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Monday, April 2, 2012

A flexible #dayofhighered

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Lee Bessette has called for April 2 as a "day of higher ed", in response to the Washington Post nonsense about how faculty are overpaid. I assume most readers of this blog have heard about the WP article but if you missed it, the general idea is the same old crap about how teachers have large amounts of time 'off' since apparently, the only real work we do is when we are in the classroom (I should note that the author specifically targeted those at teaching schools and community colleges, since apparently, we don't have to do research - HA!). Since my research (irony!) is on K-12 education, I hear all these same arguments about how K-12 teachers are overpaid all the time. On a personal level, I find such comments incredibly annoying but on a larger societal level, I actually find them dangerous - I think the belief that teachers at all levels are overpaid, lazy, etc., contributes to the general erosion of support for education that we've seen over the last several decades.

Of course, the economist in me has a problem anytime someone uses phrases like 'overpaid' but I'll write about that later. What is on my mind right now is *why* the perception persists that academics work less than everyone else. I think it is, at least in part, because most people don't understand what we do, combined with/because of the flexibility we have to do what we do. Most non-academics have no idea what is involved in writing a research paper or prepping a class; all they see is that some faculty are not in their offices for large chunks of time. Although telecommuting is becoming more common, the simple reality is that most people equate being 'in the office' with 'working'; therefore, the fact that faculty only seem to be 'in the office' around the time they are teaching must mean that teaching is working and by extension, the rest of the time is not working.

While we all know this is inaccurate, the one piece of this logic that sort of holds is that when we are not teaching, we don't have to be working. Outside of the hours I am in the classroom (and to a lesser extent, my designated office hours), I have almost complete freedom to decide how to structure my time. If I want to sleep in until 10am on a Monday, or spend my morning running errands (or writing a blog post :-)), I can do that, since I don't have to be at school until later in the day. Of course, I spent most of my weekend in front of my computer so the same total amount of work gets done - but that time is 'invisible' to the rest of the world. I think most academics would admit that one of the huge perks of our job is this flexibility but it comes with the cost of people not 'seeing' our work. There are a few other professions where people have similar flexibility but the output generated during those invisible work hours is more obvious - really, writers are the only other comparable occupation I can think of, and academic research articles do not have nearly the visibility of mainstream books or essays.

There is also a limit to academic flexibility. Another aspect of our work that most non-academics never think about or acknowledge is that the parts of our job that are not flexible are REALLY not flexible. Specifically, the academic schedule - the part of our job that is most visible to everyone else - is completely inflexible and mostly outside our control (other than the fact that some of us, not all, have the luxury of choosing the time slots of our classes). I may not have to be at school until 1pm today but when I say I have to be there, I mean I really HAVE to be there - I don't get to re-schedule a class because I'm sick or need to take a 'personal day' (a term that I don't actually understand but have heard non-academics use when they need to deal with the unexpected things life throws at us). I certainly can't take a vacation when classes are in session. Yes, I realize that I have a month in December, and three months in the summer, when I can take whatever vacation I want, but if my friends from college all decide to meet up for a reunion week in mid-April that doesn't coincide with my spring break, it is highly unlikely I can join them (and even if I do manage to work around my classes, like putting stuff online, I would still be checking email obsessively for messages from students and be feeling incredibly guilty about trying to manage my classes remotely).

I'm particularly thinking about this today because I have a cold and honestly, I feel like crap. I am toying with the idea of canceling my office hours, because I know that it is unlikely anyone will show up and even if they do, their questions are likely to be something I could answer via email. But I don't have a fever and I'd have to be pretty much incapacitated before I'd cancel a scheduled class so I'm still going to school for that. If I worked in a regular office, I would probably take a sick day or I would try to work from home (to the extent that was possible and if I had a boss who would let me do that). Either way, it would be 'acceptable' work behavior in the non-academic world but neither is an option when you have classes to teach (or at least when you teach classes interactively and can't just throw your lecture or notes online).

I guess my point is that the way academics work is simply so different from the way most non-academics work that it shouldn't be surprising that so many non-academics don't get what we do. I think part of the reason academic reaction to the Washington Post article has been so strong is that the author actually used to work in academia so supposedly, he should know better - in my opinion, that just highlights the divide in academia between those who care about teaching and those who don't, which is a slightly different problem. Anyway, as teachers who do care, and who are sick of feeling under-valued and unappreciated, how do we make what we do more transparent to the rest of the world? I don't have much confidence that simply telling people how many hours we actually work has much impact because they just can't comprehend how those hours of work are possible when they don't *see* the work. How do we teach the world what teachers actually do?