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Thursday, February 3, 2005
On Blogging Professors
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 2:49 pm

Chris Lawrence (a polisci prof) comments on blogging and The job of the professor.

The immediate reason for this is the result of a post on the Yin Blog by Kevin Jon Heller, a professor of law at the University of Georgia, who received an e-mail from a reader who objected that Professor Heller was blogging during “working hours? and that the e-mailer (an alumus of the school where Heller works) was going to file a complaint with:

both the Georigia [sic.] House and Senate Committee [sic.] on Higher Education, the Department of Human Resources of Georgia, the Chair of the Board of Regents, Michael Adams, President of the University of Georgia and Dean Rebecca White, Dean of the Law School.

The e-mailer further intends

to file formal written complaints with each of these entities and will not cease doing so until this misuse of taxpayer dollars and abuse of position ceases.

First reaction: some people have too much time on their hands.

However, beyond that this raises a host of issues. There are a couple of levels working here. First is a question about what the “job” of a professor is and when he/she is “on the clock” and is wholly outside the issue of blogging. The other level is the question of whether or not blogging can legitimately be seen to be seen as a part of being a professor, or if it is something apart from, outside of, or in addition to being a professor.

As Chris notes, on of the elements of being a professor (apart from “just? being a teacher) is that one is, by definition, a public intellectual whose purpose is to in general disseminate knowledge and information on the topics which we study.

In regards to “being on the clock? I would note that, on balance, there really isn’t such a thing as being “on the clock? if one is a professor. In terms of contractual obligations, one has a teaching load, and one is expected to be in the classroom during that time, and one has office hours requirements (I am required to have 10 hours a week—which is a high number, on balance). As such I am currently “required? to be in a specific location 22 hours a week. Now, does that mean I only work 22 hours a week? Not so much.

Trust me: if that was all I did, not only would I not have gotten tenure, I likely would’ve been shown the door no later than my third year in the position. For that matter, I am often answering student e-mails at 6am or 11pm or I might be working on a paper at night or preparing for class or doing something “professorial” on a weekend. There isn’t a clear schedule, so really the e-mailer cited above simply doesn’t get the work schedule of a professor.

I have friends and family members who think that pretty much that is what I do (those 22 hours) and that I have a boatload of free time. I certainly have more flexibility with my time than if I had become a lawyer or entered a more “normal? profession, but it is hardly the case that I simply can do whatever I want when I am not in the office or in the classroom. Further, given that my job is to know things (to over-simplify for a moment) then a vast amount of news and information consumption is part of my job. Hence, blogging actually enhances my job, rather than distracting from it.

Heidi blogging at Letters of Marque, though not a professor (she’s a law student) gets it:

The job colonizes you. You can’t switch it on and off; for every day that you mess around and feel vaguely guilty about getting nothing done, there’s another one where you’re super-charged, and you surmount obstacles and get a lot done, ignoring the people who love you and want to talk to you far into the night. It’s not about how you spend your working hours; it’s about getting a job done within the constraints of time and tenure.

Looked at another way, the University of Georgia is paying Heller to spend his own time as he sees fit. They don’t say, “Professor Heller, we’d like to requisition a publishable article from you arguing that blah blah blah, and we’ll pay you so many dollars per hour to research and write it.”


As far as I can tell, professors are paid to be curious in quantity. When it comes down to it, forcing them into a civil servant model would give us a very different type of university professor. We may not like this system; many don’t. But it is the way it is set up. If it means that law professors are lucky bastards, well, so, that’s hardly a surprise.

Not only is she correct when she notes that the job “colonizes you? she is also right that that the professorial life is a good one. I wouldn’t trade it, but to maintain it takes effort (and it took effort to get here, for that matter). I feel quite lucky to have the job that I have (as I have friends and colleagues who worked very hard and never got a tenure-track job).

If a professor, who is not only supposed to know a lot of things, but more importantly is supposed to be an expert about a few specific items, is not constantly enhancing their education, then that person isn’t doing their job. A civil service model would kill the professoriate as we know it (and I would note that we have the best higher education system in the world).

Along the same lines Chris Lawrence (as already noted, a professor) explains:

being a professor (as opposed to a teacher, instructor, or lecturer) necessarily transcends the status of “jobhood? into a (dare-I-say?) existential realm; the occupation defines one’s existence, in a way that being a secretary, janitor, lawyer, or medical doctor doesn’t [As James Joyner notes in the comments, other professionals likely also get consumed by their jobs as well].

