Living on College Time

Cary Nelson recently told The Chronicle that legislators don’t understand how professors spend their time and that’s why they’re so inclined to cut university budgets:

… He put part of the blame on professors, saying faculty members have worked for too long in isolation and done a poor job of communicating how many hours they actually put in. “In my first 25 years as a faculty member, I took one summer vacation,” Mr. Nelson says. “That kind of commitment is just pretty common.”

Perhaps in response, a professor at Kansas State University, Philip Nel, decided to keep a time diary for a week, chronicling his every move. Here’s the intro:

Richard Scarry, What Do People Do All Day? (1968)Since it’s fashionable in some quarters to attack state employees as lazy (Hello, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker!), I am — for this coming week only — blogging about precisely how I spend my time, as a Professor of English at Kansas State University.  I’m also doing this because, when I was an undergraduate, I had no idea how my own professors spent their days.  I mean, I assumed that they were working: they did show up prepared for class, and turn back graded papers, quizzes and exams.  But what did they actually do when not teaching me?  I didn’t know, and never really gave it a thought.

Most of what Nel counts seems like it’s perfectly reasonable. I hear more and more from professors that they have to work long weeks (read, longer than 40 hours). But how does that square with all of the studies that suggest students are spending less and less time engaged in academic activities? Studies like Academically Adrift suggest that students are spending somewhere less than 30 hours a week engaged in studying and attending classes.

One possibility is that each professor is responsible for many more students than they used to be. But assuming everyone is telling the truth, my guess is that a lot of time that faculty spend working doesn’t have much direct effect on students. Indeed, Mr. Nel’s diary reveals that he spends a significant amount of time “trying to keep up with the vast field of children’s literature.” He writes reviews of children’s comic strips, for instance.

And he also spends time writing applications for faculty-development awards so he can attend conferences on children’s literature. I am willing to believe that children’s literature is a legitimate field of study. But the idea that in order to teach Kansas State undergraduates about it effectively, one needs to “keep up with the literature” seems to me a bridge too far. And I bet you it’s a bridge too far for many state legislators as well.

Maybe it’s not that parents and taxpayers and legislators don’t know how hard professors work. Maybe they just have different priorities than the academic world.

What might also interest readers is all of the posting discussion questions and answering e-mails that Professor Nel does. I was recently chatting with a professor at a prominent midwestern institution and he told me he had to wait 24 hours to respond to his students’ e-mails so they didn’t get the impression that they could always get instantaneous feedback from him. I am sure that our advances in modern technology are taking a toll on the academic profession. Typewriters were a pain, but responding to student, faculty and administrative e-mail constantly is time-consuming.

In that sense, though, being an academic is like being any other kind of professional. We’re expected to be online at all hours, available, quick with our answers, etc. It takes up a lot of time.

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