Monday, September 21, 2009

I know what you did last summer

Over the weekend, I came across yet another ill-informed op-ed by some talking head about what to do to 'fix' the university system - in this case, the proposed 'solution' to the high costs of post-secondary education is simply to have professors teach more so their work weeks are similar to those of 'normal' people! Riiiight. Most of it is pretty generic repetition of the remarkably ignorant claim that a professor's work week is adequately measured by how many hours he or she teaches in a given week. To me, that's kind of like saying that the work week of police officers only amounts to the time they actually spend arresting criminals - you know, the rest of the time, they're just drivin' around and talking with people in the neighborhood, not actually putting in any time towards what we're really paying them to do.

Now, I'm obviously somewhat biased, but does it really surprise anyone that an hour of class time requires several hours of preparation beforehand, on top of writing exams, meeting with students and grading tests and assignment? None of the professors I know (and I know many) just show up and pontificate about the day's topic without doing any research on it or providing reasonably structured critical analysis of it, which seems to be the warped perception some pundits have of university lecturing (which may be more indicative of how they do things than how we do them, but I digress...).

What annoys me the most in most of these discussions, though, is when people criticizing professors' work whip out the old "and on top of it all, you have 3-4 months of summer vacation a year!" canard as a final and self-evident nail in the coffin of the defenders of higher education. As an archaeologist with an active field project, this aggravates me to no end. 3-4 months of vacation a year, really? Let me tell you a bit about what I did last summer, then: I turned in my grades on April 30, and on May 5, I was on my way to my field site, which means the May 1-4 period was spent frantically wrapping up lose ends and making sure all my material was ready for the field, where I stayed for two months (until July 6), training and supervising the work of seven students and several volunteers. We had pretty long days this summer: we set off for the site around 6:45AM and were back home around 6:00PM, after getting supplies for the next day - that's 11:15 work hours, 5 days a week. Tack on another two hours of work a day for me to review my field notes for the day, prepare the goals of the next day, and try to keep up with academic responsibilities like reviewing papers and administration that, shockingly, don't mysteriously get put on hold once a term is over. You can also add about another six hours each week for field trips I would organize for the students to get familiarized with the archaeology of the region. Right there, we're already talking about a ca. 72:15 hour work week, and that's not counting discussions/meetings with colleagues in the evening and weekends. All that during my extensive 'vacation' time... no wonder I felt so rested when I started at UCD at the beginning of August!

Mind you, I'm not writing this to complain or to toot my own horn, since I had a dynamite crew this summer and since all archaeologists I know that have an active field project have similar, if not more grueling schedules when they're doing fieldwork. The point, however, is precisely this: most of our research gets done in the summer. Few if any of us spend that time (or can afford to spend it!) sipping exotic cocktails in no less exotic resorts. That research, in turn, provides material and data for us to analyze during the rest of the year and for us to use to provide concrete, empirically informed examples of concepts we cover in our classes, in addition to providing potential research opportunities for interested students (which we then supervise using time that often doesn't get counted as part of our weekly teaching hours). Basically, for archaeologists as for the vast majority of academics, summer is a time to get some research done. And without that research, the quality of classroom education can decrease, which underscores the logic behind the organization of the academic year at the university, and the need for academics to do research. If any pundit out there doubts the veracity of any of this, you're hereby invited to join me in the field next summer... I have plenty of screening and sorting that needs getting done, and after a couple of months of that, I'll be more than happy to hear about your impressions of how academic archaeologists spend their summers.


Anonymous said...

Oh, quit complaining. You have a good deal and you know it. The professorial life is a privileged one and to suggest otherwise is dishonest.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Easy tiger - I never complained about my line of work, which I love for many reasons. What I will complain about, however, is the insulting characterization of my character and work ethic implied by those who scornfully claim that I only work a six-hour work week because I teach two classes a term and that, on top of that, that I get 3-4 months of paid vacation during the summer to do as I please. That's dishonest. As I was trying to show, it's not like I spend my so-called break sitting on my ass and downing G&Ts.

See my good friend Steve's post on this topic over at Glossographia... as he rightly says, not only do we usually not get paid for work in the summer, "if we didn’t do it, we wouldn’t be able to do the research needed for tenure and promotions."

Anonymous said...

Fair enough. I was a bit cranky last night when I posted that. I like the blog. Keep up the good work.

Maju said...

In fact it seems you should go on strike for the 40 hrs week. In an age when workers claim (and sometimes achieve) the 35 hrs week, 72 hrs sound like you really need a vacation, a true one.

John Hawks said...

There are plenty of more-or-less accurate analogies in terms of time management:

Marketing -- do we judge only by the amount of time giving sales presentations?

Management -- only the time spent chairing meetings (not attending -- academics also attend plenty of lectures they don't give).

Journalism -- only the time on-air, or (for print) only in editorial meetings.