There Are No Emergencies in the English Department

stressedimageSusan Adams, over at Forbes Magazine, sent the professoriate into an uproar the other day claiming “College Professor” as the least stressful job of 2013. Daniel Luzar, blogging on the College Guide at Washington Monthly, has addressed some of the flaws in Adams’ article, noting that Adams should have restricted her claim to tenured, full-professors. She would still have generated some uproar, but her claim wouldn’t have cast all my colleagues teaching part-time at three different institutions, graduate students teaching first year classes while taking classes, and my tenure track colleagues who are, in essence, on a 6 year job interview into the same boat as someone like me.

As a full-professor, there is stress. My colleagues and I work long hours. I’ve seen various reports estimating that college professors work 55-70 hours a week. Most of my colleagues work their tails off doing research, teaching, and performing service. Concomitantly, I would hazard a guess that, like Ms. Adams, most people don’t have the slightest idea what a college professor does or how universities work. When people ask me, I explain that a university is akin to a small self-contained city. We have our own police force, our own physical plant, maintenance crew, and food services. All of these departments have to work with the academic side of the house to create a learning environment for students. In my years here, I’ve been on just about every committee you can imagine, most of them having very little to do with the contemporary novel. More to the point, in an era of continued budget cuts, we often have to make hard decisions that impact people’s jobs.

My tenure-track colleagues, those still working in that probationary period, are under a great deal of stress. I look back on my 70-80 hour weeks, working every Saturday morning, measuring my words carefully at department meetings, carving out time to do some scholarship after grading 50 essays by 18 year olds and thank god I never have to do that again. Wondering year to year if your contract will be renewed and knowing that being turned down for tenure is a career ending moment is not as much fun as it sounds. I’m not sure I have the energy to get tenure twice.

Granted, I still work 50-55 hours a week, slogging through essays, preparing for classes, and trying to maintain some modicum of scholarship, but working hard and being stressed are two different things.

So I say with all seriousness to Ms. Adams and my colleagues: “Hell, yeah!” I’ll not apologize for choosing a career and working hard to reach a level where I have the most stress free job in America and I don’t think my colleagues should do so either. Last time I checked, and I’ve never conducted a formal poll, but most professionals work really hard when they are starting out so they can eventually enjoy the fruits of that labor. No one tries to move up the corporate ladder because the jobs are worse at the top.

I’m not sure I have the most stress free job in America, but I’m more than willing to admit that my stress level is much lower than a brain surgeon, an 8th grade math teacher in the inner city, my brother-in-law who works as a VP at a bank, or the person working at the customer complaint desk at the hospital. When the economy tanked a few years ago, my classes got bigger, my students got less prepared, and my days got longer. But, and this is important, I didn’t come home every day wondering if the company was going under like my brother-in-law. When we cycled through 4 Provosts (our chief academic officer) and changed presidents, I didn’t worry that I would lose my job like my dad did when he worked for the city and they went through administrative changes.  And when I have a bad day in the classroom, no one dies.

Yet, Ms. Adams’ article has struck a nerve, a nerve I’m sure that is rubbed raw by what seems a constant barrage of criticism, budget cuts, and direct attacks on universities (and education in general). Having the least stressful job in America is, it seems to some, yet another attack because it implies “easiest” job in America. We’re like the surfers of the professional world the article implies. I understand the criticism. I’m pleased, at least, that the photo of the professor looks professional. She could have picked my environmental studies colleague whose official photo is set against the backdrop of the Chisos Mountains. (That guy really does have the most stress free job in America!)

But when my other brother-in-law emailed me the other day congratulating me for having the most stress free job in America, I told him I would get back to him after I got out of the hot tub. It was 2:00 in the afternoon. When my wife and I take three week camping trips during the summer, I’m more than happy to text photos of our adventures to my friends slaving away at their desk. I don’t even have a problem texting friends when I’m at conferences thanking them for their tax dollars so I can travel to Toronto, Indianapolis, and other places to present my research.

Most importantly, when people wonder if I ever work hard, I’m happy to invite them to the club. All they have to do is go to college for 8 -10 years, work 80 hours a week for 6 years, and struggle to do the best job you can while under economic attack by your state legislature. The pay off, though, is worth it.

When I was a graduate student living in married student housing with my wife and small son taking three classes and teaching three classes, many a day would find me virtually running through the basement of the Academic building. I had to get to class, get to the library, get home, and I needed to be in all those places 10 minutes ago. Or so I thought. One day, one of my friends shouted out as I rushed out of the office, “Slow down! There are no emergencies in the English department.” And he’s right.

More importantly, I didn’t go to school for 10 years and work 70 hours a week for 6 years so I could be stressed out. No cubicles for me: I’m a free-range worker and proud of it.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

3 Responses to There Are No Emergencies in the English Department

  1. Joyce says:

    I’m not faculty, but compared to other jobs I’ve had, I can certainly attest to the fact that a career in higher ed is far less stressful than in the corporate world. The atmosphere is more collegial than the top-down governance that exists in most organiations. I’ve worked flex hours for years, so I’m off on most Fridays. I wouldn’t trade this career for anything.

  2. John Wegner says:

    Good morning. I think your experience is the same as ours. We work really hard to move up and get to that position where we like our jobs. Once we like our jobs, our stress goes down. I think we have a cultural inclination to try and compete for who works hardest. If you aren’t working hard and stressed, somehow you aren’t pulling your weight? I think that’s also why Americans take the fewest vacation days of anyone else in the world.

  3. I can’t bring any assumptions to this, or respond in any intelligent way, except to say that I love what I do (and I’m not a teacher of any kind) and I put in about the same kind of hours to get here. The most stressful time of my life (besides divorce) was between jobs. I’m glad I got through it, and I hope never, ever to be there again.

    It’s not exactly a walk in the park – but I do, from time to time, take a walk in the park.

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