Two perspectives on the academic workplace

New Kid has already posted about Mark Bauerlein’s latest Brainstorm post, “Stop Pushing Yourself.”  In general, if her understanding of Bauerlein’s point is correct, then I agree with her and her commenters.

But I understood the post to mean, in effect, “you may well be busy, but if you are, a certain amount of this is self-generated–and if that’s the case, why declaim so loudly about it?”  (One of New Kid’s commentator’s hits the partial reason: that it’s a defensive answer to those who say academics have it easy.) If *that’s* his point, though, then I probably agree with him.  (Especially because tenure-line faculty comments about workload tend to obscure the most important academic labor problem–the contingent faculty.)

I’ve long-since stopped tracking precisely how many hours I work.  On a typical (non-grading) week, it’s close to 45-50 hours; grading weeks or the weeks before a deadline can easily be up to 80.  Having said that, almost all of that is self-generated.

For example: This semester, I’m teaching 2 wholly new courses, plus a significantly re-designed third class. (There’s also a workshop that’s unchanged from last year, plus I’m cashing in overload from a previous semester–so, in a semester I’m supposed to be teaching 9 credit hours, I’m teaching 11, plus several independent studies. ) That third class was successful last time, and I could easily have re-run it and saved myself some aggravation.  I could also have replaced the 2 brand-new courses with 2 sections of the survey, and cut my work time considerably.  I didn’t have design all the clever new web 2.0 assignments, which take a lot of up-front time.  I’m on some committees that are time-consuming–senate, information technology (which I chair), and assessment–and I probably don’t need to be doing all 3.  I’m on the union council, for which I do less than I should. I coordinate our undergraduate research & creative achievement day, which is coming up.  I’ve arranged for a Very! Exciting! Speaker!! to come to campus at the end of the month.  Then there’s a a variety of writing projects, some of which will count a lot for promotion someday (Alton Locke, Paul Clifford, some articles & conference papers), and others that count for less (Bookslut, PopMatters, et al.).  And, as regular readers know, I spend a certain amount of time during the week at home to keep the kid out of daycare.

So, I’m pretty busy, I guess, but it really is stretching it to say that more than 40% of this is required or expected.  I’m at a 4/4 school, and I have some articles, a book, plus a book-like thing which is not a book.  I could’ve rotated 4 classes: comp, the survey, the Victorian age, and the Victorian novel, and those only.  And  I could’ve done, say, one university-service thing (plus dept. service): maybe the senate, or chaired ITC, or coordinated URCAD.  I’m pretty sure that would’ve gotten me through promotion & tenure.  (Knocking on wood, of course, because I’m still untenured–though no additional amount of accomplishment would’ve gotten me tenure last year.)

It’s also worth acknowledging that the factor that drives many tenure-track professors at 4/4 schools to overwork–“ooh, I’ll write my way out!”–doesn’t apply in my case: How would I leave a school where A. & I *both* are on tenure-line appointments?

When so much of our work is self-chosen, then, complaining about overwork is rhetorically peculiar.  It does occur to me that there’s something weirdly Puritanical about the way academics talk about being busy, as if the # of hours they work were itself a sign of virtue.

For a different take on work, compare this post at the 37signals blog, where Jason Fried talks about some of the ways his company has encouraged people to work less.  Some of them will be familiar to many academics: a shorter (or more flexible) workweek, “funding people’s passions” (what my school would call a “faculty development grant”), and a discretionary spending account for work-related materials (what my state university would probably call “theft”).

I can’t find the passage tonight but Donald Hall (the speaker mentioned above) has described how, despite his productivity–much of which while at a 4/4 school and while being chair–he still is usually able to be done at a reasonable hour.  Elsewhere, though, he writes:

These are the two extremes that continue to plague academic existence: that of Casaubonic paralysis and Carlylean workaholism.  Neither is self-aware or honest, neither integrates our intellectual and theoretical beliefs with our practices in any defensible way; nether is communally responsive and responsible; and neither leads to anything like equanimity in our professional, or indeed personal, lives.  In sum, both are avoidance strategies and make for both miserable and–in the communities of our departments, classrooms, and larger profession–misery-making existences.  (The Academic Self, 8-9)

Although Bauerlein’s style is more caustic, I think it’s a pretty similar point.

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8 Responses to Two perspectives on the academic workplace

  1. Dr. Crazy says:

    I take your point about the rhetorical peculiarity, and I do think that a lot of it does have to do with the defensive posturing that many of us feel we must do in response to the common belief that we don’t “work” at all. That said, I think that Bauerlein’s point that all of us could “choose” not to do the work that we do is spurious. The fact is, if I weren’t doing new course development at my university, this would not be regarded favorably. With ever increasing tenure expectations (my university’s are reasonable, but they *have* changed since I was hired and nobody was grandfathered in) I can’t do without the two conferences a year at which I’m expected to present, nor can I have afforded not to publish at all – even though this was what I was told at the outset about publishing. If I *were* already tenured, I couldn’t get merit pay without publishing and/or new course development, and I certainly couldn’t expect promotion (another monetary issue, more than a prestige one, as far as I’m concerned).

    I agree that much of this work is self-generated, but that’s because it’s the nature of the profession: that we must be self-generating in terms of our work because there isn’t the same kind of oversight that there is in corporate America. That said, even if we must motivate ourselves, that doesn’t mean that the work involved isn’t a prerequisite for success or economic sustainability. He implies that we could make the same money, have the same career, even if we didn’t “choose” to work as much. At least at my institution, this is just not true.

