Certain Problems of American College Teachers

Ever since the introduction into American factories of the forty-hour week, the actual working-hours of American industrial workmen have been increasing; until in our day this practice attains extraordinary proportions. The many people who hear much about the virtues of a reduced work-week, caused by Inexorable Industrial Progress, do not know about this fact. The fashionable preoccupation with What to Do with Our Increased Leisure, too, obscures this condition.

For the practice of “moonlighting,” the habit of holding two or more jobs concurrently, is growing. It does not seem much affected by the variations of national prosperity, for it flourishes among the regularly employed, and at a time when their earnings are higher than ever before. Nor is it restricted to industrial workers. I believe that the practice of moonlighting among American college teachers has not yet received the attention it deserves. During the long debate about the problems and the prospects of American intellectuals in recent years, this was not mentioned.

I am a moonlighting professor; and so are most of my colleagues. I belong, however, to the minority-faction of “open” moonlighters. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I teach in one college; in another on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The accepted standard of teaching hours for college professors in this country is twelve per week. There have been years in which I have taught twenty-three hours per week; I never have taught less than eighteen. Officially I am listed as a part-time man, visiting lecturer, or visiting professor, in one of my colleges. But there is little part-time in character about my work, my classes, my duties to the students, including the administrative work of recommending them to graduate schools.

The reason for my moonlighting is simple. Only thus can I obtain a combined salary that enables me to have the minimum of comfort needed for myself and my family. If I were to leave for a position with a well-endowed college or university, my basic salary would be higher, and I would teach fewer hours; but it might not quite equal my present combined salary, at least not initially; and there are “fringe benefits,” emotional, personal, sentimental attachments, and a great deal of benevolence on the part of my religious employers, that I do not wish to relinquish. Thus I do not complain. My position is unusual, not typical. Also, I am still in my thirties. Teaching, to me, comes easily. It is only recently that I have begun to feel some tiredness and a temptation to occasional laziness in my work. Still, I am not writing about myself. I am concerned with the great majority of my colleagues, with the “closed” moonlighters.

These “closed” moonlighters work in a pattern that must be depressingly familiar to everyone who knows something about the lives of teachers in certain colleges. Officially, they are hired for the usual twelve or fifteen hours of weekly teaching. It is then immediately promised to them that they will be given “a couple of classes” in the Evening Division. Since the Evening Division pays generously, the combined salary, especially to the newcomer, is comforting and promising. There is often no special mention of the Evening Division faculties in the college catalogue. But the salary is combined; its separation is merely for the “official” records; in many places one check goes out for both jobs. You are not forced to teach night school. You are not even enticed to do so. But, to earn a living, you must.

Since for accreditation purposes the Evening classes must run for a certain number of hours, evening school begins in early September and ends in late June. The Christmas and Easter recesses are drastically shortened. The classes are large; the students—young businessmen, workers, veterans—are tired; they sit wearily after eight or ten hours of day work, after a long subway ride, under the fluorescent classroom lights in the dark winter evenings. The teachers are tired, too. Their last regular class ended at three or four in the afternoon. They had to hurry home, gulp a quick dinner, bound back in the middle of the rush-hour traffic. They have to teach two classes only, and two nights a week, to be sure: but these classes run 75, 80, 85 minutes each, and there is often but a five-minute recess. Thus twice a week these moonlighting professors are standing in a classroom, lecturing, talking, for no less than seven hours, of which the last three come at the end of the day and in a row.

I repeat that most of my colleagues are moonlighting in this way. A minority tries to avoid evening school by moonlighting elsewhere during the day, usually in some junior college, teaching inferior students, listed—in some ways fraudulently—in the catalogue of these colleges as if they were full-time members. Finally there are other forms of “closed” moonlighting; Summer School, Adult School, and, in recent years, a growing number of administrative jobs, “assistantships” in the college offices. These, through the enticement of a considerable salary increase, are usually offered to the brighter young members of the faculty. Unwilling to contemplate the uninspiring chores of making up roster after roster, semester after semester, they grasp at the opportunity with eagerness. Thereafter they get stuck.

It is with this problem of college professors getting stuck that I am here concerned. As Mr. Edward M. Ryan wrote in America (May 17, 1958) about the industrial workers: “My concern with moonlighting is not so much with the employer-employee problem it creates as with its effects on American family and home life.”

