Summer Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked Profs

This weekend I finally gave myself a permission to not work, as I had worked nearly non-stop through last weekend because of a deadline and ended up quite exhausted.

Last weekend, Middle Boy had his best friend over. We love the little boy and his family, and I know the mom pretty well. She is very cool, well traveled and educated, and overall open-minded and progressive; she works for the school district. I talked with her many times about what my academic job at our big university entails, how research never stops, the quest for grants, service, all that stuff. She always said she understood, and that she also had a sibling who was a social science professor.

When she came to pick up her boy last weekend, she asked what I was doing, as I had my laptop out amidst mountains of paper associated with the large centers proposals I was reviewing for a federal agency. I told her what my weekend had been and she was really shocked by me working over the weekend during the summer (not sure if it was the weekend, the summer, or both that was surprising).

As Cage the Elephant say, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked”

doubtless talking about university professors who don’t receive pay from the university over the summer, but work their butt off anyway. Professors might draw summer salary from grants, if they have managed to receive any given the ~10% funding rates. (By the way, CTE do a good job live, I heard them last year as the opening act to the Black Keys. They are touring, catch them if you can.)

Anyway, I was surprised and disappointed by the woman’s reaction. It’s not like I haven’t spent a lot of time already talking with her about my job, this should not have been a surprise at all. This incident leads me to believe that one of the following is true: a) I did a horrible job explaining, b) I explained just fine, but she didn’t understand, c) I explained just fine and she understood, but she didn’t believe me because of pre-existing notions as to what professors do, probably affected by whatever she perceives her sibling does.

This bothers me greatly, especially in the light of some recent conservative legislation. This woman has access to information from the horse’s mouth and she still does not understand what this job actually is. I am not saying it’s her fault, it could be my inability to convey what I do; still, she must know more than most people. If she is incredulous about me working weekends or summers  (by the way, her husband works weekends all the time), what chance do we have of people who don’t know any academics actually understanding what it is that we do? What people see are publicly available salaries, think that all we do is teach one course per semester and figure that’s 4-5 hours per week tops, and we even have tenure! That certainly sounds outrageous. Most people employed by companies work  long hours at lower salaries and with no job security. If I thought someone were getting away with a high salary, minimal work, and perfect job security, I might be livid, too. Moreover, people seem to believe their taxpayer money pays these outsize salaries of these lazy professors, whereas in reality only a small and ever-shrinking contribution comes from the state (presently 10-15% of the whole university budget is typical for state universities).

If Middle Boy’s friend’s mom doesn’t know what professors do, what chance do we have with the general populace? How are we supposed to convince people that professors are not lazy layabouts, that being a professor at a university doesn’t mean being an overpaid and largely idle version of a K-12 teacher? (No disrespect to K-12 teachers intended.) How can we get it into the heads of the public that we are not the enemy, that yes, our jobs involve teaching their kids, but on top that we conduct research, which in the sciences has many elements of running a small businesses: competing for funds, paying personnel, managing them, distributing the products (papers), but first giving between 1/3 and 1/2 of all the funds raised to the university in terms of overhead?

Americans are very hard-working people and have a great work ethic, which are some of the things that I really like about the society. But they hate intellectuals, much more than I could say for any country in Europe or Asia that I have familiarity with (I don’t have enough experience with Latin America, Africa, or Australia/Oceania). For instance, even in the rural areas in my home country, people would tell you that being a university professor is a distinguished vocation, alongside doctors and lawyers. Here in the US, doctors and lawyers are fine, as are corporate executives, but not professors. While I am sure few people actually know what it is that CEOs really do, they don’t seem to begrudge CEO salaries. But those shifty university professors? They are certainly overpaid, never mind the recent data on salaries at very-high research activity schools, or the breakdown of public versus private 4-year schools. It’s amazing that people don’t mind the outsize compensation and bonuses of certain individuals or people in certain careers, because those are somehow perceived well deserved or earned, but as soon as the public thinks it’s paying you through their taxes (no matter how small a percentage in reality), you are never considered to work enough to justify the investment. The distrust of intellectuals and of the government appear to go hand in hand, as the country gets ever more conservative.

I don’t know what it is that we can do to convince the public that we do an important job, that most of us would make considerably more in industry and that tenure is a way to attract talent, and that research at the US universities is an important economic engine [because we can’t speak of broadening people’s horizons (bad! blasphemy!) or instilling critical thinking skills]. We can’t say “Whatever, let people believe what they want,” because this public opinion is a base for squashing research funding. So we can’t stop trying to get through to the people around us about what we do and why it’s important. I just don’t know how to do it in a way that actually matters.


  1. I remember being in the main office of my MS department when a woman came in looking for a professor. The admin assistant said that his office hours were posted on his door. The schedule showed the hours he was teaching as well as his office hours. She went and looked, then came back saying, “Geez, you think he’d work for more than 4 hours per week.” For a lot of people, work = being in the office. Not in the office, not working.

