04/02/2012 05:03 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2012

Professing Hard Work

College professors are yet again being flayed in the media. This time, David C. Levy bashes the professoriate in an opinion piece in the Washington Post. In that March 29th article, Mr. Levy follows a well-worn path, complaining that college professors are vastly overpaid. In the past, Mr. Levy writes, college teaching was a "'calling' in the tradition of tweed jackets, pipe tobacco, and avuncular campus life" in which professors accepted low to modest salaries in exchange for such benefits as tenure, an easy work load, and sabbaticals -- elements that you don't often encounter in pressure-filled "real world" workplaces.

In the present, however, Mr. Levy complains that college professor salaries have, through the efforts of unions, increased to ranges comparable to professionals with advanced degrees who work in "the real world." Even though college professor salaries now reflect those of their "real world" counterparts, professors, according to Mr. Levy, still teach nine to 15 hours a week, get a month off during winter break, get another week off at spring break and get a summer vacation from mid-May until September.

Such a schedule may be appropriate in research universities where standards for faculty employment are exceptionally high -- and are based on the premise that critically important work, along with research-driven teaching, can best be performed outside the classroom. The faculties of research universities are at the center of America's progress in intellectual, technological and scientific pursuits, and there should be no quarrel with their financial rewards and schedules. In fact, they often work hours well beyond those of average non-academic professionals.

Mr. Levy takes a dimmer view of the work that those of us who toil at state colleges, community colleges and small private institutions in which the institutional mission, according to Mr. Levy, is teaching rather than research. In the conclusion to his piece, Mr. Levy compares the workloads of academic and non-academic professionals.

An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours a week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensations.

Mr. Levy's specious arguments suggest a profound ignorance of what transpires in contemporary academic life. Let me take up his points and demonstrate why they are dangerously out of touch.

-- Although the days of tweed coats and pipe-smoking have faded away, academic life remains a calling for most professors. Given the penchant for state legislators to cut "wasteful" education, especially in hard times, many of us have not seen a cost of living adjustment, let alone a raise, for a very long time. In the aggregate, most academic salaries have not kept pace with even anemic inflation, which means that many of us -- especially those of us who profess at state colleges and small private institutions -- must forgo what Mr. Levy calls a "summer vacation" to teach summer courses to pay our ever-increasing bills.

--The standards of state colleges and private institutions are as demanding as those found in so-called research universities. Believe it or not, much cutting edge research and thinking takes place on the campuses of state colleges and small private institutions. Such work results in "research-driven" teaching. On the state university campus where I teach the institution focuses much attention upon teaching. Even so, many of my colleagues, despite heavy teaching loads and a vastly expanded set of time-consuming administrative chores, are doing "critically important work." Even though it is conducted on the campuses of state colleges and small private institutions, this work makes important contributions to "America's progress in intellectual, technological and scientific pursuits..." If you spend time on college campuses and in college classrooms, you quickly realize that almost all teaching -- even at state colleges and small private institutions -- is research-driven.

--It is difficult to compare the apples of corporate life to the oranges of life on college campuses. Although college professors may spend 9 to 15 hours a week teaching, we spend countless hours outside of the classroom--in our offices as well as at home--as we grade papers and exams, read scholarly articles and books, work on research projects, compose research proposals, or write research articles and books that make contributions to our "intellectual, technological and scientific pursuits." Most college professors -- even those of us at state colleges -- work much longer hours than our non-academic counterparts. If we get time off for winter break or what Mr. Levy calls "summer vacation," we don't use it to frolic in surf and sand; rather most college professors -- even those of us at state colleges and small private institutions -- spend that precious time re-designing our courses, reading new material, receiving additional training, or conducting research. In my own case, I've used time in the summer to travel to the Republic of Niger, hardly a vacation spot, to conduct ethnographic research. In recent years, I've spent much summer time in Harlem, again to conduct ethnographic research. This research, which has considered the nature of religious belief and the texture of contemporary immigration to New York City, has resulted in publication of books and articles. In June of this year, I'll be off to England to get training in film production.

I am no exception. The great majority of college professors follow this pattern of hard, time-consuming and stimulating academic work. The payoff, of course, is incisive, cutting-edge instruction in the classroom -- even classrooms in state colleges and small private institutions.

The most troubling aspect of Mr. Levy's argument, however, is that it is fodder for populist politicians, who distrust science and dislike "educated elites," to cut educational funding, making it more and more difficult for middle class children to get a decent education, which they will need to better compete in the global market place of the 21st century. What's more, a decent education opens the young mind to processes of innovation and invention that invariably improves the texture of our lives in the world.