On The Stress of Remaining “Neutral” – Reflections By Jeff Kosbie

Jeff KosbieJeff Kosbie, a JD/PhD candidate in sociology, regularly offers a sociological analysis of the law on his blog, Queer(ing) Law.  In particular, he has offered insight and critique of laws that perpetuate the unequal status of LGBT people in the US.  A few weeks ago, he offered a guest blog post on advancing a critical, social justice-informed approach to his scholarship.  Jeff also reflects on his work in the classroom, especially on teaching gender and sexuality

Below, Jeff has written an essay on a stressful matter that many scholars on the margins face in teaching on issues of inequality: remaining “neutral.”

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The Stress Of Remaining “Neutral”

In addition to all the typical challenges of teaching, scholars on the margins face the emotional stress of remaining neutral when teaching material that we find personally offensive. Just like with our research, academia unrealistically expects that we are not emotionally invested in the material we teach. I’ve faced this before in classes, but it really hit home earlier this term.

On Remaining Neutral On Problematic Science

I’m TAing for an introductory course in Sexualities right now. In a lecture a couple of weeks ago, the professor discussed a study published in Nature (Williams 2000) purporting to find different finger length ratios between gay and straight men. We talked extensively about the methodological problems with this study and related it to a broader history of science that explains social differences based on anatomical differences. During class, a few students pushed back: are you dismissing this type of science entirely? Shouldn’t we be trying to design better studies?

After class, we had our weekly meeting of the TAs and the professor to plan for discussion sections. The professor warned us that some of the students probably thought he was dismissing science, so we should be prepared to discuss the topic further. We discussed strategies to handle this topic in our sections.

In my discussion sections, I started by raising the question, “how would we design a perfect study on biological differences between gays and straights?” I had students talk in pairs first, and then share ideas as a class. The vast majority of students seemed to arrive at the conclusion that we couldn’t design such a study. And more importantly, most of them seemed to grasp at least at some level the bigger point that framing a study like this depended on a whole set of heteronormative assumptions. These studies necessarily create the very categories they purport to explain. I used this activity to lead into the assigned readings, which covered the connections between eugenics, scientific racism, and the development of these studies of sexual deviance based on anatomical difference. This really drove home the problematic ways that researchers of these studies even framed their research questions.

But some students’ comments revealed that they were deeply troubled by the seeming dismissal of science in lecture. A couple students stayed after discussion section to talk about it further. They understood how problematic a lot of such studies are. But they are also really set on the idea of science as neutral. Science is understood as the objective work of discovering and describing differences that exist in nature.

I felt trapped by this conversation. On the one hand I found the insistence of searching for biological differences between gays and straights personally offensive and stigmatizing—especially because we had just finished discussing readings that showed how these studies are rooted in eugenics. But at the same time, I knew that these students were really struggling with the material—more so than many of their silent peers. This material was new and shocking. They have been taught to think of these studies as pro-gay. Indeed, one student volunteered in discussion that she had encountered this same study in a psychology class where it was presented as evidence that sexuality is not a choice.

I felt that I had to toe a line of neutrality (a loaded and problematic concept itself, but that’s a topic for another post). I explained that I personally don’t think we can productively study biological differences like this because any study is creating the categories it uses and is labeling one group as “normal.” But I also noted that a lot of people still believe in that kind of science. I pushed the students on thinking about the assumptions underlying this branch of science, and I shared my personal views, but I stopped short of fully saying I don’t think this branch of science is legitimate. If I pushed too hard, I was afraid of being labeled biased: as a queer sociologist, my opinion on the science of sexuality could be reduced to my personal identity. Moreover, the students might think that I simply expect them to parrot back pro-gay views to me in their written assignments (I’ve had course evaluations in the past that accuse me of this).

