This weekend, my Facebook page was flooded by friends eager to find out my response to dangerously ill-informed journalist Cindy Perman’s list of the least stressful careers for 2013 on CNBC. College professor was her first choice:
“If you look at the criteria for stressful jobs, things like working under deadlines, physical demands of the job, environmental conditions hazards, is your life at risk, are you responsible for the life of someone else, they rank like ‘zero’ on pretty much all of them! Plus, they’re in total control. They teach as many classes as they want and what they want to teach. They tell the students what to do and reign over the classroom. They are the managers of their own stress level.”
Perman’s article hit such a nerve with educators that there’s now an official Twitter “war” over it. My friends commented that they did not want to be in the same room with me when I read this, and I can understand why-I have notoriously little patience for willful ignorance – and were waiting for my usual explosion. But Perman’s misunderstanding of what a college professor does is so laughably wrong that it was impossible to be angry.
Why Being a Professor is Incredibly Stressful
The one thing that did concern me is the impact an article like this can have on student behavior. Educators at all levels are already under siege by politicians, parents, and administrators who feel pressure from those same politicians and parents. Professors have dozens of stories of students who threaten us or tell us “I pay your salary” and “I paid for this course,” when they don’t get the grades they want. There is so little respect for teaching as a valid profession in its own right, I fear that articles such as Perman’s will mislead students even further, allowing them to think it’s OK to challenge and abuse faculty members.
One reason I worry about this is that there’s really not a lot of information available about what professors actually do, and what it takes to become a professor, from which students can make their own assessments. My own students have often been shocked when I tell them that graduate work is much more than simply taking classes. When I explain that I had to write a master’s thesis, taking comprehensive M.A. exams, take both written and oral doctoral exams, fulfill the two foreign language requirements, then research, write, and defend a doctoral dissertation, it’s eye-opening and usually results in some great conversations. Through my story, I show them I do, in fact, know what they are going through in their own courses and can help them manage the difficult struggle to balance work, academics, and life.
So I’d like to break down and respond to Perman’s description, so that students really know what it is we do. These are the big myths she perpetuates:
- Myth #1: College professors have no deadlines. Excuse me? Try grading 55 essay exams in 24 hours, then adding them to the student course grades and calculating final grades, then submitting all of this within the 24 hours the registrar gives us to do so. Professors cannot miss these deadlines, because student financial aid and graduation status depends completely on the timely entry of grades into an automated system. In most cases, students are very understanding about this, and do not harass their professors for their grades, but there are always some who badger and complain. I’ve had students demand their grades an hour after the exam ended! For online educators, the expectation of 24-hour accessibility makes this more challenging, as students often expect faster turn-around rates for grading.
- Myth #2: There are no “physical demands of the job” or “environmental conditions hazards.” This is amusing, because it’s clear that Perman is operating from some antiquated idea of a college professor sitting at his or her desk or lab, quietly reading or studying. Most of us spend a good part of the day on our feet, sort of like cashiers, giving lectures, working with individual students, walking across campus to get to various classrooms, etc. This is much more physically demanding than what any corporate cubicle worker does every day, though like them we also get carpal tunnel syndrome. There’s also the amount of energy exerted by the “performance” aspect of teaching. Teachers are on stage the entire time we are in the classroom, trying to interest, engage, and teach our students. It’s exhausting. As for environmental conditions hazards, educators at all levels often work in old drafty buildings, many laden with lead and asbestos, with dozens of people around us coughing, sneezing, and otherwise exposing us to myriad illnesses.
- Myth #3: Our lives are not “at risk.” Two words: Virginia Tech. Most people forget that college campuses are open to the public. Anyone who works in the public arena is, by definition, in a potentially risky position. We also see a vivid cross-section of humanity in our courses, hallways, and on campus. I would wager that professors come into contact with more people every day than people in most other professions. And some of those people are not so nice, particularly when they have something invested in their education. I’ve been physically threatened on a few occasions, and last year was stalked by a student with PTSD who was determined to end my career and, possibly, my life. It’s such a concern that there are many websites dedicated to campus safety.
- Myth #4: We are not “responsible for the life of someone else.” Maybe not physically, but we do play an important role in securing the financial well-being of our students, which in many ways is the same thing. I’ve had students who have sobbed in my classroom because failing my course means they might lose their jobs, be deported, or be rejected by the academic program in which they had the best chance of developing a career that would support themselves and their families. Nah…that’s not stressful at all.
- Myth #5: Professors are “in total control,” and “tell the students what to do and reign over the classroom.” This is the one that made me laugh so hard I fell off silk chaise lounge Perman thinks I have in my office, next to the wet bar-well, I would have fallen, if my college-sponsored personal butler Jeeves hadn’t caught me. Perman clearly hasn’t seen the notorious footage of a Florida Atlantic Student terrorizing her professor — footage that made educators everywhere nod their heads in recognition. We were glad there was finally some video proof of what we put up with. It’s not really an aberration anymore to deal with out-of-control student behavior.
- Myth #6: Professors “teach as many classes as they want and what they want to teach.” It’s time Perman checked out the New Faculty Majority website. The overwhelming majority– something close to 70%– of college instructors today are adjuncts with absolutely no control over how many classes they are assigned or the content of those classes. In fact, most adjuncts don’t even earn a living wage, have health insurance, or any job security at all. And, if you work under a union contract, you definitely don’t have any control over how many courses you teach. Most faculty also do not have complete control over their course content. There is department review, sometimes there are standardized curricula, and many other limitations, Perman’s misunderstanding about this basic facts of college education betrays how outdated her understanding is of college teaching.
I could go on and on, shredding Perman’s premises. I could refer to the lack of administrative support available to college faculty, the constantly changing standards of education, the increasing pressure from today’s more involved parents, and the fact that college professors actually have more than one job. We don’t just teach. To be responsible educators, we must also continue to learn, which means conducting research in our fields, development new pedagogies, and increasing our technological abilities. We must participate in college administration through committee work. We develop and assess new curriculum. We go to extra-curricular events to support our students and our schools. Sometimes, we even work outside jobs because we don’t get paid enough to support our families and make sure our own children can go to college.
But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’d like to challenge Cindy Perman to shadow me for a day or two on the job. Or, better yet, teach a full load of college courses for a year or two. Then we’ll see who’s stressed out!