Talking Back to Academic Stereotypes

Each month, the writers at University of Venus share their answers to a question we pose for the higher education sector.

This month’s question comes to us from Melonie Fullick: What is your least favourite stereotype about academic work?

March 29, 2012

Each month, the writers at University of Venus share their answers to a question we pose for the higher education sector.

This month’s question comes to us from Melonie Fullick: What is your least favourite stereotype about academic work?

Melonie's question for March is prompted partly in response to a recent controversial piece in the Washington Post - Do College Professors Work Hard Enough?. Also see Kaustuv Basu’s response at Inside Higher Ed.

Bonnie Stewart (Canada)

Perhaps the stereotype of academia that frustrates me most on a daily basis - other than the notion that ideas are inherently impractical - is the binary stereotype of faculty vs. administration. I know it gets enacted and perpetuated on both sides, and it has roots in very real differences in perspective on what we are doing in the complicated institutions that are universities. But. But. The more the stereotype gets thrown around and taken up in media, the simpler it becomes, somehow: the more “real.” And then we players take up our various roles and the show goes on. I’ve sat on both sides of the fence; I’ve played my part in reinforcing the walls. And there are real critiques to be made, don’t get me wrong. But this binary opposition? Gives the impression not only of camps but of two equally legitimate yet irreconcilable positions. And I don’t believe that’s true on any count.

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe (US)

The assumption that all 'teaching' happens either in a lecture hall or a laboratory raises my ire.  Some of our students' most profitable pedagogical moments happen in conversations apart from the structured curriculum.  Faculty and staff presence - mental, physical, and emotional at department parties, dorm events, or just stopping to chat in the hall - transforms the student experience as powerfully as any lecture, lab demonstration, or seminar discussion, but these hours rarely count as valuable and thus billable.

Sarah Emily Duff (South Africa)

I am annoyed by the stereotype that those of us in the humanities and the social sciences don’t work as hard, or produce work as ‘important’ (whatever we may mean by that), as those in engineering, maths, or the natural sciences. This is an irritant on a kind of mundane level – on the level of snide comments from scientist colleagues – but it trickles down to the way in which we’re funded. At a recent meeting about postdoctoral funding provided by the state, I commented that the money available to humanities scholars was considerably less than that for natural scientists. Not only was my annoyance greeted with amusement, but neither the university nor the funding body were willing to engage with my views.

Melonie Fullick (Canada)

The idea that learning and teaching can be rationalised, managed, quantified and controlled. The more governments, students and families “invest” in education, the more we see pressure for accountability about “results”. But as Elizabeth mentions (above) teaching and learning don’t just happen in the classroom during scheduled hours, which is why it’s so hard to “pin down” how much time it takes to learn and exactly how it happens. We also haven’t found a way to measure learning, so attempts at “quality control” in education often do as much harm as good. We’re trying to standardize something that’s pretty idiosyncratic, and when we impose measures on the un-measurable we’re also creating false expectations. So to see these assumptions reinforced on a regular basis in the media is incredibly frustrating.

Afshan Jafar (US)

The idea that the total number of hours we work can be quantified by simply adding our time in the classroom and office hours per week, drives me crazy! That’s simply show time...there’s a lot of work that needs to be done backstage and offstage which most people don’t think about. And that’s just the teaching aspect of our jobs! Don’t get me started about research and service...

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten (Sweden)

I find the idea of the academic as  a nerd to be quite unfair and irritating. I think the iconic photo of Albert Einstein has had a contagious effect and now the quintessential image of the academic/researcher is something between a madman with a bad hair day and a misunderstood genius (and most often a man, as well). Most of these stereotypical academics also wear thick glasses, spend most of their time in a lab, have problems expressing themselves in a common language and feel uneasy in the real world. Obviously, nothing could be further from the truth. We Generation X women have, among other things, the mission to dispel these false notions about academics and let the world see us as we are, beautiful people engaged in and with our societies, who can talk to both the grocer and to the President.

Janni Aragon (Canada)

My least favorite stereotype about academic work is the idea that I don’t work a 40 hour work week. I have kept track and I work between 55-70 hours. I more than earn my salary. Most weeks I work for a few hours on both Saturday and Sunday.

Lee Skallerup Bessette (US)

I can’t stand that people think that I  have no idea what the “real world” is like because academia is so unlike the real world. Like getting fired or no job security or low pay or “expecting results” (anyone remember this scene in Ghostbusters?). Certainly we run on a different schedule, but we deal with all of the same job-related stresses as most professionals (as tenure-track professors) and, let’s be honest, low-wage workers (on the adjunct side). It’s different, but no different than being a doctor, versus being a middle-manager, versus being in sales, versus running your own business.

And that we get 2-4 months off for summer.

Ana Dinescu (Germany)

I cannot stand the dream that academic work is purely academic work. I am keeping myself as far as possible from the image of the academic spending hours and days in the libraries, writing amazing and outstanding books and articles. I wish this is true, but I know that the reality is rather different. Sometimes, you should spend more time writing financial reports than sharing your research and, last but not least, you should take more jobs to enable you to save at least two or three months for independent writing and research.

What about you? Which stereotype pushes you over the edge?


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