As I was sitting around the faculty lounge this morning, staring vacantly into space and dreaming of summers filled with golf, a busy colleague brought Mark Bauerlein’s latest blog post to my attention. It’s a response to a recent Wall Street Journal essay, it’s about faculty workloads, and it’s rather skeptical of reports about faculty workloads:
We have seen, indeed, many books and articles on the subject, such as Profscam by Charles Sykes, and when people hear about a 2-2 teaching load that means 6 classroom hours a week for 28 weeks out of the year, they wonder what all the complaining is about.
But Professor Kelly-Woessner maintains, “Our average workweek is 60+ hours. And unlike a regular job, where you come home at 5, we’re grading well into the evening.”
Can this be true, 60+ hours?
Maybe for some segments, such as teachers with a 4-4 load that includes heavy writing assignments on the syllabus. And maybe for assistant professors struggling to get the book finished before tenure time, or researchers in the sciences working on a timetable because of funding.
But if we look at tenured professors in the humanities and in many other disciplines, it seems to me that much of the work they do is entirely self-generated. The conference papers that have to be written, the scholarly articles they want to complete, the book projects that hang over them . . . these are not required. They are elective. Yes, they can enhance a career, extend a CV, or even contribute to the historical record– sometimes. But the fact is that the degree to which the vast majority of conference papers and articles in the humanities effectively change the working conditions of professors doesn’t come close to justifying the number of hours they spend on the projects. These projects fill their afternoons and evenings, and in my experience inside academia and out I have never heard any groups speak as loudly about how “busy” they are as professors do. Plainly, the situation makes many of them unhappy. So why do they do it? Is it really worth sweating all those months getting that manuscript in order– which upon publication will sell only a few hundred copies– just to boost your annual raise a few hundred dollars?
Why do they do it, indeed? Can anybody really care about Book V of The Faerie Queene and representations of British national identity? What’s the point of writing a manuscript on Victorian ideas about aesthetics or autonomy if only a few hundred readers or a few hundred bucks are at stake? And who the hell gives a flying frog about the history of ekphrasis or the work of the Cambridge Platonists, anyway?
Well, it just so happens that Professor Bauerlein has written on this subject before. On a website considerably less likely to be read by college professors, he wrote caustically, last fall, of
the mindset of people who’ve nursed resentments for many years within the artificial havens of one-party departments, tenure, and a 30-week work year. (Do not believe academics when they talk about summer research work. Outside the scientists, most of them are idle or labor on books and articles that they don’t have to write and that less than 50 people will read.)
Back then, I feared that Mark Bauerlein was succumbing to a pernicious kind of resentment-nursing himself. He’d started off, ten or fifteen years ago, with some fairly plausible critiques of coterie formation and groupthink in literary studies; but since testifying on behalf of David Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights,” he’s gone precipitously downhill. Why, it was only three years ago that Bauerlein was championing the virtues of erudition and research over against the vices of the ignorant Theory ephebes; surely some of you will remember that telling exchange between his scholarly friend and a jejune young thing at the MLA:
When a colleague of mine returned from an MLA convention in Toronto around that time [the mid-1990s], he told a story that nicely illustrated the trend. One afternoon he hopped on a shuttle bus and sat down next to a young scholar who told him she’d just returned from a panel. He replied that he’d just returned from France, where he’d been studying for a semester
“Is there any new theory?”
“Yeah, in a way,” he answered. “It’s called ‘erudition.’”
“What’s that?” she wondered.
“Well, you read and read, and you get your languages, and you go into politics, religion, law, contemporary events, and just about everything else.” (He’s a 16th-century French literature scholar who comes alive in archives.)
She was puzzled. “But what’s the theory?”
“To be honest, there isn’t any theory,” he said.
“That’s impossible.” He shrugged. “Okay, then, give me the names, the people heading it.”
“There aren’t any names. Nobody’s heading it.”
So, to sum up: erudition is good, and so is coming alive in archives, except when it’s a complete waste of time and effort. And what would the new Mark Bauerlein say about the scandal of humanities faculty who spend an entire semester studying in France? All for the benefit of fifty readers and a few hundred dollars?
Bauerlein’s Decline was a pretty sad Hogarthian spectacle, I thought, and it suggested that there really is a slippery slope at work: you set out innocently one day to expose the groupthink of your liberal colleagues, and before you know it, you’re testifying next to Jack Kingston (who’s quite a prize himself) and complaining on the Internets about all the useless research your colleagues do. I used to admire erudition, but after 9/11, I’m outraged by low faculty workloads. It can only be a matter of time, I thought (however uncharitably), before Bauerlein joins the Horowitz Freedom Center-sponsored national Islamofascist Humanities Professors Work Only Six Hours A Week Thirty Weeks A Year Awareness Week tour.
