A few weeks ago, I picked up Middle Boy (MB) from a play date with one of his buddies. While I was waiting for the boys to wrap up, I exchanged a few sentences with the little host’s dad, whom I rarely see (he has an advanced degree, a professional one, and seems to work a lot). He asked if we had fun-filled plans for the summer, and I said that we would take a week off to go to a nearby vacationing spot and will also have the kids at home around July 4th, but that, other than that, husband and I work and the kids go to camp or daycare. The dad was surprised and said “But I thought you worked at the university?” And there it was again, the assumption that I am on vacation all summer because I don’t teach.
I said that the local university was a big research university, where teaching was only a component of what faculty do, and that research was extremely important. I said that during the academic year professors were quite busy with teaching, especially when large undergraduate courses were involved, so summer was prime time to catch up on writing papers and proposals and focus on advising graduate students. Then we talked a little about whether I worked in a lab (not) and what I did, and it was cool to see his eyes light up at the mention of the word “quantum.” But I should probably work a little more on my response, as I seem to come across this issue fairly often.
Around the same time, DH and I finalized the refinancing of our house, and I got to talking to the mortgage lender (we are staying with the same bank as before, so we know her fairly well). While we were waiting for something, we chatted, and she had a lot of questions about what I do, and what research entails, and how much I teach. I hope I managed to convey that running your own research group is a lot like running a small business, in the sense that you are responsible for the funding and overseeing the people who work with you. She wanted to know how high a percentage of my time goes into teaching ; that’s a hard question to answer. I tried to convey that we have a nominal teaching load set by the college, and then research-active faculty get course load reductions proportional to how much research activity they are engaged in. Also, it’s very different to teach a 200-person freshman course versus a 20-student advanced elective or a graduate seminar.
You know, I don’t mind that people who’ve never been to college don’t know what an academic job entails; to them, professors are just teachers. But when people who have been through college and even post-graduate education don’t know what professors do or could potentially do, that’s our own fault.
I do tell my undergrads what professors do and how research is funded. But I presume most people don’t. Also, there are many students who go to schools that are not major research universities. And it is true that many professors do take summers “off” in the sense that they cannot be found on campus. Some take the summer completely off because they say “no pay, no work” and perhaps travel for pleasure; some travel for work; some work most of the time from home. I can certainly be found on campus all summer, as can most of my colleagues. Summer is an extremely busy time, because students don’t have classes and professors don’t teach. Also, NSF proposal deadlines are in the fall, as are for several other agencies; consequently, mad paper writing during the early summer gets replaced by mad proposal writing in the late summer and early fall. (I sometimes wish I were the person who takes a month off with kids and just relaxes. The truth is, there is always a lot of work to do, but even without it, relaxing is simply not me.)
I need to have better or perhaps more varied canned responses, which help convey to nonacademic people, in a few short sentences, that us academics are not useless overpaid layabouts. Canned responses are great as they help me detach and not get worked up about questions that cause me to, well, get worked up (a canned response I instituted in response to the annoying “Where are you from?” is doing wonders for my sanity). For instance, I could start by saying something like “There are different universities, with some more focused on teaching and some more on research. My uni is one of the research-heavy ones, and the faculty are responsible for teaching undergraduate and graduate students, but a very large portion of our time is devoted to doing research and supervising graduate students. Research is paid for by federal monies, for which we compete by writing grant proposals. Faculty are not generally paid by the university in the summer; summer salary comes from grants…” But then there are people who are 100% on soft money, which is insanity… How do I explain that to nonacademic folks? And there are all sorts of nuances in terms of institution type, field, seniority, group size… And before you know it, people’s eyes glaze over and you have lost them.
What say you, blogosphere? What do you say (as a prof, student, postdoc) when the general populace confronts you with the assumption that you just laze about all summer?