Back in the early 1970s, dumb stunts figured prominently in American life. As a distraction from the tumult of the 60s, jumping over cars on a motorcycle captured the national imagination like nothing else. Evel Knievel was the epitome of motorcycle daredevil, achieving records like 19 cars, 50 stacked cars, and 14 Greyhound buses, but – even more famously – failing in attempts to jump 13 Pepsi delivery trucks (broken collarbone), 13 double-decker buses (broken pelvis), a tank full of sharks (crashed during rehearsal, but inspiring an episode of Happy Days), the Snake River Canyon (parachute deployed early, dragging him back), and the Grand Canyon (no-fun government wouldn’t let him try).
While Evel Knievel did dumb stunts, an even dumber stuntman was a parody character created by comedian Bob Einstein. Super Dave Osborne motored Evel Knievel’s concept right off a cliff, leading to even more serious injuries. Super Dave was run over by a steamroller, pile-driven into the ground, and knocked off the top of Toronto’s CN Tower. But his favorite stunt, as recounted in the HBO documentary The Super Bob Einstein Movie, was King of the Road. The premise was Super Dave didn’t have time to do a stunt that week because he needed to hit the road. Cameras follow as he climbs atop his tour bus where he’d set up a dining area, lounge chairs, exercise bike, and an upright piano. As the bus starts moving, he bids the audience farewell and sits at the piano: “Have a great week, sing along, and let’s end highway profanity!” Super Dave begins playing and singing the song King of the Road. As the bus picks up speed, he turns to the camera: “Remember, if you’re going on a vacation, put a couch on your car!” After a few minutes of playing, singing, and accelerating, the bus (predictably) enters a low-clearance tunnel. Everything on top of the bus, including Super Dave, is totaled.
Here's Patton Oswalt from the documentary: “Let’s end highway profanity? That’s his big crusade? And then he builds this massive disaster around the dumbest PSA you could possibly think of!” Jimmy Kimmel chimes in: “King of the Road is the quintessential Super Dave because… it’s a long, long set up with a great punch line.” No one ever did more work to set up a joke than Super Dave. And while he’d often complain about his injuries, he’d never complain about the work.
College and university faculty could learn a little something from Super Dave. Cries of burnout resound across the higher education landscape. On the heels of the Great Resignation of 2020-21 comes the Great Griping. Although the big picture gives everyone a lot of targets (see e.g., Vladimir Putin, Mitch McConnell, inflation), by most measures most of us are better off than ever. But burnout is specific to work: unhappiness on the job, feeling at the end of one’s rope. And while there are lots of jobs where it’s remarkable such feelings aren’t endemic – including adjuncts trying to cobble together a living one $4K course at a time – I’m getting burned out reading articles about exhausted tenured faculty and administrators planning to leave higher education.
Perhaps it’s burned out education journalists projecting onto their subjects. Or maybe conveying burnout has become fashionable – a form of occupational empathy. But the number and consistency of these reports lead to the conclusion that a sizable percentage of tenured professors and deans actually think the grass is greener on the other side.
They could not be more wrong. As Ray Stantz says in Ghostbusters, “I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results.” A recent NBER paper from economists Corina Boar and Danial Lashkari built an index on the “intrinsic quality of occupations” from survey data on social, physical, intellectual, and control elements of work. The top job by a large margin is college professor, ahead of doctors, engineers, executives, and even entertainers and athletes. And professors are a world away from the worst jobs (factory workers, farmers, truckers). In fact, three of the top four professions are in education (college professor, librarian, K-12 teacher).
This makes more sense to me than raucous shouts of burnout. Most faculty and deans are service providers involved in delivery about 26 weeks per year. The rest of the time, they’re freer than any other profession to pursue their own interests. And for the half-year they teach, the average full-time professor at a four-year college is in the classroom six to nine hours per week; at a community college it can be as high as 15 hours. Compared to other service providers (e.g., health professionals, lawyers, public safety, K-12 teachers), professors are at the very bottom in terms of client-facing hours. And while preparation, grading, and office hours can easily turn teaching into a real full-time job, few faculty seem to be using preparation time to optimize learning outcomes.
If working at a college or university sounds too good to be true, it probably is. College remains walled off from market forces in notable – and likely unsustainable – ways. Let me count them:
For all these reasons, the idea that faculty and deans would be better off leaving higher education belongs in the pantheon of bad educator ideas, right up there with teachers declaring war on moms (or providing Fox News with the pretext to claim that they are).
How have colleges and universities managed to remain as closed off from the rest of the world as they were 1,000 years ago when Bologna, Paris, and Oxford emerged as cloistered communities of learning, protecting scholars from a more fearsome, literal form of burnout? One possibility is that, for an increasing percentage of faculty and deans, the alternative to working on campus isn’t a job in the private sector, but rather retreating to a lake house or chalet.
A new study from the Peterson Institute for International Economics shows 2/3 of Ph.Ds in economics have a parent with a graduate degree (up from 1/5 in 1970), which likely means they were to the manor born. Because it’s even worse at the top schools – at the top 15 programs, 78% of new Ph.Ds have a parent with a graduate degree, only 6% are first-generation college students – econ faculty are less socioeconomically diverse than ever.
It's not just economics. The percentage of Ph.Ds in all areas from privileged backgrounds has more than doubled since 1970 and is over 50% in all but a few subjects. As Andrew Van Dam wrote in the Washington Post last week, “Why do people from elite backgrounds dominate academia?... When many of a job’s rewards are non-monetary, that job tends to be done by people for whom cash is not a concern.” Underscoring the difficulties faced by those for whom cash is a concern, it was painful to see this Twitter thread from a student dropping out of his Ph.D program because “my family and I are simply too poor to continue on an embarrassing stipend with no benefits. The space on credit cards has run out… one of us basically has to be home all the time & we could never afford child care, so there was only room for one full-time job between the two of us. On top of that, our food stamp balance has shrunk.”
I’m not suggesting most faculty don’t need to work. But it’s plausible that’s the case for most complaining faculty. (After all, if your alternative is relaxation or early retirement, I suppose complaints are understandable.) Or maybe the burnout complaints aren’t related to faculty and dean demographics, but rather their proximity to a vibrant – and uniquely American – culture of victim-seeking (Am I a victim? Why I suppose I am… Thank you for asking! Now where’s the nearest support group?).
Regardless, from an education standpoint, colleges and universities could be doing a better job of conveying resilience to students, an increasing percentage of whom are falling short on this metric per employer surveys.
So out with the shouts of burnout! On the occupation index, tenured faculty and deans are the opposite of daredevils.