I know I am not alone when I say that if I hear something along the lines of “You’re done work now, right? What are you going to do with all this time off over the summer?” from another student, staff member, friend or even family member, I’m going to scream.
I have to admit that it has taken me some time to educate my own family about what exactly I do at the university when I am not doing the well-known work of prepping for classes, teaching classes and grading papers/exams/reports that most professors are known to do. I don’t necessarily expect my students and friends to know exactly what it is that I do but this article is an attempt at a first step. My intent in sharing this information is not to tell you how busy I am and how hard my life is – because it’s not. I just want those of you who don’t really get what it is that professors do to come away with a better understanding and realize that we are all really quite different.
In most institutions, professors are expected to spend their time on three main activities: research, teaching and service. A traditional breakdown is something like 40/40/20 where 40% of the time is expected to be devoted to research, 40% to teaching and the remaining 20% to service activities. Some professors actually spend much more time on research activities, especially if she has a major grant or is eligible for some type of course release. Other professors spend more time on the teaching function, especially if research activities are not well supported or encouraged at her institution.
Most people think they understand the “teaching” portion of our work but there may be a few surprises. It is important to know that faculty members are rarely handed a “course in a box”. It would be amazing to receive such a gift with a complete course outline (including choice of text or other reading materials); assignment schedule; prepared lectures, including complete PowerPoint support slides with built-in relevant, appropriate and interesting videos, lecture notes and active learning exercises; and an evaluation list along with the evaluation tools themselves and grading criteria to boot. In the real world this rarely happens. There are some exceptions like the year I was one of seven faculty members delivering the same content to multiple sections of the same course where consistency was of the utmost importance. We still met as a group regularly to develop evaluation tools and assess the course design but this was done as a group, rather than individually. This has been my only experience in post-secondary education where the course development work was shared. The bottom line is that there is a lot of work involved in designing a course and keeping it relevant.
In addition to the tasks related to course development and delivery, most faculty are also involved in activities like counselling students, curriculum reviews, transfer credit assessments, textbook reviews, articulation agreement consultation, and program reviews. We are also expected to keep on top of the latest teaching and learning developments which can range from better understanding how new technologies might be implemented in the classroom to the state of academic integrity at the institution. This information is often acquired through independent searches and reading as well as workshop and conference preparation and attendance.
So what is research anyway? Well, it depends on the individual and on the discipline. It’s no wonder that many outside of academia struggle to understand what this involves. I’m going to speak from my own experience so please forgive me if I leave anything out.
Some of the activities related to research include literature reviews (for me that included finding, keeping notes and organizing close to 50 academic and non-academic articles for my most recent publication); experiment/hypothesis design; hiring and managing research assistants; research ethics board(s) approvals (I had to seek approvals from two different boards for a recent study); data gathering and analysis; outlining, drafting, writing and editing; as well as meetings and correspondence activities with co-investigators and other related parties. The ultimate end products of research tend to be published works and presentations. Publishing may take the form of papers (or journal articles), books, textbooks, magazine articles, blog posts and case studies to name a few. Presenting might take place at academic conferences where academics and professionals from various fields congregate to examine and share information on relevant issues but might also include presentations and workshops for other professional associations or groups. Most faculty also act as academic reviewers for associations or journals and are expected to review the work of other academics and to provide feedback that is used in publication decisions.
The service work of faculty again varies very much by institution and often by academic rank. More junior faculty are often trying to build up their CVs for promotion and tenure decisions and may get involved in more committee-related work than their more senior peers but again, that is not always the case. The type of work that would fall under the service category includes both work at the institution (internal) and work outside of the institution (external). Internal work might involve participating in hiring committees, program review processes, budget committees, awards committees, fundraising committees, faculty associations and student club advisory positions. External work might involve using expertise to participate in various community initiatives or committees (for example, volunteer boards of directors), professional associations, judging business plan and speaking contests, delivering workshops or speaking events, participating in alumni events, and so on.
The point I wanted to make is that teaching is just one component of the work of academics. So, next time instead of asking about our four month “holiday”, ask us about our research and writing work. You’ll sound really informed and we’ll be really excited to share with you. Just make sure you have a few minutes to spare.
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