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Stop Pushing Yourself

The Woessner report that I posted on yesterday prompted an interesting commentary in the Wall Street Journal by Naomi Schaefer Riley. Ms. Riley notes, among other things, the heavy lean toward Obama in academe as measured by campaign contributions (reported here by The Chronicle), and she notes the finding that conservative students meet with professors less often. What she highlights most, though, is the assumption that “someone who places more importance on raising a family would shy away from academia.”

Professor April Kelly-Woessner (the liberal wife to conservative husband Matthew Woessner) tells Riley in an interview of the “great misconception in popular culture about what it is that academics do, that we teach a couple of days a week and have lots of free time.” We have seen, indeed, many books and articles on the subject, such as Profscam by Charles Sykes, and when people hear about a 2-2 teaching load that means 6 classroom hours a week for 28 weeks out of the year, they wonder what all the complaining is about.

But Professor Kelly-Woessner maintains, “Our average workweek is 60+ hours. And unlike a regular job, where you come home at 5, we’re grading well into the evening.”

Can this be true, 60+ hours?

Maybe for some segments, such as teachers with a 4-4 load that includes heavy writing assignments on the syllabus. And maybe for assistant professors struggling to get the book finished before tenure time, or researchers in the sciences working on a timetable because of funding.

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?

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