What Do Professors Do All Week?

David Macaulay, The New Way Things WorkStarting last Saturday, I began chronicling just what I do every day — in an effort to make visible the (usually invisible) work that academics do.  Now that this week-long experiment has concluded, I am glad to take your questions.

Q: 62 hours!  Was that more or less than you expected?

A: I honestly had no idea.  I felt sure that I worked more than 40 hours a week, but I had never kept track of how many.  I can say, though, that the number doesn’t surprise me.

Q: Doesn’t recording your every minute incline you to be more productive, and thus isn’t this chronicle a misrepresentation of how you spend your weeks?

A: Yes and no.  Yes: the panoptical effect of knowing that I must be accountable for every minute inspired increased productivity.  I’m sure of that.  I spent less time on Facebook and more time working.  After all, people were watching, and I was holding myself up as representative of my group (professors).  I wanted to put in a good showing.  No: if this increased my hourly work total (and I expect it did), I would guess that it did so by no more than two or three hours.  I spent a little less time on Facebook, but I still spent time there.  So, in this sense, the account remains a true reflection of how I spend my weeks.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at my CV — which represents only the research side of my job.

I also think this is representative because I know there are weeks when I work more than 60 hours.  When I travel to give talks or present at conferences, I’m simultaneously keeping up with my other work.  I get a lot of writing done on planes.  I wrote most of the biography for the Seussville website on a plane, for example.

Q: Come on, I bet you did more push-ups for the blog.

A: Nope.  Exercise was normal, save for the failure to get off of my butt on Thursday.

Q: Well, OK, maybe you did work over 60 hours this week, but professors get summers off!

A: It’s true that I don’t teach during the summer.  I also don’t get paid during the summer.  However, surprising though it may seem, I do work during summers.  Articles still need to get reviewed for journals, and manuscripts for presses.  Conferences happen — I have two coming up this summer.  And, of course, there’s research.  Whether I’m traveling to archives, interviewing people, getting books via interlibrary loan or via the library, or simply thinking about projects, I am conducting research.  I also write more during the summers.

Q: You’re telling me you work 60 hours per week during the summers?

A: Honestly, I don’t know.  I’ve never kept track.  I suspect that it varies.  My guess is that, on an ordinary week, I work more like 50 hours per week.  That said, I can also think of summers — such as 2005, when I was on a Smithsonian fellowship — that I suspect I worked more.

Q: Why would anyone work 60 hours per week?

A: Many people work more hours than that, and for less satisfaction.  I do this job because I find it interesting.  I like learning things and then sharing what I’ve learned.  I’m fortunate to have a job from which I derive meaning.  If you’re doing something you enjoy, you’re willing to put in more hours.

But that’s only half of the answer.  The other half is the uncertainty.  Yes, I am tenured, and a full professor.  I have “job security.”  However, I also have not received a raise in three years, and I know that the U.S. is divesting from public education.  President Obama called our current economic situation “our generation’s Sputnik moment.”  In response to the original Sputnik, the U.S. invested in public education.  In response to the new one, will the U.S. continue its decades-long divestment from public education?  Certainly, the party of “fiscal conservatives” (which ran 8 years of deficit spending before it noticed the deficit) proposes cutting funds from public education (hey, how else can we sustain tax breaks for millionaires and corporations?).  But perhaps some investment may come.  I don’t know.

I do know that jobs like mine are disappearing.  When I received the Ph.D., each year one in 4 English Ph.D.s found a tenure-track job.  That figure is now 1 in 5.  Here in Kansas, Gov. Brownback is too savvy a politician to pull a Scott Walker on us — he’s more likely to dismantle one public institution at a time, rather than go after several at once — but he’s of the same mindset.  Tenure is no longer enough.  I need to try maintain “portable tenure”: should sustained neglect cause this ship to sink, I want to be able to find another ship.

Also, the three post-Ph.D. years as an adjunct were formative ones. Maintaining a steady rate of production got me out of that lean, tentative period and into this better, if extremely busy, one.  But I retain the sense that what I have remains fragile.  If I work at it, though, then I maintain some peace of mind.  I know that — even though it may yet slip away, come unraveled, collapse — at least I’ve done my best to keep it all propped up.

Q: What have you learned from this experiment?

A: I don’t like living in the panopticon.  And I’d hate to teach at Kean University, which (as Lia tells us in a response to Tuesday’s post) requires professors to keep a timesheet.  Academic labor doesn’t really break down into discreet parts.  You think, write, edit, prepare for class, grade papers, where and when you find the time.  I found it very difficult to document precisely how I spent my time because often the increments were very small or I was engaged in multiple tasks simultaneously.

