Are Professors Laborers?

Sombrero y diploma de graduación


Members of many professions like to hold to a certain image of their profession. In some cases this is a mere illusion or even a delusion. In the case of professors, we often like to think of ourselves as more than just paid laborers but rather as important members of a learning community.  Administrators and others often like to cultivate this view (or delusion). After all, members of a learning community will do unpaid work for “the good of the community” while a smart laborer never works for free.

On one hand, a professor is clearly a paid worker. Professors get a salary and benefits (if they are lucky) in return for doing work for the school. While professors typically do not punch the clock or record the hours (or minutes) of their work, they are still expected to earn their pay. As such, professors can be seen as any other worker or laborer.

On the other hand, professors (as noted above) are also often seen as being members of a learning community. While they are paid for the work, they are also expected by tradition (and often by assignment of responsibilities) to engage in various unpaid endeavors such as publishing articles, doing community service, doing professional service, assisting student clubs, and so on. These activities are seen as being valuable, but they also generate value for the professor in that s/he is adding to the community-a contributor to the general good.

Like many professors, I was very much of the “good of the community” sort of professor in the days of my youth. I made my work on fallacies freely available, accepted all invitations to speak (for free), helped students prepare for graduate school, wrote letters for students who had graduated long ago, and did a multitude of other extra (and unpaid) things. While none of this was required or had any impact on my pay, I regarded all of it as part of the “good of the community” duties of a professor.

In recent years I noticed the increasing tendency to look at the academy as a business and to approach it using certain business models. While I am all for greater efficiency and a smooth running business aspect of the university, I did look upon the expansion of this model with some concern.

One effect of this view is what seems to be an obsession with assessment and metrics. Professors are finding that they need to quantify their activities in ways set by administrators or the state. While I do agree that professors should be accountable, one unfortunate aspect of this approach is that often  little (or no) value is placed on the unpaid “community good” work of professors (or the unpaid work is simply rolled into the paid work but the pay is not increased).

Also, casting professors as workers to be carefully monitored can have a negative impact on the “community good” aspects of being a professor. One reason for this lies in the difference between the reasonable attitude of a paid laborer and a member of a community.

If I am a member of a learning community, then I have a stake in the general good of that community and part of my compensation and motivation can be that I am contributing to that good.  After all, as a member of the community, I have a stake in the good of that community and thus it is worth my while to contribute to that good. The analogy to a family or group of friends is obvious. As such, this view can incline professors to do unpaid work for the “good of the community.” Of course, for professors to justly believe they are a part of a community, there must actually be such a community-rather than a mere business.

However, if I am simply a worker in the education business  and the quality and extent of  my efforts are disconnected from reward (at many schools, merit pay is a thing of the distant past and bonuses apparently only go to top administrators), then it would seem I have little economic incentive to do more than what is required to keep my job.

Even if my efforts did yield economic rewards, I would only have an incentive to go above and beyond the basic level in regards to things that would yield economic results for me. Obviously, merely being good for the community would hardly provide a suitable motivation to do anything extra.

After all, if the goal of a business is to get maximum revenue for minimum expenditure , the goal of a worker would seem to be a comparable sort of thing: to get the maximum pay for the minimal effort. If doing the job with greater quality or doing more work yields no economic benefit, then there would seem to be no incentive to work beyond what is required to simply stay employed  (unless, of course, one is looking to move to a better job with another job creator.

Employers can, of course, counter this by compelling workers to work more or do higher quality work through the threat of unemployment. The worse the economy, the bigger the stick that employers wield and these days, employers can swing a rather big stick. However, compelled employees tend to be demoralized employees and threatening people in order to achieve excellence generally does not have a great level of success.  Also, CEOs and their supporters argue that quality work must be duly compensated, but perhaps that only applies to the top executives and not mere workers.

It can be argued that professors have had it too easy over the years and that it is time that they be locked into the same sort of business reality that almost everyone else is compelled to endure. While this might make some gray haired folks cry out as their ivory towers are stripped and sold on the free market, this is the new economic reality: universities are not learning communities-they are businesses that deal in the commodity of education (and sports, merchandise, etc.). Professors will need to awaken from their delusional dreams and accept that they are workers in this education factory. True, some of these education workers might deserve some additional compensation for improving the product, offering quality customer service or otherwise aiding the business. Naturally, they cannot expect too much-as always, the lion’s share of compensation belongs not to the mere employees, but to the top executives.

