Whereof ye know nothing, ye should keep silent

Apologies to Wittgenstein for the title of this post, but if I didn't start off with a dose of philosophical humor I'm afraid that the whole entry would just degenerate into a rant largely composed of terms that wouldn't make it past the people who bleep words out of public broadcasts in the US.

A student forwarded me this op-ed from yesterday's New York Times. In the piece, Eugene Hickok -- former Deputy Secretary of Education and current Fellow at the political munitions factory conservative research institution called the Heritage Foundation -- opines that we should extend the Every No Child Left Behind Act to cover institutions of higher education. His recommendation is largely grounded by several anecdotal observations: college students don't have sufficient "civic literacy" (which seems to mean knowledge of American history, by and large); people teach classes on "the history of comic book art" and other things that he regards as wastes of time; people take a long time to complete their degrees; colleges and universities don't have clear standards for what constitutes an educated person; and, my personal favorite, "Faculty members typically spend fewer than 200 hours a year in the classroom. That amounts to just five 40-hour weeks."

I'm all for greater transparency in how colleges and universities articulate their missions and goals, and I'm all for requiring professors to make their own pedagogical goals clearer than many of us typically do -- truth in advertising, so to speak. But the idea that the federal government needs to crack down on a bunch of slacking professors airily waxing poetic about comic books and never putting in an honest day's work is both extremely offensive and deeply misleading. And I say this as a professor who regularly offers an Honors seminar in social science and science fiction, one of the books for which is in fact a "comic book" (a graphic novel, really, and Watchmen is every bit as complex as any other novel I use in the course) -- I challenge anyone to look at my syllabus and say that it's not a serious intellectual experience of the sort that we are supposed to be offering to college and university students. Yes, I'm talking to you, Mr. Hickok.

What is most infuriating about the piece is that the author seems to write with precisely no knowledge of what a professor in a college or university actually does on a daily basis. "Fewer than 200 hours a year in the classroom" is apparently meant as some kind of damning charge -- and if in fact we were all only spending that amount of time doing our jobs on a yearly basis, then yes, that would probably be cause for concern. But classroom time is just the tip of the iceberg for a professor; there is also course prep time, office hours, other meetings with students, advising, mentoring, setting the course for the organization as a whole…and, oh yes, researching and publishing, which is (regardless of what the public relations flyer says) the most important component of how one gets tenure and thus retains one's job (with the partial exception of four-year liberal arts "teaching colleges" -- although even there you have to publish and establish a scholarly reputation with your peers). 200 hours a year? Please. If I put in 200 hours a month it's a light part of the semester.

With two caveats, I'm going to briefly outline my schedule from last week. Caveat number one: I am not claiming that this is a statistically "typical" week, although it doesn't seem to be too markedly different from any other for me, although I went to my brother-in-law's wedding during the weekend and thus missed the couple of Saturday hours and the five-hour Sunday evening block that I typically work (this semester, the Sunday block consists of a dinner with the students in my freshman class, part of the ongoing effort to construct and sustain a "living-learning community" that is a big part of what we are trying to accomplish in this program, followed by a showing and discussion of a film for my sci-fi class). So if anything it's a comparatively light work week. Second caveat: I am not claiming that this work week is statistically typical of other professors, whether at my or at another college or university. But if pressed I would bet money that it's not too different.

7 hours "work at home," which consisted of podcasting two course lectures, answering student questions via IM and e-mail, and generally preparing for the week ahead by reviewing course material in preparation for class discussions.
2 evening hours of trying to stay on top of the continual flow of e-mails, some of which are from students, some of which are from colleagues discussing papers and books we're writing, conference panels we're organizing, etc. -- and reading the course blogs for each course.
total: 9 hours

1.5 hours on an independent study with two students, discussing Thomas Hobbes' Levitathan.
1.5 hours of office-hour time mentoring and advising students.
1 hour lunch in student cafeteria, some of which is spent talking with students.
4 hours office-hour time.
2 evening hours tying up loose ends from the day, and trying to finish course prep that wasn't finished on Monday.
total: 10 hours

2 hours faculty meeting, discussing hiring policies and curriculum reform
1 hour lunch in student cafeteria
1.5 hours office hours
1.5 hours work at home while watching children (translation: not getting much work done, but we have to have this arrangement because we don't make enough to afford more daycare)
2 evening hours, as usual, still trying to finish reading blogs and the like.
total: 8 hours

1 hour meeting students who couldn't make regular office hours
2.5 hours class
2 hours seminar (at another institution, so there was also travel time -- and that total 1 hour travel time was spent discussing things with a PhD student, but I'm not going to count that for the moment even though I easily could) in which we discussed globalization and the German film industry
1 hour working dinner with student to discuss graduate school applications
2.5 hours class.
total: 9 hours

1 hour working lunch with student to discuss MA thesis
2.5 hours class
1.5 hours in office.
total: 5 hours

Friday was a short day because I spent the morning dropping my wife and kids off at the airport, driving back to the university, teaching, then driving up to my brother-in-law's wedding. Usually, Friday morning is another 2-2.5 hours of office hour or e-mail time.

Total for last week: 41 hours. And as I said initially, that week did not include the normal Sunday block or the hour or two on Saturday.

Total "classroom time" narrowly construed: 7.5 hours. Total work time outside of the classroom: 33.5 hours.

And if you notice, none of that week involved grading of assignments, since I haven't assigned any exams or papers yet. Those are coming soon and they will have to be added on to the existing nutty week.

Oh, and I work that schedule year-round. I have to teach summer courses every year in order to pay the bills, so it's not even like I get to do my research and writing during the summer months.

Don't get me wrong -- I love my work, and I work as many hours as I do because of that love (certainly not because of the remuneration). I am not pleading for a reduction in work hours. I am merely incensed that the number of hours that I and other professors put in was so badly mis-stated in the editorial.

People who have no clue what goes into this line of work should keep their mouths shut when they feel like taking professors to task for not working enough hours. Indeed, even though I seriously doubt that this blog will ever come to Mr. Hickok's attention, I'd like to more or less publicly challenge him to a battle of day planners. Let's sit down and open our schedule-books and see what hours we each work. They are lots of valid reasons to call for change in higher education, but the notion that professors don't put in enough hours is certainly not one of them.

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