Saturday, October 28, 2006

Question: Do I Really Work?

Well, it's the weekend, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about leisure. Whenever people get to know me, and they start to get it that I really am an academic, then the comments start. They fall into two categories: one is the Romance of Teaching, and the other is that most of my life is consumed by a search for ways to fill my time, since I don't really work.

The Romance of Teaching will hold for another day. Let's tackle the question of work.

It is true that what people most envy about my life (and my partner N, since she is a college teacher too) is time off. There are 10-12 weeks in the summer that we have off; the mid-semester break, the winter break (about 4 weeks, depending on how you count it), and my favorite, Spring Break, which at my school is two weeks long, because it takes the baseball team that long to play its southern travel schedule. At some schools, there is a mini-semester during winter break, when a faculty member doesn't always have to teach, but sometimes does. Thank god we do not have that at my Olde Neue Englande College. Oh yes, then I also forgot that we don't go to school every day, most of us, and we don't have to be there at a certain time, and we don't have to stay until a certain time unless there is something specific we have to do. And then there is sabbatical, which for me happens about every three -four years, when I get a year off to work on whatever book I happen to be writing.

This is one true thing (as Hemingway would say) about the conditions of my labor. Now the other part is that if you are REALLY doing your job, you spend a lot of time working at home. A lot. There are lectures to write, journals to read and a field to keep up with, seminars to strategize, books to review, and my least favorite, papers to grade. Then, aside from duties to students, there are meetings to go to: faculty meetings, committee meetings, hiring meetings, tenure meetings, meetings in office hours, curriculum meetings, department meetings, major recruitment meetings, senior honors work meetings, blah, blah, blah. And then, some of those meetings you really have to prepare for: write memos, strategize presentations, read scholarship.

Then there is your own scholarship, which may or may not be a compulsion, but it is true that the only way to get ahead in this world is to publish scholarly articles, for which we are paid nothing (actually nothing! my accountant hates this) -- often for two years of steady labor on a forty page piece -- or to publish books, for which most of us are paid very little. Some people, it is rumored, have to actually kick in money to a press to get their book published. This latter category of people is growing: it used to be only Romanian medieval literary scholars, and now that category has enlarged to include, say, historians of Victorian Britain, which is actually a topic with some audience. So the reason you write is not to make money, but a) out of genuine love for writing and scholarship; b) to get promoted at your own job, or get a raise at the end of the year; c) to get a more prestigious job; and d) all of the above.

So here's the PROBLEM with the idea that college teachers have so much freedom -- that there is no clear beginning and end to your work except that which is dictated by your work ethic, your sense of responsibility, your level of anxiety and your sense of personal ambition. Hence, while some of us work not at all (because, of course, if you have tenure, you can f**k off endlessly and no one ever does anything to make you be responsible to your sudents or your colleagues), most of us consider that a pathetic way to live. And then often your work is unpredictable: a class that you have taught a million times before suddenly explodes into political struggle; a student goes into meltdown or plagiarizes a paper and you find yourself meeting with deans twice a day for a week; a tenure case goes sour, and all of a sudden you are trying to save someone's entire career.

And we have no real freedom, most of us, to get decent raises either by working hard at our own institutions or by getting another job: the academic market is one of the least competitive there is. In return for working all the time, very few of us make what is considered, in the world of ambitious and/or educated people, a good salary. At my instituion, the average raise last year was about 3%, and there are no bonuses. I haven't hit 100K yet, and I have 11 years of formal education and sixteen years on The Job. I recently read in the student newspaper that our highest paid faculty member makes 235K, and she's almost 70, I bet, and has probably raised over $100 milliion for the university. In other professions -- medicine, say, even with managed care, this is chump change for a well-educated person who has done a lot to improve the position of the company as a whole. And then, here's the kicker: the combination of tenure and the fact that education is massively underfunded means that there is such a huge reserve army of labor for the number of jobs available, that probably 89% of us feel lucky to have a job at all doing what we are trained to do, and not swotting up for the LSATs. If you aren't in a field where there is public sector employment (any of the sciences, economics, sociology, psychology) you are truly, utterly screwed in terms of job mobility, and thus, ever putting your university in a position to have to compete for your services. The irony of college teaching is the farther up the scale you go, the fewer jobs are available -- since why would you hire an English prof at the level of full professor when you can get a new Ph.D. for half the price? You wouldn't. And they don't.