Tuesday, March 27, 2012

For What They're Being Paid, Yes

A lot of people have been discussing this recent op-ed, which asks the question, "Do College Professors Work Hard Enough?" It's difficult to convince people about this, since people honestly don't understand how academic life works, but if there's any problem with the professoriate it's not that they don't work hard. Academics don't have jobs that stop when they go home, and I have never met anyone -- and I mean anyone -- in an academic profession who "worked less than half the time of their non-academic peers". Practically everything in the op-ed is wrong or misleading. Consider this argument:

An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But 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.

First of all, even the finest professorships you can get do not generally receive executive-level compensation (and certainly get less than executive-level benefits). College presidents often do; perhaps higher-level positions like deans at wealthier schools get into that arena. In short, people like Levy. Highest-level faculty -- tenured positions with long seniority -- at the very wealthiest and most prestigious schools in high cost-of-living areas sometimes get into six figures, barely. (It's notable that Levy's example of Montgomery College is a community college in a high cost-of-living area in which the average household income is itself nearly six figures.) But let us assume that faculty do get executive-level compensation, and consider the other assumptions here. The categories of hours worked are, according to this author, the following:

Class time
Grading
Class preparation

As any academic knows, this is not exhaustive. There are, in addition, office hours, appointments with students outside of office hours, departmental meetings, course preparation (which is not the same as class preparation), course review, paperwork (e.g., relating to evaluation procedures), and this doesn't even get to time devoted to research, which is an immense part of academic life, and something that faculty are often required by their jobs to do. But let's assume that we're at a school where the academics do nothing but teach, and it's barebones teaching -- the faculty are required to do nothing but prepare for lecture, lecture, and grade assignments. Twelve to fifteen hours per week would be a decent courseload, although there are heavier ones, but the thirty weeks assumes that the teaching is only done for two terms; it is highly implausible that there are full-time faculty at any school devoted so much to teaching who never teach the more intense and condensed summer courses. So already the comparison is loaded by assuming that faculty always take summers off, which cannot be assumed even if faculty had nothing to do in the summers except teach -- which they don't. Class preparation varies considerably depending on whether one has taught the class before; I vary my classes from term to term quite a bit, but for segments that I have taught quite often before I can get preparation consistently down to a bit less than class time. For entirely new segments it is indeed an "unlikely event" that class preparation is equal to class time because preparation time often exceeds delivery time -- in delivering a lecture on a new topic, for instance, one is presenting in condensed and organized form information that was not originally in condensed and organized form. Exactly how much of a factor this is depends on things like format; but in general high-paid faculty are going to be expected to lecture, and lecture is preparation-intensive -- three or four hours of preparation for one hour of class is not really that unusual. Grading is extremely variable; in my hybrid Intro courses I spend much more time grading than I would ever spend teaching a normal class, while the current version of my Ethics course is a fairly grading-light course with some minor during-term work and some intense end-of-term grading. What this means overall, I'm not sure; perhaps it evens out to something like the author has in mind, but I know of no evidence for this.

So actually the perspective on the argument is arguably wrong: what the author has shown is not how little faculty work, but the opposite. Even covering only three areas, which do not by any means account for all teaching-related hours and do not account for any research-related hours, and given the absurd assumption that faculty members have 22 weeks of vacation a year, faculty workload would still be between 36% and 45% of that of non-academic professionals. It's like measuring the workload of lawyers by tabulating how much time they are literally in a courtroom, how much time they spend preparing for precisely and only those things that they do in a courtroom, and how much time they spend doing the filing so they have record of what they did in the courtroom. Even a person who knows next to nothing about law can see that this is going to underestimate, massively, how much work high-paid lawyers do. Even the best paid academics probably don't generally work as hard as high-paid lawyers (although they don't get paid as well as high-paid lawyers, either), but the numbers here are obviously leaving out necessary parts of the academic life -- even obvious things like office hours and consulting with students are being left out in this estimate. According to Levy's argument, faculty take nearly half the year off, do a tiny fraction of what real faculty are usually required to do, and even on these absurdly leisurely assumptions Levy still has assigned them a workload approaching 45% of the workload of an executive. And, again, in David Levy's world there's no such thing as research expectations for teaching faculty. All academics are expected to research; how formal or informal this is depends on the situation, but even the most teaching of teaching colleges expects even its part-time faculty not to be teaching canned classes but innovative ones that take into account the most recent research that's relevant. Most faculty are expected to show that they are doing more.

This is not to say that there's nothing to be said that's relevant to the matter. Academics can be a bit prima-donna-ish, there's no question about that. And there are genuine benefits to the work. One of the genuine advantages of a faculty position at a teaching college is that only parts of your schedule are fixed. Your to-do list as a faculty member is extensive and never-ending, and you always have deadlines (and are often behind on meeting them) -- which is why I am baffled at the notion of any faculty in the entire United States actually managing Levy's alleged 22 weeks of vacation, as if there weren't things to do before a course starts and after it ends -- but you do (often, at least, and within limits) have a lot more flexibility and control over how you are going to organize the whole lot. That is undeniably nice. You're more likely to be doing what you enjoy doing anyway, at least for much of the time, and you have relatively easy access to some moderately nice resources for doing it. If you can stand the politics, having to fulfill arbitrary requirements that do little to contribute to what you are actually there to do, having to jury-rig solutions to problems you've not been provided appropriate or adequate resources to solve, and the fact that there's always something you still need to do, there's a genuine argument that it has some very nice benefits in comparison with other professional positions. But being underworked and overpaid is just not generally on the list.

In any case, the whole presupposition of the argument is dimwitted; like all professionals, teachers are best paid for the actual quality and importance of the work and their actual ability to deliver it, not how many hours they have spent on a clock, which encourages filler time. If you did put faculty on a forty-hour clock, you wouldn't get more work from the faculty; you'd just get, at best, faculty doing less of their work at home. Likewise, the number of courses is generally determined more by demand (students wanting to take them) than by supply (teachers available to teach them), and merely making professors teach more classes wouldn't have any direct affect on your end results on even an optimistic assessment. What you might actually end up doing is providing about the same number of courses with fewer faculty, who would be harder to keep, a situation that could drive up faculty salaries in the long run. And Levy's argument approaches dishonesty by failing to consider how many of the actual teachers even at teaching colleges are in adjunct positions, with slight and not always predictable income, limited benefits, and dubious job security. Take Levy's example of Montgomery College: about half the courses taught at Montgomery College are taught by adjuncts, not by faculty making anything like the salaries he's talking about, and this is not unusual (currently more than half of appointments in higher education are adjunct positions). The percentage of faculty who even potentially fall into the group Levy is talking about is tiny.

1 comment:

  1. John Perry11:16 PM

    I saw that. The headline was bad, and it only went down from there. The comments were pretty bad, too. I'm shocked at how many academics (or people who claim to be academics) are ignorant of the diversity of institutions of higher education in the country. Yes, people, there really are colleges & universities that expect nothing form their faculty except teaching. But neither are those faculty pulling in the big bucks!

    (For that matter, I'm not, either.)

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