By Charlotte Allen
Do college professors work harder than other upper-middle-class Americans, or less hard? Former college president David C. Levy's March 23 op-ed in the Washington Post, arguing that faculty members ought to increase their classroom time by up to 67 percent, ignited a fierce debate in academe. Levy's op-ed alone generated 1,352 comments online, mostly from professors insisting that they work very hard, what with preparing for classes, grading papers, meeting with students, sitting on committees, and doing the scholarly research that enabled them to win tenure and thus keep their jobs.
On academic blogs Levy was excoriated as a "moron" and a "liar," to quote two of the nicer things said about him. On the other side, Andrew Gillen, now with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, wrote a post for us here at Minding the Campus that included data showing that teaching loads for tenured and tenure-track faculty had fallen significantly from 1988 to 2004. Even at two-year community colleges, where teaching, not research, is supposed to be nearly the whole focus of faculty energy, the mean teaching load fell from 4.5 courses per semester to just over four courses. The lucky souls with jobs at elite "R1" public and private research universities were teaching a little over 1.5 courses per semester, in contrast to the nearly three courses per semester they would have taught back in 1988.
So--who is right? Levy and Gillen, or their numerous critics in academia? My answer is: They're both right. The issue isn't so much whether college professors are lazy--or whether, as Levy asserts, they're mentally living back in the elbow-patch days of the early twentieth century when academics reputedly traded genteel poverty for ultra-genteel campus working hours that were as much consumed with taking tea and sipping sherry as standing in classrooms trying to pound knowledge into the heads of dimwits wearing raccoon coats.
I think that most college faculty work darned hard (there are lazy exceptions, but they are relatively few in these days of rapidly diminishing tenure and promotion possibilities). I believe the commenter to Levy's Washington Post op-ed who wrote: "I'm a professor at a smallish liberal arts college in the South, and I work 7 days a week usually until 1:00am--yes, taking out four hours of the day to eat and spend with my wife and child. And I work all Christmas 'break' and all summer, too." I think that Levy was simply wrong when he asserted that most college faculty spend only one hour on "grading and class preparation" for every hour they spend inside a classroom. That's impossible--unless you are teaching from crumbling notes that predate the invention of the electric typewriter and your assignments consist of a single multiple-choice exam at finals time.
Professors Work Like Industrious Students
The issue isn't underworked professors. It's whether the hard work that professors do perform is something that society wants to continue paying for. This is especially an issue at public universities and community colleges where the dollars of taxpayers are a major source of support for professorial livelihoods that may include diminished teaching loads compared with the hours they might have put in two decades ago. The parents and taxpayers who support public universities tend to think that what they're subsidizing is the instruction of undergraduates. Then, those same parents and taxpayers are shocked to discover that what they're actually subsidizing is the lifestyle of a community of scholars. It's a demanding lifestyle--nowadays you've typically got to publish not one but two scholarly books just to qualify for tenure--and the hours can be punishing at times, but they in no way resemble the 40-hour work-week day in and day out of most other people with full-time jobs.
What the working life of college professors most closely resembles is the working life of their most industrious students: disciplined day-to-day class preparation for the first thirteen weeks of the semester, followed by two round-the-clock weeks of sleep-deprived toil (writing term papers and studying for finals for the students, grading said papers and computing final grades for the professors)--and then, vacation! Three solid weeks for the Christmas holidays and three solid months over the summer (plus, during the semester, a week of spring break and an ever-increasing number of days off just before Thanksgiving). True, that vast amount of what looks to outsiders like leisure time is often completely taken up by scholarly research, keeping up with the journals, writing syllabi for the next semester, delivering papers at academic conferences, sifting through the resumes of job applicants, and shepherding undergraduates through summer-abroad field trips. But professors, unlike other professionals obliged to maintain standard 40-hour workweeks whether they like it or not, are free to attend to their obligations at their own pace and structure their time accordingly. They can stay up until 1 a.m. five nights in a row binge-writing a scholarly article--and then crash for the next five days. Furthermore, much of what college professors do, arduous though it may be, might not look like "work" in the eyes of many people outside academia.
I'll pick an example from my own limited experience as an academic. During the summer of 2010, I participated in an invitation-only six-week summer seminar in Tunis sponsored (and mostly paid for) by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Of the sixteen participants, fourteen were faculty members at institutions ranging from elite "R-1" research universities to small liberal-arts colleges. I got to know them fairly well, and I can testify that they were uniformly brilliant (as well they should have been, since they were chosen from more than 120 people who had applied for the seminar), conscientious, hard-working, and dedicated to their teaching as well as their scholarship.
For much of the seminar we pored over a close reading of the "Confessions" of Augustine of Hippo, who had lived in Carthage, the ancient city adjacent to modern Tunis. The insights of those theologians, philosophers, literary scholars, archaeologists, and historians were often dazzling. During our "off" days we toured Tunisia's impressive and well-preserved Roman ruins with a local archaeologist as our guide. Those trips were time-consuming and sometimes brutal, since summer temperatures in Tunisia's scorching interior regularly reach 120 degrees. And during whatever spare hours remained many of the participating professors worked in their rooms to prepare their classes for the upcoming fall semester. Others flew off to conferences where they delivered papers.
The NEH seminar, generating a deeper understanding of what Augustine was about, undoubtedly helped make its participants better teachers and better scholars. But I couldn't help wondering what an outsider might think of the whole operation: How exactly is this different from one of those high-priced, professor-led educational cruises that many universities sponsor for their well-heeled alumni--or from the week-long Great Books summer seminars that St. Johns University holds in Santa Fe for $2,500 or so a pop? One professor in our group gave a paper in Tuscany. Wouldn't it be great to spend a weekend in Tuscany as part of your job? And the point isn't simply that professors can get paid for what can look to outsiders like a high-end, mind-improving vacation. It's that they have weeks of unstructured time in which to do so.
So the problem isn't that college professors don't work hard--clearly most do. The problem is that the working lives they lead more closely resemble the working lives of writers, artists, and musical composers than they do of the working lives of other upper-middle-class professionals: odd hours and feast-or-famine working schedules; bursts of creative intensity punctuated by relative idleness, long periods that can strike outsiders as unproductive but that actually generate intense creativity down the road. Someone--students, parents, taxpayers, managers of university endowments--has to pay for this sort of lifestyle, of course. Someone has to judge whether one of its end results--reams of scholarship that, as Mark Bauerlein has argued on Minding the Campus--may be "superb" in quality but seldom gets read or cited--is worth all the expenditures and the apparent waste.
Some, like David C. Levy, argue that it's not, and that most institutions of higher learning would be better off if professors focused solely on the teaching that most people assume is their sole job and in the name of efficiency taught five courses per semester all year round. Others argue that such an approach would kill the university as a locus of the life of the mind. Supporting a university faculty is in many ways analogous to supporting a symphony orchestra or an art gallery--and the ultimate question is how many of those a society is willing or able to support.