As most readers of IHE probably already know, there’s been a little bit of a controversy over the past few days about a “study” purporting to find that the job of university of professor is the least stressful job in America. Scott Jaschik usefully summarizes  the original study (by Career Cast), the piece in Forbes that seems to have drawn the most ire, and the various responses—and, of course, his piece has generated even more responses in the form of comments on his article. I’m struck, as always, by the widespread misconceptions about what it is, exactly, that university professors do—even, apparently, among readers of IHE.
But then I noticed something in my Facebook feed — a similar thread about librarians, who had also been listed as holding one of America’s least stressful jobs. Guess what? They don’t think they belong on the list, either.
As it turns out, we are all myopic when it comes to other people’s jobs. And no wonder. We don’t have those jobs, after all, and it’s always pleasanter to fantasize about what other people do than to do the actual research or, some days, than to do the nitty-gritty parts of our own jobs. This is not to excuse the reporters and researchers for either Career Cast or Forbes, of course, who should have done the research. But who among us has not fantasized about someone else’s job, based purely on the external evidence?
The job of university professor, moreover, is one that many, many people have regular but limited contact with—the same kind of contact, in fact, that one might have with librarians or hair stylists (also on the list). That is, many people see professors, librarians, and stylists only in their “public” roles, and never see the work that goes on behind the scenes to prepare for those interactions. The interactions themselves clearly require a certain amount of skill and preparation, but it is the job of the professional in question to make it look transparent.
Now, I’m not saying that being a professor is like being a hair stylist. In fact all I know about being a hair stylist is that mine is on her feet all day and does things with my hair that I can’t begin to imagine. But I mention these three positions in particular because it strikes me that they are all three positions with, to name at least three similarities, a high degree of public interaction, a requirement for professional certification, and a reputation for being underpaid. All three of these things might, in fact, cause some stress in a worker’s life.
I’m also not saying that being a professor is the most stressful job in the country, or anything close to it. I don’t have responsibility for other people’s lives, at least not directly, and my deadlines, while real, are often self-generated and can be flexible. I have already met the professional certification requirement of my job, and I like the public interaction with both my students and my peers. As a professor with tenure (an increasingly rare and privileged position, I realize), I can say “no” to some professional requests, which may be a worthwhile trade-off for at least some of the pay I may be giving up—over Christmas, conversations with family members who work in private industry brought home to me how fortunate I am to have that luxury. On the other hand, most of those family members can leave their work at work, while I hardly know what that would mean—I am writing this blog post on my laptop in my kitchen, with syllabus documents open at the same time and dinner preparations underway as well.
Mostly, reading the responses to the list made me realize how addicted we Americans are to stress. We wear it like a badge of honor, even when we also do our best to minimize it when we can. I count myself among this group: I do yoga regularly, work hard to reduce my obligations (see: saying “no,” above), and at the same time bristle at the thought that my job is not stressful. How can it be that I both love my job and insist on its stressfulness? It’s the inaccuracy, of course, of the Forbes piece in particular, that irked me the most: lumping adjunct and tenure-track professors into one statistic on job availability in the coming years was perhaps the most egregious of its errors, though repeating the old cliché about summers off was a close second. I’m a professor, after all—I prize accuracy and evidence-based arguments, and this piece offered neither. And to get that accuracy, I have to claim at least a little of the stress that comes along with it. And that’s too bad.