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  1. s. wallerstein (amos)

    In my experience as a teacher, both in schools that were businesses and schools that were not, there were some things that I thought important that the students learn: at times they were not the things that the school administration thought that the students should learn, but so be it.

    In any case, independent of the type of educational setting I was teaching in, I attempted to teach those things (by things I refer to techniques, ways of thinking and or writing more than specific facts).

    I imagine that you, Mike, a natural-born teacher as far as I can see from your blog, will do the same in your own way.

  2. Mike,

    I really have come to expect very little out of big government, big business, big education, or anything BIG. I just don’t think big works very well.

  3. Bill,

    While bigger is not always badder, size can be a problem. In the case of education, one challenge is when the state decides to start micromanaging education from a viewpoint far from the actual classroom. Having many levels of administrators trying to run the show can also be bad-the result can be a significant slowing down of things as well as inconsistent directives.

  4. “…it would seem I have little economic incentive to do more than what is required to keep my job.”

    A good example of how Rationality Ruins Everything. One could say that the Professorial life is a life worth living (Aristotle). One could say that everyone should labor in order to have something to give to others (Paul). All post-enlightenment individualism has to offer is “Why should I be the sucker?”

  5. Academics certainly do a real kind of social and intellectual labor with a definite product. They do real work, difficult work, and only an ignorant cynic could believe that they’re doing the equivalent of sitting in their armchairs, adjusting their monocles over a glass of sherry. And it’s precisely for that reason that folks need to invest some serious thought into competence and performance metrics. Any professor who fails to engage in the appropriate sorts of social or intellectual labors involved in the pursuit of higher knowledge does not belong in the academy. There need to be objective ways of distinguishing between workhorses and free riders.

    The academic’s involvement in the intellectual community might be thought to be a luxury that is worthy of the cynic’s disapprobation. But most of the community activities that you listed at the outset are the metrics that we use to separate workhorses from free riders. As such, they are absolutely vital to the kind of social and intellectual labors that are involved in the pursuit of higher knowledge.

    The essential problem, of course, is that the exchange value of the professor’s product is intangible. Every time the professor outputs another educated mind, it is entirely unlike the production of one new widget. We have econometric methods of measuring the quality of the widgets that are made at the factory, but no methods of that kind to assess the value of one’s education. You might make an important distinction, here, between product-indicators (which are assessable according to econometric analyses), and process-indicators (that belong to a sociological analysis). If you want to know how well WidgetCo is doing, you look at the number of non-returned widgets that they have sold, and look at its books, assets, liabilities. If you want to know how well a university is doing, you can’t just look at the number of students get a piece of paper after reading four years’ worth of books; you have to look at the processes involved in getting that piece of paper. As far as higher education is concerned, the process is the product.

    To some ears, that will instinctively sound like special pleading on behalf of the academy. You can almost hear them say, “Hmm, awfully convenient that these are intangible goods, isn’t it? Awfully convenient that you can’t quantify a bottom line?” The problem with that line of interrogation, of course, is there are plenty of ‘bottom lines’. You can ask the alumnus what they remember about Aristotle. You can ask them how to solve a problem, and compare their reasoning to someone without an education. The problem isn’t that there is no bottom line; the problem is that there are too many bottom lines, too many processes that are vital to the enterprise of higher learning. Any would-be armchair cynic that genuinely cares about the subject will either have to take the time to learn what they are.

    But that’s not going to put the cynic’s worries to rest. There is a separate problem: namely, the fact that people outside of the academy don’t particularly care about the value of these intangibles — things like knowledge and personal development. There are two subclasses of cynics, the anti-intellectual and the skeptic.

    The anti-intellectual would say that universities ought to be training for the real world, intoning that any studies that have no trade and income attached to it is a waste of precious social resources. There’s nothing to say to them except that they’re horrible people — or, more charitably, that they have an unrealistic and naive conception of how the world works.

    The skeptic will concede all of the points I’ve made, but go on to argue that there are not very many independent or objective ways of distinguishing between good processes and bad processes. They might agree that there are some processes that meet the threshold of objectivity — blind peer review, for instance. But they’d point out that the fact that the researcher is both the producer and the primary consumer of their own materials. This fact will always, to some extent, introduce an ineliminable doubt that the process of evaluation is entirely above-board; for even when unrestrained qualitative judgments are made more tractable by a process of blind peer-review, there are still non-rational selection pressures that will influence who gets the interview and what gets published. That seed of doubt is what makes metrics vitally important, and not merely the weapon of choice for sketchy administrators.

