What do profs do all day?

Wow, I’ve been writing a lot lately… just not here! Check out my latest article for the Ubyssey (UBC’s student-run newspaper). And in case you don’t feel like clicking the link, here’s a copy…


Most people probably think they could tell you what a university professor or instructor does. There’s probably little bit of reading, some research and some teaching. But how much do people actually know about how professors spend their days?

I’m a tenure-track faculty member here at UBC in the teaching stream. This means that next year, after four years of full-time teaching, my performance will be evaluated by colleagues, and if I am deemed “excellent” enough, I will be hired permanently by UBC. My title will change to senior instructor, but (I think!) that’s the only major change.

Indeed, the more common tenure-track stream for faculty involves being evaluated primarily on research. That means teaching vies for attention with research, the activity that ultimately determines whether a faculty member advances. I enjoyed doing research, but it was immediately clear to me that I love teaching students. I am passionate about the creative and deeply human process of helping someone think differently, so this teaching track is a perfect fit for me. That’s a glimpse into the big-picture career level of professorship. What does the daily life of a prof actually involve?

I teach about 500 students across three courses this term. That means I am physically in the classroom for nine hours each week. And I’m in the teaching stream: I teach double the amount of time as my closest research colleagues.

It’s easy to assume we do very little throughout a typical day, or that we just wait around for students to email us. When I was in undergrad, I used to think that was true. As it turns out, I work for about 60 hours each week (and some years that number has been as high as 75 or 80). Most of my time is spent preparing lessons, although the percentage of time I spend on course preparation has decreased over the past couple of years.

The first time I teach a course, I spend about 20 to 30 hours a week on that course alone. This preparation includes choosing and reading the textbook, deciding what concepts are most important or challenging or interesting, designing lessons that help students learn those concepts, and designing learning assessments like exams and assignments. All of this preparation requires an understanding of the discipline and how people learn, both of which inform my choices while creating learning experiences and assessments for my students. Each time I revisit a course, I strive to improve my expertise in how to teach it effectively. Sometimes this means overhauling entire lessons or assignments, but much of the time this means deepening my knowledge by reading journal articles and making more subtle changes to lessons based on last year’s notes and new developments in the field. After about four or five rounds of a course, I’m down to spending about eight hours a week on it, outside of class.

I also coordinate learning events, like speaker series. I sit on a number of committees to help make the university function well. And I also write. Writing is a major part of most academic posts. Last year I co-wrote a textbook on Research Methods. More recently, I have been writing an application to the federal agency that funds humanities research (called the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) to convince them to fund my upcoming conference on training graduate students to teach.

After that is a new syllabus for next term, and a research article for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. One of the challenges involved in academic work is constantly switching from major broad projects to day-to-day details of teaching courses. But it’s a fun challenge, and one that the general public needs to understand.

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