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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2006

Work’s Done ‘til Fall? Not Likely

Greg Allain
Last month I ran into an old acquaintance I hadn’t seen for quite some time. After a cordial exchange about our respective families, he said: “So, now that the semester is finished and your grades are in, you must be settling into your four-month vacation? Great job, if you can get it!”

I am always appalled at how little people know about the employment and working conditions of academic staff. Over coffee, I patiently explained to this professional, who has fewer years of schooling than I have (and earns a higher salary, I might add), that we work as hard if not harder than other people, but our yearly workload happens to be distributed differently.

During the regular school year, which in many institutions runs from early September to late April, we teach and advise full-time and part-time students, perform research, serve on academic or administrative committees, and work with student and community organizations. In May and June, we finalize our research papers and present them at scientific conferences where we receive feedback from our peers before our findings are published in scholarly journals, books or electronic media. These meetings are also a great place to keep abreast of developments in our fields.

The lucky ones among us are vacationing for the month of July. August is devoted to updating existing courses or designing new ones and preparing lectures and exercises for the fall term. “So you see,” I told this fellow, “we work year round just like you do!”

Luckily, he didn’t bring up the old saw about how, since we’re only in class nine hours a week (the actual number varies by institution), we only work nine hours a week! This is without question a common misapprehension shared by many people and time and again we must explain that we spend at least two hours in out-of-class preparation for every hour we spend in class. There’s also office hours for student consultations, which for those supervising graduate students’ research could be a considerable amount of time, and hours of faculty and committee meetings that deal with the policies of our institutions, departmental matters, academic issues, curricula, budgets, equipment purchases and hiring, and, if there’s time left, oh yes, there are those research projects we must manage and bring to fruition.

According to recent surveys, many academics work a 50-hour week, while some exceed the 60-hour a week mark. I realize I’m talking here from a full-time professor’s point of view, and we all know CAUT represents a vast array of members, including university and college teachers, librarians, researchers, contract academic staff and other academic professionals whose working conditions vary by individual circumstance and institution. For instance, some part timers have to hold a number of teaching contracts to make ends meet, often ending up working more hours, for less pay, than a full-time job.

All I am trying to say here is that the work we do is commonly misunderstood by the general public — even by some professionals, who should know better. Yet we all share a mutual dedication to the work we do to sharpen our students’ critical thinking skills and prepare them for the important roles they will be playing in society, and to develop and disseminate new knowledge. The question is, how do we make the nature of our work better known?

I remember a few years ago reading an analyst’s diagnosis of the many challenges facing higher education in Canada, and scoffing at his suggestion that all academics needed was a good marketing strategy. Perhaps that wasn’t such a bad idea after all. At my institution, the faculty of graduate studies and research arranged for a regular column in the Saturday edition of our local daily to feature one of our professor’s research. About 30 have appeared so far.

Now if we could only build teaching and community involvement into that formula, we might have one possible model on how we go about disseminating information on what we do and the passion that drives us, in the media and therefore the general public.