Tuesday, October 30, 2007

An Untruth

One of my new Midwestern-Funky-Town friends and I met at the gym. The other day we were chatting and avoiding our working outs. The topic turned to nutrition and what we had for lunch that day. This resulted in an unusual behavior for GayProf. I lied.

I didn’t lie about the content of my meal (What would be the point?). Instead, I lied about my whereabouts for the day. When I mentioned that I had fixed an omelet for lunch that day, my friend inquired, “The university lets you go home for lunch?” I responded, “Uh, yeah,” rather than the truth, which was that I was actually already home because I don’t usually go to my office on non-teaching days (unless there is a meeting).

My lie emerged because I have been down this path previously with people who work in jobs other than academia. I lied because I didn’t want him to think that I was just some lazy slug who is paid (at tax payer’s expense) to leisurely cook brunch for himself while everybody else is out there being productive members of society.

There has been a tendency among my non-academic associates to presume that, if I am not at the office, I must not be working (My friend works in one of the local manufacturing plants and has sometimes teased me that my job is a not all that tough). This is often exacerbated when they discover that I “only” teach two classes per semester. Even my own parents sometimes chid me for having a remarkably cushy job. One extended family member once suggested that I should really consider getting a second job. After all, if I only teach two classes, I have all that extra time and could earn double the money!

I recognize that it is a cushy job, but not because I don’t put in forty-hours per week. Many weeks, I probably work more than forty hours (especially this semester).

It reminded me that most people have only a sketchy idea of what university professors actually do, even if they have been through college themselves. My sensitivity to accusations of “not really working” is shared by many academics, I think. It had even appeared at the institutional level. My former Texas university, for instance, used to advice faculty to “not mow their lawns at 2:00 pm on a Tuesday” for fear of antagonizing their non-academic neighbors (who were known to call and “report” professors who weren’t working (Texas is a lovely place, have I mentioned?)).

Growing up, I certainly had no concept of an academic career path. To my mind, a “good” job was one that involved office work, like being a secretary. As I have mentioned previously on this blog, my view from television was that work involved going to the office, drinking coffee, and laughing all day with your friends. I believed that was my future. Of course, I also believed that living as the only man allowed on Paradise Island was in my future as well.

Later on, I expected that (if I finished college) I would become a high-school teacher. It wasn’t until my sister started working on her Ph.D. that I even began to understand the world of academia (Yes, there is another).

If I am really honest, being an academic is not “hard-work.” I am not shoveling coal or making steel. Beyond the classroom, I am a free agent with my time. My particular position is really a luxury that our society can afford (for the time being) and I am damn lucky to have this job (especially my particular job). Don’t ever believe a professor who argues that their job is that type of hard work. They probably have never actually done any other job.

This is not to say, obviously, that I don’t work hard at my job. Being an academic is often extremely stressful, especially for the untenured. The Never-Ending- Research- Project-of- Doom, for instance, haunts my sleep. Actually conducting research is time consuming and difficult. Writing up your findings and getting it published sometimes seems impossible (though it isn’t). Universities are also remarkably hierarchical institutions (despite a self-created mythology that suggests otherwise). One’s value in a university is consistently under scrutiny by those who rank higher.

One of the huge up-sides of being an academic is that I have almost total control over when and where I work. The down-side, though, is that I always feel the pressure of work. I have often, for instance, had to decline invitations from my gym friend to do things on weekends or evenings because I was working.

I think it is that part that doesn’t quite register with those who aren’t professors. It seems obvious when we aren’t in our office or classroom. Therefore, people often assume we aren’t actually doing anything productive. The measure of work is about one’s location. Having worked full-time, or virtually full-time, during my undergraduate years, however, I know that those with 8-to-5 office jobs hardly spend every second of their day actually working. Sure, we were located within the office during the time “on-the-clock,” but we also joked around or wasted time.

Academics usually don’t have the same relationship with their office. In the humanities, moreover, our research and work is often done alone.

