The blog of Academe Magazine. Opinions published here do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.
The other day, an article appeared titled “The Ten Least Stressful Jobs of 2013.” Normally, I wouldn’t pay any attention to such an article (I think rankings of the sort provided are puerile, at best, and extremely uninformative and unhelpful), but this one places “university professor” at the top–and I am quoted in it.
The reporter did not tell me what sort of article he was preparing, merely that he wanted to know more about the job of university professor in the United States. As I love my profession, I told him so… but I never said it was easy or that it lacks stress. If he had told me what his purpose was, I would have explained to him that it is, indeed, a high-stress profession, one where you are constantly worried about student success, scholarly success, and institutional success. In addition, until tenure is reached (a less and less frequent occurrence given the rarity of tenure-track jobs), professors continually fret over the various evaluations they are subject to each semester. When the reporter asked about the differences between what I do now (college teaching) and what I did before (I ran a cafe and gift-store), I responded that, then, I had no one looking over my shoulder. That became:
A former gift store owner, Prof. Barlow compares his past career to his current saying that both required self discipline. His description of “no one looking over your shoulder” applies to one of the Jobs Rated stress score metrics, working in the public eye.
The reporter never explains that I was talking about my old profession, not the new one. Even when we are tenured professors, people are constantly “looking over our shoulders.”
The sloppy reporting aside, there’s an interesting addendum “from the publisher”: “our research looks analytically at the data for 11 stress factors, thus we don’t include any subjective analysis in our reporting.” Numbers are dispassionate, so numbers should be believed, I guess.
Be that as it may, I don’t think generic ‘stress factors’ can encompass what it means, in terms of stress, to be a university professor. Though I have been involved in education at various times during my professional life, it is only over the last decade that I have become fully focused on it as a career–and I’m over 60. I’ve worked in advertising on Madison Avenue, I’ve done inventory control and domestic purchasing for a small firm in Chicago, served as a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching farmers to use oxen for plowing, created and ran that store/cafe, was a reporter for a short time, and held innumerable low-level jobs, including in a scrap yard, in garages, at service stations, in stores, and more. I’ve had well over 40 jobs–and none of them has been as stressful as university teaching.
Nor has any of them taken up as much time. As I told the reporter, I spent about 70 hours a week at my job every week of the year, either teaching, writing, or working on service tasks.
One of the things that the reporter (along with the people who developed those “stress factors”) doesn’t seem to understand is that we professors, for the most part, see our jobs as part of a “profession” in the old-fashioned view, and that a profession is more than simply a job but is a passion, an all-consuming commitment. We do not leave our work at school; it is with us always. And we are never finished. Students come in and out, but we are constantly evaluating what we are doing for them, changing it as students change and society changes. We also have to try to keep up with bodies of scholarship that, thanks to digital possibilities, are now expanding in ways and at rates not even dreamed of twenty years ago. It’s exhausting, extremely stressful, and unique. What we do cannot be confined by generalized analytics.
In addition, we are beset by outsiders, by people with no real understanding of education, who want to change education to reflect business models. These people include politicians and business executives who, through boards of trustees, have influence on higher education that far outstrips their knowledge or abilities. We faculty are constantly battling to keep the level of education high in the face of those who want to reduce it to mere numbers (not unlike what those who created these rankings do). That’s incredibly stressful.
Most of us who teach in American universities do it because we love it. We love the challenges and even the stress (though it wears us out–the cliche of the burnt-out professor exists for a reason) for there is real excitement in that occasional look on a student’s face when that student finally sees a path to knowledge clearing. There is real excitement in the research and the writing that we do. In both of these areas, failure is a constant–we can’t do everything for any student and the very methodologies of scholarly research and writing require failure, for it is through failure that we create success. Still, failure creates stress: each time a student doesn’t make it, we feel it. Each time a project falls through, we mourn it.
But we believe in what we are trying to do, so get up and try it again, taking into account what we learn from each failure.
Did I say that we are also idealists? No?
Well, I should have. Idealism, after all, is extremely stressful–no matter the job involved.
And it can’t be measured on any scale anyone has yet to develop.