Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

What University Professors Really Do

Much of the public perceives the “cushy” life of the University Professor.  My fingers ache from the keyboard and it’s only 10:34am (I’ve learned to type really fast to get more done, more quickly).  I am thinking about all the things I’m doing while I am “not teaching” and thought I’d share a little list with the great public who helps fund our public higher education system (which, yes, still costs each student too much money in the U.S.).  While I wish we were in a national system that helped pay for public education and I agree that it costs too much, I also want our paying customers to know that professors at public universities are doing a lot of work to earn our reasonable, state-provided salaries.  What work  you might ask?  Let me take a few quick minutes to type out a brief list of things I’ve been doing in my summer time “off” aside from teaching summer school:

  1. Tenure letters.  These accumulate over the summer.  Other faculty who are going up for review at their institutions require faculty of “peer and aspirant” institutions to review their cases. This requires reading several articles, books, c.v.s and then putting our assessments into carefully written language then sending shortened versions of our c.vs and signed hard and electronic copies of the letters.  This is unpaid and invisible work.
  2. Reviewing articles submitted to journals.  Like the above, but you review (for free) an article written by a peer writer to determine if it merits publication and to give critique on numerous aspects of the article’s qualities.  This is unpaid and invisible work.
  3. Reviewing grant proposals.  Like the above but sometimes these reviews require trips to DC or other locations to review proposals en masse and discuss in order to arrive at the winners.  This is often unpaid, at times very modestly paid, and often invisible work–though sometimes it can come with a turkey club sandwich and chips.
  4. Reviewing student work: comprehensive exams, dissertation prospectuses, dissertations, and other writing.  Faculty chair and are members of numerous commmittees for doctoral students who need similar review of their work.  Faculty prepare by helping to write questions for the students to answer; reviewing and editing the answers; authoring new questions for students to answer; helping to craft and shape a student’s ideas for their own work; sometimes co-authoring and other forms of mentorship.  Due to this being in a wide range of “instructional duties” this is often invisible work but it also can take the most and most important time. This is how we maintain and grow fields of knowledge.
  5. Writing letters for students.  Students who have (or maybe have not) taken your classes will later ask you to recommend them for jobs, educational opportunities, awards, etc.  And you will write them letters of recommendation that have various deadlines, nuanced content requirements, varied ways to send the letters, some online forms of varying lengths.  This is unpaid and invisible work.
  6. Meetings.  Oh yes–meetings about things that help the university to run such as serving on the University Arts Council or serving on Promotion and Tenure Committees that help recognize colleagues as they pass through (or do not) review processes; Leadership and awards committees and many other duties that require groups to sit together; set agendas; and hopefully plan for actions to be taken outside of the meeting.  More often, these are meetings to talk about and plan other meetings.  This is unpaid and invisible work.
  7. Review of research and ongoing professional upkeep.  To remain current and active as a scholar one must continue to maintain one’s own time to read and review new articles, new online resources, new books, new new new.  There’s always a new idea or new project or new publication.  Faculty spend a lot of time invested in staying current and this is why we appear to be paid for our “free time” but this is often invisible. This time becomes more visible when it results in the end products such as grants or publications.  The former is currently much more favorable to the latter.
  8. Review of grant opportunities and publication invitations–like #7, this work becomes visible when it results in a successful end product like an awarded grant or high visibility publication.
  9. Collaborations, networking with other scholars in your field–hard to explain but saying yes to various social and professional opportunities that may require a lot of personal time is also an important part of a process that can result in the visible products of grants and publications.
  10. Giving back to my community by planning with local libraries, educational leaders, and poets to offer my services to the city that I call home.  This resulted in a public poetry reading series and at other times includes guest speaking engagements in various settings related to my work as a professor and poet.  These are most often unpaid and may have some visibility with communities about which I care.


I can go on and on but I am getting anxious by all there is to do. I just finished two tenure reviews and am getting started on one of two students’ comprehensive exam question reviews.  100s of pages to read and review for meetings next week for “defenses” as well as my own classes for which to plan 15 weeks of agendas ahead of time so we all know where we’re headed, when and what to read and do for a grade.  I just submitted several poems and articles for publication and hoping some of these will result in visible products.  I just found a grant deadline I missed and worry I need to be more vigilant with my ‘free time’ to seek more opportunities.

Most professors work hard.  We don’t lift and carry and we seldom have absolute 8-5pm schedules.  But many of us never feel like we end our day and you may be surprised by how early we rise, answering emails at the crack of dawn.

Being a professor is a wonderful job.  This profession offers a unique life of the mind with greater flexibility in our schedules than many have.  But it’s not a cushy life.  It’s not ‘just’ about teaching our weekly 3 hour classses or 45 contact hours each semester.  As much as you can give to your program, department, unit or university, this will be gladly received and never enough.  It takes a great big team of hard working people to make universities run.  Universities and the people who work there can seem really expensive, but it’s important to understand the very different roles we each play in helping this beautiful system to activate the critical and reflexive thinkers of our time.  Universities help us better understand our human and non-human world–the problems, solutions, and processes by which we get living done.  We strive for a public voice, one that can provide more nuance and empirically warranted assertions that help us answer “how” and “why.” Blogs are a great stress relief and can make our private, specialized work a bit more public.

And now, back to work….!

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