I spent several hours over the next few days stewing about this. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I could have framed this discussion differently. When I first wrote this blog post, I was grappling to come to some conclusion about how I would prepare for these discussions in the future. I do want to find ways to minimize how much energy I spend on this, but I’m not ready to write about that right now. (I am going to work on reaching out to friends when I need to talk – people who share my teaching philosophy and can validate my hurt and frustration.) Instead, I want to use this incident to think about how teaching is connected to broader goals of social justice for me and why I think it is critically important to be emotionally invested in the classroom, even though it will sometimes cost me emotional and mental energy like this.

Maybe if I was less emotionally invested in the classroom, I could just dismiss this as trivial. It seems innocent enough. I mean, I honestly believe the student had good intentions. And so I could just tell myself to move on, that it wasn’t my job to worry about whether the student really understood the deeper implications of the material. Suck it up and move on, right? But I don’t think that response is healthy. It’s important to recognize, even if only briefly, the real ways that my teaching impacts my emotions and health.

Concluding Thoughts

I draw on feminist pedagogy for a lot of my approach to teaching. So teaching means much more than just transmitting knowledge from me to my students. Teaching is also about interrogating power structures, hierarchies, and inequalities. Teaching is about creating connections between me and my students, learning new ways of thinking, and broader issues of social justice. I’m a teacher, but I’m also always a student.

This pedagogy has been incredibly empowering for me. In almost every class I’ve taught, at least one student has told me that they’ve changed a lot of their views on gender and sexuality. I’ve seen students take ownership of their learning and become active participants in talking about how class material matters to the world around us. I’ve had past students write me to tell me about how materials from my class mattered to their jobs in nonprofits.

But, as in this instance, this pedagogy has also opened me up to potential hurt. This is a hurt that particularly affects scholars on the margins. Once we’re invested in how our students understand the world around them, we’re also vulnerable to being hurt by comments that reflect sexist, heterosexist, racist, classist, cis-normative, or other dominant views of the world. And we’re not always going to be able to predict when these comments will come up or how much they will impact us.

So what now? I’m going to keep having these conversations. Even if the people I’m having them with don’t change their minds immediately, they might down the road. The students in this incident have continued to be regular participants in discussion and seem to still respect me as a person and as an instructor. Maybe their views will shift as the course goes on. But these conversations matter just as much to the students who are not directly involved. By talking about these issues, we can validate the feelings of our students who share these marginal identities and can become a resource for these students. I know these conversations matter, and they are important for my teaching philosophy, and most of the time they are very rewarding.

Think Like A Drag Queen

RuPaul

This post is not to be confused with anything related to Steve Harvey’s book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (or the movie, Think Like A Man).  I know nothing about it, but a quick internet search confirms my suspicion that I am saving myself from a waste of time and anger by avoiding it.

Rather, this is a post about embracing one’s inner confidence in academia. From reading The Ultimate Guide to Grad School Survival by Lesli Mitchell years ago, the one suggestion that sticks out in my memory is to pretend you are a drag queen at academic conferences:

Pretend you’re someone else who has more confidence.  I pretend I’m a drag queen when I do a reading (p. 160).

Mitchell offers this advice to overcome the nervousness and doubt we experience as we prepare for public speaking, particularly presenting at a conference.  Many people experience anxiety about public speaking — not just academics.  In part, this is because we want to do a great job.  But an internal voice (really, a critic) raises concerns that we are not strong enough, prepared enough, or qualified enough.  And, this is compounded by the fear of being negatively evaluated by our audience, and/or that something will go wrong during the talk.

But, because academia is hierarchical and status-obsessed, academics are constantly evaluated.  So, some have an internal critic that is constantly talking, casting doubt on small (e.g., my lecture won’t cover enough material) to big (e.g., I won’t get tenure!) matters.  This is further compounded by prejudice and discrimination in academia, leaving scholars on the margins at risk for a lifelong case of “imposter syndrome,” distress, and even the resultant health problems.

Fake It

There is some great advice out there on overcoming “imposter syndrome,” which I share at the end of the article.  One tip that I like is to “fake it ’til you make it”:

Acting as if I belong will eventually lead to belonging.  Imagining how I would behave if I were not feeling so insecure was useful. I just acted that way until I owned it (I even named my unflappable alter-ego and acted as if I were her. Also, I have a theme song. I don’t know: it just works!) (from gradhacker).

