Sunday, January 20, 2013

The vagaries of leisure

So here is old news: being married to someone who stays at home and takes care of your entire domestic and family life makes you a more productive academic:*
Robert B. Townsend, deputy director of the AHA, surveyed 2,240 associate and full professors of history and released the findings in this month's Perspectives on History. Female historians who were either married or had been married at the time of the 2010 survey took an average of 7.8 years to move from associate to full professor. Women who had never married were promoted in an average of 6.7 years. Almost two times as many of the female full professors listed their status as divorced or separated, which suggests their professional obligations were somehow less compatible with marriage than their male colleagues. They were also more likely than their male colleagues to have never wed at all. Conversely, male historians who were or had been married advanced in 5.9 years. The unmarried man took 6.4 years, a bit longer.
On its face, that makes perfect sense. More free time = more work done. But are there limits to the association of leisure and productivity, given that leisure is by definition (old definition, I know) not productive, and production is not leisure?

For example, let us delve into the annals of self-absorption and consider why I have been far less productive so far during my year of having no professional or familial responsibilities and sponging off my husband in a land of swaying palm trees than I ever was when I had to perform the many menial obligations of graduate school, like teaching and conference organizing and appearing, sober and dressed, to weekly workshops, while my husband was discharging his law student obligations and we both lived in the icy climes of New England? Obviously, I could just be an outstandingly lazy person, an n=1 in the study testing responses to unrestrained leisure. And while I admit some shortcomings in diligence, past evidence does not suggest that I'm a layabout, but more like a generally energetic Lockean squirrel that nonetheless hibernates when task performance is obstructed by the onset of winter or the acorns seem really far away.

And in general, if minimizing domestic and professional concerns leads to academic productivity, how do we explain the surprisingly long time-to-degree of so many graduate students, many (most?) of whom are not married, and have few domestic obligations to discharge for themselves? Washing one's single plate and changing the linens on the futon once a year is hardly keeping most grad students from completion. Shouldn't they be racing along compared to all the female academics who have to juggle babies and publications? But their time-to-degree (eight years) is exactly the same as the time-to-promotion of married women, which means that they spend 5-6 years on the dissertation alone while having fewer teaching responsibilities (TAing being less work than teaching one's own class), thereby accomplishing less than the female married prof after eight years. Free time doesn't account for this discrepancy.

But perhaps this is explained in the statistic about unmarried men taking longer to promote than married men, who reach the finish line faster than anyone. Perhaps leisure as freedom from professional and domestic responsibility is not all that compatible with productivity, because the single grad student is arguably the most leisured of all these categories, and yet the least productive. Singledom with its associated loneliness and social disrepute might hold people up a bit, but probably not much, because if having a partner is all the difference, I'd be in productivity nirvana right now with both a husband and free time, and yet the magics are not having their effect. It seems more likely that this situation, and not free time, has all kinds of productivity-boosting power for men. The impetus to work would then not be unhurried leisure per se, but rather almost its opposite - external pressure of a not undesired variety. (As opposed to variety whereby the Persians whipped their soldiers to face the Spartans.) But, all things being equal, this still doesn't explain why no domestic situation - determined singledom, marriage, divorce - puts women on equal footing with men. Are there really that many diversity seats to fill on committees?

*I'm confused by the measure of productivity they've chosen. What is time to promotion supposed to indicate exactly? Is there a standard timeline for it, or does it happen whenever a certain amount of post-tenure productivity has been demonstrated, assuming the point here is to measure post-tenure work? Or pre-tenure but post-hiring work? I don't have access to the full study, but anyone in the know want to clarify?

UPDATE: This point is not related to the relationship between leisure and productivity, but I felt it would be remiss not to note the vicarious Linda Hirschman-esque tone of this claim:
"If men can continue to find wives who will abandon their professional aspirations to assist their husbands, well, that's it in a nutshell...The degree of backsliding in the current generation is stunning."
Well, ladies, what shall we do under such harsh chastisements? Shall we stage a Lysistrata to get tenure? Or, if it's too late for that and this situation has already come to pass, perhaps we should take Caterina Sforza's attitude to her children's captors as our model for spousal relations?