As such, professors are never truly “off the clock,? nor are they ever truly “on the clock?—professors have professional responsibilities to teach, to counsel and advise students, and to participate in shared governance of the university or college, but the scheduling of classes and meetings are concessions to the temporal nature of the world at large rather than exercises in “clock punching.?

Further, I would note that there is often a mis-perception about the exact nature of employment and funding at a public college or university. Many assume that is identical to being a school teacher or a bureaucrat, i.e., an employee of the state who receives all of their remuneration directly from state coffers. Now, I cannot speak to every institution in every state, but I would point out that this is rarely (if ever) the case. Most public four-year institutions aren’t, strictly speaking, simple governmental entities. Rather it would be more accurate to think of them as quasi-public of “publicly supported? institutions rather than publicly funded ones. Institutions of higher education rely on tuition and fees, grants, private donations and variety of funding sources in addition to state monies. For example, it is my understanding that the University of Alabama receives less than 20% of its budget from the state of Alabama and Troy University receives roughly 27%. As such these are more subsidized by the state rather then being paid for by the state.

I am not discounting the significance of those funds, or to suggest that a professor owes nothing to the state for which he or she works. However, I would note that it is a gross over-simplification to say “you are an employee of the taxpayer so you have to behave like a member of the civil service.? It simply doesn’t work that way. For that matter, I can’t imagine that one could take academics and make them into bureaucrats, or that it would be a good like for higher education for us to do so.

In regards to blogging and whether it can be construed as part of my job or a distraction from my job, I would note (as pompous as it may sound) that part of the job of a professor is to think. And clearly blogging helps me think. Sometimes I even blog on things that I am researching. Certainly I constantly blog on things that I later use in the classroom (or that are relevant to my teaching)—often the blogging allows me to take a first shot at an idea that further develops into a useful element of teaching or writing.

Further, as noted, being a professor is to be a public intellectual, which would mean that it is incumbent upon the professor, as a seeker of knowledge, to share that knowledge in a public fashion. Certainly professors are frequently full of beans, and no one in the public is required to pay any attention to us. Still, blogging is the biggest boon to the role of public intellectual that has ever existed. In the past, the only way to daily discuss ideas was to do so with a small group of colleagues-now we can do it with the world with ease.

My main goal as a blogger is to be an analyst in the public square. I am exceedingly pleased that anyone notices, but never expected it to happen.

Now, granted, many of my postings are not the result of deep thoughts, and often have nothing to do with politics. But, setting aside from the fact that the “on the clock? paradigm doesn’t fit, even if one is inclined to think that it should: am I not entitled to a little break to blog on Trek or the Dallas Cowboys now and again? I mean, gee whiz, some people are far too interested in micro-managing the lives of others. I am guessing that the individual who complained to Professor Heller doesn’t give 100% of every second to his/her employer during “working hours”.

One final note: on balance, universities like the attention that results from their professors being featured in the media (unless one is Ward Churchill-like). I know for a fact (because one of our PR guys told me) that my University noticed that I was writing newspaper columns (they have a clipping service that gathers all mentions of the school) and they like it. Why? Because as long as I am not embarrassing the school I am promoting it (and if universities traffic in anything, they traffic in perception—and the more people know about your school, the better off you are. It is one of the reasons schools have sports and want to play at the IA level). Does anyone think that the University of Tennessee Law School is upset that Professor Glenn Reynolds is perhaps the most famous blogger of all? I think not. Does anyone think that they are worried that he blogs during “working hours?? Hardly.

    Also: Professor Trung Yin also comments.

    Update: This post is part of today’s OTB lnkfest.

Filed under: Blogging, Academia | |Send TrackBack

Arguing with signposts... » Tenure, Churchill and peaceful protests linked with [...] I’ve been following the Ward Churchill dust-up only from the margins. (see Steven Taylor and Chris Lawrence, as well as Jeff Goldstein for more insight) But tonight, I read a c [...]


  1. Yep all around, although I’d dispute Chris’ contention that other professionals, such as lawyers or medical doctors, don’t also get consumed/defined by the job in a similar way.

