By Monique DuFour
Dr. Monique Dufour is Collegiate Assistant Professor of History and Director of Graduate Student Professional Development in CLAHS at Virginia Tech. She also offers consultations and workshops for graduate students and faculty as writers and teachers. She is currently writing a book, Teaching with TIME in Mind: Why It’s Hard, Why You Should, and How You Can. Learn more at moniquedufour.com.
This is Part I of a 2-Part Series
Let me tell you an open secret about teaching: all time is potential work time. Teachers are often haunted by the sense that they can be doing more, doing better. You could always add one more comment to students’ drafts. Refine your assignment. Redesign your class. Learn a new technological tool. Read the new book. Add another slide to a lecture. Collect and respond to more student work. Create public platforms for student projects. Hold more office hours. Spend a little more time replying to an email, or turn around your response a little quicker. And when the assignment or the lecture or the semester is done, then you think about what more you could have done, what you might have done better, and what problems you will fix the next time. We don’t see our students as burdens, but this work can feel heavy.
The idea that all time is potential work time is limited neither to teaching nor to academic jobs. But there’s something about teaching that makes it particularly difficult, if not taboo, to talk about what’s wrong with the idea that we should be working all the time, as hard as possible.
[image description: a meme. Leonardo’s famous oil painting of Mona Lisa, but with messy hair, a sallow face, and dark circles under her eyes. Text: it’s november. the semester is almost over. i’m holding up. i’m okay.]
Working as hard as possible, as much as possible, is depressingly synonymous with teaching. Take for example, bedraggled Professor Mona Lisa, a meme who made the rounds on academic Twitter last November. Another multi-panel comic riffs on the same idea–we’re so busy we’re falling apart hahaha–and indicates the gradual deterioration of a female faculty’s mental and physical state by her increasingly unkempt hair. In 2018, The Chronicle of Higher Education published two headlines in a ten-day span: “How Much Do Professors Work? One Researcher Is Trying to Find Out” and the first-person essay, “Why I Collapsed on the Job,” illustrated by a cartoon of a slumped woman with a gold windup key in her back and, hovering over her head, a battery icon in the red, like a halo.
[image description: Cartoon of a slumped woman with a gold windup key in her back, and a rundown battery icon over her head.]
If Mona Lisa was frazzled at the end of Fall 2019, imagine how she feels now in November 2020. “Unprecedented times” quickly became cliched shorthand for these times, but the moment also seems utterly familiar. The strain of remote work during 2020–a pandemic, waves of state-sanctioned violence against people of color, and all that this frightening election period signifies about eroding democratic norms–have, in many ways, also magnified business-as-usual. Talking about how much professors work is, by turns, gallows humor, a badge of honor, a sexist gag, a novel research question, and a tragic tale of martyrdom.
Let’s do something different. Let’s talk about what’s wrong with the idea that good teachers should be working all the time, as hard as possible. And let’s do it in a way that neither peddles panaceas and nor heaps on blame.
Consider two things that drive this untenable state of affairs:
(1) the denial of teaching as labor, and
(2) the valorization of pedagogical overwork.
Each idea is prevalent. Each is dangerous in its right. Taken together, they trap teachers in an exhausting, unresolvable contradiction. It’s labor, but many teachers still don’t get sufficiently paid: not with job security, or fair compensation, and or benefits. Teaching matters, but it doesn’t really count when it comes to annual evaluations or in the academic currency of prestige.
Our institutions valorize conspicuous overwork. How many teaching awards on your campus or discipline celebrate teachers who “go above and beyond”? Doing more than expected is the very criteria for excellence. Students have been trained in this same system of value. When students give positive feedback on end-of-semester teaching evaluations, how many celebrate that their teacher responded to a middle-of-the-night email, or that they thoroughly and frequently covered a draft with comments, or was always willing to talk in her office?
At the same time, if you’re doing something interesting or effective in your classes, and you’ve shared it with a colleague, I’ll bet that you’ve been told more than once, “wow, I’m going to steal that idea.” This declaration would be a blatant ethical breach if uttered about a colleague’s research. In my twenty+ year career, I’ve never heard a single colleague say that sort of thing about someone’s research. (Whether they do it is a different conversation.) But teaching? To be told to one’s face, without guile, that a colleague will steal your work–that is what passes as the ultimate compliment.
It’s a professional commonplace to assert the value of good teaching by disguising the fact that it is labor. Instead, we speak about love, joy, and generosity. Especially generosity. Notice that these words refer to the teacher: to personal qualities and emotional states, to the very sense of self, as the teacher experiences themselves, and as others perceive them. Taking all this on is just “who the teacher is,” which is to say a good person and a good professional, not so much working as just doing what comes naturally.
It’s tricky to confront the insidious implications of teaching as a personal vocation, as though one is compelled to do what they do as they do because of who they are. Many good teachers come to teaching, and they stay with it, because they have a deep, personal sense of purpose. Vocation gives work meaning, and it helps us to align our work, our values, and ourselves. At its best, it infuses teaching with a deep humanity. Love and joy are not overrated. A sense of purpose makes work worth doing. But when it comes to teaching, they are often contorted and exploited, making it seem that teachers teach well because they are just wonderful people abiding by the unwritten pedagogical code of ethics: teaching is a gift, and good teachers must give it, give it all, give it all away.
Who is that noble teacher? Unsurprisingly, there are strong gender components to that image. Bedraggled Mona Lisa has lost her looks. Looks matter, but not to her. Her disregard for her appearance is testimony to her effort, her dedication, her caring. Her repudiation of one gendered economy and her embrace of another, exchanging beauty for usefulness to a higher cause. She may be out of gas, but she still has a halo.
Here’s the trap: teaching is work that requires effort and expertise, but it’s also gift, freely given, out of the noble obligation borne only by the giver. A line from the football film “North Dallas Forty” comes to mind because it’s about another line of work rife with exploitation. An exasperated, exhausted player says to his coach, “every time I call it a business, you call it a game. And every time I call it a game, you call it a business.” Every time I call it work, you call it a vocation. Every time I call it a vocation, you call it a profession.
The professionalization of teaching promised to break this paradox. The scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) would legitimate the work of teaching by placing it on the solid epistemological ground of science. Instructional technologies would democratize learning. Course management systems would keep it organized and accessible. Our work would be streamlined, our status would be enhanced, learning would be optimized, and we would have more time and energy. But it turns out that these things are also a lot of work: work that is never sufficient, work that proliferates amid the bankrupt ideologies that new is always better, that innovation is required, that only what can be counted counts, and that everything in teaching is always up for revision.