Saturday, September 04, 2010

We need to get better at making analogies

Just to let you know in advance: no positivity here.

There's another article on tenure at the New York Times; it's Christopher Shea's review of those books attacking tenure that we've all seen in the news. After repeating the false assertions, he defends university professors. To Hacker's and Dreifus's airy (or should I say "windy"?) assertions that professors barely work anyway and could write books on the weekends, Shea writes:
But it seems doubtful that, say, “Battle Cry of Freedom,” the acclaimed Civil War history by Princeton’s James McPherson, could have been written on the weekends, or without the advance spadework of countless obscure monographs. If it is false that research invariably leads to better teaching, it is equally false to say that it never does.
Shea then makes the accurate point that public institutions are being gutted while some wealthy institutions have fared much better. I saw a connection here to what Robert Reich asserts in his Op-Ed piece:
Where have all the economic gains gone? Mostly to the top. The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty examined tax returns from 1913 to 2008. They discovered an interesting pattern. In the late 1970s, the richest 1 percent of American families took in about 9 percent of the nation’s total income; by 2007, the top 1 percent took in 23.5 percent of total income.
Anyway. Let me climb down from this soapbox and make a point. We need to get better at explaining that the "few hours a week" we spend in class is actually the culmination of a lot of work--the payoff period. Think about it:
  • Do we say that wheat farmers only work a couple of weeks in August and make the big bucks for their year doing two weeks' worth of work? Of course not. There's a lot that goes into farming, including planting, harrowing, spraying, etc., but if you look only at the payoff period of harvest, that's what you'd say.
  • Does a clergyperson work only for the hour on his/her holy day that he/she delivers a sermon, leads prayers, or whatever?
  • Does a salesman work only when he/she makes a big sale? That's the payoff period, so we should only count those hours when we figure what the salesman's annual wage works out to, right? All the sales that didn't pan out, all the prep work--they don't count as work, if you use the calculus that academic critics use.
  • Does a manager only do real work when he/she presents at a major meeting? The rest of the work (staff meetings, writing reports, managing people, etc.) doesn't count, because it's not the "payoff period."
  • Does a surgeon only get paid for the time he/she is actually in surgery operating on patients?
These aren't great examples, of course; that's why we need better ones. And this wouldn't address the serious problems and academic injustices that Shea also mentions (adjunctification of the work force, etc.) But among the most damaging attacks on academe is the idea that we only work a few hours a week. Maybe we could start countering that with some good analogies.


profacero said...

Well, I've tweeted this to my Academic Senate President, as we're looking at vertical cuts at Tuesday's meeting. Great post.

Katrina said...

I totally agree with you about the analogy issue. I've been working my way up to a venting post myself on the perception of academics, and I think you are right.
Nobody thinks lawyers only work the hours they're in court: heck, some lawyers bill more hours than they're awake! ;)

Ink said...

These are great comparisons. You are so right.

undine said...

profacero, thanks! I hope that it does some good.

Katrina, I hadn't thought of lawyers, but that's a closer analogy than the others: lots of research compared to the time in court.

Ink, thanks! I just wish the media would start making them.

michele said...

Given the sense of performance that I feel characterizes much of what goes on during those few hours of the week, I often think an analogy to actors could convey the prep time we need. The two hours of screen time for a movie (or the hour and a half on stage at the theatre) are only a small portion of the time spent learning lines, rehearsing, researching etc.

Historiann said...

I agree with Michele--I've used the same analogy to acting for teaching.

But in the end, I don't think better analogies will get us anywhere. The accusation that we're "only" working 3 hours a week per class taught is a political accusation. It's also a highly disturbing accusation, since it suggests that somehow university faculty are undeserving "leeches" or "parasites" on the rest of society's labor.

I thought that Shea's arguments to the contrary were rather weak. He seemed to think that the authors of these books have a good point--except for a few polemical details around the edges.

undine said...

Michele--actors, yes. Teaching is a performance, more improv than not, and it takes a special kind of skill that's not recognized in those arguments.

Historiann, I couldn't tell at first whether Shea was joining the chorus of attackers or not for precisely that reason.

thefrogprincess said...

For what it's worth, undine, I think your clergyperson example is an excellent one and maybe the most apt (along with theatre). There's a lot of work, study, writing, and prep that go into delivering the final, live performance.