Saturday, June 30, 2007

I want HIS job!

WARNING: Non-Medieval Content Ahead

Last night, I watched Stranger than Fiction, a film in which Dustin Hoffman plays a professor of literary theory named "Professor Jules Hilbert." Though I'm sure as I watched the film I was supposed to be struck by the cleverness of using Vladimir Propp-style theory to help the protagonist determine his future by plugging his situation into a few archetypal story arcs, I couldn't concentrate on it because of Prof. Hilbert's office.

This office* was HUGE. Two of the walls were glass, looking out on a nice view. No doubt a single piece of this furniture was of more value than all the furniture in my entire office. The Chancellor's office at my university isn't as nice as this English professor's office was.

Well, maybe he is some kind of celebrity professor, then? At one point in the film, he mentions that he is teaching FIVE courses that semester -- a terribly heavy load even at a community college. He talks about teaching, and he talks about service, but the only research he really talks about is writing un-answered letters to Emma Thompson's character. So, here's a guy on a burdensome teaching load with an office that would rival that of most university presidents.

I own a business on the town square. Every so often, my students will meet my wife there (she runs it) and realize it is mine. They then ask me a question like, "Why do you own a business? I mean, if I got paid as much as a professor, I wouldn't work so hard." I then ask them how much they think I make, and they nearly always give an answer in the six-figure territory.

It's surprising how much people think professors make. Here is a movie about a character in a book who also happens to be a real person, who can hear the narrator speaking in his head, and the most unbelievable part of the film is the professor's office. Though movies like this no doubt feed the image of the wealthy professor, I think it probably reacts more to an image people already have. Somehow, we are perceived as wealthy.

Perhaps it is because we are respected, and people equate respect with wealth. Not many jobs come with a title, and most professors (in America anyway) are entitled to two: Doctor and Professor. Doctors make a lot of money, right? And they aren't even real PhDs -- in most cases, they are merely MDs, right? Therefore, it stands to reason that professors make even more than medical doctors!

Perhaps it is because everyone around us is so poor. I spend most of my day around two types of people: other professors and students. Other professors are paid on a similar pay scale to me, and students are at the poorest they will probably ever be in their lives. By comparison to students, professors are rolling in the dough!

Or perhaps it is because so many professors come out of families with money. Though there are plenty of first-generation-college-graduates among the ranks of professors, graduate school is an expensive proposition, so it helps to have parents with financial resources. Often I'll meet professors with very expensive tastes, and in most cases these were cultivated as they were growing up.

I understand the image of professors as lazy -- most of the work done by professors is done when no one is watching. Not surprisingly, most college graduates think of the job of professors as being teachers, and so when professors spend no more than 12 hours a week in the classroom, it sure seems like we don't do much of anything. Research and service tend to be solitary activities (or at least out of the public eye), so they are naturally not noticed. This I understand. The wealthy professor? That part I don't get at all.

*I couldn't find an image of the office online. Sorry.


  1. The aspect, as a grad student, that I don't see is service. I understand the split intellectually, but I'm still a bit confused as to what service consists of.

    I found this image of Hoffman's office which seems believable, ut I haven't seen the movie so I suspect it's just the angle.

  2. You'd take a five-course load if you had his office? Really?

    A point you might have made is that even if the general public saw us working it wouldn't look like work, since a great deal of it consists of looking at a book or a screen.

    medieval geek: What "service" means to me (and my university) is all the semi-administrative work that is neither teaching nor research: writing recs, writing reports as referees, organizing conferences, attending faculty senate or council and contributing something intelligent, making the wheels in your department go around. This is the part of a permanently employed professor's work life where s/he isn't the Lone Ranger, but part of a team.

  3. Medieval Geek:

    You're right -- that picture doesn't really show the palace that was his office.

    At one point, too, it seemed as if he had TWO offices -- one stately one, and one in at the faculty swimming pool (where he was the lifeguard). The image you linked to *might* be at the swimming pool, but I wasn't really clear on that.

    Which, I suppose, makes me wonder if there are schools in America that provide faculty swimming pools.

    Service, as to the other question, consists of a variety of other duties. Just to add to the things Steve mentioned, in my own case that includes the hiring committee, a committee to give undergrad research money, the interdisciplinary committee, the freshman reading project initiative committee, grading freshman placement exams, meet & greets with potential new English majors, orientation of the international students, academic advising, and advising a student organization. I've done other things, but those are the things I'm doing NOW (and yes, these duties are ongoing even while I'm on summer "vacation").

