Academe as Slacker Haven

By now you may have seen David C. Levy’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post, which claims that professors do not work enough hours to justify their wages. His “money” statement is: “faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation.” On the compensation issue, he observes that “senior faculty at most state universities and colleges now earn $80,000 to $150,000″ annually.

My inner skeptic wants to see some actual data to back up his statements on workload and compensation, as I have taught at a wide variety of institutions, just as I have held a number of private-sector jobs, and his statements do not match my experiences. Indeed, I cannot tell you how many times I have had friends leave industry for teaching positions only to return to industry after a few years, either because of burnout or the inability to live comfortably on a teaching salary.

Certainly every sector of the workforce has people who game the system, but they are exceptions, and creating policies that fix exceptions is a Kafkaesque exercise in futility. Generalizations made from exceptions are always recipes for grandstanding. They’re among the worst sort of straw-man arguments.

I’m the first to assert that academe enjoys a rare, even luxurious kind of flexibility, a job benefit exceeded only by the utter satisfaction of working with students, but flexibility is not the same thing as a hammock. Neighbors may see a faculty member mowing the yard at 9 in the morning on a Tuesday, but they did not see the 10 p.m.-2 a.m. paper grading, online discussion thread, or editing of a publishing project.

My grandfather gave me advice when I started working full time: “If you aren’t busy, you ought to be nervous.” He extended that advice later by saying, “If you are worrying about other people’s job performance, you probably aren’t busy enough with your own job.” I’ve tried to heed that advice, no matter where I’ve worked. Not only that, but I’ve learned over the years that the only places where low-workload/high-wage positions exist in any work sector are in the minds of undergraduates who don’t know better and pundits who ought to know better.

I’d love to hear what our colleagues who are adjuncts think about the op-ed piece, even as I would be happy to stand corrected in my general umbrage at the accusations of those who direct the “slackers!” complaint at academics.

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