Flavia said...

I absolutely agree that more freedom from responsibilities doesn't correlate as strongly with increased productivity as one might expect; doing more things actually does, up to a point, make one more productive. (I've learned and re-learned this sad truth every time I have a fellowship year/semester or a leave.)

But it's that "up to a point" that leads to my caveats:

1. Most grad students don't have as few responsibilities as those in my and your programs. Most are teaching their own classes--often multiple sections of their own classes--from at least their second year if not their first. They don't have guaranteed dissertation fellowship years. And lots of those, especially outside of top programs (which skew younger) are married/have live-in partners.

All of this is still, generally, less responsibility than what a junior professor has. But learning how to teach, and learning how to write a dissertation, means those tasks can take up more time in the early years than they do later. Hence (part of the explanation for) the prolonged time to degree.

2. Working a demanding tenured/tenure-track job while having a stay-at-home spouse who takes care of many/most domestic chores doesn't, I think, produce the same effect as having no responsibilities except writing/research. If you still have to teach classes, advise dissertations, serve on committees, etc., you're still extremely busy. The extra maybe 10-15 hours a week you gain from having someone else do the cooking and cleaning and shopping means you can squeeze in some writing, even during term-time, whereas your single colleague or your colleague with a working partner may not be able to, or may be able to do considerably less. (I'm not saying that that some of that time gained doesn't get wasted, but there's more breathing room.)


Finally, re: time to promotion to full: there isn't a standard clock for promotion to full in the way there is for tenure. Many departments won't let you go up sooner than X years post-tenure, but getting promoted to full is generally based on achieving certain specific measure, such as a second (or third) book. Plenty of people never make it to full at all, but stall out at associate.

Miss Self-Important said...

So is what they're measuring loosely the time it takes to write and publish one book, assuming you have at least one complete by the time you get the associate rank, and need one more to get to full professor? If that's the case, never mind, grad students are doing great! Two yrs of coursework, plus one year of aimlessly groping about for a topic, and then 3-5 yrs of writing something that aspires to be a book while TA-ing. That seems on par with 6-8 yrs writing a book while teaching, advising, and committee sitting.

I'm puzzled by your #2 though - first, if the marginal gain of being relieved from domestic tasks is not all that significant, then why would married women fall two years behind married men? And why would single men and women still differ - are women just more compulsive cleaners? Also, shouldn't I have written TWO dissertations by now, since that's precisely the balance of domestic to professional obligations I have at the moment - some domestic labor, zero professional obligation? (Does any of this account for childcare? I think that must take more than 10-15 hrs a week. 10-15 hrs a week is about how much I spend on my home maintenance w/o children.)

Withywindle said...

We should have our children start to harvest footnotes at the earliest possible age. Children must support our professional endeavors, not distract from them. This is already allowed to Amish professors; there is no reason not to universalize their model.

Flavia said...

Two (totally contradictory) thoughts:

First, having an additional 10 hours a week to write, for let's say 32-34 weeks of the year, isn't actually a marginal gain. That's a LOT of additional time, especially when spread out over multiple years.

Second, despite what I've just said, I actually don't agree with the premise of the article that it's being married that helps or hurts one's career. I mean, yes: it's nice to have someone to share chores with, but how many men have stay-at-home spouses in the absence of kids? And really: a dual-career couple can just hire a damn cleaning service and get food delivery and make up some time that way.

That's not to say that dual-career couples don't have problems that single-career couples don't--two high-powered careers do cause stress and place limitations on where one can live, what opportunities one can pursue, and so forth--but I just don't see the difference as really meaningful unless you add kids into the mix.

It's having kids that does it, pretty much entirely. That's where either having or not having a stay-at-home (or slow-tracked spouse) makes all the difference. My colleague with a child and a stay-at-home wife probably has as many demands on his time as childless me (given that my spouse works in a different state, we have two household to maintain, and hours of commuting each week). Indeed, I'm willing to suppose that he has more. But if my spouse and I lived in the same place, had our same careers, AND had a kid? There's no question that I'd have much less time than my colleague.