  2. Anti-intellectualism is the root of most things that I hate. That, and patriarchy. One thing I like about having moved from Podunkville to Paradise is the much stronger intellectual community here!

  3. We are on quarters so summer is not quite here yet. Guess what I am doing this evening? I am holding a final exam review session for my students. On a Saturday. I let them vote on a time, used a doodle poll with plenty of weekday options, but this is what they voted for.

    So much for profs not working long hours.

  4. I am a faculty member in a non-US but english-speaking nation. We have 12 month salaries. Even though I grew up academically in the US, even I still cannot believe the concept of a 9-month salary.

    Anti-intellectualism tends to be rampant in the anglo world — countries which are highly capitalistic and where the finance sector are especially strong.

  5. Thinking of mareserinitatis’s comment, I ALMOST took a postdoc at a place where the new department chair required faculty to be physically in the building 40 hours a week during standard business hours: he was even trying to install time clock puncher thingys by the front door.

  6. Is it possible the mom has a unionized job- where working without pay during breaks or weekends is prohibited by contract/union rules? I was trying to explain this to an old childhood friend from back home (he has a technical background, is an engineer actually) who has such a job, he was incredulous, basically called me and other academics suckers for perpetuating it.

  7. Ha – my mother frequently tells me I should get a cushy job at a university. I say no way, my semi-government engineering job is FAAAR more accommodating to life balance AND I’d be a terrible teacher.

  8. Completely agree with you. My neighbours and even some family members seem to think that I just work three hours in a week. I have heard all sorts of comments from immediate neighbours, including, “oh, what could you possibly be doing at your office so late[if they see me returning late]” “are you on half day leave [if they see me going later than their working spouses on some days]” – I have just given up on trying to explain the nature of an academic job and that working is \neq going to office. What they think doesn’t matter.

    But, it worries me a lot if policy-makers make these kind of statements. For example, a very senior scientist-administrator at an institute where I worked before said at an official meeting in which funding decisions were being taken, “Mathematicians have an easy life. They don’t have to stay in their labs till late night like us.” I was very shocked that a scientist in a position of power at a scientific research institute held such an opinion about scientists in a different field.

  9. I did, last month, find an analogy that may actually get through to some people- especially if they are sports fans. I told one neighbour, “thinking that a professor at a top university only is ‘working’ during the three or six hours a week they are lecturing in the classroom in front of students, is the equivalent of thinking that an NFL football player only ‘works’ during the three hours a week of the actual game in front of a stadium full of fans.” It’s like a big light bulb went on in his head- he understands now.

    I have a sibling who is a minister at a local church. He tells me he gets the same thing, people tell him ‘it must be nice to have six and a half days a week off,’ thinking he only ‘works’ during the few hours of the actual services on Sunday.

  10. I don’t know what it is that we can do to convince the public that we do an important job, that most of us would make considerably more in industry and that tenure is a way to attract talent, and that research at the US universities is an important economic engine [because we can’t speak of broadening people’s horizons (bad! blasphemy!) or instilling critical thinking skills]. We can’t say “Whatever, let people believe what they want,” because this public opinion is a base for squashing research funding. So we can’t stop trying to get through to the people around us about what we do and why it’s important. I just don’t know how to do it in a way that actually matters.

    The big mistake here is thinking that the average American just needs more information, and if they understood what academics do, they’d love us and want their kids to become academics. Sorry, but this is delusional. Americans are on the whole a hateful spiteful people, and they basically just hate everyone, because they hate themselves and their own lives, which suck. The reason they hate academics isn’t because they give a fucke how much money we make or how hard we work. They hate academics because we mostly come across as not miserable and as enjoying our lives.

  11. If you want a non-smug explanation of American anti-intellectualism you should read Richard Hofstadter’s book on the subject.

  12. And the academic blogosphere does not come across as content is with our lives. Nor does Physioprof come across as a non-hateful person.

  13. Instead of posting just my office hours on my door, I tried posting my whole schedule on the door, which showed a 40-hour workweek. I blocked off times for classes, office hours, grading/prep, lab meetings, other meetings, research, writing, basically everything. That way people (including my boss) could see what general type of work I was doing even if not in my office, and students could see why I didn’t always have time to meet with them outside of office hours.

  14. I can say that my family (mostly middle-class folk) are fully aware of how much professors work. Whenever my husband and I visit them “on vacation,” we are working half the time. “Great, you’ll play with the kids for a couple of hours?” *gets out laptop*

  15. “doctors and lawyers are fine”. No way. I can’t even count the number of rants about “overpaid, cold, unfeeling doctors only out for money” and lawyers—come on! Public opinion of lawyers is generally pretty low in most segments of society! Another profession generally though of as money-grubbing, unethical.
    I get your dismay when someone you’ve talked to still does not get it. I stopped talking about my work AT ALL to people while I was in training. It was infuriating having to explain why I had to work 80% of weekends.

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