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“The most stress-free job in the U.S.”

That was the headline for an article that started a kerfuffle over university professors’ work lives. No one's life on the line, job security, working inside, not outside. “Professors just tell students what to do and they do it,” was one claim. I was gobsmacked. I couldn’t argue with the benefits listed, but that particular description was outlandish.

Next I read a manuscript submitted to a journal, and wrote a review of it. It was clear that the author was a student at an early stage of scholarly development; the essay was nowhere close to ready for publication. I could not simply say “This sucks, reject,” and get on with writing something I was interest in — say, this blog post. I realized that was the part of the claim of stress-free professors that had confounded me, and I started to laugh. Right.  I just tell the earnest student who submitted his or her best work, full of hope: “Here, this sucks. Go rewrite it, but say something smart this time.”

I laughed, then started thinking about how much of my academic life involves evaluating others and how much stress is attendant upon that. When I grade students' papers, the excellent ones are a pleasure and the comments are brief:  “OUTSTANDING! Detailed, insightful, original. May I keep a copy to use as a model? A+.” Between a B and a C requires a diagnosis that takes longer. Anything lower than a C takes even longer, because I have to work harder to understand what the writer meant to say.  What interpretation of the assignment led to what they produced? How can I improve the instructions so others will do better next time? Professors joke about it, but sometimes I fear it's true: I may be spending more time grading the paper than the student spent writing it.

Why not simply “this makes no sense, try again?” Because I'm a teacher; I'm paid to teach people, mostly young and impressionable ones, not to destroy their hopes and get them to give up. The easiest part of teaching happens in front of the classroom, or in my office. The hardest part happens with a terrible paper in front of me.

There are many more levels of evaluation: graduate student work, internal reviews of junior faculty, external reviews for promotion and tenure in other departments, reviews of departments, programs, and colleges. I wonder about other professions, having never done anything but this; how much time does an engineer, lawyer, doctor spend evaluating their peers and junior colleagues?

Because these evaluations are written, they take up a lot of precious writing time. The person who receives them will — I know this from receiving them myself — pore over every word, comma, and phrase. Most are read by other people as well as the recipients: committees, editors, decision makers. I not only need to put my finger precisely on what works and what doesn't, I need to say it cleverly enough to prove to those others who read it that I know what I'm talking about.

I'm blessed to spend so much of my life writing. I get satisfaction from feeling I’ve written well, in an evaluation or anything else. I am exhausted by writing evaluations, however, and they keep me from doing my own writing. I certainly won’t complain about the life of a university professor, but the journalist who said it was stress-free had it all wrong.

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Kristine Muñoz

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