I’m on ur payroll, sipping ur sherry

An offensive and uninformed rant from The Globe And Mail:


“My colleagues do everything they can to get out of teaching,” says Rod Clifton, who works in the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba. “They’d rather not have the students around, because they’d rather do research and stand around and sip sherry.”

Canadian universities now have about 800,000 undergraduates. But as enrolment soared, teaching loads – with the help of strong faculty unions – went down. In Mr. Clifton’s department, for example, the teaching load is six hours a week for one semester of 13 weeks, and nine hours a week for another 13 weeks. That adds up to 195 hours spread over just 26 weeks a year – less, if someone has administrative duties. Of course there’s prep time and marking and so on. But it’s still not much.

Let’s start with the teaching workload. In my department at UBC, we are expected to spend 40% of our time on research, 40% on teaching, and 20% on administrative work. That would translate to 2 full working days out of a 5-day business week spent on teaching. Our normal teaching load is 3 courses per year. They’re generally not distributed uniformly throughout the year, but if they were, we’d teach 1 course in each of the three 4-month semesters. Each course has 3 lecture hours per week, plus the required 3 office hours per week, more if students ask for additional appointments. Ms. Wente dismisses the “prep time and marking and so on” as “not much”, but I would say that for each lecture hour there are at least 3-4 additional hours spent on class preparation, selection of homework assignments, preparation of midterms, providing instruction to the TA’s, marking, answering email from students, maintaining a course web page, and other such. That adds up to 16-20 hours per week – somewhat more than the two 8-hour days.

That’s our workload during the 13 weeks of the semester when classes are in session. Obviously, there’s additional work to be done before classes start. Even if we teach a well established course with more or less fixed syllabus, we still have to review and update it, choose a textbook, set up the now-mandatory course web page, fix the schedule and the marking scheme. If we design a new course or overhaul an existing one substantially, that’s of course much more work. And, in case Ms. Wente forgot, the 13 weeks of classes are normally followed by final exams, which we prepare, proctor, and then mark. We hold office hours during the exam period, and we may also have to prepare deferred exams for students who missed their finals, mark them, review marked final exams with students who wish to see them, and so on.

Let’s allow three 8-hour days for course preparation before the semester starts and seven 8-hour days for the work involved in administering and marking the final exams. This is a conservative estimate. It assumes that we are simply updating an existing syllabus rather than designing a new one, and that there are no problems with unqualified or unreliable teaching assistants, such as when one of my TA’s submitted incorrectly calculated term grades for one of my large calculus classes and I only realized at the last moment that everything would need to be recalculated. Another one didn’t show up for his paid assignment of helping me proctor the exam for the same class. But I digress. In any case, we’re now up to the equivalent of at least 18 weeks of spending two 8-hour days on teaching each semester. A 4-month semester has 17.5 weeks.

The actual distribution of our teaching time may vary. For example, if we do not teach summer courses, we don’t hold office hours in the summer. Advanced graduate courses don’t always have a final exam, but then class preparation can take 5-6 hours for each lecture hour (and yes, that has happened to me). But I have not yet mentioned the supervision of graduate students. In many departments, including mine, this is a de facto requirement for tenure, promotion and salary increases. There are considerable variations in the workload involved. Some students are very independent, others require a more hands-on approach with weekly meetings and detailed directions. However, even the least possible workload – reasonably regular meetings, reading and reviewing the student’s thesis and possible journal articles, arranging the financial support and doing the administrative work of “processing” the students through the system – is not small. Then there are undergraduate research projects, competitions, and other such. Any way you want to count it, our teaching certainly adds up to at least 40% of a full-time job.

(It may well add up to less than 40% of our actual workload, though. Most research-active faculty spend significantly more than 16 hours per week on research. The additional research time is subtracted from our off-work time, not from teaching.)

And that’s the teaching load of the research faculty at UBC. Our colleagues at many universities and departments have substantially higher teaching loads, as do adjunct and “seasonal” faculty. Teaching 5 or 6 courses per year, usually coupled with substantial administrative workload, is a full-time job all by itself.

That established, let’s move on to “standing around and sipping sherry”. Actually, if you believe Ms. Wente, we’re even worse than that:


But the full professors whom they [the sessional instructors] subsidize have a very pleasant life. They can make $125,000 a year, with a good pension and six months off each year to do as they please. Their duties include sharing their research at conferences in Italy or Mexico, whose popularity hasn’t waned despite the advent of the Internet.

Most graduate students in our department have an annual income of 20-25K through the 4-6 years of study. If you pursue an academic career in mathematics, your first few years after Ph.D. will likely be spent in postdoc positions, with a salary of 40-50K per year. Tenure-track assistant professor positions at a large research university in Canada might come with a starting salary of 70-80K, depending on (among other things) how many years you’d clocked in at the postdoc level. Your salary will then increase gradually, thanks to career progress, merit increases, and possibly retention increases. It will take a while, though, before you reach the level that Wente is talking about. At UBC, it might be about 15 years after Ph.D., assuming that your research and, yes, teaching are good enough to warrant a merit increase every year.

