Thursday, December 2, 2010

More Evidence that the Professor Profession is Poorly Understood

"They are being paid to not do what they were hired to do, and that's teach in the classroom," he said. "It's time that practice ends."

This is from a story about the Iowa legislature potentially prohibiting sabbaticals during this difficult economic climate.  The quote is actually from the head of the public employees union.  It is one thing to argue that money is short.  It is another to make an argument that is based on a fallacy.  University professors are hired to do many things, teaching one of them, but not the only thing.  Indeed, the hiring process at major research universities (including U of Iowa, Iowa State, etc) focuses more on the research trajectories of the candidates.  Universities are locations of, dare I say it, knowledge creation.  Ideas are fostered, tested, extended and implemented at universities, leading to all kinds of public goods.

How do sabbaticals fit into this?  Are they just paid vacations?  Well, sort of.  That is, you get released from teaching courses and from doing service for the university.  However, that does not mean that one is instantly relieved of all teaching and service obligations.  If one has graduate students, they tend to continue to exist and produce work for one to do, even while on sabbatical.  And that would be, ahem, teaching.  Service to the community (such as media appearances, involvement with local/regional/national governments) continues as does service in terms of reviewing for journals, serving on editorial boards, etc.  And then there is the research: the idea is that the time off from teaching allows the prof to get some hunk of research done.  Yes, we can debate all we want about whether the research is worthwhile, but it is abundantly clear that it is easier to get research done during summers and during sabbaticals than while teaching.  So, if there is any value to research, then sabbaticals make sense. 

Plus some folks use sabbaticals to sharpen their teaching skills, catch up on scholarship to revise classes and keep up with the grad students and so on.  I have had only one sabbatical (my leave during the Pentagon year was just that, a leave--TTU covered my health care only).  During my sabbatical, I read a lot (which perhaps legislators should do from time to time), allowing me not only to get ahead in my research, but helped me to improve my old courses and develop new ones. 

People tend not to understand what professors do or what they are hired to do.  That the head of a union representing state employees is that ignorant is not that surprising, but still annoying.  My cynical guess is that profs either are a small part of the union or not members at all, and he would rather see cuts in sabbaticals than cuts elsewhere.

Are there difficult tradeoffs to face?  Absolutely, but the savings from cutting sabbaticals is not what they think it is, as the costs for replacing the teaching is not that much.  Whether teaching or on sabbaticals, profs get paid and get benefits.  Making decisions based on bad information is not surprising, and perhaps even more likely if we do not have the time to think seriously about policy issues.  Perhaps if these folks had a sabbatical, they could take a step away from their narrow, short-term self-interests and think a bit harder about the tradeoffs and the real benefits that universities and their research provide.


Erin Jenne said...

Problem is these guys don't think professors are doing anything valuable even when they are not on sabbatical. And they reflect the opinions of a healthy chunk on American public.

Mrs. Spew said...

It has nothing to do with what they think you're doing. They don't care what you are doing. These guys are dealing with people who want to shut down universities altogether because they assume all professors are liberal atheists who like gays, and are teaching young people to be liberal atheists who like gays. You all are leading the communist revolution that plans to put them dead in ditches. It's anti-intellectualism. They just come up with an excuse to bash professors because as professors, you are evil. Logically explaining to them that they are wrong is of no interest to them. They want you gone and radical right politicians will talk about you as big old con artists.