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).