In response to criticism, sociologist argues academics need to explain better what they do

A recent Washington Post op-ed suggested college faculty do not work hard enough:

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.

If the higher education community were to adjust its schedules and semester structure so that teaching faculty clocked a 40-hour week (roughly 20 hours of class time and equal time spent on grading, preparation and related duties) for 11 months, the enhanced efficiency could be the equivalent of a dramatic budget increase. Many colleges would not need tuition raises or adjustments to public budget priorities in the near future. The vacancies created by attrition would be filled by the existing faculty’s expanded teaching loads — from 12 to 15 hours a week to 20, and from 30 weeks to 48; increasing teachers’ overall classroom impact by 113 percent to 167 percent.

Critics may argue that teaching faculty members require long hours for preparation, grading and advising. Therefore they would have us believe that despite teaching only 12 to 15 hours a week, their workloads do approximate those of other upper-middle-class professionals. While time outside of class can vary substantially by discipline and by the academic cycle (for instance, more papers and tests to grade at the end of a semester), the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth. And whatever the weekly hours may be, there is still the 30-week academic year, which leaves almost 22 weeks for vacation or additional employment.

One article about the subsequent conversation regarding the op-ed quotes sociologist Jerry Jacobs talking about how academics do not explain their jobs to the public well:

Faculty-baiting might exist because people have certain perceptions of how college professors operate, some experts said. “I do not think we do a good job of explaining what we do,” said Jerry Jacobs, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Jacobs, who has researched faculty life, said that students often graduate from research universities without a clear understanding of what a professor’s job entails. “Meanwhile people see that the costs of college are going up and to them, faculty at colleges don’t seem to work 40 hours a week like high school teachers do,” he said.

In a 2004 article in the Sociological Forum, Jacobs found that full-time faculty members spend an average of just above 50 hours a week working. The data for his analysis came from the 1998 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty by the U.S. Department of Education and the faculty sample included 819 colleges and universities. “As a point of comparison, the average work week for men in the U. S. labor force is 43 hours per week and 37 for women. About one-quarter of men work in the labor force work over 50 hours per week (26.5 percent), along with one in ten women (11.3 percent),” Jacobs said. Many academics, of course, report working far more than 50 hours a week — and for adjuncts, the pay is a fraction of the figures cited by Levy, and many work without health or retirement benefits, or any job security.

It may be a job with some more flexibility than other jobs but there is certainly plenty of work for academics invested in their classrooms, research, and schools.

So what would Jacobs say academics should do? How can we explain to the public what academic life is like?

One option is to tie our roles to helping prepare students for jobs. However, this downplays aspects that aren’t as clearly vocational.

Another option: be more clear with students about what we do and how we do it. Instead of making our jobs like “black boxes” that are mysterious and capricious, explain what we are doing as we go along. Why should our students learn about a particular topic? Why do we grade the way we do? What do we do when we put together a research paper? I’ve tried some of these strategies and while students don’t seem overjoyed, some do appear to appreciate hearing the process behind it.

A third option would be to more clearly relate our teaching and research to everyday life, whether this is in the classroom or the community. While public sociology might be a sort of trendy term, it could help show people why what we do matters. We don’t just sit around and write for ten other academics; in our research we are hoping to draw attention to particular issues, influence public policy, help people who care about the topics, and interact with others who are also interested.

Fourth, we could defend the classroom experience. It is not easy to effectively impart knowledge and wisdom to other and to lead discussions. These days, it might be cheaper to do more online learning but something is missing, the community and atmosphere that can come from being in a classroom where both the instructor and students are engaged. This sort of criticism also is often leveled at teachers: “anyone could teach these lessons.” I don’t think everyone could.

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