As Megan Fork, a very bright graduate student, pointed out, we can change how we feel internally by making external changes — at least to some extent.  The research of psychologist Dr. Amy Cudy demonstrates that how we hold our body — i.e., postures that signal greater (or lesser) power — alters our internal state (i.e., mood).  Of course, that has external meaning as body language, which signals to others how to perceive and interact with us.

If only it were that simple.  Adding insights from the sociological side of social psychology, we must acknowledge that others may sanction (or reward) our behavior.  Our behaviors, cognitions, and emotions do not exist in a vacuum; they are influenced by various social interactions and processes.  For example, a man standing in a “high-power” pose is accepted without question, yet a woman in the same pose may be dismissed as aggressive, bitchy, or a lesbian (as if these are bad things…).  So, to get ahead, we must think and behave in ways that indicate confidence and authority, but within the allowable limits for our gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, weight, social class, etc.

Think Like A Drag Queen

I really like Lesli Mitchell’s suggestion to pretend one is a drag queen.  And, I would extend this advice beyond conference presentations.  Drag queens are known to be confident, flashy, and provocative.  In a way, they embody stereotypically masculine behaviors — aggression, competition, and sexual prowess — but through feminine expression and attire.  There is an art to the drag queen’s ability to flip the audience’s power via evaluation (e.g., applause, or lack thereof) to her own control over the audience.  Audience members squirm in fear yet desire that drag queens will make jokes at their expense, or pull them into embarrassing interactions during performances.

This may be a useful mentality for academics to embody.  Students are taking your class; they work to make good grades by your standards.  You are offered a job because a university wants you; and, they hope you will do the work necessary to earn tenure and stay for life.  You have been invited to submit an article, present a paper, review others’ work, participate on a panel.  We must resist the easy temptation to live in constant fear of negative evaluations.  Even in the face of negative evaluations, we must recognize our strengths and accomplishments, and contexualize what the “haters” think appropriately (e.g., prejudice, standards that are not transparent, conflicting standards).  Or, take (drag queen superstar) RuPaul‘s perspective — “what other people think of me is none of my business” — at least to the point that you are actually formally evaluated and held accountable.

Make Them Eat It And Gag!

How my advice, to think like a drag queen, differs from the mantra of “fake it til you make it” is the recognition that traditional, mainstream academia does not want us (scholars on the margins), and will employ various strategies to keep us from “making it.”  It has been a long fight to even get through the doors of colleges and universities for women, immigrants, people of color, disabled people/people with disabilities, and people of poor and working-class backgrounds.  The fight to be treated as equals, taken seriously, and be rewarded continues for these groups, as well as people who are trans*, lesbian, bisexual, gay, and fat.

I see the world of drag as communities that have carved out their own spaces, but not with the intention of being accepted into the mainstream.  Drag, by its very nature, is subversive to the values of the heterosexist patriarchal dominant society.  Drag queens, in particular, differ from “female impersonators” because they do not aim to mimic the heterosexist society’s obsession with the gender binary, rather to mock and subvert it.  More specifically, for some queer people of color, there is a recognition that one will never be accepted into the mainstream.  Through the process of disidentification, the queer individual of color resists dominant ideology and embraces a “disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture” (p. 31, Muñoz).

The gift that marginalized individuals have is the DuBoisian notion of a double consciousness.  By being kept outside of the dominant mainstream, we are in a unique position to better understand it.  Because behaviors and values celebrated by whites are taken for granted, they are unable to grasp a full consciousness of how these acts are socially constructed, reinforced, and performed.  As a person of color, I sometimes feel I understand whiteness and white culture better than white people themselves.  I feel I can effectively convince whites that I am just like them, albeit with brown skin.  But, it takes an additional oppressed status — for example, queer people of color and women of color — to see the trap of tolerance that some singly disadvantaged people fall into.  As white lesbian, gay, and bisexual people celebrate the recent victory in the movement for marriage equality, queer people of color watch with a suspicious eye as the tide reverses on racial justice.

