What do Professors do?



At Western Michigan University, as at every North American college or university, faculty members are highly visible in classrooms, laboratories, performance spaces, meeting rooms, and departmental and college-wide administrative offices. They mentor students, engage in partnerships with a variety of industrial, charitable, and governmental organizations, and present their work at professional meetings. These activities form the basis for the public’s understanding of faculty productivity, but what is often overlooked are the invisible hours that faculty members spend preparing for the visible work that they conduct.

As a result, three key constituent groups — students, parents, and legislators — understandably tend to focus on the public component of faculty members’ work when thinking about issues related to higher education. For instance, it is not uncommon for politicians to advocate for increased teaching loads for research faculty without taking into consideration the amount of labor involved outside the classroom in order to prepare for even one hour of public instruction.

Call for Faculty Participants

The WMU-AAUP’s Invisible Hours project is designed to present an informative glimpse at the behind-the-scenes labor that goes into highly visible professional activities conducted by WMU faculty members. In October 2015, a group of interested faculty colleagues met to develop a pilot project designed to communicate effectively the concept of “invisible hours.”

They are now inviting faculty participants from across the ranks of tenured faculty – traditionally ranked as well as faculty specialists – to carry out the pilot project during the spring 2016 semester.

The time commitment involved will be under 5 hours per participant, but the impact will allow us to shed light upon the rewards and the challenges of our profession.

The Pilot Project

The Invisible Hours pilot project will track the work that lies behind one visible hour of output by twelve faculty members from various disciplines across the institution. That hour could be a class lesson, a fieldwork session, a performance, a clinical supervision session, a lab session, or any other activity that is carried out in the public realm. The information collected for each participant will be displayed on a circular clock face graphic, with an inner circle describing the output for each hour, and concentric circles providing a very brief, one-sentence description of the layers of work that went into creating that hour. The result will be an easy-to-read and powerful visual representation of faculty achievement and dedication, as well as a reminder of the wide variety of work that is conducted at a public research institution such as WMU.

The Audience

At the October planning meeting, faculty colleagues from a number of colleges discussed what information they might put forward were they to participate in the pilot project. In just a short time, we learned how little we knew about each other’s visible hours, let alone the “invisible” labor that went into producing that output. As such, we realized that the first group to benefit from the pilot project would be the faculty itself: The more we learn about each other’s professional endeavors, the more likely we are to appreciate the value of our collective work at WMU.

However, the pilot project graphic could also be used at WMU Day at the Capitol, at recruitment fairs, and at any university function designed to showcase the work of the faculty. Our hope is that when students, parents, legislators, and other stakeholders see the graphic, they will be encouraged to learn more about the professional lives of university faculty members and how our work benefits WMU students and the community more widely.

WMU-AAUP has also provided a useful bibliography of readings on the nature of faculty work: 

“What Do Professors Do All Day?” by Philip Nel, Kansas State University

“What Do Faculty Do?” National AAUP

“So Much to Do, So Little Time,” by Colleen Flaherty (Inside Higher Education)

“And the Livin’ Is Easy?” by Kaustuv Basu (Inside Higher Education)

“The Math Doesn’t Work,” by Nate Kreuter, Western Carolina University (Inside Higher Education)

“The Hidden Work Life Of University Faculty,” by David Skorton and Glenn Altschuler (Forbes)

“The Long, Lonely Job of Homo academicus,” by John Ziker, Boise State University (The Blue Review)

“Academe as Slacker Heaven,” by Gene C. Vant, Jr. (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Writers note: Early in his controversial 14-year tenure as Chancellor of the California State University system, Charles Reed notoriously told a public audience that faculty members work only two or three days a week from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The comment sparked a firestorm of protest, but it sadly reflected an all too common perception among a few administrators, many trustees and politicians, and a significant segment of the general public that we faculty members have cushy, undemanding jobs. When it’s reported that we teach class only, say, twelve hours a week, it’s easy for some to assume that’s all we do. Now the AAUP union chapter at Western Michigan University is doing something to combat such misconceptions. The following announcement of The WMU-AAUP Invisible Hours Spring 2016 Pilot Project is taken from the WMU-AAUP website. Other chapters might consider attempting something similar.