After writing about the Terence Mills affair I popped across to Bishop Hill to point out that Mill’s ideas were mostly nonsense. This then lead to a rather lengthy exchange about me posting comments during working hours (I think it might have been 4:51pm), including someone claiming to be tracking my activity so that they could inform my employer. It also lead to the rather bizarre claim that, as taxpayers, they have the right to tell me how to do my job.
I thought I might therefore explain a few things about university life that maybe some don’t fully understand. Firstly, universities are not public sector; they’re normally charities. Yes, a good deal of the funding does come from taxpayers, but that doesn’t make them public sector and it doesn’t make their employees public servants. Also, given the new student fees system in the UK, a much smaller fraction comes directly from taxpayers than was the case in the past.
Also, academics typically have academic freedom, which means they are free to question established ideas and express controversial views without jeopardizing their jobs. The topic I choose to engage in may not be directly related to my key research area, but academics are actually free to broaden their interests, so there is no fundamental reason why an astronomer can’t express public views about climate science. Furthermore, I now have 3 publications related to this topic, so – technically – it is now one of my research areas.
Additionally, academics don’t normally have formal working hours. The expectation is that they average at least as many hours as they’re contractually obliged to, and do whatever it is that their Head of Department requires them to do. You need to prepare for and give your lectures, prepare and mark exams/classwork, do whatever administration/management you’ve been assigned, attend whatever meetings you’re expected to attend, and engage in research. There is, however, no expectation that one arrives at 9am and leaves at 5pm.
There’s also another factor. Academic jobs (well mine certainly) can be very disjointed. Sometimes I’m busy preparing lectures, sometimes giving them, sometimes I’m focusing on management/administration task, sometimes I’m travelling, sometimes I’m supervising students, sometimes I’m trying to get some research done, sometimes I’m focusing on writing it up,….. What I do can vary greatly across a year and also within a single day. Sometimes I’m waiting for some analysis to complete, and then I might respond to a blog comment. Sometimes I’ve just finished going through a lecture and so I quickly respond to a blog comment. Sometimes I’m waiting for a meeting to start, so respond to, or write, a blog comment. Sometimes I’m travelling and happen to have WiFi access on a train, so respond to a blog comment or write a post.
To be fair, though, I probably do spend too much time on this. However, I do try to write my posts quickly, which – of course – might seem obvious to those who read them. I should, however, probably stop wasting my time on certain things; like engaging in discussions with people who think that “I’m a taxpayer, therefore I can…” is a valid argument. On the other hand, every now and again I seem to need to remind myself why I should stop wasting my time on certain sites. Interactions, like the one I’ve been having on Bishop Hill, is a good reminder of why I really shouldn’t bother commenting there.
However, I don’t hugely care if someone wants to complain to my employer. It’s a free world and people can do whatever they like. Almost certainly, nothing will come of it. As taxpayers, they can – of course – campaign to change how universities are funded and run. But until such time as they achieve that, I’ll continue to do my job – to the best of my abilities – as I’m obliged to do it, not how they think I should do it. The only possible downside of someone complaining might be colleagues discovering that I waste my time commenting on certain blogs. That would be a little embarassing, but – thankfully – I have a job where I’m free to embarrass myself if I wish to do so.