The professor's non-holiday -

The professor’s non-holiday

The holidays are at hand. Now, I can finally get something done.


The best thing about the annual Christmas break is that I finally get a chance to get some work done. I mean “work” here in the professorial sense of my own research.

Don’t get me wrong: I love teaching. And even the many administrative tasks that seem to fill up my days provide some measure of satisfaction. But like many professors, I can’t help but feel that my research is my most important, even if most often neglected, work. Now, I know that I’m not curing cancer or anything like that, but here’s the thing: as much as I know that teaching does reach a certain number of students who are changed for the better, and as much as I love that idea, my students are few and those who are capable of being inspired are even fewer. I’m happy to teach for the dozen or so young minds I might help mold, but when the possibility of a few free days beckons, I can’t help turning my imagination to bigger things.

Research is so appealing to professors because, especially for those of us with tenure, we are free to pursue what interests us. Courses are taught because they need to be taught, but research is done because we want to do it. The courses belong to the university. Research belongs to us. Finally, research has the potential for enduring impact in a way that teaching does not. Students come and go, but a book is forever.

So thank the muses and St Jerome for this wonderful holiday. It’s time to get to work.


The professor’s non-holiday

  1. Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
    So do our minutes hasten to their end;
    Each changing place with that which goes before,
    In sequent toil all forwards do contend.

    Nativity, once in the main of light,
    Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,
    Crooked elipses ‘gainst his glory fight,
    And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.

    Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
    And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
    Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
    And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:

    And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
    Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.
    (William Shakespeare, Sonnet 60)

    Seems like Shakespeare also thought one could live for ever through one’s own verse…

  2. As a professor myself, at work on New Years’ Eve, I can empathize with Prof. Pettigrew’s pleasure in getting a chance to return to research. Even so, this post really got under my collar. I’m not denying that research is important. But is teaching so secondary that courses only “need to be taught” so that one can get back to personal study? I’ve taught for 20 years, and know that ALL students — not a select few — are capable of being inspired. Those students are where you can make a contribution that really lasts forever, well beyond the halls of academe.

    Don’t get me wrong; I’ve got my list of publications, and my book. I love research. But where professors can make the biggest difference is in the classroom, with their students.

  3. There are only two reasons why students are not inspired. One is poor teaching. The other is poor course layout.

  4. Let me clarify one or two points, since they seem to have been misconstrued.

    When I said “courses are taught because they need to be taught,” I was speaking in the context of the choice that professors have in their work. I love teaching Shakespeare, but it is assigned to me not because it’s what I love, but because it’s a required course in English and so on. I love teaching Intro to Lit somewhat less, but again, I teach it because it needs to be offered. And this is to say nothing of composition. Professors, fill in your discipline specific course here.

    So my view is decidedly not that teaching is a huge pain that I only attend to in order to get back to research (remember when I said “I love teaching” above?), but rather that while I love teaching, research has a special appeal (for the reasons outlined above).

    Finally, research is not “personal study.” It is a required part of my job, just as much as teaching is.

  5. As the invitation was sent out by the original author of the posting to fill in our specific courses I have to rise to the offer ….

    Having recently retired from 32 years of teaching chemistry at the university/college level, my take on the educational enterprise was that never I never had any control over the preparedness/background/work ethic of the students that the institution allowed to enroll in my classes – I always believed that my job was to provide an educational experience to allow each and every one of them to have an opportunity to achieve personal success to their level of ability. I always considered myself very fortunate to be able to interact with so many enquiring young minds, the large percentage of which were unsure of where they were heading in life. A large proportion of my time inside and outside of class time was as a “change agent” – opening doors for possible avenues of future endeavors; i.e., not everyone who takes a first-year chemistry course is going to wind up going to medical school.

    I could probably count on two hands as to the number of students that went on to achieve the status of a Ph.D. in Chemistry; but I always saw my role as providing an environment for individuals to develop their critical thinking and problem solving abilities, using chemistry as the vocabulary, and hopefully transferring those skills to their other areas of study.

    Research and/or scholarly activities (I have many publications and am currently working on my 7th book) are important to furthering one’s professional development; but I always viewed them as secondary to my main focus- my primary role was always to be a guide/coach/facilitator for the next generation of scholars/workers/tax-payers, and in my view, a sacred trust that I was proud to occupy.

    As the author of the original posting indicated, gaining tenure at a university does give an individual the ability to choose how to spend the non-instructional time – in my case it was always directed to activities that would eventually benefit the student experience in my classes.

  6. I am a professor who retired early. i know exactly what the writer is talking about. It’s a very sad comment on university life that good researchers can’t “afford” holidays. All other university staff (and Canadians) get them. Research is the highest priority for university administers because it draws in research grants but the mandpower to conduct the research as well as other professorial duties is always lacking. So a “good researcher” gives up holidays, family life and community involvement.