  6. Benjamin,

    During a discussion over the value of philosophy I was once pressed to provide a cash value for what I do. That is, the cash value of the education I offer. One starter formula I suggested was to compare the average lifetime income of a college graduate with the average for non-college graduates. With that number and the number of students a professor teachers per year, the percentage of the education of those students the professor provides and so on, then the cash value could thus be determined in dollars/pounds/etc in terms of value added. Naturally, this would have some problems and flaws, but I think it would show that most of us earn our keep.

  7. Marshall,

    I don’t think that this ruin can be placed on rationality. I can be, it seems, a rational individualist and still regard unpaid activities as valuable and worthwhile. However, as you do note, rational individualism would seem to incline people to not want to be suckers. While it could be rational for me to contribute to a community, it would generally not be rational to act for the “good of the community” when there is actually no community and one is being played as a sucker.

  8. But that’s not going to be at all helpful in addressing the people you were talking to in your initial post. People want to know what an education in the humanities is doing, as opposed to just getting them a piece of paper.

    e.g., I’m sure the income level of the average Freemason was higher than non-Freemason. That’s not an argument for the pedagogical soundness of joining a Lodge and learning the handshake.

  9. Benjamin,

    But if joining the lodge resulted in higher income, then the lodge would be a value adder. Likewise, if college education results in increased income, u=it would be a value adder.

    But, you do make an excellent point. In defending what professors do I (or we) need to speak to many audiences. When speaking with people who are open to the value of knowledge and personal improvement, I can use approaches that would fall on the deaf ears of the “practical people.” To reach them, I must speak in terms of what they value (which tends to ultimately be money). In other cases, I can appeal to the role universities play in the community and the importance of educating people to be citizens of a democracy.

  10. The point is that rational individualism is the cause as well as the logical outcome of the destruction of community. “Tragedy of the Commons”… when everyone around you is pulling on their oar it is still self-interested-rational to kick back, but it is also sensible to value the good opinion of your peers and continue to pull. It’s when everybody is goofing off that you really feel like a sucker to be working, and it’s easy to convince yourself that you aren’t doing any good anyway.

    So you are quite right that the individual’s problem is lack of a community within which professorial practice makes sense: the eudaimonia of the university has been lost (or badly abused). But the whence came the destruction of the community? I’m suggesting that it was eroded as an inevitable result of replacing the “university ideal” with the “business model”, and that the later springs directly from a narrow rationalist notion of individual self-interest.

    The question is often asked, What was the man thinking who cut down the last tree on Easter Island? We might ask, What was the man thinking who cut down the first tee?

  11. But those people who would whine about mere exchange value — the people who would dogmatically refuse to recognize the difference between the Masonic initiation ritual and getting an education — are not practical people. They’re anti-intellectuals, which is not the same thing as being practical.

    Practical people are open to an assessment of things in terms of their use-value; and education is first about use value — learning how to do things, and learning what there is to know. By contrast, anti-intellectuals want to be coddled, encouraged, shut down, empowered, challenged, adored. They want drama, improv theatre, and something to believe in, not good-faith answers to genuine questions.

  12. Anti-intellectuals are tough to reach. I suppose that they are not beyond reach, but trying to do so could be seen as analogous to an expedition to a neutron star: perhaps it could be done, but why not visit someplace nicer that would take much less effort to reach?

  13. Marshall,

    I would still contend that rational individualism is not the culprit, unless individualism is taken as being the same as selfishness or (more theoretically) ethical egoism. I’m an individualist, but not selfish (at least not in any robust sense) or an ethical egoist.

  14. Sure, but my point is that we should not confuse the dream of reaching the neutron star with the ambition to turn on the bedroom light.

    The practical skeptics and anti-intellectuals will both demand some kind of metrics for evaluation — what may seem like an “obsession”, as you put it. The difference is that there are concrete and perfectly sensible answers you can give to the skeptics (namely, by talking about process-indicators). By contrast, no answer will satisfy the anti-intellectual. That’s because there’s nothing practical about the anti-intellectual’s stance: they’re as useless as speculators.

  15. Benjamin,

    True-those who are skeptical about the value of education can, presumably, be reached by evidence (or persuasion) and brought around. As you note, the anti-intellectual simply rejects the idea that intellectual endeavors can have value (most likely not in a conscious rejection).

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