I'm used to the envious comment my friends always make: you university professors, your lives are so relaxed...every week you only have to attend a few classes...you get summer vacation...you don't have to stress over your students' admission rates like high-school teachers do. But even after three years as a university professor, I don't feel relaxed in the slightest.
You might think I'm simply not recognizing happiness despite it being right in front of my face, but read on, and you'll realize that the work and life of a professor is far from easy.
I'm an English professor at a Chinese university. The stresses of my job come in three forms: teaching, research, and professional development.
Whereas high school teachers spend a great deal of time worrying about their students' university admission rates, the stress of being a university professor is much different. First, preparing lesson plans is extremely stressful. University students want in-depth knowledge and experience. Simply teaching from the textbook cannot give them the knowledge they need. Thus, when I put together my lesson plans, I need to gather a variety of information that relates to the class and covers a variety of different topics.
When preparing for lessons, I'll put together a vocabulary list, find recent headline news, and make a list of cultural differences, among other things. After doing this, I combine it with the textbook content in an organized and well thought out manner, find an appropriate slideshow template, and finally fuse it all into a class. This process usually takes quite a few days, and so I have to spend more effort on each class than the previous one. It's anything but a breeze.
The second stressful part of being a professor is teaching class. Is teaching still difficult if you've already carefully prepared for class, you may wonder? Of course! In addition to answering various questions from my students, I have to deal with other faculty members sitting in on my classes, and I'm also subject to supervisor reviews. Professors from different teaching and research sections and even different universities alternate sitting in on one another's classes. The university's teaching supervision group also takes part. As a professor, I'm subject to round after round of tests like these, and none of it is easy.
In addition to the stress of teaching, professors are also under intense pressure to conduct research. Universities evaluate professors based on the quality of their instruction as well as on their research capabilities. This means that in addition to preparing and delivering excellent classes, we also have to write papers and conduct research. Take me, for example. My research interests are culture and translation, so in addition to the classes I teach, I also need to read a plethora of literature about translation and culture, and then based on recent popular topics in academia I must find my own own angle, make an outline, write a rough draft, edit repeatedly, and complete a final draft. The entire process of publishing a paper—from the preliminary planning stages to when I finally see it in print—requires an exorbitant amount of energy and dedication.
But these are only the steps for writing a paper. Conducting research is even more involved. There is a pile of application materials I have to deal with, followed by many requisite stamps of approval. Younger professors need to contact veteran professors. Doctorate holders must be a part of your research group, and they must recommend and support your research project in a joint application. The acceptance rate for research proposals is pitifully low. If you want to do research, it's no picnic.
A single day at school should inspire lifelong learning. While university professors are imparting their knowledge to students, they must also keep up with the times by constantly absorbing new knowledge and improving their professional skills. Normally, I get up at six o'clock every day and teach my first class at eight. In between I spend half an hour reading the headline news in the China Daily, making sure to jot down notes on anything that looks relevant or meaningful. The longer I persist in this habit, the more I reap its benefits. There are stacks and stacks of books I want to read, and on countless subjects—translation theory, classic translations, cultural differences between China and the West, Chinese and Western classics—but my time is limited. Whenever I'm not preparing for lessons, teaching, or writing a paper, I read, listen to English recordings, translate, and learn about culture. It's anything but easy.
So is the life of a university professor a relaxing one? Ask any professor, and they'll give you the same answer: not one bit! But we all love our profession. Year after year we interact with hopeful, ambitious, lovely young students, and we give them everything we can to help them grow to realize their full potential. We may be tired, but we're happy. We're busy, yet content.