The parallel for scholars on the margins is the ability to clearly observe the values, practices, and structures of academia.  We are the outsiders within.  To be so far removed from it — both by others’ force, and the disjuncture between academic values and those of our communities of origin — allows us to convincingly perform the normative role of “academic.”  We can show them that we came to work, that we are professionals.

But, we also have the alternative path of subverting it.  We can resist the messages that critical methodologies and marginal communities are inferior by recognizing the inherently hierarchical and oppressive natures and histories of those methods and fields that are considered acceptable.  Or, like myself, you can work to build up credibility and resources (former path) that allow you to more freely make changes (latter path).  For, “the haters will read, even if you peed.  You still the ‘T’ — just pose, turn, and flaunt.”  So, “make them eat it and gag.”

Eric | Denise

Eric                                                      Denise

Do It For The Children, Hunty!

Another bit of advice that others have offered is to find support and serve as a mentor.  During my first official week as a professor, I experienced great anxiety about how I presented myself, being taken seriously by my students and colleagues, and that stupid fear of being “found out.”  But, after a great first day in my Gender and Sexuality course, and then seeing two students (from that class) on campus, I was reminded that my agenda as an academic is to create change for and inspire the next generation — particularly those of marginalized backgrounds.  By focusing on myself, my own internal demons, I am taking attention away from offering support to others going through the same thing, and from being a role model.  I do not want to send the message to my students that they, too, can earn a PhD and land a job at a top university… if only they censor themselves and dress just like their privileged peers.  I want them to see a great scholar who is brown, queer, and fabulous.

By prioritizing improving academia, specifically to become a more welcoming, diverse, and socially just place, getting a job, earning tenure, getting published, etc. become means to that end.  I need not stew in my stress and worry about tenure because devoting all available energy just to winning tenure means I am doing nothing to better others’ lives, only serving my own (professional) needs.  And, I am better able to flip the question “do I belong here?” to “does this career/field/university work for my goals and values?”  (Fortunately, the answer is a clear “yes!”)

Seek Professional Help, If Needed

I do not mean to make light of the anxiety and self-doubt that underlies imposter syndrome — I know them all too well to think it a laughing matter.  But, RuPaul’s Drag Race, including RuPaul herself and her queens, have given me life.  After a tough day at work during my grad school days, my escape was the fantasy world of reality show drag realness.  Blogging was a useful escape during the dissertation phase.  Find something that works for you!

And, sometimes the weight of this form of distress is simply too much, too disruptive to our lives.  That is the point at which one should seek professional help.  This is just a job.  There is no reason why we should be suffering with mental health problems.  Frankly, I do not think it is worth it!

Actually, I would say to seek the help of a mental health provider even if the symptoms are mild, or just for regular checkups (the way we do for physical health).  Considering the persistence of the interpersonal and institutional factors that bring this on, there is no reason to feel ashamed or weak that you need to ask for help.  Consider it a long-term investment, so that you do not shorten your lifespan, have to take time off for health reasons, or retire early, or leave academia all together feeling bitter and stressed-out.  As it turns out, we are responsible for our own health and well-being — it is not our jobs’ responsibility (or concern, even).

Other Advice

The 7-Year Experiment: Tenure-Track Without Losing My Soul

I am inspired by Dr. Radhika Nagpal‘s essay, “The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life.”  In it, she writes about taking control of her life while she was on the tenure-track, rather than letting tenure control her.  If you have not read it yet, do so right now (you’re welcome) and then don’t forget to come back here!

There is some great reflection that I suspect will be useful to tenure-track academics with young children.  But, I feel the essay is missing other important contexts that are omnipresent in the stories of marginalized scholars: prejudice, discrimination, stereotypes, harassment, double-standards, invisibility, hypervisibility, tokenism — just to name a few manifestations of oppression in academia.  There is a good chance Nagpal faced some of these realities herself, though not addressing them explicitly in her essay.  So, a great way to repackage her essay to scholars on the margins would be to infuse the experiences relayed in Presumed incompetent and the advice from The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure–Without Losing Your Soul.

