Labouring under a misconception

October 5, 2007

Who are these academics who claim to work round the clock, asks Susan Bassnett. And if they do exist, why don't they get a life?

There is a certain kind of infuriating academic you meet occasionally who is always going on about being grossly overworked.

Twelve hours a day, seven days a week is the standard boast, twice the average, no break on weekends, no time for a holiday. And if you offer ear time, you will be rewarded with a diatribe about things having deteriorated with the advent of quality assurance, peer review and student surveys. Endless red tape, they will groan, then mutter darkly about the spread of managerialism.

Somehow, without working all day every day, most of us have managed to keep our research and teaching going, alongside our administrative duties and still have time to walk dogs, go to the cinema, do the shopping, cut the hedges, entertain friends and occasionally lie out in deckchairs with a comic novel. I brought up four children single-handedly and cared for an invalid partner for quite a few years into the bargain, and I don't remember 84-hour weeks.

Where do these myths come from and why are people taken in by them?

This is a pertinent question, given that the most common student complaints are a) lecturers sitting on their work for ages and then not giving proper feedback and b) the unavailability of lecturers when students need to talk, suggesting not everybody is always hard at the chalk face.

It would be foolish to deny that there is more paperwork these days, and a lot more directives from Government demanding that universities jump through increasing numbers of hoops.

But it's also clear there are plenty of academics who don't work over the odds. I've heard heads of department say that some of their colleagues treat them like mum or dad, who will sort out any problems for them. I've met moaners complaining about their excessive three hours a week teaching load, people who think it's outrageous to expect them to write an article every year or so and quite a few who think supervising a PhD student is an excessive demand. I've also met young academics teaching well over 25 hours a week, often in places where research professors swan around without teaching or admin in their generous contracts.

Every so often I am asked to fill in a time sheet, and every time I learn a lot from it. However hard you think you've worked, when you break it down, it isn't as bad. Keeping an hourly diary shows up all sorts, rather like a record of what you eat, which is never what you remember.

The nature of an academic's job means what constitutes work is rather fuzzy. Are you working if you have a coffee with a student or chat in the corridor to a colleague? Or when you come across an unknown book and sit down with it? Do you count travel time to a conference in your working hours calculations? I suspect "84 hours a week" contains all these activities.

If you work in a laboratory-based or practical subject, the time demands are clearly defined. Interestingly I've never heard a scientist play the seven days a week card.

The 84-hours people tend to be in desk-based subjects, and tend also to be over 40. This suggests that, rather than academics having to work harder than their predecessors, the problem lies in work patterns, changing expectations and workload distribution.

Next time anyone tells me they are working 84 hours a week, I'm going to urge them to get a life!

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University with responsibility for campus life and community affairs.

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