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THE MYTH OF THE 40-HOUR WEEK

 No matter how hard you run, the week just keeps catching up with you.

No matter how hard you run, the week just keeps catching up with you.

About a decade ago, Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, made quite a stir when he explained the poor representation of women faculty at his college with some rather...bold…statements. Women everywhere took up the hue and cry against the blatant sexism of his assumptions that women weren’t drawn toward that work, and it wasn’t a natural fit for them. One of his comments at the time was repeated frequently – women, it seems, don’t want to work an 80-hour week.

Perhaps you think I am about to write a treatise on the amount of unpaid labor that women do after they get home – the famous second shift. Perhaps you think I am going to point out that women often have to do twice as much to be considered half as good – the old “dancing backwards and in high heels”. Perhaps that’s what you think, and that would be a fair assumption given some of my other opinions that I have expressed. But you would be wrong. Today I want to talk about another, hidden problem with that statement – and other things that are happening – that I have never seen a single pundit address. And it isn’t for want of looking, so I think I can safely say that few have dared to boldly go where I am about to go. Hang on, I’m about to go to warp 10.

Who the hell thinks it is okay to ask anyone to work 80 hours a week? What happened to the weekend? The evening? Sleeping? Eating? Why is no one questioning the bald statement that faculty are going to be working 80 hours a week without so much as a “say what”? Why is no one stopping to calculate what the hourly rate would be for an 80 hour week at the average professor’s salary and wonder why the highly trained, highly skilled professionals are being expected to work for so little compared to others with a comparable level of education and a similar skill set? You might say, well, doctors work long hours. Yes, and doctors will charge you for every hour they are working if you are the one they are working on. Plus, there are doctors on call all hours, but no one doctor works all hours; you won’t likely get your own doctor if you call after hours. No comparison. Try again.

I have intended to address this several times, but procrastination, coupled with an average 80-hour work week, has caused me to continue putting off the issue. Unfortunately, it is something that needs to be addressed, and I can no longer put this off. Why? Because there is a belief in high places – places where people have the ability to make this happen – that teachers at all levels (pre-school through grad school) need to be available to their students 24/7. If their students need them at 2 in the morning, the weary instructor must be prepared to text, skype, instagram, e-mail, or enter a chat room with the student to solve whatever problem the student has at that moment. If the student needs them again at 3:30, they must again be available, on call continually for however long that student needs, and for all the students queuing up behind that student. If the student has a personal problem, the instructor must be available for counseling or comforting. In short, the instructor must give up all personal life if it interferes with the needs of an increasingly clingy and juvenile student body (and yes, they will become clingy and juvenile if this is implemented. They will be able to do nothing for themselves).

Try thinking this through for any other position. Those who collect garbage should be on call 24/7 for those who might have a garbage emergency (and yes, those happen. You know they do). Those who flip burgers must be prepared to be called on a second’s notice, even if they have already worked a 12-hour shift, with no right to say no. Doctors. Nurses. Accountants. Police officers. Fire men. Auto mechanics. Waitresses. Everyone must work from midnight to midnight, and then start their shift again. Every day. No weekends. No holidays.

What happens to a person who gets no sleep at all? What happens to a person who is not given free time to eat or watch TV or shower or hike…or whatever said person likes to do with their time off, even if it is only kick their feet up and text everyone around the world to fill them in on their own boring activities of the moment? Those people will rapidly become useless. They will not only be worn out, they will begin to hallucinate. They will not be any use to those they are trying to help. They will last only a few days before you will have to replace them.

And what if you say, of course you get to go to bed, just...keep your phone handy and make sure it tells you if a student needs you. How much sleep would you get knowing that at any moment you might be rousted out of bed to go answer the same question you have already answered three dozen times that day, for yet another student who didn’t read the instructions? Or deal with a student who doesn’t understand the assignment, and for some reason cannot wait six hours until you are back at work and able to deal with the homework assignment that is due that morning and they didn’t start until the last minute? You will get little sleep, because you will keep eyeing that little device, remembering that every time you closed your eyes last night, you were interrupted and had to drag out of your bed shivering in the cold of the night to skype for an hour with a desperate student.

And what becomes of the student who has an instructor who is doing that? They will grow dependent, and will forget that they are able to work through problems on their own. They will develop no problem solving skills, because they have an expert at their beck and call, a slave to their bidding who will answer their questions and help them do something they are supposed to be learning to do themselves. They will not learn how to be an adult, and will remain forever suspended in a state of chronic adolescence. They will expect the same level of support when they get into the work force, and it is unlikely there are many bosses who will agree to accept texts, tweets, and skypes at any hour of the day or night. For some reason, bosses have this demand that the employees they hire to do a job actually do the job with a degree of skill and independence. Strange, what?

The fact that anyone could stand there and blithely state that their employees are going to be expected (unofficially, of course) to work 80-hour work weeks, and say it without consequences, is a testament to just how out of whack our work has become. If your boss said you would have to work 80 hour weeks, what would your response be? If you are in most jobs, probably something along the lines of “go jump in the lake”. If you are in academia, however, your response would be to smile and nod and pick up the phone to tell the wife you’re going to be late for dinner. Not one pundit said, wait, did you say 80 hours? Surely you mean…8 hour days? No, 80 hour weeks? Wow, time for a bit of investigative reporting. Why are academics expected to work 80 hour weeks while being paid for 40? Can I get a statement on the record? Time for Congressional hearings – which I believe would happen if most other fields of work were revealed to be expected to put in that kind of time. The problem is, most of us in academia have come to accept it as normal – and once something becomes normal, it isn’t news.

Time for a new paradigm.