What Do Professors*

Do All Day?

Why, we sit around and polish the ivory on our towers, of course.

To get a more serious answer, let's examine this question from the point of view of those who sit in judgment of our performance: the committees that perform merit reviews on us every other year or so. There are three categories in which tenure-track professors* at the UC and other research universities are expected to excel: research, teaching, and service--in that order. Researching involves formulating new and original questions that other scholars in one's chosen field may be arguing about at the moment, writing about those questions, and publishing the results in "peer-reviewed" journals (meaning that other scholars in the field must validate the quality of your work before it gets published) or books. The exact nature of what counts as quality research varies from one field to the next (for examples of my research interests, look here.) Most writing of this kind gets done either in the summer or during sabbatical terms (usually one quarter but sometimes, with help from an outside fellowship, up to a year), since the demands of teaching and service can render it difficult to devote sustained attention to a long essay or a thorny problem. However, collaborative research opportunities for faculty (outside lectures, colloquia, conferences both here and in other cities, the sharing of works in progress) are very important to us. The nature of this intellectual atmosphere is subtly different from one university to the next, which explains why "fit" is so important both for those who are choosing a graduate school and those who are hiring faculty.

Teaching involves much more than actual classroom hours. Professors in my department generally teach four courses per year, with a maximum of two courses in any given quarter. In addition to preparing lectures and class plans for seminars (yes, we do have to re-read even texts we have taught before and know well), teaching involves grading, directing teaching assistants in larger classes, designing supplementary course materials and forms of assessment, assigning grades and narrative evaluations, and--finally--taking time to think about what went well and did not go well in a particular course after it's over. Then there are office hours, academic advising, independent studies, thesis reading, and recommendation-letter writing for undergraduate and graduate students. Designing new courses, or new materials to integrate into existing courses, is an ongoing responsibility (and pleasure).

Service is the category that may seem most opaque from a student's perspective, for it involves the invisible labor that keeps the university running (and, we hope, improving). The principle of self-governance that is predominant in most US universities means that faculty are expected to take some interest in, and play an active role in, the way their departments and other branches of the university are run. In a word, this means meetings. Department-wide and university-wide meetings to talk about policies; committee and subcommittee meetings that discuss everything from how to phrase the questions on the course evaluation form, to how to define the prerequisites for a new position, to whether the student body should grow to 17,000 or 21,000. Although some faculty are more active than others in governance (also known euphemistically as "University citizenship"), and the extent and nature of our participation in these committees may vary from one year to the next, everyone puts a minimum of several hours a week into service-related issues.

This principle of "citizenship" extends outside the University as well. Faculty are expected to attend professional conferences, to review manuscripts of other scholars' research if asked by a journal or a publisher, to review the performance of professors at other universities, and in general to contribute something to the wider intellectual community. Professional organizations like the Modern Language Association also have committees and subcommittees on which one might be asked to serve.

To read about how well professors are compensated for this work, consult the AAUP's "Annual Report on the Status of the Profession," which contains tables comparing median and average salaries at rank for every college and university in the country. Keep in mind as you look at these that professional-school faculty (particularly those in medicine, law, and engineering) are paid significantly more than those in fields like the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

*Important note on terminology: The titles "Assistant Professor," "Associate Professor," and "Professor"indicate that one is "tenure-track," meaning that one does or may potential have a permanent position. An Assistant Professor has not yet received tenure; an Associate or Full Professor has. The titles "Lecturer" and "Instructor" usually indicate that one is not tenured, although UC has a special category for "Security of Employment Lecturers" (SOE) in certain programs; they, in effect, have tenure. Lecturers can be full- or part-time; some drop in to teach an occasional class and some are semi-permanent.

In theory, tenure-track faculty are hired to do research as well as teach, while non-tenure-track faculty just teach; but this distinction has been rendered essentially meaningless in recent years. The academic job market has soured to such a degree that lecturers are often undercompensated, abused temp workers; see the AAUP's statement on "Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession."

this page last modified August 2, 2010

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