"That Job Is Easy!" And Other Ways to Turn Middle-Class People Against Each Other

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In my Verdict column last Thursday, I discussed some recent attacks on the American education system by Republican politicians, who have been arguing that we should discontinue using public funds to encourage more Americans to advance their educations. This Thursday, I will discuss a (mutually inconsistent) argument from other conservatives -- that higher education is so valuable that it explains and justifies American inequality (and somehow makes it important to cut taxes on the rich). We live in a bizarre world.

I could not, however, let pass without further comment the op-ed in The Washington Post that I mentioned briefly in last week's column. That op-ed, written by a former chancellor of New School University, asks whether "college professors work hard enough." That he answers no is bad enough, but that he aims his attack on the least powerful group of college professors -- faculty at community colleges and other non-research institutions -- is simply unconscionable.

As I have mentioned here before, my father was a minister. When I was growing up, I was always astonished by how little people understood about what ministers' lives are like. (No, ministers and their families do not all sit around praying all day.) Surely the most bizarre statement I ever heard, however, was this: "Your dad has a great job. After all, he only works one hour a week!" Having seen my father go to work every morning at 8am, not to return most nights until after dinner -- with days full of administrative meetings regarding his own church, his denomination's hierarchy, inter-faith groups, and so on, along with trips to hospitals and homes to give comfort to sick or grieving (or simply troubled) congregants -- I could not believe that people really thought that his job was limited to standing in the pulpit for an hour each Sunday. (I had also seen him in his office at home on Saturday nights, struggling for hours to finish and perfect each week's sermon.)

This type of misunderstanding has long colored people's perceptions of the teaching profession as well. So-called contact hours (the time in which a teacher or professor is in a room with students) do not add up to 40 hours, so how hard are they working, really! Surely the most surreal moment for me was when I discussed this phenomenon with a school teacher, who rightly complained that the public did not understand how difficult her job was. When I told her that I found the same level of ignorance/animosity toward college professors, she said, "Oh, college professors don't work at all!"

I allowed that school teachers work very hard, but that surely she must understand that there is a lot more to being a college professor than our contact hours (which are, of course, significantly lower than the contact hours of school teachers, which in turn are less than 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year). I said quite sincerely that I could not imagine a more difficult or important job than K-12 teaching. Even so, I said that college professors were also misunderstood. I started to explain the various things that I had done that week, and I mentioned the time spent going through textbooks to decide which books to adopt for my courses in future semesters. Her response: "That time doesn't count, because it is not for the benefit of this semester's students." Could I count the time toward next semester, I asked? No, because I would not be spending those hours on students next semester.

Not everyone is that illogical, of course -- although many people are even worse -- but it is always surprising to observe the level of misunderstanding that infects discourse about college teaching. State legislators and Members of Congress all but specialize in attacking college professors as pampered and overpaid.

The Post op-ed noted above, however, takes the attack on college professors to new lows. The author allows that there are many hidden parts of a professor's job. He acknowledges the hours spent producing research, and supports the idea that this is time well spent (and salaries well earned). Bizarrely, however, he then attacks professors in non-research positions, claiming that they are under-worked -- that they have, essentially, ridden the coattails of research professors to get the same low teaching hours, without bearing the added responsibilities that research professors must take on.

At that point, we are right back to the absurd numbers game, with the author running through the contact hours calculation to say: "Those jobs are easy! They only work a few hours a week -- not like real Americans." His calculation simply involves adding together the classroom hours for what he deems an under-worked faculty (15 hours per week of teaching for 30 weeks per year), and adding -- in a gratuitous bit of snark -- that they must keep "office hours for three hours a week." He then concludes that, "in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation," these professors are not even working half the hours of other professionals.

Four points are especially worth noting here:

(1) How did the author decide that the time spent outside of class on professional duties was, at best, a 1:1 ratio with hours spent inside of class? He offers no reason to believe that this is reasonable, other than his skepticism that it is all that difficult to teach with more than a cursory level of preparation, assuring his readers that "the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth." He does not allow for the wide range of courses that people must teach in community college settings, nor for the extra effort involved in teaching students who often need remedial instruction on the most basic elements of learning.

Several members of my family have spent years teaching at community colleges. They do not receive anything near the $88,000 annual salary that the author cherry-picks from a particularly high-quality community college near Washington, D.C. They often teach 5 courses per quarter, for three quarters per year, in addition to administrative responsibilities. This is hard work, at long hours, with very little appreciation (or pay). There is a reason that people often burn out, after only a few years of this kind of teaching.

(2) Consider just how regressive this argument is. In the world of academia, the Post op-ed says (correctly) that elite research professors do important work, and "there should be no quarrel with their financial rewards or schedules. In fact, they often work hours well beyond those of average non-academic professionals." No, his argument is that the proles are getting off too easy.

This is, therefore, simply another argument for stratification in salaries. The author exalts the star professors, denigrates the working stiffs, and rather than saying that the stars should be paid a premium above a solidly middle class salary for the line workers, he argues that the rank-and-file should be punished for trying to pretend to be more important than they are.

(3) In labor parlance, this is simply a "speed-up." The author's solution is to increase teaching loads significantly: "roughly 20 hours of class time and equal time spent on grading, preparation and related duties," for 11 months per year. This means that each faculty member would teach six or seven courses per term.

I recall being a graduate student, and loving my first teaching assignments. I had the opportunity to take on several courses over the summer, to supplement my meager pay as a teaching assistant. I thought about it in the simplistic terms of hours per week, concluding that 15 hours was no big deal. It was shocking how difficult -- how physically debilitating! -- such a teaching load was. Being prepared to teach, and standing and doing so for several hours per day, is simply a different category of "work" than the "executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks" that the op-ed's author uses as his comparison.

(4) As I mentioned in my Verdict column, this is divide-and-conquer in a particularly disgusting form. University administrators (such as chancellors) have long been trying to attack their faculties, with huge battles over tenure and other elements of the professor's job description. Usually, attacks on faculty are broad-based, saying that all faculty work only a few hours per week. Then, some superstar faculty show solidarity with their co-workers, defending the hard work that all professors perform. By flattering the research stars, the Post's op-ed isolates the most vulnerable people and proposes working them harder. Who will defend them?

Even if we took the author's numbers seriously, the ugly pettiness of the divide-and-conquer strategy is truly breathtaking. On its own terms, the op-ed says that there are people in Maryland who are receiving salaries of $88,000 per year for working only about half-time. So, even though they are actually only receiving $88,000 (gross) pay, "we all should object when they receive these salaries for working less than half the time of their non-academic peers." Why should we object? Apparently, because it is important to turn the 50% against the 40%. It is a good show, and the fraction of the 1% loves it.