Academics, for their part, aren’t often helping the conversation about our own work. I frequently hear professors complain about how people just “don’t get” what we do for a living. If that is true, then I think that we are failing to explain why our work is important to them (and it is). Rather than envisioning that we are the suffering and misunderstood artists, we need to be candid about what the job involves (and we have to be honest about our remarkably privileged position in having that job).


pdxprofessor said...

hear, hear gayprof! my partner and i have a very similarly exasperating conversation about this topic every few months and i never really know how to express to him what you've expressed here. just because we aren't in any particular place for a particular amount of time doesn't actually mean that work is not happening. while i agree that it's not shoveling coal, it's not exactly easy work, and anyone who has tried to write a series of coherent sentences would know that.

lately i've been starting to think that there's a perceived feminization of academic work that allows folks of other professions to sneer down their noses, much in the way that "stay-at-home" moms often complain that their "working" female compatriots sneer down theirs. as a parent of two, i can reaadily attest to exactly how much real-live, sweat-producing work goes into "staying at home with the kids." i think there's a similar dynamic of under-valued work going on with academics -- because our work doesn't tend to produce the kind of readily quantifiable societal markers of success as other professions, its worth is devalued. of course, one could argue that the cornel west's of the academic world have managed to produce the kind of quantifiable markers of success that accompany "real work," but how many of us will ever achieve that level of academic superstardom?

looking back at this comment, i guess i AM very sensitive to it. who knew? anyway gayprof, thanks for handing me some ammunition for the next exasperating bout of "you couldn't possibly be tired after reading and writing all day.

tornwordo said...

I remember talking to an acquaintance about her $60 an hour gig teaching a college course. I thought, "Wow, easy money." She quit because it was too much work for the money. Apparently, every paid hour required ten hours of prep/correcting. Not such a cushy gig after all.

CoffeeDog said...

People think my days are filled with ease because I work from home 99% of the time. Nevermind the fact that I get calls at 6pm from folks wanting assistance. My email is ALWAYS on, it's nothing for me to be working at 830 pm. The other side of the coin is I take time during the day to do the things I want to do - a class at the gym at 930, I'm there!

michael said...

My partner works from home, while I work in an office. I think I spend more time screwing around (like posting comments on blogs) than he does.
Although when he's blowing off work it usually involves something a lot more fun than what I can do here...

David said...

As an office worker I protest your characterization that we are not working every minute of our 40-hour weeks! Why even as I type this comment I am sitting at my desk, busy doing....well....

Never mind, just go about your business.

pacalaga said...

I think that's a common misconception about anyone who doesn't have to be in a certain workplace for a certain percentage of the day. My father worked from home, and I remember him watching golf in the middle of the day during the summer, or swimming with us in the pool. I also remember he traveled a lot and put in 16+ hour days when he was on the road.
Now I am faced with the HOPE that I can work from home (which will require that I overcome that stigma, a huge one in my current place of business) so I can follow my husband as he takes a job in (gasp) TEXAS. Save me.

Marius said...

My mother is a professor, but she also runs a business. She served as a journal editor when I was younger as well. Family time was very rare in my home. I grew up thinking that all academics were workaholics. Now I know different.

I'm currently a graduate student in Neuroscience. Unfortunately, in my particular area, we always have to be in the lab—working with animals, mixing chemicals, maintaining various systems (and equipment), running experiments, and training others. It feels like a 9-5 job, really. Working conditions vary from lab to lab. So, I can’t say that all Neuroscientists are constantly working, but most have to be in their labs if they want to get anything done. I wish we could work from home. :)

Anonymous said...

It starts in grad school. I've explained to my parents about a zillion times that I don't take classes, and that I'm in the lab all the live-long day (and nite) doing research, but they still just don't get it.

Neuroscience is 9-5? I picked the wrong field evidently. ;)

Paris said...

While I joyfully embrace the flexibility of academic work schedules and locations, I have found it enormously liberating to decide to work as close an approximation of 9-5 as possible. This strategy has nothing to do with the neighbors monitering my lawn-mowing activities (in fact, my neighbor very kindly mowed my lawn the other day!), but rather to prevent my own Neverending Project of Doom from destroying my life by occupying my thoughts.

Or at least, that's the theory. Actual milage is variable.

Jefe said...

Excellent post, as always. I think one of the major things that makes our work difficult is that the world is not organized in such a way that maximally supports that work. This includes the section of the world within which we actually work, i.e. the university. Our work's invisibility is, paradoxically enough, only the most visible manifestation of that underlying problem. The loneliness of our work, for example, is typically more extreme than is actually necessary, indeed even to a counterproductive degree. (Not that I'm arguing for forced togetherness, but more facilitated togetherness would probably help.) As more and more work "out there" (among the middle classes, at least) starts to more closely resemble the sort of work we do, perhaps we'll see some shifts both in the conditions and the public understandings of our own work.