    Now, my institution is one with a 4/4. So perhaps he’d give me a pass. But I would argue that the same is true for many at institutions with slightly lesser loads, as well as schools that are “research” universities.

    I’ll tell you, if I’d taught the same four courses in rotation to tenure, I wouldn’t get tenure here. If I’d not published at all, I wouldn’t get tenure. If I did that stuff after tenure, I wouldn’t get merit pay raises and I wouldn’t get promoted. Perhaps that’s not the case everywhere, but neither is it the case that we could all “choose” to work less with no repercussions.

    That said, we could all bitch about it all less 🙂

  2. jbj says:

    Even in my department, expectations about course development vary. I mean, I’m the Victorianist, and we’ve had a Victorian lit sequence on the books for years. So, my charge, as it were, when I was hired, was to teach service courses (basically comp & the survey) and those upper-division courses.

    Some hires, though, have been brought in to grow the department in specific ways, and there’s an expectation that they would develop new courses.

    (And, to be clear: I’ve taught lots of different classes, and developed new ones, &c.)

    Since I’m both untenured and not-pseudonymous, I’ll refrain from commenting too directly on the question of rising research standards, which is an issue at my school as well. I’ll just say that there always seems to be a gap between the actual increase in the standard, and the perception of an increase. But that’s a vicious cycle: As assistant professors crank out more research, the administration can sit back and say, “see–maybe we really *should* raise the standards.”

    This thing you call “merit pay raises,” we don’t have that. It’s a union campus.

  3. I get your point, and I get his point, but I still think he’s getting it wrong. First, because he entirely overlooks a whole category of work – service – that isn’t self-generated and equally isn’t really elective. Sure, pre-tenure people are a different case from tenured folk, and he’s talking about tenured folk; but even more so if you’ve got tenure, there are committees that need to be chaired, searches that need to be run, reports that need to be written, majors to be revised, advising to be undertaken – is it really feasible to say, “This is all elective, I’m not going to do it”? Because presumably you’re someone who cares about the overall conditions of the institutions in which you work, and therefore you’re often faced with the choice of doing the work, or abdicating and watching your institution turn into something you don’t like. Is that really elective work? Is it fair to say you’re making more work for yourself by caring about how your institution is run?

    Moreover, I think the “self-generated” thing is a red herring – it’s not about making more work for yourself, it’s about doing an excellent job. Sure, you didn’t have to make all the changes to your courses and so on, but it’s not so much that you decided to do that work to do more work – it’s that you decided to do that work in order to do your job *well.* I think it’s perfectly reasonable to recognize the constraints in academia that make it hard to do everything well without working 60+ hours a week. To me, Bauerlein’s post basically says, Why try to excel? Coast and be mediocre, or if you do try to excel, you have no right to complain about the difficulty in doing so.

    That being said – yeah, I think it’s silly for academics to complain about how their research is too much work, when it’s what they (in theory) love to do. But I don’t know academics who complain about being overworked because they have too many research irons in the fire. They complain about being overworked primarily because of bureaucratic service requirements, and because of things like increasing student enrollments in writing classes, and grading. It’s all relative, of course – colleagues at both my former jobs complained about such stuff, and Former College folk had it WAY easier than Rural Utopia folk – and some people are going to complain no matter what their situation is. But nonetheless, everyone I know who has a t-t job considers themselves lucky to have it. It is just frustrating that 90% of the non-academic world seems to think professors sit around eating bon-bons when we’re not teaching our six hours of class a week (as if it were only six!).

  4. jbj says:

    First, I agree that there’s a tone problem with his post, which makes it sound like, “hey, coast away”–especially because that would immediately tip into, “Look at these free-loading academics.”

    And second, I also agree that the subset of people who are overwhelmed with research obligations is pretty small.

    I do think that, in general, faculty don’t have a healthy attitude toward service. (And that attitude leads people to think of it as *only* bureaucratic, rather than meaningfully connected to teaching or research or whatever. If assessment only means, “my dean is making me do this,” as opposed to, “hey, let’s try this way of finding out what our department *actually* teaches,” then one’s likelier to complain about it more.)

    (Having said all of this, I don’t mind admitting that within three hours of New Kid’s comment, I got two new requests for service that really couldn’t be turned down, which is pretty funny.)

  5. Sue says:

    I find it peculiar that you would consider the development of new classes, the creation of new assignments (Web 2.0) and other things that you mention related to teaching as optional. What a sad, sad state education must be in if faculty consider developing new courses, updating material, creating new assignments and making use of new technology as optional, unnecessary “self-generated” work.

  6. JBJ says:

    The point is that it’s self-generated because I have a fair amount of control over it. Although it’s the case that I’ve taught at least one entirely new prep–and, in most cases, two–every semester that I’ve been a professor, there’s no reason for that to be true.

    The question isn’t whether it’s worth doing, which obviously I think it is. I was just responding to the claim that such work is *required* for *tenure.*

  7. I see that the third call for volunteers to run for various Senate commmittees has come out. Perhaps you could make an earnest appeal on the faculty listserv?

  8. JBJ says:

    Will think about it.

    (Though I think all of the *advertised* slots are now for full professors, who aren’t always susceptible to earnest appeals . . . . Present company excepted, of course!)

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