I am willing to bet I can pin-point one common source of frustration for academics: that we are perceived as having an easy life, or not really working a full-time job. Just the other day somebody, not in academia, talked at length about how my situation is ideal: I only work a few days a week and have the summers “off”. To add insult to injury, he concluded with comparing my job as a full-time tenure-track professor to having a part-time job with flexible hours!
Now, I’ll be the first one to admit that I can never imagine myself working in the corporate world. The cubicles and the business-suits alone would drive me crazy. I love what I do and I wouldn’t trade it for another profession. But that doesn’t mean that my life as a professor is a cake-walk. What most people fail to realize is that our jobs as full-time faculty have at least two other components to them besides teaching: research and service. But putting that aside for a second, even if we look only at teaching, the time and energy we put into it goes far beyond the “contact-time” we have with our students in the classroom. Even when I am teaching only three courses in one semester, the reading, preparation, grading (oh, the grading!), the emailing back and forth with students, take up many, many, more hours.
So while my non-academic friends can take a break to watch Jersey Shore, or The Apprentice, or Dancing with the Stars, should they feel like it, I find myself spending most of my time between 8 pm (when the kids go to bed) and midnight (when I go to bed) staring at stacks of students’ papers, keeping up with the readings, or preparing for class for the next day. There are many nights when my husband finds me asleep at the laptop or with a student’s paper in my hands: my body finally giving in to the exhaustion of a long work-day as well as a long commute (we are an academic couple and commute in opposite directions).
Now try squeezing in research and service commitments to this model. Most of my summer and winter break is spent catching up on my research and even some on-going committee work. But research and service are such intangible concepts, especially to those outside of academia. People don’t understand how time-consuming conducting research, applying for funding, or pursuing publication can be. When I explain to my friends, that my husband and I go for several weeks sometimes without turning on the TV, except for the kids to watch their PBS shows in the morning, they gasp in disbelief. But clearly, my situation is not unique, since some of my fellow writers at University of Venus find themselves leading a similar lifestyle.
So I find myself quite frustrated when people casually imply that we have an easy job. Not only do they not realize what our day to day lives as academics entail, but they also don’t understand the sacrifices involved in being graduate students for the 6+ years after college: living on meager stipends, having minimum healthcare (if we’re lucky!), not having any savings. Let me reiterate: I love my career. I am not complaining about my work, or my pay. And I am certainly not saying that my friends who are non-academics have it easy and that I have it tougher. I understand that there are trade-offs involved in choosing one path over another, that each job comes with its own unique set of limitations, frustrations, as well as advantages. But while people never assume anything but a full-time work-load for non-academic full-time jobs, our full-time jobs are often denigrated as “not really that demanding”.
I can’t help but think that much of this perception has to do with the corporate model becoming the standard, even in academic settings. Increasingly our worth, especially as teachers, is defined by how many hours we spend in the classroom—not the hours we spend outside of the classroom, advising, discussing, holding “free” talks/seminars, emailing interesting stories to our students etc. In this model, our face to face interaction with the customer (student) is the basis for judging our value as teachers. How else can I explain one of the most appalling requests that I’ve heard of in my time as an academic: the parents of a student asking for “financial reimbursement” because a professor cancelled four class meetings due to a heart-attack he suffered.
Welcome to the future. Hope you brought your punch card.
Connecticut in the USA
Afshan Jafar is a regular contributor at University of Venus and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. Her research and teaching interests are cultural globalization, gender, religious fundamentalism, and trans-national women's movements. Her forthcoming book, Women’s NGOs in Pakistan, uncovers the overwhelming challenges facing women’s NGOs and examines the strategies used by them to ensure not just their survival but an acceptance of their messages by the larger public. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.