Also, this job requires time for unmonitored reflection, the thinking that happens simply because there’s time for it to happen.  If you’re always worried about monitoring your time, there’s less space for spontaneous discovery.  It’s liberating not to be keeping a daily log today.

In conclusion, as the movie theatre announcements say, “Thank you for your time and attention.”

The full “What Do Professors Do All Day?” series:

SaturdaySundayMondayTuesdayWednesdayThursday, Friday.

More posts on academia from Nine Kinds of Pie (this blog):

20 Comments »

  1. Mickey Ransom Said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

    Phil,

    I really enjoy reading your blogs, especially this blog that deals with how professors spend their time. I think what you have written about how your spend your time is typical for most professors. Most of the professors in my department (Agronomy) are working more than 60 hours per week. I have logged my time before, and I typically put in over 60 hours per week. Keep up the good work, and please keep posting those blogs.

    Best regards,
    Mickey Ransom

  2. Shaun Baker Said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 3:16 pm

    I’ve enjoyed reading this series, as well. The behind-the-scenes look at academia your blog offers is enlightening, especially as someone who is working in the lowest end of that particular totem pole (graduate school). It’s inspired me to do a similar experiment (though a far less public one) to see just how I spend my own time, how much I work, how much I goof off, and if there are any improvements I can make to ensure that I have adequate work and goofing off time allotted to maintain a productive (and healthy) academic lifestyle.

    Peace.

  3. Sarah Said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

    Phil, this was an amazing series, particularly as a junior faculty wondering how senior faculty allocate their time, etc. I also reflected that I spent less time on FB, for very much the same reason you did. You’re so right about so many things – while summers might “look” easier because we’re not teaching, they are definitely the best times for doing and producing research. I’m hoping to really get some articles out of my system this year.

    Again, thanks for this series :o) I learned a lot about our profession, you, and myself! See you on FB and at ChLA!

  4. Kristin McIlhagga Said,

    February 27, 2011 @ 11:35 am

    Loved this series of posts that you did… I’m a third year Ph.D. student and my husband is a tenured so I’ve got some idea of how some faculty spend time. One of the things that I admire about your work is the way that your passion for the subjects that you teach and write about always come through – even in these seemingly mundane posts that track time. I also really appreciated your notes about writing one paragraph a day for the speech at the upcoming conference.

  5. Philip Nel Said,

    February 27, 2011 @ 4:13 pm

    Thanks, all, for your kind comments on this quixotic experiment. I’m glad that it seems to have had some utility. And I’m very glad not to be living in public this coming week! I do have some blog posts planned, but — for example — one is about Dr. Seuss (in honor of his 107th birthday).

  6. Kenneth Kidd Said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 8:27 pm

    Phil, I too appreciate the time and effort you put into this experiment and the time and effort you put into the field in general. But I do think that your next panoptical adventure needs to involve a block of ice in Times Square.

  7. Robbie Said,

    March 2, 2011 @ 10:44 am

    I started reading your blog as a book-worm mom seeking out new children’s books, but how delightful to also discover a how-to for my other job, English prof. (currently of the adjunct variety). By the way, I’d love to see a post about how to craft a “statement of teaching philosophy.”

  8. Are professors off during the summer? « Grumpy rumblings of the untenured Said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 2:46 am

    [...] Contrary to common misconception, the primary part of a university professor’s job is not teaching or doing administration (though many of us do a bang-up job of both)… it’s producing research.  (N.B.:  This is different at some small liberal arts colleges, and at community colleges.  But both of us are at universities.)  Here’s a great explanation of what one professor did all week. [...]

  9. Funny about Money Said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 5:26 pm

    Nice piece.

    I tried this once–keeping track of what I actually did with my time. Contemplating the amount of unpaid work I put in for an institution that is, shall we say, not given to appreciating its employees was so depressing I had to make a conscious effort never to think about it again.

    Really, the only way you can survive is to avert your eyes from the absurd amount of unpaid time this job requires, and to steadfastly refuse to factor your unpaid time into your salary lest you come to understand what your real hourly wage is.

    At one point I realized I could earn more cleaning house, and not have to bring the job home with me.

  10. Z Said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 7:32 pm

    Great post.

    My university does require a timesheet and the amount of hours we are expected to work is 60 hours, 10 months a year. We are to spend 12 hours per week, for instance, preparing, grading, teaching, and holding office hours for each 3 hour class. That is supposed to be 1 hour each preparing, teaching, consulting/tutoring, and grading, you see; it is all very neat.

