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Of melons, minds and time

We don't expect farmers to spend every moment of their work day in the fields. What about other workers?.

Daniel Caton

Special to The Observer

Published: Tuesday, May 5, 1998


Page 13A

On these chilly mountain mornings, as I cruise along into work I recall last summer's sights along this road: wonderful fields of crops basking in the sun. Corn stretching skyward, ears seemingly listening to the wind. Tobacco, with its huge green leaves, an interesting if politically tainted plant. All nestled between fields of young Christmas trees--crops for the next millennium.

But what disturbed me last year was that there was rarely a farmer in sight. Time and again it seemed that I would only catch the sight of a straw hat one or two days a week How could that be? How can a farmer only work with his hands in the field only a handful of hours a week?

I think we can all spot the fallacy in this story--the farmer has much to do when not actually in the field. Equipment to maintain, weather to track, financing to take care of, fertilizer and pesticide use to plan. Many other workers spend only part of their time in their visible 'field' of work: attorneys in court, Hornets on the court, legislators in session.

So why does the picture change when we look at the academic world? Those of us who grow minds instead of melons are often challenged to justify our wages and working hours. How can we only 'work' six to nine hours per week and collect our pay with a straight face?

It is true that at Appalachian the normal teaching load is 12 contact hours per week in the classroom. Those who do research may teach 6 to 9, and professors at the research campuses may have an entire semester off once in a while. And don't we get summers off?

Actually, like the farmer's field work, our classroom time is just part of our effort. For every hour in the class there is another hour or two in preparation, grading and other work directly connected to the courses at hand. Excellence in instruction also requires updating notes, teaching techniques, and technology to keep up with not only a changing world of knowledge but an evolving student culture.

With course and curriculum development thrown in there are not many hours left for a host of other chores. Service in maintaining the institution requires committee work. Public service includes giving talks and advising the public and government. Perhaps even sharing some insights by writing a column!

This still leaves some time for research or other creative activity in our discipline. We truly need this work, for regeneration as well as growing basic knowledge and bringing the excitement of its harvest into the classroom. I will not apologize for receiving this time for scholarship, but I will say "thanks" to you, the taxpayer, for understanding the need!

In fact, I sometimes wonder how businesses would improve if they gave their employees some time for 'research'--downtime to think about what they do and how they could improve their work. I've seen some businesses that could use some introspection, and not just by the boss. Not to mention that public school teachers could benefit from the same.

One our few perquisitess is some freedom of daily schedule. But with that comes a responsibility to put in a good day's work. So, if you see me out and about on a weekday afternoon, rest assured that there was an evening at home grading papers to more than cancel that. Two national studies showed that the average prof works 53 hours per week. I wish I worked that few.

Finally, as for public school teachers, summers are not vacations but time in which we are not employed. I can get paid for working over the summer, if I get an outside grant to pay myself. Most of us do a lot of University work over the summer, pro bono.

Don't get me wrong--we love this life. Almost all professors could make more money in private business. Even in the field astronomy, our joke in graduate school was that if we were not lucky enough to land a job in academics we could always settle for more money in industry. We choose to teach because we love the work.

So the next time you see a farmer taking care of his crops, remember that we are taking care of ours. And yours -- these kids are our future.

And, if the field or classroom is empty, rest assured that we are away sharpening our tools. .

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