Today’s Letter of Complaint: The Profession

US News and World report published a list of the best professions for 2008, ranging from clergy to hairstylist to fundraiser (!) to, yes, professor. Go ahead and read the short treatments of the job, here and here. You done? Does it sound right to you? Not to (irrepressible) me. I wrote a letter to Mr. Marty Nemko, which you can read below the fold.

Dear Marty Nemko:I’m writing regarding your “executive summary” of being a professor. A professor at a 4-year institution probably teaches three courses a semester; he or she may well teach 4 courses. Let’s say it’s usually 10 1/2 hours in the classroom every week, assuming 85-minute courses meeting twice a week. Then there’s another 3 hours of sitting in my office–okay, it’s me I’m describing (I’m a new assistant professor at Brooklyn College in the English Department)–so, sure, that’s 13 1/2 hours. Once a month, there’s a couple of hours of departmental meetings. Then there are various smaller committees and meetings to which I owe my service, which gives me another, let’s say, hour a week on average.

Not bad, right? And summers are off?

Except you left out two things: preparation time and grading. It takes me on average three hours to prepare for each class (some classes it’s 6 hours, some it’s only a half hour, if that). So that’s another 18 hours a week. Then, being an English professor, I may have 2- or 3-page papers from each of my students to grade. There are between 20 and 30 students in each of my classes. This small deluge doesn’t happen every week, but it happens often enough. At the end of the semester, I get around 800 pages to grade, bang, as I get research papers from all of my students. Some of them are good writers, so the grading’s easy. Most of them need, well, to be educated, which means writing about 600 words of comments on each to help ensure that they don’t make the same mistakes again. Any of them could be cheating, so I have to check that. There are also finals to grade, and believe me, I don’t have a grad assistant. At Christmas, when I wasn’t with family, I was grading.

So you see where your hours are off? On top of that: I’m returning page proofs today on a 25-page article I wrote, I have 3,000 words due in February on a topic I know very little about, I have two more articles, plus two conference papers, coming up in the next 8 months, and then there’s the dissertation I have to get published as a book in the next seven years. Every so often I write a grant application, because it looks good if I can bring in some money. So: let’s call it 50-60 hours a week, because that’s what it’s been for me, and that’s what it’s seemed to be for every professor I know in the humanities. Important professors do more: they deliver keynote addresses, serve as outside advisors for tenure cases, edit journals, write many, many letters of recommendation, and often chair their departments.

Finally: the pay range is way off. Some of the jobs I applied for paid $40k. This was in Idaho, sure, but still. My starting pay is in the low 50s, and this when I started getting my first master’s in 1997 and finished my PhD ten years later (average time to completion for a literature PhD is around 9 years). When I hit associate professor, I may hit the 70s and 80s. When I finally hit full professor, maybe 12 years from now, I’ll be making whatever counts as the 90s. One day maybe I’ll crack six figures (the ceiling is about 120K in the CUNY system).

That said, I love my job. I get to hang out with really smart people–my colleagues and students included–I get to work on stuff that’s interesting to me (it’s not a job at the DMV, that’s for sure), the dinner parties are never dull, mostly I set my own hours, I get rewarded for being smart, and, eventually, I will have excellent job security in a field concerned with something more than the bottom line, a field that values me *as a person.* That’s important.

All best,
Karl Steel

(PS: on political leanings: the people who complain are mainly non academics. David Horowitz, chiefly, and so far as I know they’re unable to provide any substantial facts about the relationship between politics and hiring. And certain departments–law, economics, some sciences–do trend conservative, you know.)



Just did the tally for comments on the final papers for this Fall’s three classes: 30,000 words, and every clause, even those larded with solecisms, a little special gem. Or snowflake, if you will. Does that seem like a lot? Certainly not for adjuncts doing 6/6 (or 8/8 with classes in the summer), or 2-year college professors; but it seems like a lot to me.

Marc: I saw a film on the condition of adjuncts at a grad conference at U C Riverside in 1998. I don’t remember the title, but perhaps the film you’re promoting is the same? If so, I loved having my innocence frightened away; if it’s NOT the same film, you might want to track down the other one. An All Adjunct film fest would be something to see.

Diana: I was very lucky in getting a job practically right out of grad school. I went out twice, but the first time I didn’t even have a chapter done, so it sort of doesn’t count. The second time, I had only two in (and I finished in the first semester of my first ‘real’ job). Jeffrey, iirc, went out three times before he landed his job, and Eileen adjuncted for dogs’ years before she got hers. If a dipshit like me lands a job, and the Cohens and Joys of this world have to struggle–for a time–there’s really not a logic I can see. Thinking in terms of marathons is, yes, the best approach, so long as you consider the course one whose terminus may always recede asymptotically or may present itself to you barely 5K into the race. You never know!

I feel the sacrifices have been well worth the results.
Likewise, but only because: 1) I had no connections that could have got me a better job; 2) I wasn’t doing anything of any importance before I went to grad school (there were only so many times–three, precisely–I could find another band to play in); 3) and I got lucky, both in landing in a good doctoral program and in landing a good job in a region I love. Had I spent 1997-2007 getting a couple of master’s degrees and a doctorate and then NOT got my job, I would have had, oh, 2-4 years to get an academic job before I would have been hopelessly damaged so far as the market was concerned. I could check the latest issue of Profession to give you a sense of how many bodies I left behind me on my death march, but you can imagine, simply, that the sacrifices it took to get me to where I am have not all been my own. – See more at: