Friday, January 04, 2008

Today's Letter of Complaint: The Profession

US News and World report published a list of the best professions for 2008, ranging from clergy to hairstylist to fundraiser (!) to, yes, professor. Go ahead and read the short treatments of the job, here and here. You done? Does it sound right to you? Not to (irrepressible) me. I wrote a letter to Mr. Marty Nemko, which you can read below the fold.

Dear Marty Nemko:

I'm writing regarding your "executive summary" of being a professor. A professor at a 4-year institution probably teaches three courses a semester; he or she may well teach 4 courses. Let's say it's usually 10 1/2 hours in the classroom every week, assuming 85-minute courses meeting twice a week. Then there's another 3 hours of sitting in my office--okay, it's me I'm describing (I'm a new assistant professor at Brooklyn College in the English Department)--so, sure, that's 13 1/2 hours. Once a month, there's a couple of hours of departmental meetings. Then there are various smaller committees and meetings to which I owe my service, which gives me another, let's say, hour a week on average.

Not bad, right? And summers are off?

Except you left out two things: preparation time and grading. It takes me on average three hours to prepare for each class (some classes it's 6 hours, some it's only a half hour, if that). So that's another 18 hours a week. Then, being an English professor, I may have 2- or 3-page papers from each of my students to grade. There are between 20 and 30 students in each of my classes. This small deluge doesn't happen every week, but it happens often enough. At the end of the semester, I get around 800 pages to grade, bang, as I get research papers from all of my students. Some of them are good writers, so the grading's easy. Most of them need, well, to be educated, which means writing about 600 words of comments on each to help ensure that they don't make the same mistakes again. Any of them could be cheating, so I have to check that. There are also finals to grade, and believe me, I don't have a grad assistant. At Christmas, when I wasn't with family, I was grading.

So you see where your hours are off? On top of that: I'm returning page proofs today on a 25-page article I wrote, I have 3,000 words due in February on a topic I know very little about, I have two more articles, plus two conference papers, coming up in the next 8 months, and then there's the dissertation I have to get published as a book in the next seven years. Every so often I write a grant application, because it looks good if I can bring in some money. So: let's call it 50-60 hours a week, because that's what it's been for me, and that's what it's seemed to be for every professor I know in the humanities. Important professors do more: they deliver keynote addresses, serve as outside advisors for tenure cases, edit journals, write many, many letters of recommendation, and often chair their departments.

Finally: the pay range is way off. Some of the jobs I applied for paid $40k. This was in Idaho, sure, but still. My starting pay is in the low 50s, and this when I started getting my first master's in 1997 and finished my PhD ten years later (average time to completion for a literature PhD is around 9 years). When I hit associate professor, I may hit the 70s and 80s. When I finally hit full professor, maybe 12 years from now, I'll be making whatever counts as the 90s. One day maybe I'll crack six figures (the ceiling is about 120K in the CUNY system).

That said, I love my job. I get to hang out with really smart people--my colleagues and students included--I get to work on stuff that's interesting to me (it's not a job at the DMV, that's for sure), the dinner parties are never dull, mostly I set my own hours, I get rewarded for being smart, and, eventually, I will have excellent job security in a field concerned with something more than the bottom line, a field that values me *as a person.* That's important.

All best,
Karl Steel

(PS: on political leanings: the people who complain are mainly non academics. David Horowitz, chiefly, and so far as I know they're unable to provide any substantial facts about the relationship between politics and hiring. And certain departments--law, economics, some sciences--do trend conservative, you know.)


Dr. Virago said...


At least he started with "If you can" get a tenure-track job.

But where do people get the idea that non-flagship state U profs all have grad students doing the grading?? Where do these grads students magically appear from? And why does nobody take into account who grades the grad students??

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Or the idea that anyone can get a lecture together 30 minutes before class???!

Karl, you are right to emphasize the prep time. There are some courses with completely new material that have taken me TWO FULL DAYS to prep for each meeting -- actually, that's the typical amount of time I spend on a graduate seminar. And what about letters of recommendation? Writing those can be a full time job...