    Of course, that's a list of things I'm doing at the moment. Steve's list will be very different. Some things take very little time (for example, I probably spent no more than 10 hours all last semester on the Freshman Reading Initiative), while others can be extremely time consuming (advising my student organization takes up a minimum of two hours every week). A hiring committee will be very time consuming IF you are hiring, not at all if you aren't. I was the chair of one committee on which the chair does a ton of work, but the other committee members realistically do about two hours of work per year.

    Like research, it varies. Some service is optional, some not. Some times it is "optional" in the way buying your wife flowers on Valentine's Day is "optional" -- there's no law requiring it, but if you don't, she'll make you wish you were dead.

    Oh, and Steve, given that I have a 4-4 course load now, HECK YEAH I'd take a 5-5 load for that office, especially if the overload weren't composition classes!

  4. Thanks for answering my questions -- I guess I've done some service then even as a TA, but just writing recs and such.

    One other question -- what is a 3-3, 4-4, or 5-5 courseload? These are things that everyone bandies around, but nobody ever really explains to us as students. Since I'm semi-anonymous, I figure it won't hurt to ask here. I understand that the 3,4,or 5 is the number of classes, but I'm confused about the other part of the hyphenation.

  5. Ack! I try hard not to make the writing on the Wordhoard too insiderish ... guess I messed up on this one.

    If someone says they have a 4-4 courseload, what this means is that they typically teach 4 classes in the fall semester, and 4 in the spring, generally consisting of 3 hours per week in the classroom per course. A 4-4 load (which is what I have) is generally considered a "teaching load," i.e. it is considered unreasonable to expect significant research out of someone with such a load. At most schools with a 4-4 load, faculty can be tenured and promoted with very little research, and in many cases without publication.

    A usual load would be a 2-3 load, in which the professor teaches 2 courses one semester, and three the next (or visa-versa). Even if they teach 3 in the fall and 2 in the spring, we still generally call it a 2-3 load (rather than a "3-2 load"). Professors on such loads are expected to attend conferences, present papers, and publish. Usually they will need at least a book for each step up they go in promotion.

    When you start to get into areas like 2-2 loads, 1-2 loads, etc., you are looking at heavy-duty research jobs. In those cases, it is not enough to write a book -- your books have to be published in prestigious publishing houses, get well-reviewed, and make a strong impact on your field.

    In other words, the lower the courseload, the higher the research expectations. Of course, all of the above is painted with a very broad brush -- in practice it can get messier. For example, if you are on a 12 month contract (like a department chair might be), your 1-2 load might mean 1 in the fall, one in the spring, and 1 in the summer. Occasionally you'll see job ads for schools advertising a 3-3 load, but then somewhere buried in the job description mentioning that this means 4 hours in the classroom instead of the usual three -- in other words, since it is 12 classroom hours, it is really a 4-4 load disguised as a 3-3. I know of cases at schools with a 2-3 load where people have managed to get tenure on the basis of attendance of a single conference (without presentation), and of course 4-4 schools have lots of people publishing in the hopes of moving to a more researchy courseload.

    By the way, Medieval Geek, as a TA, you should look for a few opportunities to do service, such as serving on a department committee or two. When hiring committees see candidates with nice dissertations but NO service, they'll often perceive them as prima donnas who will be too snobby to do their fair share of the day-to-day departmental governance. One or two service committees during your graduate career show that you have experience with service. The only danger is of falling into the "service trap," in which you spend so much time on committee work that you don't get your own rearch done.

  6. Scott,

    The only quibble I have with your generally excellent description of teaching loads is your characterization of a 2-3 load as "usual." My reading of job ads suggests that the majority of schools have something closer to a 4-4 than a 2-3. Especially if we consider the fact that community colleges, where a 5-5 load is standard, make up a sizable portion of all the faculty jobs in higher ed. And that's not counting all of the people teaching ridiculous adjunct loads at multiple schools. We may wish that a 2-3 was "usual," but I doubt that it is.

  7. Maybe. I don't have any hard figures to back up that "usual" comment -- I'm just going from the general experience of those I went to grad school with. Although I know that 5-5 jobs do exist, I don't recall seeing them advertised (perhaps they are the ads that don't list the load), and none of my friends who went on to community colleges are doing 5-5 (except as paid overloads).

    I'm sure *someone* out there has the non-anecdotal statistics on what is "usual," though. Perhaps the AAUP?

  8. Let me add further anecdotal evidence: MANY people have 5/5 loads, including most folk I know at CCs. Some friends who were here in upstate NY just recently escaped from their CC where they not only taught 5/5, but were regularly expected to take overloads. One of their colleagues thought nothing of 10/10 which seems utterly insane (I pity his students).

    The 4/4 is very common. Less than that is increasingly rare. I am eternally grateful for my 3/3. I looked here, but failed to find anything regarding load stats.