Your Professor Doesn’t Have Summers Off

Most people outside academia assume I don’t work at all during the summers. For example, my future father-in-law talked about my free time at length last Christmas. He mused, “I mean, who else gets that much vacation?” Thankfully my future sister-in-law came to my defense and explained some of the basics, like syllabus planning and research. Still, that’s only a fraction of the work I do between May and August. In fact, these months are when I do the things that would normally happen on weekends.

At an airport last month, I met a man who asked me too many questions about my job while I was trying to read. After a few minutes, he said, “Isn’t that nice? You decide your own hours. Wish I had that luxury!”

My “luxury” is just one more reason why vast swaths of the public don’t trust academics. When even The Washington Post prints stories asking if professors work hard enough, you know there’s a perception problem. In fact, more and more administrators, politicians, and pundits even talk about professors at non-elite schools teaching more because research doesn’t matter much for us.

It’s time that our politicians and talking heads stop perpetuating this myth. Most professors don’t have huge vacations, and those who do are actually paid on a 9-month salary spread over 12 months. So let me explain what I did this summer:

Research (20-30 hours per week)

Summer is a rare time when I can focus on big projects without the interruption of weekly lesson planning, teaching, grading papers, office hours, and meetings. If I’m going to get any real work done on a book or article, I need at least 3-4 uninterrupted hours a day. During the school year, that means I have to squeeze my research into late nights and weekends. (Thank heaven I don’t have kids yet, or I’d be truly screwed.) Yes, I can do some light editing and proofreading when I’m on campus. I can also download and skim articles, but actually analyzing data and generating content requires peace and quiet.

So this summer, I’ve finished one book in my field that’s already under contract. I also reviewed three articles for publication in different journals. And I presented papers at two different conferences.

In June, I often sometimes indulge myself with 8-hour stretches of research and writing punctuated by short breaks for coffee and exercise (and Twitter).

My tenure depends on publishing 1-2 articles a year. But even if I weren’t explicitly required to publish, doing so would still make me a better teacher and inform my lesson plans.

Let’s imagine that I didn’t write or publish at all. Common sense would still call for me to stay current in my field, which supports about 15 different journals (50 individual issues) and six major presses that publish three books a year that I feel obligated to read. If it takes me four hours to read a book and two to read a journal issue, then I spend about 180 hours just staying abreast of scholarly developments. That’s more than a month of just reading at a 40 hour work week.

By necessity, about 90 hours of that reading happens when I’m “off.” Split over two months (June-July), that’s 45 hours each, or a little more than 10 hours a week.

Let’s imagine that I’m lazy and don’t quite live up to that year-round. I might spend 5-7 hours reading in my field some weeks if I want to check out something I heard about on NPR.

Semester Planning (8-10 hours a week)

Most professors I know have a detailed schedule for the entire semester. We plan each reading assignment and paper down to the class period. I’m in a course rotation, so I actually wind up teaching a mix of old and brand new courses every year. Planning an entire course takes a helluva lot of work. I choose the required texts. I read them extremely closely. I track down supplemental readings. I draft all of my assignment guidelines. I organize units, themes, and then craft it all into an eye-friendly document that students can follow for 15 weeks.

From start to finish, planning a syllabus probably takes 40-50 hours. (A conservative estimate.) Loading my materials into Blackboard or Moodle takes an additional 4-5 hours, if I know what I’m doing. When you consider the amount of time I spend photocopying and scanning those supplementary materials though, it’s probably a little more.

Seriously updating a course takes about 20 hours. If I were a lazy professor, I could just change out the dates and be done. (As it happens, I’m actually having to do that for one course because I’ve been handed extra responsibilities recently.) But we’re constantly finding out new and better ways to teach. I come up with new ideas for assignments that were better than last year’s. New textbooks and essays are published that I think students should read and discuss. Effective teaching requires innovation and experimentation.

Service (10-15 hours per week)

Many faculty, like myself, also serve in administrative roles. This summer, I actually spent at least 10 hours a week in our department’s main office helping to manage summer courses, conduct assessments, run professional development workshops, or even help with mundane tasks like processing registration overrides and advising students.

I also served on a search committee for a staff position. That’s actually some of the easier service work I do, even though I spend 4-5 hours downloading and reading 30-40 application packets, another 2 hours doing interviews, and a full 8-hour day assisting with a campus visit for each position finalist.

Earlier this summer, I designed and led an assessment for one of our core courses. Preparing the assessment probably took 5-6 hours, the scoring session lasted 8 hours, and writing the report took another 8-10 hours.

My Imaginary Perks

All told, we’re looking at a forty to fifty-hour work week during my “summers off.” Once or twice, I did have a lighter 30 hour week, and it felt like heaven. At my institution, I make about $60,000 annually. For that, I’m obligated to teach five courses a year, publish in academic journals, and do the kind of service described above. I’m 10-month salary. Meanwhile, a few of my colleagues on 9-month salary make several thousand less than I do but perform similar levels of service. They’re not contractually obligated to. But if they didn’t, our department wouldn’t function. I find it difficult to keep a discrete time clock, though. I love this job because of its flexibility. Like right now, I’m writing this blog post. That’s technically not part of my 40 hours. However, when this is published, I’m going to answer a couple more emails and then try to sleep.

You might say my life would be easier if I clocked out at 6 or 7 pm. That’s jut not how academia works. We’re responsible for coming up with ideas and articulating them. Being good at my job means that if I wake up at 3 am with an idea for an article, I absolutely have to type it out, even if it takes an hour away from my sleep. That idea might not be as lucid at dawn. I might try to write for two hours in the afternoons, but then words won’t flow until after my gym time.

So instead of telling me how lucky I am to work at my leisure, understand this: I’m at the mercy of my job. All the time.

I’m on the low end compared to more elite institutions, but hardly special or deserving of pity. My situation represents the average amount of work and compensation done by most professors. Exceptions exist for sure. Professors at large universities make twice what I do, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s salary databases, and have more time for research. But they’re also expected to publish twice what I am.

So the next time you meet a professor at the airport, please avoid the “summers off” line, even if you’re joking. Professors work their asses off year round, and they’re already accused of corrupting our youth, writing poorly, and wasting tax money. We’re under-appreciated. Don’t rub it in by pointing out our imaginary perks.



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