4 Months of Holidays? Not Quite!

Céleste Brotheridge and Raymond Lee are tired of non-academics who think professors live a life of leisure in the summer.

August 9, 2007

Nonresidents of the Ivory Tower of Academia often believe that we professors have nothing to do when we’re not teaching, that we spend much of our time outside the classroom engaged in leisurely activities, resting on hammocks sipping mint-juleps while pretending to be absorbed in deep contemplation during the bucolic summer season (“Hey professor, how’s life treating you these days?”).

Just the other day, an acquaintance we’ll call Michel expressed this common belief when he observed that, “Now that your classes are over, you must be coasting till classes start again in the fall. And when fall starts, you’re only teaching three three-hour classes, so that means that you’re making big bucks while working only nine hours a week. What a cushy job!” His sentiments are reinforced when neighbors spot us mowing the lawn during a Tuesday mid-afternoon, spending hours in coffee shops reading a book, or heading off to “exotic” places such as Atlanta, ostensibly to attend conferences, but what may be misconstrued as a vacation junket fully funded by our universities and, hence, the public purse.

In response to Michel and others, we could have offered a cynical and pointed observation: “There may well be academics that rest on their laurels and simply re-cycle course materials from a decade ago, thus essentially retiring on the job, just as there are such folks in other jobs!” However, our reply is one that is less caustic and one that accurately describes what most professors do. Here it is:

You see, Michel, professors have three responsibilities: teaching, research, and service. Most of us at research universities teach anywhere from four to six courses per year; usually three classes in each of the fall and winter semesters but sometimes also during the summer semester. And of course many who teach at community colleges or institutions without a research emphasis teach many more courses. The ratio of preparation to class contact time is 2 or 3 to 1 on average, which means that for every hour we spend in the classroom, we spend two to three hours preparing beforehand. In addition, we have frequent communications with our students outside of class through after-lecture discussions, office appointments, or by phone and e-mail. As well, we spend many, many hours evaluating and judging the fine work of our students. Indeed, although most of us absolutely love teaching and the idea that we might make an impact on our students’ lives, the hours and hours on end of marking is demanding. So that means that, when we teach three three-hour classes in one semester, we are indeed in the classroom for nine hours per week, but we are also investing another 18 to 27 hours in preparation and additional hours interacting with students and grading course assignments.

Keep in mind, Michel, that teaching, important as it is, represents only a portion of our job duties. Since we Ivory Tower dwellers are expected to both create and disseminate new knowledge, we also conduct research. Our choice of research topics is often driven by a personal need to discover answers to burning questions that capture our imagination and whose outcomes may contribute to society in a meaningful way. We (Céleste and Ray) have chosen to study burnout, bullying, and emotions in the workplace because these are serious issues that affect the well-being of many workers. In general, the number of articles that we publish in peer-reviewed journals is used as an indicator of how well we have done our research. It’ is mind-boggling to consider the intense amount of work that can go into a single journal article. By the time our grant applications are submitted and approved, our research is approved by ethics review boards, our study is carried out, the paper is written and submitted to a journal, then reviewed for rigor and contribution by our peers, revised and resubmitted, and is finally published (if accepted that is), a couple of years can easily have elapsed. In fact, two years is the fast-track.

There are many other activities included in the research rubric, such as presenting papers at professional meetings, which provides for the unfettered exchange of ideas and opportunities to solicit feedback from our colleagues. More generally, such forums allow us to maintain contacts with others in the academic community. As an example, at two conferences in Atlanta last summer, we presented three papers, chaired a conference session, served as a formal discussant or evaluator for four research papers presented by our colleagues from other universities, worked at a booth that was promoting an Administrative Sciences Association of Canada conference in Ottawa, promoted a special issue of a journal that we are co-editing on the topic of the emotions of managing, and had all our lunches and suppers with current and future co-authors, more often than not working late into the evening discussing projects of mutual interest. So Michel, as you can see, a great deal of productive work can occur at conferences.

This brings us to the third responsibility of professors, namely professional service, which encompasses activities both within and outside of our institutions. Since universities run with the help of a seemingly infinite number of committees that require fully-functioning, active members, professors are routinely called upon to sit on committees dealing with the tenure and promotion of our junior colleagues, research, curriculum development, etc. There are also regular faculty meetings, requirements to serve as representatives to various internal bodies, such as the faculty association, and other areas of governance. Moreover, there are many opportunities to provide service outside of our institutions, for example, through leadership in our professional associations, service as ad hoc manuscript reviewers or editors for academic journals, etc.

Michel, we hope that you’re not hearing violins and thinking that we feel burdened by our responsibilities. Yes, we (Céleste and Ray) each work 50 or more hours a week on average, but we absolutely love our work! Although professors probably earn less than what they would likely earn if they worked in the private sector given their experience and education, money is not the primary motivator for us. Instead, we generally view our work as a calling that affords us the freedom to fulfill a larger purpose, a purpose borne of the need to make a difference in the lives of our students and citizens in the broader society. So, Michel, the next time that someone declares that professors have four months of holidays, you’ll know what to say: “Not quite!”


Céleste Brotheridge is a professor of leadership at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Raymond Lee is a professor of human resource management at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg.


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