    Comment by James Joyner — Thursday, February 3, 2005 @ 3:38 pm

  2. Quite true.

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Thursday, February 3, 2005 @ 3:39 pm

  3. James beat me to the punch re: lawyers. Look at powerline, for instance, or hogonice/littletinylies. Both run by lawyers.

    I know that I’m in something of a unique position, but I’m actually somewhat discouraged from putting out my name in relation to my college because some of the things I say on the blog are in contradiction to the power elite in the religious denomination. I’m not being a heretic, but blogging lyrics from secular artists or decrying a denominational executive’s rise to a new position are the types of things that could draw untoward attention from the exact same type of person who wrote to the professor in this post.

    Further, there is no tenure at this college, even if I were full faculty (instead of a hybrid position).

    However, I concur with you re: hours. As I’m pursuing the ph.d., part of the studies overlap. I use material from one to supplement the other. And I’m working on things on weekends and at odd hours.

    It’s sort of like what one graphic designer told me about his billable hours. When he’s thinking of ideas in the shower that relates to a client’s project, he’s *working* for them. They get billed.

    Finally, the fact that a professor is somewhat like “salaried” rather than “hourly” work means that the “blogging during working hours” is less convincing.

    Where there could be problems is if the school has some sort of computing policy that curtails what can be done with university equipment and resources. But then they’d have to make the argument that blogging is a damaging activity on the level with surfing for porn or such.

    Comment by bryan — Thursday, February 3, 2005 @ 4:07 pm

  4. And I must say you’ve been putting out quite a lot of words lately. This is one of the longest posts I believe I’ve ever seen at Poliblog. The althouse kerfuffle also was rather lengthy. could it be that we blog longer pieces about things that are closer to our self-definition?

    Comment by bryan — Thursday, February 3, 2005 @ 5:57 pm

  5. I’d say doctors and lawyers get “consumed by the job” in the sense that they work long hours, and in the case of lawyers they take work home. I’m not sure that being a part of the public debate is an essential function of their jobs, however, and a lawyer (when not working on billable activity) or doctor (when not treating patients/at the clinic) can really be said to be “off the clock.”

    In other words, they’re not paid to sit around and be lawyers or doctors; they’re paid to provide legal services and treat patients. Professors, on the other hand, are paid to do more than just show up at their office hours, scheduled classes, and meetings (and ancillary things like commencement).

    Comment by Chris Lawrence — Thursday, February 3, 2005 @ 7:31 pm

  6. […] I’ve been following the Ward Churchill dust-up only from the margins. (see Steven Taylor and Chris Lawrence, as well as Jeff Goldstein for more insight) But tonight, I read a c […]

    Pingback by Arguing with signposts... » Tenure, Churchill and peaceful protests — Saturday, February 5, 2005 @ 5:46 am

  7. I think the “public servant” comments are more about the source of income (taxpayer dollars) than a perception of a 9-5 jobs. For that matter, a large number of public servant jobs don’t have 9-5 clocks. Firemen and paramedics are on call and perform their jobs when called. Elected official (mayors, councilmen, etc) perform tasks at all sorts of odd times.

    The civil servant ethic is not about having a 9-5 work day. It is about acknowledging that one is employed by the public and is responsible first and foremost to the public. Professors at publicly funded schools are public servants.

    Putting it another way. Schools have two choices: They can be publicly or privately funded. Private schools get their money through private means such as grants, endowment and tuition. To get money through private means, the school must be attentive to their market.

    If the schools get their money through public means, then they are responsible to the public. Like the president of the US, professors at public schools are public servants.

    A professor at the University of Notre Dame is not a public servant. One at the University of Wyoming is a public servant.

    I fear that many professors simply feel that they are responsible to none.

    Comment by Kevin Delaney — Thursday, February 10, 2005 @ 3:10 am

  8. Kevin,

    A) As I have noted in a variety of places, it is a gross oversimplificatin to state that professors at public school are funded/paid by taxpayers.

    B) There may well be profs such as Churchill who fell responsibility to no one, but they are the radical exception. I know I feel a great deal of responsibility to my students, colleagues, department, university, not to mention my discipline. I further see a great deal of responsibility to the public at large. I am certain that that list is true of most profs. Does this mean that if I say something that makes a signficant portion of that publig angry that I should be fired?

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Thursday, February 10, 2005 @ 7:20 am

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