25 March 2012

More accusations of professor laziness

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand it’s yet another piece claiming that professors are lazy, this time from the Washington Post.

Here's the crux of the argument: Professors at research universities work hard, but we all “know” that only a tiny fraction of universities actually do research, and those people don’t work hard enough (emphasis added).

The faculties of research universities are at the center of America’s progress in intellectual, technological and scientific pursuits, and there should be no quarrel with their financial rewards or schedules. In fact, they often work hours well beyond those of average non-academic professionals.

Unfortunately, the salaries and the workloads applied to the highest echelons of faculty have been grafted onto colleges whose primary mission is teaching, not research. These include many state colleges, virtually all community colleges and hundreds of private institutions.

Speaking as someone at a state university, we have research expectations. And they’re increasing. Indeed, it is arguably more difficult and time consuming to conduct research at an institution with a history of being primarily teaching, because there is less infrastructure and support.

To say that only a tiny number of universities should conduct research is a huge waste of talent and opportunity. Indeed, one of the things that we should be teaching our students is how to conduct research, which requires working individually with students. One of the side effects of these kinds of proposals is that they enhance the Matthew effect at universities: big research universities protect their turf and accumulate more resources, prestige and opportunity, while other universities – and the communities they serve – get less and less done.

And, not surprisingly, the amount of teaching expected does scale with research expectations. Teachers at an emerging research institution like my own teach less than at a community college, but more than a research intensive institution.

There’s a more subtle bias, here, too. It’s the notion that researchers are worth more. Teaching isn’t being valued. Yes, this is couched in terms that researchers put in more hours. However, this editorial provides no evidence that researchers at highly intensive research institutions work more hours than instructors at community colleges and state universities.

The article continues a fine tradition of underestimating the time it takes to prepare and grade students.

Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation...

Unlikely? In many classes, particularly more advanced classes, the time spent preparing and grading can easily exceed the time in front of a class several times over.

The article also overestimates some of the advantages of being a professor. According to Levy’s piece, professors not only get tenure and “light” teaching loads but “long vacations and sabbaticals.”

By long vacations, I am guessing the author means “summer.” Do you know most academics get nine month appointments? We don’t get paid for summer, unless we teach in summer 9which at our institution is a separate budget and not guaranteed).

I have never had a sabbatical. In my entire department of about twenty faculty, exactly one professor in our department has had a sabbatical. To get that, he sought and received an external grant to pay for it. (And the program is limited to American citizens, so I am not eligible to try for it. But I’m not bitter.)

The other issue with looking at wages of people at the very end of their careers is that it overlooks that training to be a professor takes a long time. In my case, I was in training for over 15 years. There needs to be some acknowledgement of compensation over the course of a career, not just at the very end of a career, with what “top” (most senior) professors earn.

It’s also noteworthy that part of this editorial’s “advantage” of increasing workload is that we would need fewer professors, just in a time when there is a job shortage.

Additional: More discussion from Kristina Killgrove on G+.

More additional, 26 March 2012: Janet Stemwedel, College Guide (with data showing professors are not responsible for driving up tuition costs), and Gin and Tacos.

Hat tip to Neuropolarbear for harshing my mellow on a Sunday morning. Thanks to Scicurious and Katiesci and Cedar Reiner and Kari and other folks for Twitter discussions.


The Dog Zombie said...

There also seems to be a presumption that professors who focus on teaching are less valuable and/or work less. I'd really like to see us valuing teachers more, not less. We already send the message that research is more important than teaching, to the detriment of our students.

Mr Epidemiology said...

"Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation..."

This blows my mind. Has this person never taught? The first time you teach a class you put in hours and hours preparing slides and examples. But the second time, you just have to take those slides, update them and fix what didn't work.

Grading, on the other hand, stays the same year in, year out. Every time you teach the course you'll have 30, 50, 100, 500 students to grade. It is unlikely that we'll spend equal time on both, because grading takes up so much time!!

gregdowney said...

Maddening article. As a colleague on Facebook pointed out, it's a 'Gish gallop,' an avalanche of distorted or outright false information with which it is hard to argue because there's so many inaccuracies.

Just for one, little example: I'm on sabbatical this semester, and I am working almost every day, weekends included, sometimes putting in 14 hours. Why, if my job description is so lax and forgiving? Because I know that if I do not work like a sled dog during this sabbatical, I will a) never get another one, ever; b) squander my few months of opportunity to write before I have to contend with constant interruption from teaching, advising and admin duties; c) never get promoted again; and d) never get another competitive grant.

Sure, if I wanted to coast along for the next 20 years at precisely my current level, looking forward to those big, fat juicy cost-of-living pay raises, never doing anything different... yeah, then I could coast. But if I was that kind of person, I never would have finished my PhD; I would have taken the most easier corporate job I was offered when I was ABD.

scicurious said...

Indeed. My father is a full professor with tenure. He has never yet been able to take a summer off, spending them either teaching or doing research, and only just now took his first sabbatical, also funded by a grant, during which he taught at a different university and did research.

Comrade Physioprof said...

Dude, I'd like to read this piece, but this white-on-dark-red blogge theme is completely fucken unreadable.

Zen Faulkes said...

CPP: Oooh, you're looking at the mobile site for smartphones. Fair point. Let me see what I can do.

Zen Faulkes said...

Okay, CPP: Changed mobile template to simple black text on white.

Comrade Physioprof said...


Kyle said...

Couldn't agree more on all counts! Tell 'em how it is, Zen!

Drugmonkey said...

The guy who wrote this....allegedly was in University Administration and is still this wrong about what a professor does? That takes some effort!

Becca said...

Levy's batshit about the hours per week. But I'm not so sure about the weeks per year.
By "long vacations" he means that most universities do two 16 week semesters. That's 32 weeks out of 52 per year.
Of course, on paper that's not "vacation" if you're not paid it. Which is to say, if Levy's view was right and you could actually get supplemental employment for those 3 months you are not paid for, salaries look pretty generous (for an Associate prof at UTPA it's the difference between an actual average annual salary of ~$70k/year and a salary rate that works out to more like ~$93k/year). The real issue there in that case is that Universities expect labor for free. This is both philosophically and practically troubling.

I think major differences in perspective exist between how faculty and administrators vs. outsiders look at research. From a professor's perspective (even at "teaching focused" schools), research is often the meat and/or potatoes of tenure and promotion. Plus it's associated with more prestige, and a different sense of contribution to the world than teaching (i.e. "the fun part of the job"). From a student (or parent) perspective, it's icing on the cake. Lovely to have, but fundamentally optional. From a citizen/taxpayer perspective, there are actually merits to both views. I think the Levy piece mistakenly focuses solely on the student/parent stakeholder view, but replying to "you are not efficient at graduating students" with "we work our asses off at research" also seems weird.

Dr. Free-Ride said...