    3 x 12 = 36, and that is 60% of my assigned time. So there are 24 hours left. Of those, 6 are to be spent on service and 18 on research.

    This would all work just fine if we were equally refreshed during all of those hours. However, during some of these hours, I am more tired than during others.

    Also, the teaching preparation time only works out if we’ve done most of the preparation when classes aren’t in. I can prepare a lecture on material already familiar to me in an hour, or I can come up with interesting group activities on such material. But it does take me longer to write exams, prepare handouts, and so on, and this is just a fact, it’s not me dawdling.

    *

    I saw some statistic according to which the average amount of time a professor works per week is 58 hours. I’ve done this exercise a few times and 55 is my typical number. Got to step it up!!! :-)

  11. Doctor, doctor: a coda « Samuel Snoek-Brown Said,

    March 16, 2011 @ 3:42 am

    [...] found today), Nel accounts for his working hours over the course of a typical week and explains just what it is that professors do all day. It’s a fantastic account, and while it’s still rooted in personal experience, he backs [...]

  12. Quantifying the (Academic) Self - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education Said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 10:02 am

    [...] have joined in the conversation to counter Levy’s arguments, and accounts like Philip Nel’s tracking of an academic week and the many accounts of Day of Digital Humanities offer very different pictures of what a workload [...]

  13. How much time do you spend working? | A Guide to Surviving Grad School Said,

    April 9, 2012 @ 10:01 am

    [...] sides. A professor, Philip Nel, decided to track his hours for a week to answer the question “What do professors do all week?” He proved that he spends well over 40 hours a week [...]

  14. Shaindel Beers Said,

    April 9, 2012 @ 10:03 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m tenured English faculty with a one-year-old, and I feel like I get caught in the “mommy wars” when women in the corporate world talk about “leaving work at work,” and leaving every day at 5:30 p.m. It’s 8 p.m., and I’m in my office. I just got done teaching a night class.

    Now, I need to email some work to the college’s testing center for students who missed classes, and then I’ll go home, spend a bit of time with my family, and then grade until it all starts again tomorrow.

    I love my job. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I just wish people in other careers were more understanding.

  15. What I’ve Been Reading | Alas, a Blog Said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 10:11 am

    [...] What Do Professors Do All Week?: Introductory post to a series in which one professor logged the time he spent on work-related activities during one seven-day week. It’s worth reading the entire series; the links are at the bottom of the post I am linking to here. [...]

  16. What I’ve Been Reading | Richard Jeffrey Newman Said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

    [...] What Do Pro­fes­sors Do All Week?: Intro­duc­tory post to a series in which one pro­fes­sor logged the time he spent on work-related activ­i­ties dur­ing one seven-day week. It’s worth read­ing the entire series; the links are at the bot­tom of the post I am link­ing to here. [...]

  17. Philip Nel Said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 9:55 pm

    Thanks, all, for the recent comments and trackbacks. I think that uninformed David C. Levy piece has sent people back to this series. In May, I’m planning on doing a week-long “Summer Edition” of this experiment.

  18. A Year in the Blogosphere « Joyous Crybaby Said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 10:02 am

    [...] She’s not a work project, though, and I am employed in a demanding field where I’m not supposed to spend much time doing anything but what will further my career. Academia more and more is judged by business models, and this involves an increasing obsession with quantifiable results and quantifiable justifications. Every year, we are required to turn in the dreaded document called a Faculty Annual Report, and each department chair is required to turn in the larger version that supposedly proves quality and intellectual achievement by the number of grant dollars, publications, and “seats in butts” (or student credit hours) that we have produced, collectively and individually. Our departmental budgets and our individual merit raises are determined by such numbers (not that the raises offset the pay cuts we are experiencing via means such as lower retirement contributions). Whether institutions with such a myriad of purposes and such a myriad of considerations is best served by this constant quantification is debatable, of course, but it’s a fact of almost any academic’s life these days. Here’s one great write-up of a blogging academic who kept track of his work time. [...]

  19. The work-life balance: How many hours do Professors work? | Arthropod Ecology Said,

    October 25, 2012 @ 8:33 am

    [...] a project similar to mine, Philip Nel tracked all his work hours for a week, and determined he worked 60 hours.  That being said, he does discuss how his pay is for nine [...]

  20. The “stress-free” professor « trokspot Said,

    January 7, 2013 @ 12:35 am

    [...] http://www.philnel.com/2011/02/26/busytown8/ [...]

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