For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. For students and teachers of every stripe, Late May is the Season of Rejoicing. Or maybe June, if you live in an area with an extended school year. For students and teachers of every stripe, Late August is the Season of Dismay. There’s nothing an educator likes to see less in the daily paper than the big color flyers from Staples, Office Depot, and Target pumping the BACK TO SCHOOL SALES!!! Take it from me: every bit of dismay you felt upon seeing these as a child is fully echoed by those whose responsibility it is to educate. Maybe even more so, because I distinctly recall holding a strong and persistent belief as a kid that somewhere in the Treasure Trove that was School Supplies IT could be found. The pen that would not leave smears of ink down the outside edge of my left hand. The spiral notebook that would organize all of my notes. The highlighter that would find the most important parts of the handouts and notes and transfer them indelibly into my brain for later access on the exams.
Yes, like Dumbo, I was convinced that there was a magic feather of a school supply that would make the term interesting and easy.
As an educator, and as a Ph.D. with, let me count, 23 years of full-time studenthood under my belt, I now know better. There is no app that will make my grading magically disappear without requiring hours and hours and hours of exhausting work. There is no handout I can produce that will instantly and indelibly convey the knowledge to my students that this material is worth their interest, full attention, and dedication. There is no planning calendar that will magically shrink the number of hours that have to be spent in meetings and dealing with administrative overhead.
Where the BACK TO SCHOOL SALES!!!! flyers formerly held the allure of unexplored potential, now they just mean one thing: time to stop working at home in shorts and a t-shirt, and time to start hitting the road for a commute and putting on long pants with attention to which clothing items go with which others.
See, for college professors, “summer” doesn’t mean “stop working”. It does mean “slow down working” which is awesome, because in the ordinary course of events when the term is on, we’re pulling 60 hour weeks on a very regular basis. I remember, back in the Glory Days of my undergraduate career, thinking that “College Professor” had to be the best job ever, because you have, what, 3 classes per term, and they meet for 3 hours a week, and there’s another maybe 5 office hours, so that’s, what, 9 plus 5, a 14 hour workweek!!!! And winter break and summer break off!!! How much more awesome can you get?!?!?!
Well, I still think “College Professor” is the best job ever – right after “Independently Wealthy Philanthropist” – but it’s got nothing at all to do with short workweeks. Sometimes, honestly, I long for the days of being an underpaid receptionist, or dream of operating a forklift for a living, mainly because those jobs don’t follow you home. “College Professor” – like “Small Business Owner” and “Entrepreneur” – is a 24/7 job that will basically expand to fill every minute you let it. Having been an “Entrepreneur” as well, I’d say the main difference is that “College Professor” comes with a steady paycheck, and benefits like health insurance. Otherwise, they’re pretty similar. You’re largely self-directed…with the proviso that your self-direction had better align with some external party’s desire or you’re going to go out of business. You manage your time for yourself…with the proviso that you frequently need to align with someone else’s schedule, be it a client, an employee, a class, or the faculty meeting. You can do a lot of the work in your preferred clothes…but you occasionally have to put on the dress togs anyway.
And any time you take off, for yourself? You will be paying for that later.
There’s a reason that Small Business Owners and Entrepreneurs have a reputation for being driven. They may not have started out that way (although lots of them have), but pretty soon you develop an incisive sense of the Opportunity Cost. That’s an economic concept that refers to the cost of the foregone opportunities when you make a decision. The Opportunity Cost of ordering the hamburger for lunch is that you forego the opportunity of ordering the cobb salad, the steak-and-eggs, the veggie burger, or the greek salad. The Opportunity Cost of going to school is the wages you would be making if you stayed out of school and just worked, or the fun you would have if you just backpacked and panhandled your way across the country. The Opportunity Cost of going to a baseball game is the picnic or the nap you won’t take in that time.
The Opportunity Cost of taking some time totally away from work is coming back and finding all that work you didn’t do piled up in front of you, and the money you didn’t make because you were out partying instead of bringing in new clients, providing services, or selling product. Even if you have plenty of cash, that mountain of work acts as a powerful deterrent to taking large blocks of time off.
It’s the same for us College Professors. Most of the work we do is never ever seen by the students. In addition to the 14 hours or so of the obvious stuff that even I could figure out as a kid, there is a virtually endless series of meetings, advising, supervising internships, filling out paperwork, commuting, and more meetings. That’s just the administrative overhead. Beyond that, for every hour I teach in the classroom, there are about four hours of preparation, planning, retrenching, additional on-the-fly course development, and grading. Not to mention that in these days of asynchronous and distributed work environments, I provide technical support to my students between 8am and 9pm, on a fairly continuous basis. So that’s a pretty stiff workweek.
But wait, there’s more. Research is the do-or-die for most academics. It’s why we get Ph.D.s instead of satisfying ourselves with non-terminal degrees. So, sliced up and wedged in every available time slot left over after the above list of tasks, is research activities. Reading scholarly articles, coming up with ideas, collecting data, analyzing it, writing it, and then just when you think you’re done, beginning the long slog of the publications process, which involves sending articles out to journals to get reviewed by your peers, all of whom will have something critical to say about your paper that needs to be fixed before they’ll consider letting it get published. This is actually pretty important if you want your academic field to have a body of reliable research, unlike, for example, 90% of what you see posted and reposted on Facebook or featured in the comments stream for any Yahoo! or New York Times article. But wait, there’s even more: the people reviewing your paper are peers…which means…other College Professors. So, in addition to all this stuff previously enumerated, you are expected to critically read and review other people’s research on top of all the administrivia, teaching, and doing your own research. And if you’re really good that that you might wind up working for a journal and managing that whole publication process. You don’t get paid extra for any of this stuff, mind. It’s volunteer.
That’s always the fun bit to explain to people, say, like my mother. All that extra work, for no extra pay. Why do it? I’ve crafted many answers to this question over the years, but they always seem to devolve to “it’s important…but it’s hard to explain”.
So what about the big job perk of summers-off? The only stuff here that is actually tied to the academic year is 1) spending 9 hours or so in the classroom, 2) answering student questions from 8am to 9pm, 3) the commute, and 4) the meetings (mostly). Summer is for research and related activities, and for making new courses or fixing up your old ones. And it can all be done in shorts and a t-shirt, at home.
So the end of summer break doesn’t mean a whole lot more work it just means some more work in less comfortable clothes. With a commute thrown in. And some really weird hours, if you’re like me, and wind up teaching at night. It’s strange how much difference these little things make, though.
I got whammied this year, too, because just as soon as we came back from the Annual Meeting (see last post) my computer died. Or, rather, it’s still dying. Something happened to it that makes it very unpredictable. It could be awake and working for 45 minutes before it crashes…or 45 seconds. No way to tell in advance. This is not conducive to committing precious intellectual capital into that rickety structure, and since 100% of my work output is precious intellectual capital, it meant I couldn’t work. Not for two weeks, until my new (reliable) computer arrived.
Yeah, I remember the good ol’ days when someone might say to me “Guess what! The system is shot and you can’t work for two weeks! And you’ll still get paid!” and it would be cause for a major party.
But now? Thanks to the Miracle of Opportunity Costs, I hear that same thing and I think “Dammit. No work for two weeks? At this time of the year? Dammit.”
Now the new system is here, I’ve finally finished configuring it, transferring files, getting my appointment book and tasklist back, and most of the software I need is installed, and finally I can start addressing that whacking huge backlog of work that built up over my two-week enforced break.
Days like this, I hate being a grownup.