One thing I really liked about Michael Berubé's blog is that it made all this labor cease to be invisible.

Being a professor is a very good life. It's not an easy life, and it isn't a financially rewarding life, but it is a good life.

Thanks for posting this, and for emailing Marty Nemko.

Craig @ AFT said...

Thanks for catching this Karl. The perpetuation of the image of faculty members as "lightly worked and well paid" covers up what is really happening out there (even with all his caveats). We picked up your idea of sending in letters over at FACE Talk (

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this. I am currently attempting to become a matriculated grad student aiming to become a medieval history professor. I thought that the work would not be easy and your post shows me I am right. I also suspected it wasn't easy to find a job, so I guess adjuncting for the next five years as I thought is not far out of the realm of possibility. I appreciate your honesty. It does not discourage me but does make me realize I am in a marathon and not a sprint.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Relevant to academic labor, a lighthearted diary of a typical day on the academic treadmill can be accessed here in our ITM archives.

Unknown said...

I checked out the 'clergy' summary and took note that the 54K median is close to the ceiling in my denomination. A starting pastor can come in as low as 35K (and likely lower in other denominations). I had a completed MDiv with some experience and began at 40K. There is a comment about this path being "a life" and not "a job". Depending on what kind of crises you are called upon I am not sure the irregular demands (in terms of hours) would be much different than a professor. Anyway, interesting post.

Elements of Sociology said...

Nice work! My jaw dropped when I read the piece in IHE.

Marc Bousquet said...

The Faculty on Food Stamps video may be instructive here...

Bluechip said...

We "professors" in the two-year colleges don't feel as much pressure to publish or present (but three people in my 16-member English department are working on textbooks and nearly everyone presents at one or more conferences). I have at least six hours of meetings (plus prep and follow-up) every month, I observe new faculty, I write lots of letters of recommendation, etc.

However, at our level we are deluged with the underprepared and struggling students who probably won't make it beyond the two-year level (and probably shouldn't have graduated from high school). I have spent an hour writing comments on just one paper, trying to help a struggling student understand the approaches and applications that could have been involved in fulfilling the assignment. I read pages and pages of simple grammar exercises each quarter and provide feedback. I have to reteach high school and cover college material simultaneously.

Even with a master's in English and a second master's in Education, I'm at the top of the salary scale at 52k, working 60 hour weeks with seven overload classes yearly (four in the summer) because I can't support my family on my salary. I'll be 60 next month, but I'm still out on the soccer field refereeing two or three matches each weekend - I stay involved in the community, I get exercise, and I can make more per hour (28-38) "teaching" 12-year-olds about good sportsmanship.

Michael Bérubé said...

But where do people get the idea that non-flagship state U profs all have grad students doing the grading??

For that matter, Dr. V., where do people get the idea that flagship state U profs have grad students doing the grading?

Dang. I gotta start up my blog again and make all this damn work visible. For example. For my 38-student Am Lit survey last fall, my typed comments on their first papers -- that is, the summary remarks at the end of the paper, quite apart from the occasional line edits and marginal notes -- came to 11,500 words (their papers were, combined, around 80,000); on the second paper, a mere 10,000. And I teach only two courses, woo hoo. (The other was an undergraduate senior seminar.) No one in my department has a grader for classes of that size.

And yeah, compared to the corporate world, the retail world, and the salt mines, it's a good life.

Gwynn Dujardin said...

I'd once argued that academic blogs were vital for the work they did in educating the public as to the nature (and volume!) of our work.

Alas, I'm far too swamped with said work to keep up my own site -- thanks to those who are keeping it up, and to Professor Steele for ripping US News a fresh one.

dtkline said...

Let me add another dimension to the discussion, both here and at IHE.

Salaries, hours per week, summers on/off, publishing pressures are what an academic faces only *after* getting a job, if and when that happens.

Take the "typical" careerist undergrad versus the would-be academic. The job-getter graduates with h/h BS degree at 22 or 23, lands a decent paying job (say in the mid-40k range) and then begins to accumulate benefits, like health and retirement. Maybe that student got married as an undergrad, but prolly didn't.