A 7-Year Experiment

Of course, as a brand new assistant professor, I do not have a story of the tenure-track without the stress (in the contexts of racism, heterosexism, and other systems of oppression).  But, rather than telling my story after I receive tenure, I offer my story while pursuing tenure without the stress.

Consider this my 7-year experiment.  Beginning today, I have decided to work toward obtaining tenure without compromising my health, happiness, authenticity, or politics.  I will reflect on my experiences over the next seven years so that others may learn from my successes and failures.  Yes, I am putting myself on the line to test this hypothesis: can marginalized academics win tenure “without losing their souls”?

Starting Points

First, I should note that I feel relatively comfortable embarking on this experiment for the world to see because I accepted a position where the tenure requirements seem doable.  So, a first step toward pursuing a stress-free life on the tenure-track is placing achievable tenure expectations as a top priority for a job, rather than letting the school’s prestige dominate the list.  Yes, I do want to be challenged, and the expectations are high enough that I cannot do research or teach once in a blue moon.  But, I struggled with anxiety long enough to forgo signing up to be challenged at anxiety-provoking levels.

I can also tweak Nagpal’s own guidelines to fit with my journey toward tenure without losing my soul:

  1. I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
  2. I stopped taking advice.
  3. I created a “feelgood” email folder.
  4. I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
  5. I try to be the best “whole” person I can.
  6. I found real friends.
  7. I have fun “now”.

1 — I printed out a similar little note that says “This is a 7-year postdoc.”  But, I am inclined to see this more as “I am a professor at this university for at least 7 years.”  This is my reward for six difficult years in graduate school, plus four years in college.  My time in graduate school entailed many instances of remaining silent, or censored, or deferential — even when I saw injustices or was the target of a microaggression myself.  I learned to present myself, my work, and my perspective in “safe”, apolitical, and mainstream ways to get ahead.  Why be silent, censored, and subservient for another seven years?  I worked hard for my freedom (the PhD), and I have my “papers” to prove it.  My PhD will serve its intended purposes of liberating me, my voice, my perspective, and my communities.

2 — “I stopped taking advice,” especially from people who are not of the same or similar social locations, or, at a minimum, clearly do not have my best interests (as a whole person) in mind.  Upon hearing the awful, and sometimes oppressive advice throughout graduate school (“remind them that you’re Black,” “man up!”, “a little bit of anxiety is good for you”), I have learned the hard lesson that there is a lot of advice that is thrown around, and most of it speaks to privileged scholars’ experiences (if it is based in truth at all).  The most helpful sources of advice as I progressed through the difficult year of job market and dissertating were my partner, my family, my friends, and my own heart, mind, and spirit.  My career will never mirror that of another person, so I have to do a better job of listening to that internal adviser.

3 — I acknowledge the institutionally valued markers of success (i.e., publication, grants, student evaluations, awards), but I will stop ignoring other signs of being loved, valued, and respected.  I have been collecting nice notes from friends and family in a Word document.  After attending the American Sociological Association annual meeting this weekend, I realized that I should better appreciate how many people value this blog.  (I heard from a dozen people, “I love your blog!”, but only once heard “I’m familiar with your research.)  This includes allowing being valued to work both up (i.e., from senior and higher-status scholars) and down (i.e., from younger and lower-status scholars), for chasing the attention of overburdened “stars” in my subfields places too much of my self-worth in the hands of people I must convince to notice me.

4 — I will continue working weekdays during reasonable work hours (sometimes 8am-6pm), as I have been doing since the second to last year of my graduate training.  Labor rights activists worked too hard to block off Saturday and Sunday as days off from work for me to relinquish the weekend.  That, and my salary is based on a 40-hour workweek, so I would rather save time in which I am volunteering for community service rather than to academic service.  I learned that I ultimately become too tired to work, and trying to do so every day left me unproductive and riddled with guilt and anxiety for not working.

