Where Does The Time Go?
Documenting the struggles of professorial obligations
In recent months I’ve met with a number of advisees and freshly-PhD’d job candidates and junior scholars who’ve wanted to talk about the day-to-day responsibilities of a faculty member. I will humbly acknowledge that I’m seen as someone who’s fairly productive, and who puts a lot of energy into her teaching — and these folks want to know how I structure my time. Quite a few of our conversations end with some variation on this theme: “Wow, they sure don’t tell you that in graduate school” — “that” meaning the amount of time dedicated to things other than the romanticized “life of the mind,” as well as the number of competing demands for one’s time and attention. [Others have attempted to quantify and itemize professors’ labor: see this 2014 Boise State study; this 2016 THE survey of various studies; and this list from the American Association of University Professors. And plenty of scholars, from Karen Gregory to Mel Gregg, have critiqued labor in the academy.]
I honestly don’t know if my experience is representative. Actually, I don’t think it is. I’ve served as a referee on a number of faculty review cases for other institutions, and I’ve often been surprised by the relative lightness of the candidates’ service experience: just a handful of committees during their six pre-tenure years. By the time I was up for tenure, in 2012, I had directed a 500-student graduate program; helped to implement a new union contract; coordinated all admissions (400+/year) and theses (~40/year); and served on at least three dozen other committees. My external reviews suggest that such a heavy load isn’t common — but then again, I’m reviewing tenure cases at other institutions. Renewable-term or non-tenure-track faculty most likely carry a much greater administrative burden.
I can’t even compare myself to my colleagues at my own institution, since service invitations and appointments aren’t directed through a central clearinghouse, where someone keeps track of who’s doing what; and there’s little transparency regarding our colleagues’ responsibilities. I do, however, have a sense that the olde adage is true: “sucking at service means you get to do less of it.” Non-responsive, non-participatory folks typically aren’t invited to join in on future endeavors. Which is good news for them: with fewer committees, they have more time for their own work. (It might sound like I’m advocating for calculated failure or learned helplessness. I’m not. I’d hope that everyone would want to pitch in, so that particular faculty aren’t left carrying a disproportionate burden.)
Teaching and advising are really hard to quantify, too. We might all be teaching X-course loads, but our outside-the-classroom obligations might vary dramatically. We all spend different amounts of time prepping for class, reviewing student work, meeting with advisees, and overseeing theses and dissertations.
All this is to say: I have no idea how my own workload matches up to my colleagues’ at my own institution or at other institutions. All I know is that, for me, it’s a lot of work. It’s rewardingly exhausting, but it’s often overwhelming. Some days I convince myself I’m going to have a heart attack and die before I’m 42. J.K.! … Or am I?
So, what’s my not-necessarily-representative experience? I’ve been tracking my hours over the past few months, so I’ll be painfully, indulgently specific.
I teach two (or three) classes each semester, each of which meets once per week. Thus, I spend five to eight hours in the classroom. I realize that many teachers have a much heavier load, and they’re responsible for many more students.
But those “contact hours” are only a small portion of my teaching investment. For each class — even those classes I’ve taught before — I typically spend around five hours each week on prep, for a total of 10-15 hours (and sometimes up to 20, if I’m trying out something new). On top of my formal prep, I spend about 90 minutes immediately before each class reviewing students’ weekly reading responses and questions and incorporating them into my lesson plan. I stagger students’ assignments throughout the semester — so, most weeks, I spend four to six hours reviewing six to ten students’ assignments. When full-class assignments are due, which happens about six times per semester, I spend 10-15 hours reviewing each group of assignments. That probably sounds ridiculous. You’re probably thinking: girl, you need to streamline. I’ve tried — but as I encounter more and more students who have very little research experience, and who need a lot of help with writing and project management, I have a hard time passing the buck. I figure it’s my responsibility to help them identify areas for improvement. So, long story short; those five to eight “contact hours” scale up to around 20 to 30 hours per week (and sometimes more) on basic teaching. Add to that all the times I serve as a guest lecturer or guest critic in my colleagues’ classes — at least 30 hrs/ year.
And when I’m teaching a new class — as I did last spring, and as I’ll be doing again this coming spring — I’ll spend 40 to 60 hours designing the syllabus during the semester break. Yet that work builds upon months, if not years, of work: collecting resources, noting potential assignments and activities, etc. I have a “course planning” note on my phone where I keep a running list of texts, guest speakers, case studies, etc. I might add to new or continuing courses.
Then there’s advising. Faculty are commonly asked to set aside three hours per week for advising. I typically spend six to ten hours each week meeting with students — students in my own program, students from across the university, and a few students from other local grad programs — plus another few hours on email and Skype advising. In addition to providing basic academic advising, I also advise theses and dissertations. The time commitment here is highly variable: it depends on how many projects I’m advising simultaneously, where each advisee is in his/her process, and how many rounds of revision we need at each stage. This semester, for instance, I’ve read five dissertation chapters, which typically take me about five hours each, from three different advisees. I’ve worked through four drafts of a Master’s thesis proposal, which has required about 15 hours of advising, and I’ll soon read and respond to a full, completed thesis, which will likely take at least ten hours. And when I serve as an external reviewer for a dissertation, which I do a few times a year, I typically dedicate 15 hours to the task.
