part of my daily life.
Sunday will be when I really hunker down to get serious grading done. Reading and responding well to students’ work usually takes energy, focus, and time. This weekend, I have (essay-exam) midterms to grade, discussion boards to assess, about eighteen student poems to comment closely on, thesis statements for first-year composition (Eng 111) upcoming papers to review and mark with helpful suggestions, and about five Eng 111 paper rewrites to grade for students who had serious problems with their first papers. I’m worried because I gave another six or so desperate students an extension for their rewrites until Tuesday, but I want to make sure they know their grades before the withdrawal date passes. Fitting in major grading in the “work week” as I prepare lessons, teach, advise, and do service work is hard. During this weekend, I will probably have worked somewhere between twelve and seventeen hours—the number of hours outsiders say PASSHE professors work in a week. Because I don’t have new papers coming in, this is actually a lighter grading weekend. However, I’m trying to get a lot cleared out of the way since I have a paper to write for a national conference in three weeks.
While writing this, we chatted with two colleagues who were also at Michelle’s. We tried to dragoon them into writing our essay for us (and they politely refused). However, both talked about the workload and the absurdity of the seventeen-hour claim. One emphasized the email workload, especially the student emails that come after 9:30 PM, with requests for immediate response; the other talked about never having a day in seven where she can just say she will not work, though she keeps her Saturdays as her own until noon.
Jeanne: I too had breakfast with colleagues, and I will attend the annual St. Patrick’s Day party, where we will discuss school-related issues (concerns about mutual students, pedagogy, soliciting articles for HiH, and university-related concerns). I’m reading Stoner (about an English professor’s life and work) and Full Catastrophe Living (to use in my teaching). What is work and what isn’t? This is always a question when I complete my university’s report outlining how and how much I work.
Melissa: Some of my friends and colleagues keep their homes as non-work zones: I do not. I spend significant hours in my own house working. Perhaps because our work does not always look like their stereotype of what work should look like, legislators and others cannot see it?
Jeanne: And, while many community members imagine that we no longer work when we are off the clock – theoretically, after we turn in our Spring grades – I will spend the summer preparing classes; putting the finishing touches on a book that will come out this fall; going to conferences where I will chair one symposium, present two workshops at the other, serve on the board of directors of one of these, and promote our new book; write pieces for HiH; pull together this year’s promotion workshop and our Partners’ retreat; work on research with colleagues across the country; review articles, etc.
As we read the last several paragraphs, we recognize we may sound defensive, and perhaps that’s true, at least in part. We are not describing our work habits to self-aggrandize, but to help people understand the nature of our work. Many jobs are clearly boundaried, while ours is not. We have many job responsibilities that extend well beyond that minimal and unrealistic seventeen hours: advising students and RSOs, developing new courses, serving on committees, recruiting new students, doing research and writing (with students and on our own), mentoring students and other faculty, writing letters of recommendation….
Ziker’s (2014) time study of faculty work suggests that our description of our work habits are not atypical. Their initial time study of 30 faculty at Boise State University was not a random sample, but Ziker said their data were “highly suggestive.” Faculty worked 61 hours a week, on average, with about 15 of these hours over the weekend. See Figure 1. About 40% of their work was spent on teaching-related activities.
Perhaps misinformation such as that spread by Pennsylvania legislators is prevalent because of encounters with the few real professors who do the minimum but, then, all professors are then judged by this lowest common denominator. Imagine if we treated our students this way and based decisions about their futures on the poor behavior of some. Perhaps this misinformation is an anti-intellectual, politically-motivated attempt to denigrate the work of faculty and justify further cutting funding for higher education. Perhaps both.
Whatever the motivations of those who woefully underestimate the workload of faculty, it is important for all of us to stand up and let our hours be counted. What did you do this week?
Ziker, J. (2014, March 31). The long, lonely job of Homo academicus. The Blue Review. Retrieved from https://thebluereview.org/faculty-time-allocation/
Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching. She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and sees herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill. Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives will be coming out this fall. She can be contacted at email@example.com