Artistic Soul said...

I've been having similiar thoughts lately -- more because of the health issues and the perception that I somehow can't take a "personal day" to see specialists if it means canceling my classes when I get so much "free time" during winter breaks, summers and other times of the year. It's really an odd type of pressure and expectation. My business world friends think I have the easiest job ever - but then again when I pull out the 4-5 pubs per year at 25+ pages of writing, they back-pedal a bit. :)

Susan said...

Excellent post -- and a huge issue. I'm not only an academic, but I teach in a non-residential institution, so I work almost always from home. I've worked very hard to not get sucked into the "you have a flexible schedule so you can do this extra job" routine. On the other hand, my husband has cancer, and it's been very convenient that I can go with him for chemo etc.

My mother used to share the "you academics have these great three month vacations" attitude. Then she came to visit one summer when i was revising my diss, and she finally said, "I get it. You are always working". And if I'm not working I'm thinking of the work I should be doing...

Marius said...

Alan, maybe I should be more specific. It's 9-5 in the sense that you're expected to be in the lab most of the day. I should point out that it varies from lab to lab. I can't speak for everyone. But I often find it difficult to go to the bank during the day or do other things because I just can't leave the lab (my PI is a tyrant). So, that's what I'm referring to. Of course, there is some flexibility. On the other hand, I have a friend who is a philosopher. He teaches on Tuesdays and Thursdays. When he's not teaching, he's usually at home, reading or writing. He also loves to go to the beach. I can't do that. Again, it sometimes feels like a 9-5 job.

I didn't mean to suggest that Neuroscientists (or other scientists, for that matter) only work from 9 to 5. Most spend time reading in the evenings and weekends (like many Academics). Many investigators, like you, also do research in the evenings and weekends. I thought that was common knowledge, which is why I didn't mention it in my previous comment. So maybe you didn’t pick the wrong field. :)

StinkyLulu said...

My latest gripe on this inexhaustible topic is how I'm getting the same vibe from even my colleagues now. I'm a historian who teaches in a performing arts department and, among 90+% of my colleagues, toss off jokes about all my perceived free time because I don't direct/choreograph/buildsets/etc...

Baron Scarpia said...

Amen, amen, amen...

... and I'm not even an academic. (To my regret, truth be told) I've never fallen into the trap of thinking that academics have great mounds of free time, partly because I remember what it was like at university - few lectures, but loads of research. And if it's tough for a conscientious student, I thought, it can't be any better for a conscientious lecturer.

But as you've said, and it needs to be said, the job is a 'luxury' in society. 'Hard work' can actually mean a great number of things.

Earl Cootie said...

I know (and encounter) an inordinate number of people who work from home. That doesn't seem to be an issue to most people. But when By-God-Taxpayers! are supplying any portion of your paycheck, look out. You're expected to forgo any minute of free time.

Adam said...

Here's the thing GayProf, you worked hard for your PhD whereas the people that work in business didn't. Sure you don't have be in the office all the time but next time someone challenges you on that you can tell them what you make as a teacher compared to what a random office person makes. Revel in your academic freedom!

bardelf said...

One area in which the academy could improve is in the area of public education. And, I don't mean enrolling more students. It would do the academy's image a lot of good if folks in the general populace knew more about all the extra work involved in teaching at the academic level.
Until I lived with two professors, I had absolutely no idea the amount of time spent in teaching. As you said, there is always the research projects, the writing, the conferences, as well as the teaching. There is so much behind-the-scenes work that goes on with teaching at the university level.

Steven said...

Wow, what a complete turn-around from the lie about what you had for lunch. Perhaps the entry should have been titled differently? :-)

I heard from numerous academia at my alma mater the amount of research and publishing they needed to do just to maintain their position. On top of that there is the tenure issue. Not exactly like the tenure a grade school or high school teacher "automatically" receives. The other thing people have to keep in mind is the time that professors set aside for tutoring/meeting their students. Unless, of course, they have TA's who do that work. So I know your job is really cushy only about 85% of the time, not 100%. ;-)

lost in france said...

Teaching is a tremendous amount of work, effort and, potentially, anxiety, especially if the students are not good.

Roger Green said...

See, I understand WHY you lied, I really do, but I recommend against it - especially since no loss of life, limb or property were involved. But this is not a matter of moralizing, it's a matter of practicality: new friend discovers the lie and wonders what else you're lying about.

