Bowdoin students are already looking ahead to Winter Break, but for professors, those five weeks are not a complete vacation.
Professor Scott Sehon, chair of the philosophy department, views Winter Break as precious time outside of the classroom to dedicate to his own research.
Liz Shesko, a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in history and Latin American studies, explained that it is difficult to spend considerable time researching during the semester, when teaching is the priority.
Sehon says that he is only able to spend a few hours a week on his own research while he is teaching. Research is a crucial element of success in academia, and is one of three core expectations for professors in Bowdoin’s Faculty Handbook, along with teaching and service. The results of academic research figure heavily into tenure decisions, and further contribute to the quality of the College’s curriculum.
The work of professors has become a topic of national discussion recently. In March, David Levy, of the Cambridge Information Group, wrote an opinion piece titled, “Do college professors work hard enough?”
In the essay, he proposed that professors take on additional teaching hours to make up for the 30-week academic year.
Sehon finds the idea that professors only work for nine months out of the year little more than a common misconception among those who work outside academia.
“The assumption that we’re on vacation in the summer is complicit, sometimes explicit,” he said.
Sehon, along with six other Bowdoin professors, signed a letter to the editor explaining the demands of professorial work outside the classroom, which was published in the October 12 issue of the Orient.
“Bowdoin professors are expected to be part of the broad enterprise of the arts and sciences: enhancing our understanding of the world around us and producing works of beauty and significance,” they wrote.
In addition to Sehon, Professor Barbara Boyd, Associate Professor Kristen Ghodsee, Associate Professor Page Herrlinger, Professor John Holt, Professor Steve Naculich, and Associate Professor Steve Perkinson signed on to the letter.
Of the seven signatories, five aredepartment heads. The majority of the signatories teach in humanities fields, though the group intended to speak on behalf of a wide array of disciplines.
“We wanted to get a division across disciplines,” said Sehon. “It was not particularly deliberate that it ended up being heavily on the humanities side.”
Sehon speculates that students in the sciences may have a deeper understanding of the research their professors are doing than their peers in the humanities.
“It might be a little more obvious to students because [they] are working for [science professors] directly in their labs,” said Sehon.
Dean of Academic Affairs Cristle Collins Judd said candidates for tenure must demonstrate that they are excellent scholars as well as excellent teachers.
“It’s a really high bar. For the right person, [the College] is a really exciting place to be, but you have to be committed to both [teaching and scholarship]” she said.
Judd believes that undergraduate students are vaguely aware of the scholarly work done by professors, and just do not “articulate” it in the same way that faculty do.
“Certainly when I was an undergraduate I knew that professors had to write and publish things, but I’m not sure I knew exactly how that worked, ” said Liz Shesko, a 2002 graduate of the College and now a postdoctoral fellow.
As for the expectation that professors commit themselves to service to the College, most fulfill this through committee work, and by acting as department chair—a title that rotates amongst faculty within each department.
Sehon estimates that the more arduous committee positions can require up to ten hours of work per week.
Judd notes that in 2007 the number of committee positions was reduced from 143 to 89, with the hope of making this work more concentrated, and giving professors more time off.
Shesko, as a postdoctoral fellow, is excused from this service component.
“I’m lucky in the postdoc that I don’t have the service requirement,” she said.