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Why Do They Do That? A Crash Course on Professors

I never know what to tell people when they ask “What do you do for a living?” Saying I teach English always leads to the question of what grade I teach. When I clarify that I teach at a university, the response is almost always “Oh, you’re not a teacher–you’re a professor.”

I never know how to respond to this, either. Professors teach, so I am a teacher. But I understand the distinction people are making. Being a professor is different.

That’s probably why I’ve found myself in many conversations over the years that boil down to a single question: Why do professors do that? Here are a few of the most common questions about professors and the job they do.

What are the “office hours” professors talk about? 

Most universities require that professors hold a minimum number of weekly office hours–times when the professor will be in their designated office and available to students. Those hours have to be stable from week to week, barring occasional schedule changes.

When students don’t come in to see us, professors use those office hours to get things done. What kinds of things? Preparing for class. Creating exams. Grading student work. Writing reference letters, grant reports, or replies to student emails. Re-reading the material for tomorrow’s classes. Working on a research project. Writing a proposal for a conference session, or sending a query to an academic publisher.

The fact that professors have three or four mandatory office hours per week does not mean that’s the only time they spend in their offices, outside of class. It also doesn’t mean their job can be done in that small window of time. It means those are the hours when students know where to find us.

Why do you get paid for a full-time job when you only work a few hours a day?

The idea that professors work two or three hours a day is a common misconception. I understand where it comes from. I teach four courses per semester, and each of those courses meets for three hours a week. That’s 12 hours. Throw in those office hours and you’re maybe up to 20, depending on university policy.

But professors do so many things people don’t see. On top of those I’ve already mentioned, professors help run universities. They direct academic programs and conduct assessment of those programs. They serve on (or chair) admissions committees, budget committees, curriculum committees, and a host of others. I’ve had semesters when I was likely to spend at least as much time in meetings as I did in class each week.

Then there are recruiting events and alumni events, as well as meetings with the university’s governing body. Professors sometimes serve as academic advisors and offer career counseling, too. Universities cut costs and keep tuition low by asking professors to do much more than just teach in their discipline.

Professors believe in education–they want universities to exist. So they’re often doing two or three jobs, not just one, to make sure that happens.

Why even bother with attendance policies? Why not just let the slackers fail?

My students often disagree with me about what constitutes adult behavior. Many of them think being an adult means having the freedom to do what they want. I think it means they’ll take their responsibilities seriously. I have an attendance policy so my students understand that I consider showing up for class a basic adult responsibility.

Employers don’t tolerate non-attendance: if you don’t show up for work, on time, you don’t have a job. I have no idea why students (or their parents) think professors would have different standards. If part of my job is to prepare students for the workplace they’ll enter after graduation, then having an attendance policy is the responsible thing to do.

Why do professors get tenure? Shouldn’t the university be able to cut them loose if they aren’t doing their jobs?

Contrary to conventional wisdom, tenure isn’t a guarantee of employment for life. If the university decides to eliminate or cut back my department, for any reason, I could be out of a job.

Tenure is better understood as an attractive piece of a professor’s benefits package. It’s a benefit we have to earn over the course of our first six or seven years on the job, so that makes it similar to the incentives that come with a corporate promotion–stock options, for instance.

That said, tenure does offer some measure of job security. Having tenure means a professor doesn’t have to worry about being fired for teaching material that a student finds offensive. It means that, if a university sees a trend toward low enrollment numbers, the tenured professor’s job will not be first on the chopping block. Having tenure means you’re understood to be part of the core group affiliated with a particular university. But it certainly doesn’t mean any professor’s job is safe.

The number of tenured professors at universities across the country has grown smaller in recent years. I won’t be surprised if tenure disappears altogether someday. But that will be a budget-driven decision, and it won’t improve higher education. If anything, it will drive bright minds into better-paying jobs outside of academia. Without the benefit of tenure, many people simply wouldn’t deal with the challenges of working in higher education.


If you have other questions about professors, feel free to ask them in the comments section.


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