What Do Professors Actually Do?

This is an op-ed article that appeared in The Connecticut Mirror, a respected nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that reports on government policies and politics. I wrote it in response to the ongoing contract negotiations between the Connecticut Board of Regents and the AAUP.

What Do Professors Actually Do?

People’s perception of the work that others do is often inaccurate. This is especially true for university professors. The public in general, and politicians in particular, and even our governing body, the Board of Regents, seem to believe the work that full-time professors do is easy and largely limited to the classroom. Is this perception accurate?

Let’s look at what professors actually do. Our work consists of four main elements: teaching, research, service to the university, and service to the profession. Their purpose is to build one’s knowledge steadily over time so that we can, in-turn, build student’s knowledge. This work requires more concentration and attention to details than most other jobs. Here is a typical case:

Teaching: Professors create new courses. They research course content, determine the timing and sequence of course materials, and create student evaluations. And they update and revise existing courses. They prepare for each class meeting and then deliver the course material. They teach four courses per semester, 70 to 200 or more students in total, resulting in four to eight teaching performances per week. They grade assignments, sometimes weekly, and evaluate students’ performance in-class. And professors reserve time to meet with students after class to answer questions and help them succeed.

Research: Professors conduct research in their respective areas of expertise. This requires extensive commitments in time to keep current with new information in the field, which involves reading scores of journal papers and books every year. Large blocks of time also are consumed in conducting research that is helpful to humanity in both short-term practical and longer-term ways. This work is important because it informs and improves our abilities to both teach and impart new knowledge to students. Professors create, absorb, and process information and then deliver it to our students.

Service to the University: Professors participate in several committees that operate at the department, school, or university-level. We do this to help shape the direction of the university in its mission to educate students and assure academic integrity and improve quality in all aspects. This is called “shared governance,” and is a feature of higher education that faculty cherish, as should other stakeholders. This work, largely invisible to outsiders, helps avoid costly mistakes that would otherwise adversely impact students and other stakeholders.

Service to the Profession: Professors belong to various professional organizations. They may be active participants in the governance of a professional organization or they may be contribute by attending conferences, giving scholarly presentations, teaching workshops, and the like. They may edit a journal or sit on the editorial board of a few journals and conduct peer-review of manuscripts submitted by authors, as well as book reviews. Professors engage their peers from other institutions to develop relationships, share best practices, collaborate on research, and so on. This further advances both teaching and research, which in turn enhances our students’ education.

During the semester, the typical faculty member is available to students 18 hours a day, seven days per week, to answer questions about their course work. Most professors recognize that students do not like to wait to receive help or have their questions answered. We are also responsible for academic advising as students progress through their studies, and counsel students in academic, social, or family distress.

In between the fall and spring semesters, and during the summer, professors create new courses, update existing courses, develop new teaching methods, find new course content, conduct research projects with peers or students, write research papers, write books, prepare conference presentations, and so on.

Most professors don’t view the summer as vacation time because there is work to do. Many teach courses in the summer while others lead study abroad programs. During the summer, some professors may be at home but they are still responding to student e-mails concerning academic advising, problems with course availability, career counseling, letters of recommendations for jobs or for graduate school, and so on. We also field inquiries from prospective students in the summer and throughout the year.

Teaching is one of the “helping” professions, as is healthcare. A professor is to human learning and intellectual development what a physician is to human health. We care for our students as physicians care for their patients, one-by-one, teaching them how to think critically and become high-functioning citizens in our treasured democracy. Succeeding at this endeavor requires all four elements – teaching, research, service to the university, and service to the profession – not one or two out of the four.

Professors are an essential part of the fabric of the university. We, along with dedicated and capable staff, as well as part-time faculty, form its backbone. Our role, by necessity, is much more than the classroom. Having worked in industry for 15 years prior to joining academia, I can assure you that being a professor is much more work for significantly less pay than in the private sector. The Board of Regents should seek to correct that imbalance, not exacerbate it, and recognize their role is to enable our success, which, in turn enables student success.

Dr. Bob Emiliani is a Professor of Lean Management in the School of Engineering, Science, and Technology at XYZ State University. Prior to becoming a professor, Dr. Emiliani worked for 15 years in industry, most recently as a manager in the aerospace industry in engineering, manufacturing and supply chain management.

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