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The Only Good Professor Is A Dead Professor: Or, Is The Decline Of Academic Labor A Health Risk?

April 29, 2011, 11:12 am

When was the last time you stopped grading, writing, reading or writing up committee reports and went to the gym?  In “Performance Pressure,” published this week in the Canadian academic journal Academic Matters, Megan A. Kirk and Ryan E. Rhodes are betting you didn’t do it lately.  In “Performance Pressure” they argue that assistant professors are particularly at risk. “Being a professor is a profession that has been shown to have the longest work hours, heaviest work demands, highest psychological stress, and lowest occupational energy expenditure compared to other professional occupations,” they write. Hence, among all professional workers, new faculty are most likely to become mentally run-down and unhealthy for lack of exercise:

For many, the allure of becoming a professor is the promise of a career that involves freedom of choice, national funding, opportunities for promotion, secured tenure-track advancement, and a flexible work schedule. It is no secret, however, that the path to becoming an established professor requires years of grueling, all-consuming service to prove oneself as worthy.

Assistant professors, those who have recently entered the academic profession, aim to reach tenure by spending countless hours teaching, marking, grant writing, publishing, reading, analyzing, recruiting, and presenting. Most of these “rookies” are also juggling relationships, families, and other personal goals. The reward is that once tenure status is granted, life as a professor can be absolutely wonderful. Or so we think. What if the pressure, expectations, and stress endured while trying to obtain a tenure-track position had devastating consequences on your long-term physical and emotional health?

In a sample of 267 assistant professors who had been hired in the last five years, Kirk and Rhodes found that only 30.7% were meeting a minimum level of physical activity necessary to maintain good adult health.  This compares to 50% of young Canadian professionals who are meeting this basic standard.  “The declining trend in physical activity was not independent of certain socio-demographic profiles,” they note.  “Those who indicated they were married, and worked 70-plus hours of work per week reported sharper decreases in physical activity across the transition compared to those who were single and working fewer than 70 hours.” Having children was also a co-factor, which will not surprise those of you out there who are parents.

One recent preoccupation of this blog and a great many other publications has been the great difficulties of life as an adjunct or contract faculty member.  But here’s a question:  although there are tremendous differences in salary, security and work conditions between ladder track faculty and others, are labor conditions that have marginalized some also putting increasing pressure on those who seem to be succeeding in this narrowing labor market?  One of the things we all know implicitly is that the tremendous pressure to achieve tenure occurs in part because to not get tenure has a great likelihood of being a career-ending moment.  That is a psychological stressor, including an inducement to work harder — even at things that will never be noticed in a review.  One thing I have suspected for a while is that there is simply more work to do than there was twenty years ago, even putting aside raised expectations for scholarly production in the social sciences and the humanities.  Colleges and universities are accepting more students; many of the students we accept are more difficult to teach for a variety of reasons; the increased demand for measurable outcomes; and the drop in full-time teaching staff who can be expected to undertake and be responsible for these tasks makes them more time-consuming.

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