“Time is but the stream I go a fishing in.”

11 07 2011

That is the Henry David Thoreau quote on the t-shirt I snagged at Walden Pond a couple of weeks ago. I love it because it’s both historical and philosophical at the same time. It also reminds me of why I’ve always admired HDT. The guy refused to live at the pace that everybody else kept.

Noted higher educational contrarian Richard Vedder, on the other hand, doesn’t want me to be able to live this way:

In professions like architecture, medicine, or accounting, practitioners typically show up for work by nine in the morning and work to after five in the afternoon with a short lunch break, increasing their hours during busy periods (e.g., medical emergencies for physicians, tax season for accountants). They take three weeks or so of vacation a year. In short, their work schedule resembles that of blue-collar workers, non-professional office staff, and even most government workers.

Why shouldn’t professors be held to the same standard? Sure, they need to be out of their offices to teach classes and occasionally to attend scholarly meetings (most of which are largely expensive anachronisms in this day of electronic dissemination of knowledge), and also to attend meetings (of which there are vastly too many owing to our peculiar system of “shared governance”). Rarely these days do they need to be in the library, given advances in the online availability of scholarly resources. Yet, the typical faculty member at a moderately high-quality university spends, I suspect, no more than 10 hours a week in her/his office–often for only 35 weeks a year.

Any community college professors or adjuncts reading that last bit must be laughing their asses off right now. I ask for no pity in noting that Vedder assessment is laughably wrong in my case too because people like me generally drive ourselves.

Still, Vedder’s piece also strikes me as pretty good evidence why bean counters should never be placed in charge of higher educational institutions as they know nothing about quality control. Teaching more classes (or more students in the classes that you already have) invariably means you can’t teach the students you have nearly as well. Vedder seems to think there’s a huge chunk of time in our days during which we’re all drinking mai tais at poolside. Since there isn’t, something’s gotta give and given a choice between family who are forever and students who are temporary, which one do you think most of us will pick?

My department has successfully argued for and gotten a 40-student cap in survey courses not because we’re all lazy but because we’ve found that anything higher is way too impersonal. The more that I get the chance to talk with them rather than at them, the more likely it is that they’ll keep coming back for more. Good teaching doesn’t scale up.

Which leads me, yet again, to the topic of distance education. Who says we have to be in our offices in order to be working? One of the reasons I don’t want to teach online is that I prefer as much as possible to keep my work at work and my fun at home. Why on earth should anyone teaching online be expected to keep banker’s hours? Vedder’s interest in online libraries and videoconferencing demonstrates to me that his interest in keeping our butts on the seats in our offices is nothing more than pure spite.

If you’ll excuse me now, since my class is done for the day, I’m going to go a fishing for a while.



One response

14 07 2011
Middle Seaman

So some guy, Vedder, makes an 8 hour, 9-5, in the office the gold standard for work framework. (Farmers do not have an office, should they have one?) Mind you, for at least two decades the talk and practice of telecommuting has been widespread. In essence, workers work at times they find convenient in addition to staying away from the office.

Flexible schedules, 24 hour work days and teams spread over different time zones increasingly blear the the distinction between an academic and a programmer as well as many other vocations.

Vedder produces garage (hopefully not 8 hours a day).

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