Eric Risberg / AP

If there were a “10 Things That Piss Academics Off the Most” list, ranking near the top would be the perception that academic life is easy and relaxing. Professors get annoyed at having to explain to their neighbors and family members that their work extends far beyond the lecture hall—and far beyond the seven-month-or-so academic year. They might be seen walking their dog in the middle of the day, but chances are they’re going back home to grade papers or prepare a seminar discussion or conduct research.  

Despite broad consensus among professors that their job isn’t for slackers, they tend to disagree, primarily among themselves, about exactly how hard they work. While some scholars say they maintain a traditional 40-hour workweek, others contend they have a superhuman workload. Take Philip Guo, an assistant cognitive-science professor at University of California, San Diego, who on his blog estimated that in 2014 he spent 15 hours per week teaching, between 18 hours and 25 hours on research, four hours at meetings with students, between three hours and six hours doing service work, and between 5 hours and 10 hours at “random-ass meetings (RAM).” That amounts to as many as 60 hours per week—which, he noted, pales in comparison to the 70 hours he worked on average weekly as an undergraduate student at MIT.

America’s higher-education system is under increased scrutiny largely because of rising tuition costs and ballooning student debt; concerns about liberal indoctrination on college campuses, which are subsidized by taxpayer dollars, have also started to bubble up. People want to know where their tuition and tax money is going—are professors working hard for that money?

This week, academic-Twitter is bickering over the answer to that last question. Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology at New York University, kickstarted the debate on Sunday when he wrote, “The average #professor works over 60 hours a week (from one university) and 30% of their time is spent on emails or meetings.”

Van Bavel provided a link to a 2014 Inside Higher Ed article on the research of John Ziker, an anthropologist at Boise State University. In that study, Ziker found that faculty at his university worked 61 hours per week and that senior faculty worked slightly longer hours than junior faculty. In addition to the 30 percent of time spent in meetings and going through email, faculty spent 40 percent of their time on teaching-related tasks.

These Boise State findings were only the first stage of a larger research project; the sample included only 30 faculty members, who self-reported their work hours during the busiest part of the spring semester. Ziker plans to follow up on this research using a new mobile app that he says will allow him to more accurately monitor work patterns among a larger sample size.

Responding to Van Bavel and others as the discussion went viral in the insular world of academic-Twitter, some professors confirmed that they worked 60 hours per week or more, while others said they worked fewer weekly hours, especially when summer hours were included in the overall total. Yehuda Ben-Shahar, a genetics professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said, “Academics who say they work over 60 hours a week are dishonest or have very poor time management skills.”

The discussion became heated at times. Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, noted, “Man, academics just freak out when anyone makes a claim about workload.”

Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist at Yale, helped to stir up this week’s viral controversy by agreeing with Van Bavel that academics work long hours and adding, “I tell my graduate students and post-docs that if they’re working 60 hours per week, they’re working less than the full professors, and less than their peers.” His tweet generated over 500 comments. Some faculty took issue with the fact that he was reinforcing his workaholic lifestyle on the next generation of academics. Christakis felt that his graduate students should know the reality of the academic job market.

Robert Gooday, a geologist at Cardiff University in Wales, responded to Christakis, saying, “Fuck me, I must be getting left in the dust! I work (at most) 9.30 - 5 Monday to Friday, and the vast majority of that is spent having tea breaks. And I'm doing alright because, surprisingly, 'hours worked' does not define me as a person. Wanker.”

Many pointed out that it is difficult to define academic life as “work,” because so many people enjoy what they’re doing. If someone is obsessed with Victorian literature and is lucky enough to have a job that pays her to research that topic, does reading Oliver Twist in the evening really count as work?

Indeed, NYU’s Van Bavel noted that academics put in those long hours because they enjoy their jobs. “Most of us choose to mentor students, update lectures, attend conference, conduct new studies, etc because we love the work. Time flies compared to my prior white & blue collar jobs.”

And sometimes “work” happens outside the office. A anonymous philosophy professor tweeted, “I always find it hard to estimate the number of hours that I work. When I'm in the shower mulling over a paper and sketching a proof outline in the fog on the glass, does that count as ‘work hours?’"

While professors themselves cannot agree on whether they work too damn hard or just hard-ish (minus the ones who mostly spend their days drinking tea), this Twitter debate has certainly exposed the need for additional research. Future studies could compare the work experiences of tenured, tenure track, and adjunct faculty, for example, or see how the loads of liberal-arts faculty stack up against those for academics in the sciences, among other comparative analyses.

This information could reveal whether colleges and universities should pay professors more. The average salary for full-time faculty was $80,095 last school year, while someone who earned her MBA at Harvard (and who probably works similarly long hours), makes $150,000 in her first year. Assuming adjuncts’ workloads are similar to that of full full-time faculty, then the former’s average take-home pay of $20,000 per institution is insufficient.  

The research could also help paint a clearer picture of how academics divvy up their time—how many hours are spent teaching students, doing research, attending conferences, frittering away in meetings. That information could prove especially useful at universities that are rethinking the demands they place on professors and striving to enable faculty to spend more time in the classroom.

This week’s viral Twitter battle over the workload of professors was a fun, insider debate, but it also opened up serious questions about the purpose of college.

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