The Shelf Life of Total B.S.

With self-appointed vigilantes gunning down unarmed teenagers, elected officials rushing to pass laws enforcing repression of women’s rights, a spring so surreally warm in the eastern half of the country that the blooms have come and gone like time-lapse photography, CEOs who earn 327 times the wages of average workers (at least those that still have jobs), a decade of endless war burning through the national budget, civil war searing the Middle East, et cetera, it is hard to understand why David C. Levy has singled out my higher education colleagues for scapegoating in his editorial, “Do College Professors Work Hard Enough?

His editorial, which appears in this morning’s Washington Post and was apparently printed in a smattering of other newspapers around the country, blames the rising costs of higher education on the supposedly cushy schedules and salaries of faculty. Levy, who defines himself as an “educator,” does not list a single teaching position in his entire biography. David C. Levy is a former director of Washington, DC’s Corcoran Gallery and is now president of Cambridge Information Group, a firm best known for acquiring companies in the information industry – including ProQuest, a staple of library databases, and Sotheby’s.

Even if I were to grant that Dr. Levy is a credible source on workload in higher education – which I don’t – his argument rests entirely on factual errors and unsound logic that wouldn’t pass muster in a student paper. For example, he singles out my institution, Montgomery College, as an example of what is supposedly wrong with higher education:

Maryland’s Montgomery College (an excellent two-year community college) reports its average full professor’s salary as $88,000, based on a workload of 15 hours of teaching for 30 weeks. Faculty members are also expected to keep office hours for three hours a week. The faculty handbook states: “Teaching and closely related activities are the primary responsibilities of instructional faculty.” While the handbook suggests other responsibilities such as curriculum development, service on committees and community outreach, notably absent from this list are research and scholarship.

Okay. First of all, only 50% of the employees at MC are teaching faculty, according to the same page Levy cites in his $88,000 figure. What the website doesn’t say, but which would have been easy for Levy to find out with even cursory research, is that of those, only about half are full time, and of those, few are full professors. (The starting salary for an instructor is 56,000.) Interestingly, he does not attribute any higher education costs to our having 20 vice presidents, 11 of which were added in the past year. In the meantime, faculty and staff are heading into our fourth consecutive year without a pay increase, and tuition will be raised yet again.

Having misstated salaries and composition of the MC workforce, Levy goes on to offer distorted information on faculty workload. His contention that full time faculty only spend 15 hours a week teaching is especially outrageous. Levy writes: “Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation [as they do to teaching], their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals.”

First of all, for most faculty, teaching “15 hours a week” means teaching 5 different classes, most of which have at least 25 students. In my department, we routinely spend 20-30 minutes commenting per student essay – and easily double that on the 8-10 page essays in transfer composition. We assign five essays a semester, minimum. Although I’m not a math whiz, my calculator says it adds up to 200-325 hours per semester on grading alone. For a 15-week semester, that’s an additional 13-20 hours a week just on grading. That’s not counting office hours, meetings with students outside of office hours, or prepping. If Levy thinks he can do a good job teaching without spending at least a couple of hours outside of class for every hour in class, he has no business calling himself an educator – and, based on the inaccuracies this essay, it’s clear that he needs to spend a little extra time fact-checking what he puts in print as well.

As for the “curriculum development, service on committees and community outreach” our faculty handbook “suggests,” Levy might not realize that these activities are not only part of our evaluations – in other words, that would-be slackers still have to participate – but are intrinsic parts of ensuring that our students learn. In an average week, most of us spend at least a few hours in committee meetings and a few more hours doing work for our committees. We engage in professional development so that we can be more effective in the classroom. And some of us, despite a lack of financial support from our institutions, still find time to engage in scholarship.

Nevertheless, none of these things are what I feel I do.

Most community colleges have open enrollment, which means that anyone with a dream of going to college can come through our doors and get an education. Seventy percent of community college students are considered “nontraditional,” meaning they have families, work more than 20 hours a week, and/or were out of school for a few years before they came back. Around half are “underprepared” for college coursework as determined by placement testing; but a large percentage of those whom the tests deem “prepared” still struggle with a variety of competencies necessary for success, including academic vocabulary, college-level reading skills, study habits, and communication skills. On top of the academic challenges, we regularly have students who routinely deal with hunger, health problems, homelessness, lack of childcare, legal trouble, family problems, and lack of funds.