Withywindle said...

A subtext: the declining relative wealth of the professoriate over the last several generations--a one- or two- professor family was probably better able to afford child care. One might say that the slow reduction of living standards of even the tenure-tracked makes research ever more of a necessarily dispensable luxury. Or we will return to our bachelor origins of sheer necessity.

Andrew Stevens said...

Withywindle, statistics on professorial income please? Because I'm betting that's false. The only people who have been declining in relative wealth in the last few decades are white men without college degrees. Everybody else is getting richer relative to them.

Andrew Stevens said...

Just to clarify: because people with college degrees have been getting relatively wealthier does not necessarily mean that the professoriate is as well. It is possible that they're getting poorer. I just really doubt it. (If they are on average getting poorer, I expect to find that this is because of the expanding professoriate and, if you compare apples to apples, you would get a different result. I.e. professors at every single university have gotten richer, but there are more third-tier universities now to drag down the average. However, I actually expect to find that even this explanation isn't needed.)

Miss Self-Important said...

Withywindle: Oh, I wouldn't be concerned about the legality of underage footnote-harvesting. Children are permitted to labor, uncompensated, in family-owned agricultural enterprises before 16, so long as they also attend school full-time. I plan to employ mine in the cultivation of smaller gardens that will someday grow into articles, while I take care of the more labor-intensive book fields.

Flavia: Yes, I agree with the second point about children. I was surprised that that this study used marriage as a proxy and didn't just ask directly about children and the division of child-rearing responsibilities. Is that too personal to ask? I'm also skeptical that the discrepancy b/w men and women that this study found is going to change that much. I doubt that naughty women's "backsliding" and an increasing number of female stay-at-home PhDs is behind it. On the contrary, fewer female PhDs are probably staying home now than before. But once children arrive, I'm not sure that the precise nature of the "productivity" sparked by their appearance looks the same in both spouses.

On professorial wealth: I think that would be hard to say across the board since salaries vary within and across institutions. An associate prof salary at a top private school is over $100k (anyone have data?), whereas the same position at, for example, Illinois's lower-tier state universities, pays around $75k, and it seems to hover around $100 for UIUC, the flagship. (This is just from eyeballing, not math.) $150k is enough to support most families or pay for luxury childcare, but whether you can support a family on $75k depends a lot on where you live, how many kids you have, and whether any of them have chronic health problems. But with two $75k earners, you can probably afford childcare in most places, can't you?

Andrew Stevens said...

Okay, found some statistics for nominal professor salary surveys since 1986. Even better, it broke out history professors in particular. >Here's the link. Using an inflation calculator to convert, we have:

Historians, public colleges:

1986-7: $35,000 ($68,200 in 2011 dollars)
2010-11: approx. $63,000 (a 7.7% decline)

All faculty, public colleges:

1986-7: approx. $33,000 ($64,300)
2010-11: approx. $73,000 (a 15.1% increase)

Historians, private colleges:

1986-7: approx. $32,500 ($63,300)
2010-11: approx. $65,500 (a 3.5% increase)

All faculty, private colleges:

1986-7: approx. $32,000 ($62,350)
2010-11: approx. $70,500 (a 13.1% increase)

So it is decidedly false that professorial salaries in general are declining. In fact, given that these are real to real, the 15% and 13% increases in the last 25 years are actually startlingly high, compared to other professions. So the professoriate is, as I expected, getting relatively wealthier.

However, history professors in particular have done only all right at private colleges and are, in fact, declining at public colleges. So Withywindle's idea that the professoriate is declining, which seemed silly to me (who is on the outside and has only noticed how much richer in general college faculties have been getting), makes sense if we take into account his parochial point of view (i.e. his own field).

Sorry, Withywindle, but your statement flew in the face of what I believed was my own knowledge of the subject, so it cried out for investigation.

Withywindle said...

