Lecturers work around the clock
What a way to make a living
Lukas Linsi gets up at 7 a.m. every morning. His children will probably be awake already, so he has to move quickly. Get them clothed, washed, and fed; prepare their lunch boxes. He’ll only have time for a quick coffee before he sees them off to primary school.
When he comes back, the assistant professor of political economy at the Faculty of Arts will go straight to his laptop – he fortunately has a work space in his house – and open up Nestor to start his day. He may work on redesigning his course for the next block. He has done that a couple of times already since the start of the pandemic, but since he doesn’t teach the same course every block, he’s still adjusting.
Or he may prepare for the lesson that will start in an hour or so. Checking slides, sending reminder emails to students, recording YouTube videos for his classes. And even though it doesn’t feel as awkward as it did in March 2020, online teaching still takes way more time than expected.
Before he knows it, it’s three o’clock. He’ll have had a quick bite to eat during the lunch break. There’s not much time for that. Sometimes he even forgets to eat at all. ‘The work just consumes you.’
Then the kids come home. Working with two small children in the house is next to impossible, he’s found. They need attention or help with their homework, they have to be taken to a play date or sports training. So he may do some quick shopping with his wife, prepare dinner, eat. But even then, work still slips into his schedule as emails with questions big or small keep coming in.
The work just consumes you
As soon as the kids go to bed, he starts the second part of the workday, the part that he tries to reserve for research. He has to read articles, write his own, analyse data, submit plans for research funding. At the moment, he’s collaborating with colleagues around the world (and in different time zones) on four different research articles. In the meantime, he’s preparing two grant proposals.
‘I love my academic career’, he says. ‘But it’s hard to balance research and teaching. Teaching takes almost all of my official working hours, but when you want to advance in your career, it’s all about research output. We hardly have time for that.’
On most days, he’ll work until 11 p.m. The weekends are reserved for research or for grading papers, ‘when that time comes’.
Linsi puts in around ten to twenty hours of overtime a week. ‘It’s one thing to pull a long day every once in a while, to finish a project or deal with a crisis, but it’s another to routinely stay late’, he says.
He’s not alone in this. Groningen student movement DAG calculated that all UG lecturers together work over ten thousand hours of overtime a day. The problem has existed for years, but since corona, the situation has worsened. ‘We had to figure out how to teach online. It requires quite some thinking and preparation, but we don’t have enough time for it’, says Jessica de Bloom, associate professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business.
The exams had to change too. With students taking their tests in their rooms, it was too easy to cheat. ‘We needed to work with open questions. But checking all those answers is a massive job.’
And then there are the many, many questions that students ask, especially when exams are coming up. ‘It seems impossible to get my students to turn on their microphone and ask questions after lectures’, says Marcos Guimarães, assistant professor at the Faculty of Science and Engineering. ‘So I get a lot of emails, with very short questions.’
I’d have to book a time slot for lunch in advance
It’s not that he doesn’t want to help out, but when a student asks him something during class, he’s done in ten seconds. When they email him, it will easily take two or three minutes. And so another hour will slip away as he’s answering questions. ‘I often skip my lunch break so I can at least finish up around 8 p.m.’, he says.
For Guimarães, going for a spontaneous lunch is almost inconceivable. ‘I’d have to book a time slot in my agenda in advance’, he says. ‘I basically live and die by my agenda.’
Guimarães loves his job, too. And he loves to teach. He has been trying to pull out all the tricks he can think of to make his students pay attention – digital polls, interactive presentations, slides, unusual reading material. But that also means that he has to use his weekends for ‘catching up with what my wife – who also works at the university – and I could not do over the week’.
Around the clock
The last year has been hard on him. Working from home may have sounded okay in the beginning, since he didn’t have to cycle to work and might even see his family more, but it has taken its toll. ‘Sometimes I have two or three classes back-to-back and it’s awful! I don’t even have the chance to go from one room to another to get my mind off things for a bit’, he says.
De Bloom recognises that. ‘Your home becomes your workplace and it’s so easy to work around the clock.’ Often, after finishing up, she’ll pass her desk and see her laptop and decide to check something. What starts out as a quick look ends up taking an hour.
Then there’s the research that they have to do, just to be able to advance their career. Again, they all love it. But with the pressure of education and students who might not pass their exams when their teachers slow down on one side, and the push to publish in high-quality papers on the other, that too has ‘turned into a rat race where everyone is trying to publish as many papers as possible’, Linsi says.
De Bloom tries to manage the workload as best she can. She works with a Google Calendar schedule to get things out of her head. She also allows herself long breaks when the sun is out, so she may not reply to her emails immediately. However, she doesn’t expect her colleagues and students to, either. Her messages contain a line saying: ‘My working day may not be the same as yours. Please don’t feel obliged to reply to this email outside of your working hours.’
I only finish 80 percent of my tasks every day
Guimãeres issued himself a challenge: stop working at 7 p.m. every day. Then, after two months, exams came around and he was working overtime again.
Linsi tries to make more realistic task lists. ‘I only finish around 80 percent of my tasks every day. The rest I move back. But that’s extremely frustrating, to have to admit to yourself: I couldn’t get it done.’
They all hope vaccination will mean that their workload will be lightened, at least for a little bit. Still, even though they look forward to giving physical lectures again, they don’t have much hope for real relief. ‘The number of students is growing every year’, De Bloom says. ‘And there isn’t enough academic personnel. Something definitely has to change.’