What our students also have, though, is the will to change their lives despite – and often because of – all these obstacles. I know I speak for many of my colleagues when I say, put simply, that I am honored to teach them. Our goal is to help students meet their goals, regardless of their preparation for college work. We don’t just teach classes; we teach individual students. Helping every student succeed takes a lot more time, and is a lot more worthwhile, than showing up in the classroom for a few hours and then vanishing. As one of our former students put it (AsperGirl, posting at 8:31 on March 25) in her reply to the Washington Post article, “I frankly got a [sic] better teaching at the community college. The professors pay more individual attention, work harder to communicate their vision and love of their craft/study and make efforts to make more extracurricular time and activities for their students. Frankly, at UMD there were few professors at UMD who didn’t begrudge students even the time allocated to office hours, as if their time was too valuable to spend with the grimy hordes.”

The idea that teachers get away with being overpaid slackers is a fantasy whose popularity endures despite abundant evidence to the contrary. I am sure it must be more appealing to blame teachers, with whom we’ve all had personal experience, rather than one-percenters or budget-cutting legislators, who seem to be protected by a bubble reserved for the already wealthy and powerful: people like David C. Levy, who has published an editorial that relies on speculation and cherry-picked support but taps into ignorance and prejudice.

We could follow his advice to increase the teaching load, decrease salaries, and cut education budgets even more than we have already, but since the education funding problems really come from legislative cuts and budget freezes, bloated administrations, and skyrocketing enrollments, we’ll see little, if any, improvement to the funding situation. Meanwhile, faculty’s effectiveness will come up against our natural physical limits. Privileged one-percenters like Levy will buy their kids’ way into institutions that support quality teaching, and those students who can only afford public college will suffer.

I am sure we can find Levy a job as an adjunct instructor so that he can see firsthand how actual faculty spend their time. He might even be a better “educator” once he does some genuine teaching instead of sitting in an office orchestrating media mergers. Don’t get me wrong – community college teaching is a dream job, but only for the right sort of person. My guess is that Levy wouldn’t last a semester once he realized how different our jobs are from the outright fantasy he has constructed for the Post.

In the meantime, let’s call Levy’s argument what it is: bullshit.

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24 thoughts on “The Shelf Life of Total B.S.

  1. Pingback: Lazy Teachers–More | Scapegoats and Panaceas

  2. Thanks for replying to Levy. Here’s a little reply I put together as well:

    It’s hard to know where to start when someone who supposedly understands higher education spouts such bullshit, but here’s a roundup of the most obvious howlers in his op-ed:

    1) “increased public support has probably facilitated rising tuitions.” It’s well documented (e.g. http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/12/building-a-caste-society) that public support as a percentage of tuition has been falling for a long time.

    2) “senior faculty at most state universities and colleges now earn $80,000 to $150,000, roughly in line with the average incomes of others with advanced degrees.” Yes, they make that much. How long does it take to get to the rank of full professor, though? Well, between 8 and 10 years post grad-school, and that’s assuming that one starts at the assistant professor level immediately. Oh, and let’s not forget that one first has to spend 5-9 years in grad school, usually without a living wage. So we’re really talking 13-19 years to make it to this level. By contrast, others with advanced degrees (JD, MBA) start out in the $80k range and go up from there.

    3) “Maryland’s Montgomery College (an excellent two-year community college) reports its average full professor’s salary as $88,000, based on a workload of 15 hours of teaching for 30 weeks. Faculty members are also expected to keep office hours for three hours a week.” This is meant to contrast with, “An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation.” Yes, that’s right, 15 hours of teaching a week. That’s a 5-5 load. Probably 2-3 preps. Oh, and 3 hours of office-hours per week. Oh, and of course the “fun stuff” stuff like grading papers, preparing for class, developing the next semester’s curriculum, responding to student emails, serving on committees. That might take a little time. Meanwhile, those poor executives have it so rough with their 40-hour work weeks. Has this guy ever talked to someone who teaches a 5-5 load? It’s way more than 40 hours per week. I was working more than 40 hours a week teaching a 3-2 while in grad school. And whence this notion that executives work 50 weeks per year. Has this guy never heard of vacation time? No executive I’ve heard of works even close to that much.