Andrew: I meant since the 1930s. So, Googling, here are doubtless insufficient sources, that confirm what I seem to remember reading. First:

Figure 2, P. 12, "Ratio of each occupation's income to wages earned by 2000 hours of nonfarm unskilled labor (ratio scale)"

Associate professors earn more than 4x average income when the series begins ca. 1910. There are ups and down, but post-WW2 they are never much above 2X, and have dipped below 2X by the early 1970s. Then:

Table 4, p. 195, "Ratio of Average Faculty to US Worker Salary; All Full Time 9-10 Month Recessions; (1970-2007)

This starts with faculty at ca. 1.84x in 1970, which agrees well with the first table, a decline to ca. 1.66x in 1980, a rise back to ca. 1.81x in 1991, and then a steady decline to ca. 1.62x in 2007.

Now, what I was referring to was the decline in relative pay from 4x in 1910 to 1.62x in 2007; it's less dramatic, but the decline has also been pretty steady in my lifetime, save for the uptick in the 1980s--which failed at its end in 1991 to bring faculty back to where they had been in 1970. A two-earner faculty family in 2007 has the same pay ratio that one professor still commanded in the 1930s.

Now, there is then the question as to whether declining pay ratios translates into declining ability to afford child care. For that, no immediate statistics, but I suspect that child care has grown relatively more expensive since 1910, although I don't have a strong sense of the changes in that figure since 1970.

I don't know whether these figures harmonize with the figures you provided.

Let me rephrase my original point: I think some of the demands placed on professors implicitly assume, "professors earn 2x to 4x what the average American workers earn; they won't have any problem doing research, since they can easily afford child care." I think the mismatch between demands on professors, and what they can actually produce, is in some significant measure the mismatch between (at a minimum) 2x and 1.62x.

Andrew Stevens said...

Withywindle: An excellent retort. If the figures do harmonize, then I must be wrong about something in terms of how much the average income has grown in those 25 years. (Because I generally look at median rather than mean, I'm guessing that alone may be the difference.)

Obviously, the decline from 1910-1970 would be partly due to A) the generally declining Gini coefficient in the U.S. at that time - all the rich got poorer compared to the common person, not just professors and B) the expanding professoriate. I.e. it would hardly surprise me if the top 10% of professors still got paid four times as much as average and there are probably roughly ten times as many professors per capita as there was back in 1910.

However, neither of those reasons would invalidate your general point. As for child care costs, I know nothing about them whatsoever, since my wife is a stay-at-home mother. My instinct on this is that you're right and they have increased quite a bit relative to salaries (certainly since 1910). On the other hand, there are tax benefits to child care that didn't used to exist and you have to tease those out of the figures, assuming you even have figures to work with.

Anyway, I could reconcile all of this, but it will require some time spent in the Census. (Unfortunately, it's hard to get good income/wealth statistics without doing that sort of thing oneself since most people who write about such things have an agenda to push, usually a really obvious one. So they'll use mean instead of median, or vice versa, or personal income instead of household, or vice versa, etc., depending on what it is they want to be able to "prove.")

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, MSI, loved the "this situation" link. Brilliant use of hypertext.

Tim said...

I am writing this from Special Collections at the U of C. From a letter I am reading right now, sent to Chicago, dated December 2, 1958: "It is lovely out here [Stanford], and perfect working weather. The rains have not come yet and it is warm and comfortable. But I do miss the puritanism of cold weather, well, a little bit."

Miss Self-Important said...

Tim: Not just the cold weather, but the cold Chicago weather. In the grand sweep of (my) history, I have never been as productive as when I lived in the Reg.

Ben A said...

was surprised that that this study used marriage as a proxy and didn't just ask directly about children and the division of child-rearing responsibilities

Yes, precisely. I suspect that for men the arrow of causality runs the other way. Men with poor prospects find it harder to get married, and having good prospects generally helps a man get married. The claim that male academics derive professional benefit from the housework of their spouses merits severe skepticism. The single male academics I know rarely perform housework of any kind and live like feral animals that have learned to order take-out burritos. I demand a control case of widowers before I will concede anything.

Miss Self-Important said...

Also married lesbians - do they both suffer from promotion delay as a result of marriage, being both female?