We must, of course, recognize that the problems of the college professor and of the industrial worker are not quite the same. In a way, when one is engaged in an intellectual profession, one is continually moonlighting. The artificial divisions between “work” and “recreation,” so aptly criticized by T. S. Eliot and by the German theologian Josef Pieper (Leisure: The Basis of Culture), should not, and do not, prevail in intellectual occupations. College teachers write books, attend conferences, discuss problems, read in their spare time, always to some extent with their professional advancement in mind. In writing this very article I am, in a way, moonlighting. But here is the essential difference. I am not only writing this article with the eventual check in mind. It is true that many professors write books because the publisher offers them good money, lecture to women’s clubs because they are offered a nice honorarium, engage in a government contract that pays promptly and well. Yet no matter how high the offer, the professor prefers not to write on something that does not interest him at all; and to the women’s club he prefers to speak on a topic to which he believes that attention ought to be drawn. My point is that as long as such work is not mere labor for money’s sake, it is not really moonlighting. But to grasp a government research contract for mere hackwork, to put off forever the writing of that interesting book or even of that long overdue doctoral dissertation for the money offered for making classroom schedules and freshman rosters, to teach the same course in two places or three times in a row is moonlighting, and very bad moonlighting indeed. It should not be encouraged by so many college administrators.

On the other hand, the college teachers themselves are also to blame. I am not speaking here of the docility, nay, the willingness with which many of them who could do better go along with extreme practices of moonlighting. Nor am I going to analyze the particularly modern, and specifically American origins of moonlighting: they are to be found within the present ethos of Labor for Labor’s Sake, within diffused but strong survivals of the Puritan temper, within the social structure that arises in welfare states, within the insecure materialism and within the purposeless fretfulness that is so characteristic of our time—with activity for activity’s sake, with its strong fragmentary indications of intellectual schizophrenia. It is not with this last condition that I am concerned.

I have said elsewhere that I do not really believe that American college teachers are notoriously underpaid, and that I neither believe that they are particularly mistreated or disrespected by the masses of the so-called “non-intellectuals.” I said that one cannot expect to be respected by others if one does not have enough respect for oneself and for one’s own profession, and that the “American intellectual problem” is largely, though not exclusively, due to the reduced aspirations of professional intellectuals within the modern welfare state. The compromised extent and quality of their leisure is but a consequence of this. It is true that the organization of life in the United States now is such that there is less and less free time even if one’s professional “loads” are lightened. But it is also true that “leisure” cannot be confused with “recreation,” since true leisure is inseparable from a higher kind of work, which depends on personal concerns but not on the availability of time set aside. It is true that our servantless, suburban, mechanized and increasingly complex daily round of life makes it more and more difficult for the college teacher to enjoy that minimum of leisure and of contemplative detachment which is so necessary for his intellectual perspective and for the proper approach to his craft. But it is also true that fewer and fewer professional intellectuals by now have ever known that sort of detachment; andthe question arises whether they are at all capable of acquiring a taste for it. The practice of moonlighting among college teachers, therefore, is a symptom rather than a cause of deeper personal, spiritual, ethical—and national—problems.

Still, the full development of this practice should be halted. There is reason to believe that the majority of college teachers in this country are moonlighting (and this may be especially true of our Catholic colleges). This keeps great numbers of young people among them not only from finishing their doctoral work but from that minimum of time for reading and writing which is essential not so much for their “academic advancement” but for the proper exercise of their intellectual profession. I believe that gradually their intellectual talents are weakened, their aspirations drained, their sensitivity and perhaps even their character impaired. I believe that this not only has deleterious effects which discourage the rise of first-class scholars, but that it affects adversely the very quality of teaching in our colleges.

Here is a problem that must be solved with candor. The complicated and often deceptive salary-statistics and practices must be dropped. I have already suggested that what some people call “the American intellectual problem” will not be solved by doubling faculty salaries. We may as well be practical and say that the twelve-hour week may no longer be valid, in these times of mass education. Let the colleges demand sixteen hours a week from their instructors and professors. But in exchange they must abandon the promotion, and possibly even the toleration, of moonlighting. For these sixteen hours, then, the colleges should pay moderate but sensible salaries for their full-time faculty people. Professors should be required, in turn, to be full-time men in the good sense of that term.  

John A. Lukacs (1924–) is a historian who taught for many years at Chestnut Hill College in Pennsylvania.
In this 1961 essay, a young John Lukacs offers a prescient look at the practical problems of the college and university teacher in the United States. Their situation has not been materially improved in the fifty years since this was written.