But then I realized that there’s something else at work in these complaints about academic work: Bauerlein never stops to consider that professors serve on all kinds of committees and do all kinds of scutwork.
Ingrid touched on this a few weeks ago: every year, we serve as referees for those useless books and articles and for those pointless tenure and promotion cases, and as far as I can tell, nobody outside academe has the faintest idea what that involves. Every year, I get about ten to fifteen requests to review candidates for tenure and promotion; every year, I promise myself I will take no more than two or three, and every year I wind up doing about four or five. In the past two years, some of these cases have required me to read two medium-sized books and a couple dozen essays; that takes me about two or three weeks of “spare” time, and for future requests, my wife Janet has sagely advised me to ask department heads how much a candidate’s dossier weighs before agreeing to plow through it. On top of that, I review two or three book manuscripts and about a dozen essays for academic journals and presses.
Is this “work”? That’s a good question. I’ve worked as a foot messenger (back before faxes and email rendered them obsolete) and as a pizza deliveryguy (while writing my dissertation); I’ve worked as a typesetter and a legal proofreader (where at least I could count on having an air-conditioned workplace in the summer). Looking back over my employment history, I think my current job is just great, even though the English department building doesn’t have A/C. Most of the time, I learn new things and argue about ideas, and my workplace is exceptionally flexible and family-friendly. But am I working when I serve as a referee? It all depends on whether you consider reading and thinking to be work.
And then there’s committee work. The weird thing about the invisibility of academic committee work, I think, is that it actually resembles so strongly many other kinds of white-collar scutwork: it is not different in kind from the office-maintenance operations of law firms or insurance companies or advertising agencies—except that it involves a lot more reading. Search committees review the dossiers and writing samples of job candidates; personnel and advisory committees review the work of junior colleagues; dissertation committees review the work of graduate students; undergraduate administrative committees review the curriculum or the progress of honors students; admissions committees review the work of applicants to the graduate program; and sundry other committees draft strategic departmental plans for the dean, review the departmental bylaws, or adjudicate faculty and student grievances. It can be Dilbert work, sure, but much of it is critically important to the operation of an academic unit, and it’s really no different from the kind of mundane officework you’ll find in any professional office. And like so much officework (in law firms or insurance companies or advertising agencies), you never realize how important it is until a bunch of indifferent or incompetent people screw it up.
It’s true that much committee work, or “service,” is optional; the cohort of department curmudgeons can opt out of most of it (and you know the kind of people I’m talking about), and on the other side, the kind of national or disciplinary committee work involved in the American Association of University Professors or the various disciplinary associations like the Modern Language Association or the American Historical Association usually falls to people who have an especially strong sense of civic-professional duty. Which is to say, by the bye, that nobody does it for the fame or the money or the perks.
Of course, service work varies dramatically from faculty member to faculty member, and in some cases poses a serious equity problem: people with joint appointments (between two or more departments) are likely to find themselves with twice as many committee assignments as their colleagues with single-department appointments, and faculty of color, scarce as they are, can find themselves called upon to serve on every kind of “diversity” committee a campus can think of. And is it true that some forms of service (especially those involving undergraduates) are gendered? Very possibly– and the MLA Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession is working on a report that investigates the possibility that some women get “stalled” in the associate professor rank because of excessive committee work. The recursive nature of a committee of women conducting a study of women’s service work has not been lost on the members of the committee.
So why is all of this scutwork and office-upkeep dreck invisible to someone like Mark Bauerlein, who actually has an academic job?
I think I have an idea. Once you’ve declared– emphatically and repeatedly– that you think your scholarly field consists largely of tommyrot and bollocks, and that you think your colleagues are largely a bunch of whiners and freeloaders, it’s very possible that your professional workload is going to decrease significantly. Very few academic presses and journals are going to ask you for your professional opinion on whether a manuscript is complete bollocks or merely sixty percent tommyrot; very few graduate students are going to approach you and ask you to direct their dissertations on how It’s All a Load of Nonsense Anyway; very few colleagues are going to ask you to serve a couple of years on the new interdisciplinary Bollocks and Tommyrot Studies committee. It’s possible that you’ll get kind of embittered about all this, but there’s an important upside.
If you’re teaching at an elite research university, you’ll soon find that you have many hours of free time every week, and you may not know what to do with yourself. If you’re of a certain cast of mind, you may well decide to use your leisure time to write about the blessedly light workloads of your colleagues who are doing the service-and-refereeing scutwork you no longer consider to be worth the time and effort.
It may seem like an exercise in bad faith, but it’s really nice no-work if you can get it. And you can get it if you try.