In contrast, the would-be academic graduates with the BA at 22 - 23 and then does a speedy MA in 2-3 years. Add to that the Ph.D. in another speedy, say, 7 years (though we all know about those who've taken 10 years or more, for reasons better or worse). A lucky, well-placed Ph.D. may get a job that first year out on the market, but prolly not, and if not, may take another several years to get a full time, tenure track position.

That leaves the Ph.D. academic--in a reasonably typical scenario--in h/h early to mid-30s *before* getting a low paying job and beginning to accumulate benefits (and in many cases) having to support a family.

I won't go into any elaborate calculations (and I haven't even factored in what student loans add to the financial inequities facing the Ph.D. academic) but the financial differences over a working career between the 4 year degree working kid and Ph.D. academic easily run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Unfortunately, I don't see too many people talking about this kind of inequity. Arguing about a few thousand dollars per year in gross salary does seem small to those outside the profession; multiplying this effect over a career demonstrates the real (and easily overlooked) stakes in being a Ph.D. academic, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

to dtk - yes, it is as you say.

However, we knew all this (or at least we should have) before we took our first steps down the path, and we must also remember that no one was pointing a gun at us and forcing us to go to graduate school.

And - for what it's worth - I feel the sacrifices have been well worth the results.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for dropping by, everyone, and especially Bérubé. As I say above, my letter wouldn't have been possible without your What's Liberal. It's not that I wouldn't have had the experience or recognized that I was having it; it's that you, MB, provided the model of getting one's dander up in a particular--let's call it 'helpful and informative''--way. I know you have perfectly good reasons, MB, for stepping back from blogging, but it would be a HUGE HAPPY THING (picture that) if you started up again.

Just did the tally for comments on the final papers for this Fall's three classes: 30,000 words, and every clause, even those larded with solecisms, a little special gem. Or snowflake, if you will. Does that seem like a lot? Certainly not for adjuncts doing 6/6 (or 8/8 with classes in the summer), or 2-year college professors; but it seems like a lot to me.

Bluechip, if you're not liking that life, you have my sympathies; lord knows you deserve more.

Marc: I saw a film on the condition of adjuncts at a grad conference at U C Riverside in 1998. I don't remember the title, but perhaps the film you're promoting is the same? If so, I loved having my innocence frightened away; if it's NOT the same film, you might want to track down the other one. An All Adjunct film fest would be something to see.

Diana: I was very lucky in getting a job practically right out of grad school. I went out twice, but the first time I didn't even have a chapter done, so it sort of doesn't count. The second time, I had only two in (and I finished in the first semester of my first 'real' job). Jeffrey, iirc, went out three times before he landed his job, and Eileen adjuncted for dogs' years before she got hers. If a dipshit like me lands a job, and the Cohens and Joys of this world have to struggle--for a time--there's really not a logic I can see. Thinking in terms of marathons is, yes, the best approach, so long as you consider the course one whose terminus may always recede asymptotically or may present itself to you barely 5K into the race. You never know!

I feel the sacrifices have been well worth the results.
Likewise, but only because: 1) I had no connections that could have got me a better job; 2) I wasn't doing anything of any importance before I went to grad school (there were only so many times--three, precisely--I could find another band to play in); 3) and I got lucky, both in landing in a good doctoral program and in landing a good job in a region I love. Had I spent 1997-2007 getting a couple of master's degrees and a doctorate and then NOT got my job, I would have had, oh, 2-4 years to get an academic job before I would have been hopelessly damaged so far as the market was concerned. I could check the latest issue of Profession to give you a sense of how many bodies I left behind me on my death march, but you can imagine, simply, that the sacrifices it took to get me to where I am have not all been my own.

Amanda French said...