Me - Rock Star5 — I must be a whole person.  This means I will have to stop extensively managing my self-presentation.  As a student, and even as new professor, I find it incredibly reassuring to see advisers as whole people — people who have families, laugh, cry, dress up and dress down, drink, etc.  I can stop using a professional-looking photo as my profile picture on Facebook.  I will not fall into “shop talk” outside of the office with colleagues who are also friends.  I owe it to myself, my partner, and my friends and family to be something more than the one-dimension of scholar.

6 — I will work at finding “real” friends, which may include my colleagues, but should include non-academics, as well.

7 — I will start having fun now because my health depends on it, and tomorrow is not promised to me.  It seems odd to me to work so hard for 6-10 years for a PhD, to then work even harder for another seven — all in the name of the job security we assume non-academics are not promised.

Status Or Happiness?  I’m Choosing Both

Inherent in this experiment, as well as Napgal’s post, is the assumed contradiction between status and happiness.  I have reflected in personal writing on these two paths as a series of major and minor crossroads throughout my life as a marginalized scholar:

These crossroads are just one aspect of the larger decision I face: do I choose status, or do I choose happiness?  In some ways, I have already made decisions toward both ends.  Unknowingly, I chose a top-ranked PhD program; I liked the feel, and assumed I would have support for my work in sexualities.  But, I took a liberal arts position close to my family, forgoing a longer stay in graduate school to increase my marketability (to research intensive schools).  My work took on a mainstream approach, while pushing the envelope.  I present myself in normative ways, but make no secret of my politics, views, and experiences.

I was reminded of the importance of reflective writing.  Immediately after I wrote the previous paragraph (yesterday, on my flight back from the ASA conference), I wrote the following:

The more I reflect on this, I realize I am actually on neither path.  I have not selected the “easy” route, completely relinquishing hope for status or prestige.  But, I also have not completely sold my soul for the status-driven route.  By bouncing back and forth between the two routes, I am actually on my own path.  And, it is my hope of hopes that I actually pave a new path, that my footsteps are making visible a new route for others.  With a commitment to paving the way, I must be open and honest with others about my successes and missteps.  My tale may even be a cautionary one for others behind me.  I must tell my story and live openly for the purview of others like me!

That is, it was this personal reflection that sparked the idea for this post.  I have done some digging to find out about other scholars before me who pursued alternative paths, for these individuals were either invisible in my graduate training or the more radical aspects of their lives were stripped away.  For example, though sociologists are slowly beginning to recognize the work of W. E. B. DuBois, we never talk about his work with NAACP, his experiences of racist discrimination, or anything other than his published works.  This, in my opinion, speaks back to being a whole person, even for other academics.  I would love to hear, “wow, I liked your article in Journal of Health and Social Behavior, and omg, your blog is amazing!”

Tenure

So, here it goes.  For the next seven years, I will continue to publish research, teach courses, mentor students, blog, and work with community organizations.  I have chosen to stop biting my tongue because I am tired of tasting blood.  I will be a whole person to my colleagues, students, friends, and family — and myself.  I chose not to stress about tenure, working on projects that meet my goals of social justice and accessibility at my own pace.  I will focus on “connecting up”, forging connections with senior scholars and the “big names” in my field, as well as “connecting down” by making genuine efforts to connect with my peers and younger scholars and students.  I will give occasional updates, and, in the end, report back on the findings of this 7-year experiment.  Wish me luck!

Are Professors Really The Least Stressed?

