04 January 2013

This Might Be a Rant

The website CareerCast just published a list of the ten least stressful jobs in the US.  CNBC followed up with an interview with the site's publisher, Tony Lee, who elaborated on the claim:
"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!" Lee said.
There's an excellent rebuttal, with a detailed description of what it is we do with all of our time given that we're only in front of students for six to fifteen hours a week, by Audra at Facts and Other Fairy Tales.

As Audra points out, we're under deadline all the time.  Classes don't prepare themselves, papers and exams need to be graded expeditiously to give students pedagogically useful feedback, and grades don't calculate themselves, though Excel certainly speeds the process.

Lee is under the mistaken impression that we teach what we want, when we want, and as many classes as we want.  He also thinks we only teach students who want to be in our classes.  The bulk of my teaching load is courses required for one program or another -- not electives chosen by students who love the topic.

We're also expected to do research, which creates additional deadlines.  During the winter "vacation," I  finished and submitted an overdue article and wrote an an abstract for another article.  I wrote a recommendation letter for a colleague applying to a professional-development program.

Plus, I submitted a grad school recommendation for a student -- another component of the job that can take up a good bit of time at certain times of year.

I'm still on "vacation" -- classes don't start for another three weeks -- but I've already met with my department chair and my dean, read some graduate admission applications, reached out to students who haven't yet registered for spring, and emailed several faculty about scheduling additional meetings before the start of the semester.

I want to take part in a week-long course for faculty myself next summer, and that means before classes start I'll need to get the application written.  This is made a little more complex by the fact that the school offering the course has a note on the application web site saying it is under reconstruction, and will be available in the middle of January.  I hope it doesn't go late.

I've been teaching at the same institution for nearly fifteen years, yet class preparations still take up a great deal of time: for one class, I've ordered a new 750-page textbook, and I have to read the whole thing in the next couple of weeks to decide which sections to assign as required and/or recommended.  For another class, I've ordered two new books.  In both cases, that means completely redesigning the syllabi and, since I teach the classes in "hybrid" form -- half on line, half face to face -- also the on-line component of the courses.  I regularly change textbooks and supplementary materials to keep my teaching up to date with recent research in the field.

Physical demands of the job?  No, we're not plowing fields, but nor is it a desk job.  I'm assuming Mr. Lee has never taught a class, whether a 50-minute class meeting three times a week or a once-a-week, two-and-a-half hour session.  Standing in front of students is high performance.  If you're doing it well, it's physically engaging; you're on your feet operating a computer and/or writing on a chalk board, handing out papers, circulating among students to make sure they're alert.

You're talking to a group, which really means talking (at my institution) to somewhere between 15 and 35 individuals.  Each brings different information, interests, needs, expectations, and abilities to the classroom, and somehow, you have to reach all of them.  Some need more background, some are half asleep because they finished a paper last night (or stayed up late being irresponsible), some need to be pushed harder.  Some need more time to digest, but others who absorb material will tune out during review.  You're constantly assessing all the students' attention and engagement levels, and making small shifts to keep them all on track.

And if you're sick, with a seasonal flu or a chronic illness, you still show up.  If you're exhausted because you yourself were up half the night finishing a paper, grading student work, caring for a sick kid, you still show up.  Teaching that class, creating that performance, doing all those minute checks on student engagement, is very difficult if your energy is sapped by physical factors of one sort or another.

Are you responsible for the life of someone else?  Not in the sense that a surgeon is, or a taxi driver.  But advising young people about their lives -- job plans and graduate schools, as well as semester schedules and majors and internships -- needs to be undertaken thoughtfully.

The biggest stressors in my job?  Cheating and complaints. Unfortunately, at least once a year I catch someone plagiarizing a paper wholesale.  Depending on course level, the importance of the assignment, and other circumstances, this might mean failure for the course, which in turn might mean delayed graduation.

Sometimes the students respond with email after email in which they refuse to accept the answer I've given.  Sometimes they confront me in a classroom or come to my office and cry.  Sometimes they get aggressive, and while I don't scare easily, I've been frightened a time or two.  Sometimes, their parents go on the offensive and complain to university administrators.

In short, the person who claimed professors have the nation's least stressful jobs is woefully uninformed about what our jobs involve.