Karl -- good on you. Nuff said, by me, anyway.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what all of you have been saying. But I just wanted to add something that has always bugged me... Even if I did live on some other planet where I could 'rustle up' lectures in half an hour and had postgrad slaves happily doing all the marking and paperwork for me without needing any teaching or supervision themselves, and even if I could therefore spend most of my time writing books and articles... WHY do people seem to think that doesn't count as real work? Even more to the point, why do JOURNALISTS seem to think that? I sure hope none of them ever gets paid for anything as lah-de-dah as writing an article... Why, seriously, does everyone have it in for academics? Did they really all hate school THAT much?

Karl Steel said...


Seems the humanities professors, especially literature professors, get the ire. Why? Because ambiguity is scary?

Or maybe it's because we DO like our jobs? I quote another answer here:

On the rare occasions when, owing to various kinds of social obligations, I cannot avoid meeting my relatives who have nothing to do with Lacanian theory (or with theory in general), sooner or later the conversation always takes the same unpleasant turn: with barely concealed hostility and envy lurking beneath a polite surface, they ask me how much I earn by my writing and publishing abroad, and giving lectures around the world. Surprisingly, whichever answer I give sounds wrong to them: if I admit that I earn what, in their eyes, is a considerable sum of money, they consider it unjust that I earn so much for my empty philosophizing, while they, who are doing 'real work,' have to sweat for a much lesser reward; if I tell them a small sum, they assert, with deep satisfaction, that even this is too much--who needs my kind of philosophizing in these times of social crisis? Why should we spend taxpayers' money on it? The underlying premise of their reasoning is that, to put it bluntly, whatever I earn, I earn too much--why? It is not only that they consider my kind of work useless: what one can discern beneath this official, public reproach is the envy of enjoyment. That is to say, it soon becomes obvious what really bothers them: the notion that I actually enjoy my work. They possess a vague intuition of how I find jouissance in what I do; which is why, in their eyes, money is never a proper equivalent for my work. No wonder, then, that what I earn always oscillates between the two extremes of 'too little' and 'too much': such an oscillation is an unmistakable sign that we are dealing with jouissance. (Zizek, Plague of Fantasies, 53-54)

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Well done to everyone who works to make sure that what we do -- and the actual labor that does indeed go into it -- isn't invisible.

And well done, Karl. In answer to your question Seems the humanities professors, especially literature professors, get the ire. Why? Because ambiguity is scary?

Well, Stanley Fish's most recent writing is REALLY not helping.

Cf. also Joseph Kugelmass' response at the Valve.

dtkline said...

To anonymous--

I take your point that would-be scholars should be more informed, but I honestly did not understand that by getting a Ph.D. and starting a tenure track job at a public university that I would begin with a salary that got my kids free breakfast and lunch at school and qualified my family for Section 8 housing, which was indeed the case when I began my present position. Literally a poverty wage in Anchorage, Alaska (though it was a decent living in the midwest). Astonished, I noted this to my chair, who replied, "Well, your wife is going to work, isn't she?"

The only gun pointed at my head was my own, but does that argument mean that academics need to be silent and just put up with the working conditions they find themselves in?

Unknown said...

In reference to the comments on hostility towards academics there was a great post over at Easily Distracted.

Eileen Joy said...

An important aspect to this discussion that we have not yet touched upon is the significant role being played in the lives of most professors by university administrations situated at colleges and universities that are not Research-1 or well-known elite institutions [such as a Northwestern or Univ. of Chicago, to cite examples from the state in which I teach] who are intent on, as they say at my school [Southern Illinois Univ. Edwardsville], "raising the profile" of their faculty and institution [we have also recently dubbed ourselves a "premier, metropolitan" institution, even though we are neither]. This is the "culture of excellence" that Bill Readings treats exhaustively in his book "The University in Ruins," where "excellence" stands in as a term for almost anything a university administration wants it to mean on an ideological stick [as opposed to carrot] level but which in fact is empty as hell with regard to material content [both in terms of means and ends]. A sort of horrifying pincers effect is produced upon faculty who are told that standards for tenure and promotion are being upgraded [I have litanies of horror stories on this one from friends around the country]--more publications will be required and with stricter standards for the venues within which they appear, external reviews will now be required, more external grants must be submitted and funded, more evidence must be produced for scholarship being produced in conjunction with pedagogical activities, teaching itself must now be demonstrated to be "scholarly" and with highly time-consuming methods that are viewed to be more "social-scientific" than, say, student evaluations or peer observations, etc. etc.

