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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2010

Workload exaggerated

The scenario that starts Tim Birkhead’s article “I Feel Like a Marked Man” (Bulletin, April 2010) is that he was asked to mark 500 essays in 24 hours. The article then goes on to other unrealistic and exaggerated accounts of a professor’s overworked, stressed-out, frustrated life presented in the form of a conversation with the on-the-brink-of-a-mental-breakdown professor’s therapist.

The marking scenario has no reality as professors are not “asked” to mark papers. They are expected to mark the exams they choose to give their students, depending on the size of the class, within a week or two. In the case of a class with 500 students, which is not the norm
but an exception, the time allocation would be closer to two weeks than one, and likely there would be multiple markers. No university administrator, who is normally a professor himself or herself, is stupid enough to expect one professor to mark 500 essays in 24 hours. This just doesn’t happen.

In the real academic world, exams occur at the most three times in a typical four-month term. So, within a four-month period, a professor spends somewhere between two to six weeks marking exams. During this period, professors don’t have to write reference letters or look at student CVs; there is plenty of time to do that during the rest of the term.

Normally, professors do not mark assignments. They have teaching assistants and markers to do that. So, assignments do not take a professor’s time other than preparing the questions (which are commonly recycled or come from a textbook).

Furthermore, professors teach only two out of the three terms in a given year, so there is one term when they have no teaching duties and no marking whatsoever.

Thus, throughout the year, professors have plenty of time to do research, to develop and update their course materials, to attend meetings that they choose, and write a few reference letters (which also get recycled).

To portray the job of a university professor as a perpetually high-stress, frustrating and heavy workload job is incorrect. The first 10 to 12 years of a professor’s career are stressful and require hard work, but once one learns the ropes and develops course mate­rials and an established research program, the stress and workload become comfortably manageable.

We have an excellent, enjoyable and enviable career from whichever angle one looks at it. We teach what we know best and teach it in the way we believe is right, we do research in what we find interesting, we deal with curious and enthusiastic young people (with some exceptions) who think highly of us (with some exceptions), and we don’t have a “boss” telling us what to do, or how and when to do it. On top of all of this, we are well paid.

Pretending that professors are stressed-out, overworked people who are permanently on the borderline of a breakdown is misleading. Those who are stressed-out are probably in the wrong line of work.

Exaggerated fictional accounts of a professor’s work life as presented by Birkhead only makes us look like unprofessional crybabies.

V. Ismet Ugursal
Mechanical Engineering
Dalhousie University

Tim Birkhead replies

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