It is no secret that some jobs are stressful, while others may be less stressful.  So, it makes sense that some who are seeking employment for the first time, or may be looking for a new job, would like to know which careers come with high levels of stress.  Just as the new year started, CareerCast.com, a job listing site, released a list of the top 10 most stressful and top 10 least stressful jobsHere is the list:

The least stressful jobs:

  1. University professor
  2. Seamstress/tailor
  3. Medical records technician
  4. Jeweler
  5. Medical laboratory technician
  6. Audiologist
  7. Dietitian
  8. Hair stylist
  9. Librarian
  10. Drill press operator

The most stressful jobs:

  1. Enlisted military personnel
  2. Military general
  3. Firefighter
  4. Commercial airline pilot
  5. Public relations executive
  6. Senior corporate executive
  7. Photojournalist
  8. Newspaper reporter
  9. Taxi driver
  10. Police officer

How Is Stress Measured?

CareerCast ranked 200 careers listed on its site on 11 indicators of “stress”:

  • Travel, amount of 0-10
  • Growth Potential (income divided by 100)
  • Deadlines 0-9
  • Working in the public eye 0-5
  • Competitiveness 0-15
  • Physical demands (stoop, climb, etc.) 0-14
  • Environmental conditions 0-13
  • Hazards encountered 0-5
  • Own life at risk 0-8
  • Life of another at risk 0-10
  • Meeting the public 0-8

So, even considering travel, deadlines, competitiveness, and other indicators of stress, professors rank among the least stressed?

Professors Are The Least Stressed?

Wait… professors are the least stressed among the employed?  Yep, according to ABC news, “Looking for a low-stress job? Being a full-time university professor is the least stressful career for 2013 … It’s the first time that career has won the title of least stressful in the site’s 20-year history of assessing jobs.”  A writer at Forbes further explains the cushy job held by university professors:

University professors have a lot less stress than most of us.  Unless they teach summer school, they are off between May and September and they enjoy long breaks during the school year, including a month over Christmas and New Year’s and another chunk of time in the spring. Even when school is in session they don’t spend too many hours in the classroom. For tenure-track professors, there is some pressure to publish books and articles, but deadlines are few. Working conditions tend to be cozy and civilized and there are minimal travel demands, except perhaps a non-mandatory conference or two. As for compensation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for professors is $62,000, not a huge amount of money but enough to live on, especially in a university town.  Another boon for professors: Universities are expected to add 305,700 adjunct and tenure-track professors by 2020, according to the BLS. All of those attributes land university professor in the number one slot on Careercast.com’s list of the least stressful jobs of 2013.

Forbes notes that the “least stressed” jobs stand out from all others because of their high level of autonomy, and, of course: “At the end of the day, people in these professions can leave their work behind, and their hours tend to be the traditional nine to five.”

I cannot imagine a professor, regardless of rank, who would agree.  Dr. Audra Diers, a professor of Organizational Communication and Public Relations at Marist College, wrote extensively about the reality of the 60-hour-plus workweek for most professors.  And, the writer at Forbes received so many letters and comments outraged by the picture she painted of the relaxed professor taking long breaks from work that she amended her article:

***ADDENDUM***

Since writing the above piece I have received more than 150 comments, many of them outraged, from professors who say their jobs are terribly stressful. While I characterize their lives as full of unrestricted time, few deadlines and frequent, extended breaks, the commenters insist that most professors work upwards of 60 hours a week preparing lectures, correcting papers and doing research for required publications in journals and books. Most everyone says they never take the summer off, barely get a single day’s break for Christmas or New Year’s and work almost every night into the wee hours.

Many of the comments are detailed, with time breakdowns laying out exactly how many hours the writers spend doing their jobs. One commenter, Jonathan Reynolds, sent me an itemized list of tasks he’d performed since Dec. 19 which included writing a 12,600-word book chapter and a 1,000-word book review, peer reviewing a manuscript for an editor, reviewing manuscripts for a professional journal and one for Oxford University Press. He also worked on an annotated bibliography and helped a struggling student. I agree that doesn’t sound like a relaxing schedule.

A commenter named Gwen Schug sent along a link to a well-written piece responding to the study I cited, detailing the hours it takes to do every aspect of a professor’s job, including the three hours preparation required per lecture, the fact that most professors have up to 55 advisees, each of whom requires at least an hour per semester, and grading, which can take a half hour per assignment. The piece also says professors are expected to attend 2-4 conferences a year, and points out that universities rarely pay the full expense.

