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If only I'd realized there was such an easy solution to all this work piling up in my office.

March 5, 2008, 3:29 pm

I’d like to be fair to Mark Bauerlein, who’s arguing, well, I’m really not sure what he’s arguing. Which makes it hard for me to be fair. But I’ll do my best.

In the main, Bauerlein seems to be responding to a comment made by April Kelly-Woessner, the co-author of a forthcoming study (detailed coverage here, a pdf with what I think must be some of the results here) on the ever-popular issue of the so-called liberal bias in the academy. Kelly-Woessner’s study finds, among other things, that conservatives often don’t go on to get PhDs for a range of reasons.

But that’s not really Bauerlein’s interest. He’s more focused on Kelly-Woessner’s suggestion that “someone who places more importance on raising a family would shy away from academia.” Because, she says, “our average workweek is 60+ hours. And unlike a regular job, where you come home at 5, we’re grading well into the evening.” Bauerlein is incredulous: “Can this be true, 60+ hours?”

After allowing that there are some poor slobs for whom this could, possibly, be the case — people burdened by 4-4 loads or pre-tenure scholars trying to crank out a book so they don’t get booted from their cushy sinecures — he gets to the point:

But if we look at tenured professors in the humanities and in many other disciplines, it seems to me that much of the work they do is entirely self-generated. The conference papers that have to be written, the scholarly articles they want to complete, the book projects that hang over them . . . these are not required. They are elective. Yes, they can enhance a career, extend a CV, or even contribute to the historical record—sometimes. But the fact is that the degree to which the vast majority of conference papers and articles in the humanities effectively change the working conditions of professors doesn’t come close to justifying the number of hours they spend on the projects. These projects fill their afternoons and evenings, and in my experience inside academia and out I have never heard any groups speak as loudly about how “busy” they are as professors do. Plainly, the situation makes many of them unhappy. So why do they do it? Is it really worth sweating all those months getting that manuscript in order—which upon publication will sell only a few hundred copies—just to boost your annual raise a few hundred dollars?

What to say? Other than: WTF? Seriously, I strongly believe that I have a great job. Not a day goes by that I don’t think how lucky I am to have failed upward, arriving finally at an institution where I’ll happily spend the rest of my career surrounded by colleagues I admire and respect (except for Eric). I also recognize that my light teaching load is an incredible luxury. I really do. But to get from there to Bauerlein’s point requires a leap of imagination and stupidity that I can’t manage.

First of all, his economic argument. Which is spurious. A light teaching load at most research universities, including UC Davis, carries with it expectations: that scholars publish. In my case, If I don’t do that, many bad things will happen: my salary will stagnate; the colleagues that I like and admire so much will shun me, making it still harder for me to do my job; and, eventually, I’ll be stripped of my title and forced to teach more. Is this the case everywhere? No, I expect not. But even then, people publish for all kinds of reasons having to do with economics, including because they want raises, which Bauerlein dismisses as unimportant. What a tool.

Also, there are other reasons that scholars publish, motivations that seemingly haven’t occurred to Bauerlein: professional norms and expectations, community pressure, and because many academics really love their subjects of inquiry.

Moving on now, to the equally lame qualitative portion of Bauerlein’s piece. Do scholars sometimes whine more than they should about their workload? Yes, they do. But is that workload real and wildly misunderstood by most people outside the academy? Yes, it is. Being a scholar, for me and for most of my friends in the academy, is a trade-off that’s worth it. We have flexibility in our schedules. We get to do what we want for a living: we get to read and write and teach. For pay. Which is nice. But in exchange for all of that great stuff, we rarely have real downtime. We think about our jobs constantly. We bring work with us wherever we go. Many of us, especially the successful ones, really do work 60+ hours per week.

Again, all of the above is just fine by me. I’m delighted to have my job, to do the work that it requires. Because I like it. And I also like the flexibility my work affords me. In short, despite what Bauerlein says, my job doesn’t make me unhappy. But, after reading his crap-ass column, I’m left wondering if maybe what’s really at issue here is that he doesn’t like his. Either that, or being a contrarian pays.

Finally, I would add that Bauerlein’s seems like the laziest column I’ve seen by an ostensibly smart person in some time. There’s no effort to consider what the real value of a raise is over the course of a career. There’s no effort to move beyond the worst kind of anecdata. Actually, he doesn’t even have anecadata. Hell, he doesn’t even have anecdotes. What he has is ill-informed and curmudgeonly opinion gussied up as a thought piece. I just wish that he had done some thinking first. Or that his editors had done the right thing and killed his piece before it saw the light of day.

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