I keep in touch with alums, too. Each week, I spend an hour or two speaking with alums about their career goals and future plans. And I’m always writing reference letters and making reference calls — a few dozen calls for job opportunities every spring and summer, and a few dozen letters of recommendation for PhD applications, or for PhD candidates looking for jobs and fellowships, every fall. Each (prospective)PhD is roughly a six-hour investment: I typically meet with students to discuss their options, I write a custom letter for each applicant, I provide feedback on their statements of purpose and cv’s, and then I tweak the letter template for each institution and grapple with the schools’ idiosyncratic admissions and HR software. I should also account for all the letters I write for colleagues — for fellowships, grants, other jobs, etc. In all, I probably dedicate the equivalent of a full work week — about 40 to 50 hours — to letters of recommendation each fall. These past two weeks alone I’ve spent about 15 hours on the task. [Edit: scratch that earlier estimate; I did several more letters in December, upping my total investment to roughly 60 hours.]
I also regularly meet with junior colleagues about their publications, teaching, and faculty reviews. This, like advising, is almost always enjoyable — and it usually happens over food, so it’s hard to consider it “work” — but it still requires an investment of several hours every month. In addition, I commonly meet with visiting scholars — faculty from other schools, doctoral candidates or postdocs from abroad, itinerant research fellows who want to speak with me about their work — as they’re passing through New York. I dedicate a couple hours each week to these meetings.
And, oh, the committees! While I haven’t held an administrative position for a few years, my service responsibilities are no joke. I’ve chaired program development, curriculum, and faculty review committees. They all require a significant investment of time. A tenure committee, for instance, involves reviewing a 500+-page dossier (which requires close attention, since people’s jobs are on the line here; I should also note that I reviewed a 3000+-page (!!!) dossier last year for another institution); looking through hundreds of student evaluations; reading several dense external letters; meeting with colleagues to discuss the candidate, often debating at length over contentious cases; and then drafting and iteratively revising a committee report, which is a slow and meticulous process, since every word can be scrutinized by reviewers up the food chain. I typically serve on one of these committees every year, dedicating about 20 hours to the process. And every year I do a few external reviews, for other institutions, too; these take about ten hours each.
And for each of the past four years, I’ve also served on my division’s über-review committee, which reviews all of the other faculty review committees (we are the infamous committee on committees!) — up to twelve cases every fall semester — to ensure their adherence to a sound and just process (i.e., how does the evidence support the decision?). This committee’s both a joy — working closely with dedicated collaborators, learning more about our colleagues’ amazing work — and a holy terror: imagine coordinating eight people’s schedules to set consistent meetings; reading between one and three ~1000-page dossiers every other week; meeting bi-weekly to review multiple cases; then collaboratively authoring reports — which, again, must be carefully wrought because they’re politically charged. I’d say that this review committee has easily required a 100-hour investment each fall.
But wait! That’s not all! We’ve got search committees. I’m on two this year. The first one required a ~40-hour investment. The second one’s beginning next week. We’ve also got all the little ad hoc committees and working groups and consultations and admissions reviews (and all the crappy enterprise software one must navigate in order to complete these tasks).
In general, I’d say I spend at least ten hours (and, occasionally, up to 30 hours) each week in service-related meetings at school. Yet I also do a good deal of external service, too. I serve on editorial and advisory boards, contribute to design studies and competitions, consult on event and exhibition planning for other cultural institutions, and review manuscripts for journals and presses. The latter, again, requires a good amount of time. I can typically read a journal article manuscript and write up a review in three or four hours; I do this five to ten times each year. I also review three to five book manuscripts each year, dedicating ten to fifteen hours to each project. This is fun, and it’s enlightening, but it’s work — and it typically happens on weekends.
And then there’s research. That typically happens in the summer. If I do any writing at all during the academic year — and particularly during my committee-heavy fall semesters — it happens between midnights and 3am’s or on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I do do a number of talks and conferences throughout the year (which gives me lots of waiting-at-the-gate and airborne time to read dossiers and theses), and I manage to find time to put together presentations for these events — but, really, pretty much all my heavy lifting happens during the holiday and semester breaks (which are productive times simply because there are no meetings!).
[Edit] I’m sure I’m forgetting stuff (like the crappy software we have to use for our annual reviews, which requires that I spend 15 hours every spring on data entry!). For the most part, this is how I spend my time. I probably over-prepare, I probably read too closely, I probably offer too many comments on my students’ work. I’m a little bit obsessively thorough, and, try as I might, I don’t know how to fix that. I should say no to more stuff, but saying no makes me feel guilty. I’m never sure what my colleagues are doing, so I’m never sure if I’m doing “enough.” Yet I do know I’m not alone in this uncertainty.
Shannon Mattern is Associate Professor of Media Studies at The New School and author of numerous books with University of Minnesota Press. Find her on twitter @shannonmattern. This article was originally published by her blog, Words in Space on November 20th 2018.