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Recently, “Academic Twitter” went a little crazy when Jay Van Bavel of NYU reposted and commented on a 2014 Inside Higher Ed piece that had reported that, according to one study, faculty at Boise State University averaged over 60 hours a week at work. But the party really got hopping when Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis chimed in, claiming “I tell my graduate students and post-docs that if they’re working 60 hours per week, they’re working less than the full professors, and less than their peers.” Fireworks ensued. Though Christakis became more nuanced as he answered many of the hundreds of comments that followed (though how he had time, given his first assertion, the mind boggles!), this debate about workload highlighted many of the deepest divides and insecurities in academia.

I had to chuckle, then, when my own institution sent out a Faculty Workload Study (long in the works, by the way) last week. Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for this effort to assess how faculty are spending their time and to find ways to make sure our work is appropriately distributed and compensated. Indeed, I deeply appreciate it. But the spirit and the flesh do not always run together: when it came to my own self-reporting (and I did my best–I really did), I realized later how much under-reporting I had done. I decided not to worry: to be honest, if I had reported how much I actually worked, I’m afraid even now that somewhere a “life-work balance” crisis team would be preparing for some kind of intervention.

Now you may think this essay is about to take a turn into something about cultivating healthy equilibrium or practicing better Sabbath or some such. That’s probably what I should say. But I’m not going to. Instead, all joking aside, it turns out it doesn’t bother me that I’m not going to get every jot and tittle accounted for in the official reckoning of faculty work. And it also doesn’t bother me to have had to witness numerical evidence of just how much time I do spend on work. I love what I do–Calvinistically, every square inch–and I feel lucky to get to do it. What’s more, when the survey asked a version of “what can be done to make things more equal” my response was: not much. Here’s why.

It used to irritate me when people would tell me how extraordinarily busy they were when I knew that-objectively-they were not. High maintenance whiners, they were never heavy lifters, rarely took on any extra task beyond the expected, and often weren’t even doing the expected very well. Yet they would balk and complain, even as others around them worked harder, picked up the slack, went the extra mile. Others who were usually silently, often taken for granted.

Naturally, interacting with this sort of behavior did not bring out the most godly traits in me.

And then it occurred to me that perhaps I should take folks at their word when they said they were busy. Not because I believed it, but because they believed it themselves. That is, just because they didn’t appear busy by any standard I recognized, they felt busy by the standard that they did. They felt full up–and maybe, I realized, they weren’t prevaricating, but reporting experience as they perceived it.

This, in turn, suggested to me a little appreciative parable about glassware. Some folks are shot glasses–they don’t hold much and they overflow quickly, but no one would deny the delight that can come in that small container. On the other hand, some folks are Big Gulps. They have enormous capacity, a durable construction, and they can keep you hydrated all day (in my parable, the Big Gulp is filled with some non-soda alternative). They rarely overflow and don’t need to be refilled very often.

The challenge, of course, is to learn to cherish them both–and all the other assorted glassware that makes up our lives. To know that a fully stocked kitchen has a use for everything.

So, do I hope our Workload Study can propose ways to be more equitable? Sure. But sometimes, as my late mother always said, “you’ve got to know what you’re working with.” The remaining question will always be: how does a faith-filled person handle the inevitable inequities and unfairnesses? One way is acknowledging that our capacities vary widely (and, indeed, vary widely by the task at hand). And being okay with that. Living into that–difficult as our judgmental, always-comparing selves know only too well–seems like at least a small move away from exasperation, resentment, and comparison, and towards ever more grace to ourselves and those around us, no matter what we–and they-can hold.

I’ll raise a glass to that.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


  • James Schaap says:

    Love it, Jennifer. Even though it’s behind me now, I remember being similarly haunted by all-too-human estimations of the work loads of others, specifically those who didn’t have stacks of unmarked papers weighing down the whole darn desk. As you and I both know, we English types have it far worse than anyone else.

    • mstair says:

      “As you and I both know, we English types have it far worse than anyone else.”

      ( … oh brother …)
      now putting on my best “old codger” character …
      English?! English?! Why … I would have welcomed an English class to teach! But , no-oooo …. I had to teach theatre which was everything you did PLUS working on productions! Rehearsals – nonstop – for days on end! Why I remember …. (here, I just wander off to the back of the dark theatre mumbling – while looking for my misplaced reading glasses …)

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Very interesting piece. I agree that teachers – good ones – have heavy workloads. As with many occupations in the service field, it’s hard to get an increase in productivity out of a teacher in a traditional classroom. Online instruction has increased productivity in the educational field to some extent, but often can’t provide as quality a product as live classroom teaching, particularly with the liberal arts.

    Regarding “how does a faith-filled person handle the inevitable inequities and unfairnesses?” Realize and accept that Big Gulps get rewarded more than Shot Glasses. Also, if you are currently a Shot Glass, try becoming a Big Gulp.

    I certainly hope Nicholas Christakis is a Big Gulp. He could win Courageous Professor of the Decade for taking on not only his coworkers but also, a while back, his snowflake students:

    (I’m reminded of Calvin’s own Smowflake Incident when I watch this)

    Finally, I once had a real office-type job (for 1 year, 3 months, and 8 days) and found that the George Costanza strategy of behavior worked for me:

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