My availability

I’m not available to help you as often as you might think, and with good reason.

Some students don’t understand the responsibilities of a professor, and therefore mistakenly think that we are available virtually all the time to help them.  This isn’t the case.

Some rather cynically describe the job of the academic as:

  • 50% teaching,
  • 50% research, and
  • 50% administration.

Actually, that isn’t a bad estimate of the truth, if we just do everything that is ever asked of us.

To offset this potentially unlimited growth of work, some rules have been put in place that define how we manage courses.  One important one is that I am not obliged to respond to emails or other queries from students in the evenings and on weekends.  While I often do try to deal with emails as soon as I get them, answering student emails on weekends is not a priority.  So if you email me late on a Friday, don’t expect an answer till end-of-business the following Monday.

I’m also not obliged to answer email late in the evening, so if you email me at 8pm on a Tuesday, I will likely not even bother to read it till the next morning.

Just to emphasize the point, consider my typical winter semester, in which I only teach MEC222.  The amount of time required per week is roughly as follows:

  • Four two-hour blocks for the labs.  I don’t often stay in the lab itself for all of the lab periods, but I must be available in case I’m needed, and that severely limits what else I can do.
  • One two-hour block for lectures.
  • Two hours per week to prepare the lecture and labs.  This includes specifying homework assignments, setting tests, verifying solutions, making sure the teaching assistants know what to do, making sure SolidWorks works, photocopying materials as required, preparing my lecture notes and making sure I know what I’m saying in lecture, ensuring the teaching assistants are all doing the best they possibly can, etc.
  • Slack to get to and from lectures and labs.  Like it or not, I lose up to a half an hour of productive time each time go to the labs and then return to my office.  Putting on my coat, gathering my teaching materials, walking to the lab, etc.  After lecture it’s even worse because there are always questions.  This amounts to about two hours a week.
  • At least one hour per week meeting with students for various reasons.

This adds up to 15 hours per week.  But these times are scattered unevenly over the week.  It is often the case that I’ll have gaps amounting to two hours a day, but only in 15 minute chunks.  How much work can you get done in 15 minutes?  Not very much.  And every time I have to change task, I have to “reset by brain” to focus on something different.  This takes time.  What happens, then, is that many of those 15 minute chunks are just wasted because it’s just not enough time to get anything done.

That puts us at 17 hours a week.

On paper, I should therefore be spending another 17 hours a week doing research.  (In case you’re wondering about my research, you can learn more from my CV and from the DESIGN link on my home page.)  We’re now at 34 hours per week.

Officially, I should be spending half again of my teaching time doing administrative and “community service” stuff.  This includes contributing to various University committees and initiatives, and just being an “engineer.”  That’s now a grand total of 42.5 hours per week.

Professors at Ryerson are expected to work roughly 40 hours per week.  See the problem?

But wait; it’s worse than that.

I have a family and kids not yet old enough to get around on their own.  My work day is usually limited to only five hours a day because of that – and the commute to and from home.  So that’s only 25 hours a week I’m typically “on the job.”

When do I do the rest of all the stuff I have to do?  At night.  Once the kids’ homework is done and dinner is over, I can sit in front of my computer and try to make up for the lost time.

And that’s just my winter semester, which is light by comparison to my fall semester, during which I teach two courses.  I estimate I spend 22 hours per week on teaching in the fall.  Add another 22 hours for the equivalent research, and 11 hours for administration.  Now we’re at 55 hours per week, far above the Ryerson standard.

It gets even worse, though.  Since workload is calculated annually, and since I should be working about 55 hours per week in the Fall, I should only be working about 30 hours per week in the winter (to average out to about 40 hours per week in a year).  How do I reconcile the 30 hours I should work per week in the winter, with the 42.5 hours I actually do work?

I don’t.  I just keep working.  I’m lucky that I actually enjoy my work (well, most of it anyways), but there reaches a point where I simply must stop because my brain is fried.

I hope this helps students understand why professors can look so haggard, and why sometimes, no matter what we might want to do, we just cannot be available for you.

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