I suppose it can be an honest question, depending who asks it. My good guy neighbor across the street is in sales. If he's curious about comparing our work days, that's a good conversation. We could trade examples of our "busy times," talk about the flexibility of our schedules, discuss our degree of autonomy on the job, explain to each other how we're supervised and held accountable, etc.
If I'm talking with a family member we might get into deeper details like pay, promotions, the reward structure, retirement plan, and the like.
I like talking about work so if anyone takes an interest in my work schedule or how I go about my work, I'm happy to chat about it.
My goal is to do the job and do it well, not work X amount of hours. A college professor can be at their office all day on a Saturday. That's dedication. One such professor might take 4 hours to write a paragraph and another might spend that time grading a batch of papers.
Some of the chatter around professors and their work life comes with a built in assumption that work should be miserable. You should have to toil and grind and be exhausted. Why do we assume work should be that way?
The chatter is also based around our incessant need to quantify everything. Tell me exactly how many hours you work and provide evidence of what you produced in that time. My barber can easily do this. I know because we shoot the shit about work and he can tell me how many hours he works and how many haircuts he usually gives on a Saturday, for example. His haircuts per day would look good on a spreadsheet. Do you want to see my book pages read per day on a spreadsheet?
College professors work a 100 different ways at various speeds. All of us can quantify how much time we spend in the classroom and in our office for office hours (if we have an office and hold office hours). The rest it difficult to quantify, if we want to quantify our work, and I challenge the expectation that we should have to do so. The job for a full-time professor like me is to do high quality work in teaching, scholarship, and service. An NFL team must be good at offense, defense, and special teams. Those are the three phases of the game. College professors work hard at being good at all three phases of university life. People bring different skill sets and preferences to the tower. So one person thrives in service while another busts it with scholarly activity. Others rock it in the classroom every year their whole career. I have many colleagues who are superb teacher-scholars and make meaningful service contributions. They are all-stars.
What does it matter if Good Professor works 30 or 40 or 60 or 80 hours a week? Can they do the job and do it well? That's more important to ask, in my opinion. And if we really care about people and professions we should ask professors if they are satisfied with their lives. Do they feel good about the work they do? Do they have enough time outside work to pursue other interests? Do they sleep enough, do they feel in good health? How do they feel emotionally and spiritually? How is family and friend life? How are their finances?
Maybe there is a sneaking suspicion that professors don't work hard enough. Would the critics feel better if Professors reported spending exactly X hours in meetings and exactly X hours in class preparation and exactly X hours in e-mail and exactly X hours in grading and exactly X hours in reading and exactly X hours in writing and exactly X hours in advising and exactly X hours in teaching and exactly X hours in creating and exactly X hours in thinking? Yes, creativity and thinking are part of the job and you can't quantify it and shouldn't have to. You also can't quantify how much a professor cares about students. I am fortunate to work with people who care a lot about students and show their care and concern by teaching hard, writing recommendation letters, mentoring, doing career counseling, listening, cheering, encouraging, and working with students in countless other ways.
Most of us care a lot about our jobs and put in the work to do our jobs well. Working 80 hours a week shouldn't be the goal unless that's someone's personal goal.
Author's note: I'm a full-time associate professor who is writing from my experience as a full-time professor. I consider myself fortunate to make a good living working securely at one place. This piece does not address the precarious situation of adjunct faculty. Here are links to pieces that examine the experiences of adjunct faculty:
Adjunct Project Reveals Wide Range in Pay
‘The Great Shame of Our Profession’
The College President-to-Adjunct Pay Ratio
When a college contracts ‘adjunctivitis,’ it’s the students who lose
Background Facts on Contingent Faculty
One more note: To gain understanding of the experiences of faculty from marginalized backgrounds, read the Conditionally Accepted blog.