All of these things are, in some respects, really good things that, obviously, if accomplished to the benefit of professors' resumes, could actually enhance the quality of intellectual-economic life of individual professors [and also greatly benefit student education]. The problem is, administrators want *more* "excellence," but they don't want to pay for it. They want more publishing and in better venues, more externally funded grants, better methods for assessing teaching outcomes, etc., BUT they don't want to reduce teaching loads, increase internal grant funds, reduce overall enrollments, limit class population sizes, provide more administrative support staff, provide better technology, better working spaces, better library funding, more travel funding, etc. The mantra runs something like: "please produce more scholarly and pedagogical output within the same not-enough-time-frame and for the same amount of no-money we give you now so that our institution, a regional-master's-granting-university-in-the-middle-of-a-cornfield-in-the -southwest-corner-of-a-middling-state or a four-year-liberal-arts-college-in-the-backwater-just-below-the-swamp [both pseudonyms for places I have actually taught] can raise its profile/compete with Urbana-Champaign/achieve status as a 'premier' center of research excellence/etc. etc."

The real tragedy of all this, in my mind, is that many of the so-called "regional" schools have really important and vital work to do with students who, for whatever reasons [financial, personal, social, historical, etc.], really need an institution that can help them raise the bar for themselves and open avenues toward the even "higher" institutions of higher education or toward life-paths that will be more rewarding and self-fulfilling than if they had gone nowhere at all. I want, and do, teach at such a school, and I am happy to report that we have a provost and chancellor who actually *do* understand that if you want to "raise the [institutional] profile," and they do, you must increase funding for release time, for travel, and for internal grant initiatives. My university has done all three and continues to surprise and amaze me with their support for faculty in the areas of research *and* teaching. I disagree with their motives in doing so, however. They want to take a regional institution that has historically served a regional [and economically depressed], mainly first-generation, commuter student population and turn it into a campus where the majority of students live on campus in new dormitories and have higher SAT/ACT scores, the athletic teams are Division 1, etc. etc. They want to develop as many new Master's programs as they can and they don't seem to care in what as long as there are student bodies to fill the courses, etc. etc. I think our MA in Literature program is useless, even though it allows me to teach a seminar in medieval literature every year, but still . . . . the best students would be better served by me in a BA program, after which I will help them get into a *better* school for their graduate studies, and that's perfectly okay! [Or, we can spend more time developing the best secondary school teachers possible, who are sorely needed *everywhere*.] Can every single institution in every state be the most "excellent," the "premier" university, etc.? Of course not, but every administrator at every no-name university I have worked for seems to think it can be accomplished and without increasing any of the funding lines that directly augment the pocketbooks of professors [granted, as I have noted, SIUE has accomplished the miraculous in have administrators who desire to and actually *have* increased funding for professors' direct needs]. And all of this is going on at the same time that, increasingly, state legislatures want institutions of higher education to lessen their dependency on state funds. Jesus.

I am very sensitive to this particular subject because, for some peculiar reason, I myself have landed at an institution that treats faculty very well [although our salaries are below the *regional* median average, but our new provost is promising to fix that: we'll see], but over the past couple of years, a few of my friends have been put through tremendously emotionally and even physically debilitating ordeals at institutions that think it is okay to continually change the standards of promotion and tenure while not changing working conditions or funding for research. And since all of this is done in climate where jobs in the humanities are scarce and the humanities itself are under assault in the more public realm, it can be very trying, indeed, to be an English professor. Yes, we love our jobs [I like that I don't work in a cubicle and no one is looking over my shoulder and I don't work 9 to 5 and get to decide the direction of my research and what I will teach, etc.], but it can certainly feel like a rat race sometimes. This may not be new. The image of the professor as a man of leisure may have always been a myth, at least as far as the majority of the 20th-century American professoriate goes.