One of the pivitol books in my life: Lying by Sissela Bok.

GayProf said...

PDXProf: I wonder how many people even know the identity of Cornel West, Judith Butler, or bell hooks (some of the most visible academics out there).

Torn: That doesn't count all the hand-holding we have to do with some students to get them through any particular class.

CoffeeDog: It is strange that people equate being home with a lack of work.

Michael: Oh, yeah, it's much better to avoid work when at home.

David: When I last held a regular office job, the internet was just in its infancy. I can't imagine that I would have ever accomplished anything had it really been in full force.

Pacalaga: NO! No, no, no! Don't move to Texas. Save yourself! Please -- Heed my warnings.

Marius: It seems like science profs are also taken more seriously than profs in the humanities. Maybe it is about location (and the more immediate presumption that "science" serves humanity, but the humanities are frivolous).

Alan: My parents have two academic children, and they still don't quite get it. They often ask why I don't just put in an application at the local university near them.

Paris: I have often thought I should be more routine about my schedule. A 9-to-5 set up, though, would require me to wake up much earlier than I am prepared to do so.

Jefe: You are right, the solitude of being an academic is also something that is not discussed often.

Artistic Soul: Wait -- You can't be ill and in the academic world. Didn't anybody tell you that?

Susan: More than the actual work, what I hate is the constant haunting of my work when I am actually trying to enjoy free time.

StinkyLuLu: Oh, no doubt that within the universities there is a battle to define certain fields as more rigorous than others. You would think that we would know better...

Baron: It is a luxury and, in the end, a cushy job. Sometimes I am amazed that I am able to do this type of work.

Earl: The really funny thing is that very little tax money actual goes into universities like my current one.

Adam: I do revel. Oh, how I revel!

Bardelf: I also think that profs need to come out of the ivory tower much more than we do. I have met far too many academics who use jargon as a means to make themselves look smart and at a distance with the general public.

Steven: No TA's for GayProf this semester, alas. At my former Texas institution, I got one (1) TA for every 180 students that I taught.

Lost in France: It's the grading, man. The grading sucks.

ROG: I totally agree. Indeed, I think telling the truth is always a better idea. It was an unusual moment that I did decide to obscure the reality (and probably won't repeat it in the future). That's why it gave me pause to consider my motives.

goblinbox said...

"...who were known to call and “report” professors who weren’t working"?!?

In spite of that, I envy your job.

Paris said...

I teach at 8am three days a week this semester and next so even 9-5 is wishful thinking on my part. Let's not talk about the hour that I must rise for this routine. Let's just say I leave for work before dawn and have been doing so for a few weeks now.

Yes, I am on the market, why do you ask?

Clio Bluestocking said...

I find that many people I know outside of academia seem to confuse "teaching college" with "attending college." Then, they think back upon their days of dating and drinking and barely showing up for class, and think that is what I do. Sometimes, I let them keep on thinking that because it earns me more respect than my actual work.

Laverne said...

I read this one day after school, and couldn't muster the energy to comment until now.

It's as if it's human nature to compare our jobs with another's. I bring it down to my level (because I can turn any post into something about ME). I teach English to 13-year-old students. It's hard, especially when, like yesterday, they turned in 163 essays I now have to grade.

PE teachers don't have to grade homework, so once they're done setting up the track and putting away the balls and nets, they go home.


They have classes of 46-50 students at a time, compared to my 30-33. They are outside all day with bullhorns, keeping the kids on the field or from running off.

In some ways, my job is harder, in some ways, theirs is. I don't want to teach PE, and most of them don't want to teach English.

So, what I want to know, is how can I be like Britney? She pulls in over $700,000 a month, and all I ever see her do is drink Frappiccinos. Now there's a job I'd like.

Sarah said...

When I tell people that I'm applying to grad school in the humanities, the two most common reactions I get are, 1) Oh, so you don't know what you want to do with your life? and 2) Yeah, that's great, then you don't have to get a real job.

However, I just left a "real" job, and I was doing more work as an undergrad than I did at this job. Especially after I picked up on the fact that when my supervisors told me to do something they rarely remembered that they had told me to do it, so it didn't actually matter if I did it or not.

Last week when I met with one of my rec writers, we were chatting about my job and I said I thought I'd had an abnormal work experience. She pointed out exactly what you do here--and also that very little work is actually being done in most "real" jobs.

I also agree--we're extremely lucky to live in a society where academics can be a viable career option.