    4) “If the higher education community were to adjust its schedules and semester structure so that teaching faculty clocked a 40-hour week (roughly 20 hours of class time and equal time spent on grading, preparation and related duties) for 11 months, the enhanced efficiency could be the equivalent of a dramatic budget increase.” That’s right, he wants 20 contact hours per week. That’s 6-7 classes per semester. Let’s just try doing the math on this. Assume a 14-week semester. 40-hours per week = 560 hours. What do these go to? Well, obviously half are going to contact hours, leaving 280 hours. He wants three office hours per week, which is 42 hours, so no we’re down to 238. Then there’s grading. Let’s assume 35 students per class, two 5-page papers per student per semester, and the ability to grade one paper every half-hour. (Pretty generous assumptions.) That’s 227.5 hours. That leaves 10.5 hours. Oh, and this teacher has to prepare for class, right? You don’t want him getting drunk, putting on a funny hat, and trusting to luck. Let’s say he’s got only 2 preps. (again, that’s quite generous) Let’s even assume that this teacher has taught these classes before, so he doesn’t need to prepare new material, just rework existing stuff. These classes meet twice a week for 90 minutes at a time. Maybe prep takes 45 minutes per class. So we’ve got 3 hours of prep per week, which comes to 42 hours of prep. It looks like we’ve now got -31.5 hours in the semester. Oh wait, and then there’s committees. Can’t forget committees. Everyone loves committees. Maybe 2 hours a week? (again, that’s very generous) There goes another 28 hours. We’re now in the hole 59.5 hours. Let’s see, anything else? Oh right, responding to student and colleague emails. How much time for that? Maybe 3 hours a week? OK, that puts us down another 42 hours, so we’re not 101.5 hours in the red. Anything else? Oh, you want the teachers to do curriculum development (After all, “The faculty handbook states: ‘Teaching and closely related activities are the primary responsibilities of instructional faculty.’”) So that’s, what, one new course prepared every year? (again, quite generous) Maybe that’ll take 40 hours. Let’s say 39.5, so we can get rid of that pesky decimal. We’re now 140 hours in hole. What else? Well, since we’re looking at the handbook for Montgomery College, let’s see what else is listed. things get tricky here because of the jargon used by the mouth-breathing troglodytes who wrote the handbook, but here are the other listed responsibilities for instructional faculty:

    * “implementation of new pedagogical delivery techniques”
    * “participation in student, course, and program outreach activities in the College and the community”
    * “development and implementation of strategies for student success”
    * “professional development”

    OK, so I confess to being unable to say what the development and implementation of strategies for student success amounts to in addition to what’s already been listed, but maybe that’s because I’m not in the lofty position of a full professor at Montgomery. What do you think, maybe 30 minutes per week for each of these further responsibilities? One wouldn’t want to shirk these duties. After all, they’re “just a few examples of professional responsibilities expected of teaching faculty, and all are vital to student and institutional success.” So we’ve got another 2 hours per week, for a total of 28 hours. No problem, we’re only 168 hours in the hole now, which means our teachers are working at least 52 hours per week.

    Oh wait, you want them to grade things other than papers? Like, say, exams? Many courses do have exams, it’s true. Maybe a midterm and a final per student per course? I see. How long does that take? Another half-hour per exam? That’s another 227.5 hours. No problem, we’ll round down to 227, which means we’re now a mere 396 hours in the red. That’s about 68 hours of work per week. With lots of generous assumptions.

    5) “While time outside of class can vary substantially by discipline and by the academic cycle (for instance, more papers and tests to grade at the end of a semester), the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth.” Well, actually, at this point the 40-hour week does appear to be a myth. We can fully agree!

    6) “And whatever the weekly hours may be, there is still the 30-week academic year, which leaves almost 22 weeks for vacation or additional employment.” Yes, additional employment. We all know how easy it is to find a high-paying summer job that’s suitable for a Ph.D. in Romance languages. For instance, those language skills enable one to work as a mariachi.

    7) ” a realistic and fair-minded revaluation of faculty employment policies in teaching institutions is imperative.” I couldn’t agree more.

  3. Pingback: Man, I hate it when I get thrown under the bus | AJMBroadcastEducator

  4. Z, I didn’t actually send this to WaPo – I got as far as looking at their editorial guidelines, and because my post is a blog and longer than 800 words, it wasn’t appropriate for the Post. I could write a shorter, more printable version, but I haven’t had time to do it. Go figure! But thank you for the suggestion, and thanks for reading! I hope that all of you will write to the Post in my stead.

  5. Pingback: College Professors: Working Hard or Hardly Working? - Best Colleges Online

  6. Pingback: Do College Professors Work Hard Enough? | Nan Peck

  7. wow. I have given up on the public appreciating or understanding what primary & secondary school teachers do. We have summers “off” so we must not have real jobs. Whatever- any one who knows a true teacher, not just a person employed as a teacher, knows how hard we work. I cannot tell you how sad it makes me that the insanity is spreading to higher-ed. Even when teachers were getting bashed, there has still been respect for faculty and professorship in higher-ed which gave me hope that someday things would improve. Sadly, the respect is not trickling downhill, the BS is trickling uphill. There are not words for the disappointment and dismay in my heart for our world. Love of learning and respect for those who teach has truly vanished.

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  14. Pingback: Teaching load, itemized: part 1 « The Accidental Mathematician

  15. I could not agree more. I’m afraid to figure out how much I earn per hour. The hours I spend in the classroom are a small part of the time I spend teaching.

  16. Pingback: The Eternal Recurrence of Total B.S. | Paper Balls

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