Six months off? To do as we please? By my calculation above, our normal teaching load requires the equivalent of 2 days per week, year round. Research, likewise. If we don’t teach in the summer, then our teaching load is higher during the school year, which means that we have less time for research. Which means that we catch up on research throughout most of the summer. With careful planning, and some overtime work before and after, we may be able to take an actual 2-3 week vacation. You bet that we need it.

Now, the conferences. The last one I attended was in Bellaterra, Spain (near Barcelona), and I combined that with a research visit to Madrid. I did have some time for sightseeing, on evenings and holidays, although on workdays I did have to – surprise – show up for work. But let me also mention my last three work-related trips before that. In early April I travelled to Northfield, Minnesota, for a meeting of the Putnam committee (that’s actually teaching-related, so there you go). In mid-April I attended a conference in Fayetteville, Arkansas. In the end of April I travelled to East Lansing, Michigan, for a research visit at the Michigan State University. I don’t suppose that any of these would be particularly noteworthy to the Globe and Mail. (Fayetteville was quite nice. I didn’t get to see the Clinton house, though – it was closed by the time the lectures ended.)

And yes, three separate plane trips in one month can be quite exhausting. We do not fly first class – we are subject to the same exact indignities as any other traveller on a budget. The food can be abhorrent. As for the comforts of a typical hotel, here’s David Foster Wallace reporting for the Rolling Stone:

Rolling Stone, who is in no way cut out to be a road journalist, invokes the soul-killing anonymity of chain hotels, the rooms’ terrible transient sameness: the ubiquitous floral design of the bedspreads, the multiple low-watt lamps, the pallid art-work bolted to the wall, the whisper of ventilation, the sad shag carpet, the smell of alien cleansers, the Kleenex dispensed from the wall, the automated wakeup call, the lightproof curtains, the windows that do not open-ever. RS asks whether it could possibly be coincidence that over half of all indoor suicides take place in chain hotels. Jim and Frank say they get the idea. RS references the terrible oxymoron of “hotel guest.” Hell could easily be a chain hotel.

The chain hotels that he is referring to are “Marriott, Courtyard by Marriott, Hampton Inn, Hilton, Signature Inn, Radisson, Holiday Inn, Embassy Suites, etc.” – the high end of our range. I wonder what Wallace would have had to say about bunking in student dorms.

Most of the time, I would have indeed preferred to stay at home and use teleconferencing or the Internet if that was a viable alternative. Unfortunately, it isn’t, for various reasons. For instance, good teleconferencing equipment – the sort where the remote participants actually get to interact, as opposed to simply watching a videotaped lecture – is very expensive and most universities don’t have it. This is not to say that we don’t use the Internet for networking and collaboration. We certainly do. Indeed, thanks to email, file sharing and so on, we’re able to continue a collaboration started at a conference long after said conference has ended. More bang for the ever-vanishing buck.

Back to the Globe and Mail:


Of course some research, especially in the sciences and medicine, matters a great deal to the advancement of society. But a vast amount of it – especially in the humanities and social sciences – does not. Richard Vedder, a leading U.S. critic, has argued that the higher education system has pawned off the responsibility of educating students “in favour of pursuing a whole lot of self-interested research (which the majority of undergraduates are not involved in) that for the most part, doesn’t matter.”

I’m planning a separate post on the general usefulness of research, or rather on the alleged lack thereof, so I’ll mostly leave this paragraph alone for the time being. Mostly. Because I do have to point out that it is a gratuitous insult to pretty much everyone in the humanities and social sciences, based solely on their general area of expertise.

But, wait. Ms. Wente can be more specific if necessary.


Take my old stomping ground, English Lit. When last I looked, nobody was clamouring for another book on
Moby-Dick. Yet as demand goes down, supply goes up.

Bad example, that. As I recall, this book was a major bestseller about 10 years ago. Sure, it’s not “on” Moby Dick, but, well. I’m also guessing that it relies on a good deal of that useless humanities scholarship. Turns out that quite a few people were in fact interested. I would recommend it very highly if you haven’t read it already.

The Globe and Mail, on the other hand? Less so.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “I’m on ur payroll, sipping ur sherry

  1. Time to install a sherry dispenser in the department lounge, methinks.

  2. Random Blogreader

    She’s an idiot, this Wente. She actually complains that professors don’t smoke “dope” with students the way she used to with her profs. So it’s ok to give drugs to students, but please don’t spend too much time on obscure research.

    Also .. in the old days there were very few women doing columns for major papers. One force for changing this were liberal university profs most of whom were in humanities subjects she looks down on. Not exactly re-re-analysis of Moby Dick.