I appreciate all of the comments and encourage you to read them. My intention here was to relay an intriguing list put together by a career and job listing site, CareerCast, that surveyed data on 200 jobs and drew up a list of professions it deemed least stressful, according to metrics I describe above, which are weighted toward categories like physical demands, environmental conditions and risking one’s life. CareerCast didn’t measure things like hours worked and the stresses that come from trying to get papers published in a competitive environment or writing grants to fund research.

I think there is value in CareerCast’s list, but I also welcome the observation that my characterization of a professor’s duties failed to include the stress brought on by long hours and the pressure to publish scholarly work. Though I happen to know a tenured professor who enjoys several breaks during the year and takes a several-week vacation over the summer, I didn’t set out to report exhaustively on the hours professors work. Unquestionably, the number varies greatly and is often high.

All of that said, to me the most striking thing about the comments I received is the fact that so many professors write that while they find their jobs stressful, they are deeply satisfied and happy in their work. This comment from David Perry is typical: “I love my job. It’s definitely deeply rewarding. But the stresses are intense and the workload never ending.”

Yes, professors do have a high level of autonomy.  But, obviously, the notion of a professor with her feet propped up on her desk for half of the year, and on vacation for the other half, is inaccurate.  Further, it misses the vast diversity of faculty positions: those on the tenure-track and those with tenure; variation across disciplines; liberal arts, regional, research-intensive, and community colleges; and, private versus public institutions.  Even senior tenured professors in the natural sciences at top-tier research universities face high levels of stress to remain active in teaching, publishing, obtaining grants, and serving on committees for the department, college, and discipline.

I would add to the outrage that these 11 indicators of stress are poor measures of job-related stress — or, at a minimum, are limited.  One major limitation is the skewedness toward physical demands.  Still, in having to frequently move around campus, at least teaching in a different location than one’s office, professors face greater demands than many careers that keep employees in one location for the entire day.    These 11 indicators miss aspects of careers that are mentally, emotionally, and socially stressful.  Arguably, the most rewarding, yet most stressful aspect of being a professor is the lack of routine.  There is a constant expectation for improvement and, for research, creating something entirely new — not just for oneself, but that no other researcher has produced.  One’s livelihood, whether a promotion to full professor, or obtaining tenure so that one can keep one’s job, is literally on the line, easily becoming a stressor that keeps one up at night or even putting one at risk for mental health problems.

Who Cares?

So, CareerCast offered a pseudo-scientific (at best) survey of careers.  The results have been picked up by various news outlets, but will likely become yesterday’s news by next week.  But, I sympathize with the many current, former, and future professors who are outraged by the assertion that faculty positions are the least stressful job in the nation.  What is at stake is the reputation of institutions of higher learning, and their funding.  Over the years, colleges have been receiving less and less financial support from the government, thus forcing colleges to increase the price tag for a college education and make sweeping budget cuts.  With so many who have attended college carrying debt and student loans, even years after graduation and securing a job, many Americans are left wondering whether college is even a wise investment.

The fear, then, is portraying college professors as well-paid teachers who are rewarded with long breaks threatens the sense that colleges need to be funded by tax-payers’ dollars.  Further, it leaves particular professors, especially their research and the courses they teach, open for witch hunts thinly veiled as concerns about government spending.  This, of course, is one of the very reasons why tenure exists — to protect professors from being fired because of the content of their scholarship.  Today, what is necessary to obtain tenure has ballooned, largely or even exclusively in terms of research expectations, into what many call the pressure to “publish or perish.”  Now, that’s stressful.

UPDATE (1/5/12, 4PM): Beyond a critique of the survey of stressful jobs, the articles written about the survey, especially that at Forbes, also warrant critique for so uncritically regurgitating its findings.  They, too, further contribute to the mystery surrounding what professors actually do.