How Much Do You Work?

Gene Fant’s excellent recent post, “Academe as Slacker Haven,” caught my attention because it reminded me of an experience I had a couple of months ago while serving on a symposium panel.

But before I go into that, I’d like to offer my own take on the subject of academic “work.” I’ve often thought that the problem creative types have–and I would include most academics in that description–is that so much of what we do isn’t visible to others, and the part that is visible often doesn’t look like work.

A professor sitting in his or her office staring out the window may well be working–plotting out that new article or book chapter or contemplating a better way to teach some topic–but to anyone wandering by, it just looks as though the professor is daydreaming. That’s one reason I keep my office door closed most of the time.

Even when I’m not sitting in my office, I might very well be working. One of the commenters on Gene’s post noted that, when people see a professor mowing his lawn on a weekday, they assume he doesn’t have enough work to do, when in fact he might have an evening or a Saturday morning class.

That is absolutely true, but what’s also true is that, even when I’m mowing my lawn, I’m still probably thinking about my next class or article or presentation. I wouldn’t count that as “officially” working, but if I go inside after I’m done with yard work, sit down at my desk and crank out a draft or an outline, who’s to say I haven’t been “productive”?

Again, the problem is that none of this is visible to bureaucrats, politicians, chamber-of-commerce types, and even college administrators who haven’t actually been professors themselves (which, unfortunately, constitutes a large and rapidly growing group). As those of us who have served in management capacities know very well, administration is a kind of work that looks a lot more like work, with regular “business hours,” clearly-defined tasks, and easily-measured objectives. When you’ve been at it for a while, even if you were a professor in another life, it’s easy to forget that there are other types of work.

This presents a problem, because as professors we rely on administrators to explain to the bureaucrats and politicians how what we do really is work, public perceptions notwithstanding, and that we do a lot of it. Sadly, in the ongoing struggle over funding and workload, our “leaders” don’t seem to have our backs anymore. That means it’s up to us as faculty members to do the explaining, loudly and at every opportunity.

Which brings me back to the panel discussion I mentioned above. The occasion was a career symposium for graduate students hosted by a major research university in the region where I live. I served on a panel during a session dealing with academic careers, along with a professor from a nearby liberal-arts college, one from a midsize state university, and one from the host institution.

One of the questions put to us by the moderator was, “How many hours would you estimate that you work each week?” He made it clear that by “work,” he meant everything we do that is in any way part of our jobs: teaching, planning, grading, holding office hours, sitting in meetings, researching, writing.

Both the professor from the liberal-arts college and I said that we spend about 50 – 55 hours per week at our jobs. (In my case, that’s down about 10 hours per week from when I worked in administration.) The professor from the midsize university, who has two toddlers at home, seemed almost apologetic when she noted that right now she “only” works about 45 hours per week, but that she’s looking forward to being able to do more when her children start school. And the research professor from the host university, who runs a large laboratory, topped us all when he noted that he spends upwards of 70 hours per week on campus.

I realize this is still pretty anecdotal, that it doesn’t constitute the kind of empirical evidence some of Gene’s readers were calling for in their comments. But it seems to me that enough of these anecdotes might go a long way toward combating the public perception that professors don’t work.

So tell us about your situation. What sort of institution do you teach at, and about how many hours per week would you say that you work, on average?

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