Skip navigation
Speculative Diction

Start talking back


By now, many of you may have seen or heard about the (infamous) Washington Post column of March 23 in which author David C. Levy argued that most professors should teach more because currently, they don’t put in enough work hours.

Those of you working in universities already know that there’s a significant leap in logic required to get from “professors are not efficient enough” (they don’t provide us “value for money”) to “professors should teach more”.

“What about the other work academics do?” might be the first question that occurs. Indeed, partway through Levy’s article research work falls off the agenda, becoming part of the spare (wasted!) hours that academics spend not teaching. Administration or “service” work doesn’t count. And as for the hours spent preparing classes, this is an argument swiftly dismissed by Levy, who maintains that “the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth”. I’d argue that Levy’s “30-week academic year” is the myth we should be dismissing.

The “big picture” for this column is illustrated early on in Levy’s argument: he’s framing the “inefficiency” of professors against the rising costs of education, particularly to students and families through high tuition fees, which have led to increased debt burdens. This high cost is positioned alongside the individual economic necessity of having a post-secondary credential, as expressed by the highest levels of political authority (President Obama) through policy programs and endorsements.

The response to this column was immediate and generally very negative, on Twitter and also in many of the comments on the blog (and in quite a few longer written responses; here, and here, including one by Paul Krugman of the New York Times). There was even one post arguing that managerial logic of efficiency simply wasn’t being applied in the right way by Levy in his opinion piece.

For some time now I’ve been paying attention to the way universities and academic work are depicted in the media. During my undergraduate degree I became interested in discourse analysis and the political economy of media, and the politics and policies affecting education. Looking at the media coverage of education debates has been a natural extension of those interests (in fact, I’ll be presenting on this subject at this year’s Canadian Communication Association conference). Over time I’ve written multiple blog posts and essays about media coverage of universities, and media analysis is also a part of my dissertation.

I think that’s why I find myself disappointed but unsurprised by the kind of shallow parody provided by Levy’s column, mostly because I follow the higher education news and I see a lot of pretty frustrating stuff being passed off as serious/informed analysis. I understand if that sounds high-handed, but I think most professors, for example, could provide better commentary and/or analysis than David C. Levy – and would probably be responsible enough to do so (as several of them have done already).

But most people working in PSE aren’t really contributing to the larger discussion in a visible way. When the arguments are informing public conversation and political debate, we need to pay attention to, and provide a response for, what’s being said. I think the often shallow and ideologically polarized (and polarizing) media coverage about higher education shows us that facts will not be enough to make our argument heard; there are so many contextual factors working against us that we need more.

As one retort not only to the Levy article but to all the simplistic and reductionist coverage of PSE issues, Lee Skallerup Bessette proposed a “DayofHigherEd” for today, Monday April 2nd, 2012. All academics – including those off the tenure track – are encouraged to blog, tweet, comment and generally communicate to “outside” audiences about the work they do during an academic day (Twitter hashtag: #DayOfHigherEd).

As part of my contribution on Twitter today, I’ve set up a series of timed tweets of my past blog posts relating to relevant PSE issues. We need to relate the misconception that “most professors don’t work hard enough” (and other stereotypes) to larger issues in PSE, and I think “Day of Higher Ed” could be a great way for us to start opening up that discussion.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Wendy Robbins / April 2, 2012 at 18:08

    It is now 8 pm and I am still downloading and printing out essays from my students that were due today. When I finish marking the class assignments, I still have to read and comment on the third chapter of an honours thesis that is in preparation under my supervision this term. I generally work 12-hours days, between teaching, preparation, marking, research, and service on campus and to the wider community. I love the work and its flexible hours, but I almost never have a day completely off. Vacations are built around research conferences, and I always have a book or two to read even late at night. Most of my colleagues are similarly hard working.

  2. K. Faucher / April 12, 2012 at 08:27

    Sadly, this is part of the war for public opinion. Given the current ideological climate, it places issues of education at all levels at a disadvantage. Partly because of the naturalization of the neoliberal discourse adopting the strategies of “crisis management”, austerity financing, and “shared restraint.” Public perception and reality are rarely in accord. The effectiveness of public awareness strategies meets a significant challenge given that facts do not always fare well against convenient beliefs. And, for as long as education is not recognized for its intrinsic values, the very academic mission becomes displaced by an appeal to the extrinsic values of market logic. For faculty at all levels, workload has indeed increased – especially given the trends of downshifting managerial responsibilities to full-time academics. Despite the increased demands for service and teaching, these remain “downgraded” in research-intensive universities. It is easier to make the case for salary freezes when the professoriate can be demonized by characterizations of entitlement, laziness, and inefficiency that play well to the outrage on Main Street. The tragedy being, of course, that the stereotypes are easily disseminated and adopted.

Click to fill out a quick survey