Post written in early spring

Scene: Last Friday, the elevator in the English department building, 6 pm. Having just polished off this semester’s pile of marking, I was headed home to relax: watch reruns of bad 80s sci-fi, or attack the issues of Scientific American that had been accumulating on my desk since March. In the elevator, I met one of our department’s senior scholars. I asked her casually if she was also headed home for some leisure time. She looked at me—to steal a line from A Christmas Story—as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. She then laid out, with good-humored acquiescence, her workload over the next few weeks. Between marking, administrative duties, conference-papers, and her own research, there was no “one day / [to] give to idleness.”

The episode set me thinking about my own future as an academic. One defining feature of our profession is its status as “vocation” in the older sense, from Latin vocare: a calling, not a job. We’re not in it for the money. Dedication to liberal humanism doesn’t clock in at 9 and clock out at 5, because our quotidian commitments are simply the lens through which we focus the larger “life of the mind” we’re supposed to be living. The inculcation of this attitude in our students—the love of knowledge and its importance to creating engaged citizens—is the M-4 carbine in the humanist’s self-defense arsenal: standard issue.

All of this is well and good, but I sometimes wonder if it also enables the development of a sort of martyr mentality. We’ve all, I’d venture, participated in commiseratory gripe-sessions with our colleagues in which we detail just how much work we’ve got on our plates, how little time we’ve got to do it, and how much sleep/fun/sanity we’ve burnt on the altar of academic aspiration. These conversations are a great pressure-valve, a useful communal catharsis, but in my experience they also carry a slight flavor of underlying competition. What we’re willing to sacrifice for academia becomes, like Isaac, an index of our devotion. Standing in the elevator, having just revealed that I had indeed “clocked out” for the day, I felt a twinge of guilt: was I a bad academic? Having committed myself to this calling, was it a moral and professional lapse to want to mute that call (even for a weekend)?

I think the answer is “no,” but an answer we’re oddly ambivalent about endorsing. I literally-just-now received a facebook message from a friend postponing our coffee date to discuss the new Doctor Who: “Holidays don’t matter in Grad School. No plans, just this albatross on my neck.” Really? The albatross, of course, is hung “instead of the cross.” My friend’s comment thus casts academia as convulsive penitential submission, the mortification required of sinners who will never meet the ideal. Where did this attitude come from?

I’ve already suggested one possible source, our need to distance ourselves from the utilitarian mentality that increasingly dominates university culture. I think another might be the job market, which has gotten so competitive that it sometimes seems like the only way to land a tenure-track position is to don the albatross. My colleague in the elevator may not have gotten where she is today if she didn’t sacrifice as much as she did. I guess, if that’s what it takes. But I can’t help wondering if that level of commitment drains our vocation of what made it so attractive in the first place. After all, Wordsworth may have celebrated reading and thinking “long and deeply,” but he still nagged Hazlitt (excuse me, “Matthew”) to ditch the books and go outside.

Then again, maybe all of the above is a manifestation of my own anxieties. Have any of you encountered the attitude I’m describing, and if so, what do you think of it? What is the right balance between academic-life and other-life? On this most fitting of days to discuss martyrdom, how much academic self-sacrifice do you feel is appropriate or virtuous?

5 thoughts on “Post written in early spring”

  1. Brittany, your reflection on the role of these “pressure-valve,” “communal catharsis” conversations is particularly timely as we all look the end of the spring semester straight in the face.

    Those of us who chose “other-life” over “academic-life” (and admit to that choice– intentionally or not) will always feel the pressure of making such a choice, I think. (I say “us” because I promise myself one day a week without work. It helps me to focus every other day and allows me to enjoy time with my family, friends, and interests outside of work without guilt.) We make this choice in various ways– by settling in for a weekend of DVDs or cable TV, by spending the weekend planting a garden and hiding Easter eggs, by strapping on our gear for a ride, hike, or climb, or by watching the 76ers win a playoff game against the Heat. Honestly, I think that most people spend more time this way than they admit to. Our need to sound and be busy seems connected to the way American culture values time; we seem to prioritize quantity over quality. If our success and devotion to our work is measured by the number of hours we spend working then it will always be difficult to admit to taking “time off.” Because we do not clock in at 9 and out at 5 and we don’t have vacation days to request time away from the office, we seem to always be on the clock (or at least we have that potential).

    I do not think that anything is gained by framing yourself as the always-giving academic. I find it difficult to imagine that any of us want to be the person who always spends nights sleeping on the floor of the office, eating out of the vending machines, attending every meeting for every committee, all the while researching, writing, and teaching (and this doesn’t account for the various other things we must nurture– partners, children, pets, parents). We each need to find that balance for ourselves without devaluing the ways that our colleagues manage their responsibilities.

  2. Brittany and Teresa, I think another place where we see academic over-commitment creep in, perhaps unintentionally, is in the loans vs. working one’s way through school debate. I fall into the latter category and regularly work 1 or 2 extra jobs per week, in addition to teaching, in order to stay financially afloat. (I also live in Boulder, where rent includes the price of the apt + the mountains.) So while the professor that you ran into in the elevator may have been working non-stop, that work actually pays her a livable, probably darn near cushy salary. We students cannot say the same.

    I have heard the argument so many times that if I just took out a couple grand in loans per year that I would have more time to research and may finish more quickly, and I could devote myself “more fully” to my research. But I am a better academic, I think, because I manage my time well and am not worried about having to pay back loans when I graduate into a tough job market.

  3. Teresa and Kirstyn, thanks for your responses! Teresa, I definitely agree that we all take more downtime than we’d admit to publicly, and I similarly question the value of framing ourselves as the “always-giving” academic. Indeed, I seriously doubt that most academics, when pressed, would actually endorse that sort of vending-machine-grubbery of a life (either in perception or reality). And yet this portrait persists as a stubborn grad school myth—oddly similar to Christian self-abnegation, especially for those of us struggling en route towards a tenure-track job. Admitting that it’s neither true nor useful always feels, at least to me, like mentioning the elephant in the room. I don’t talk about it often, and when I do, it’s almost always to other grad students—not my committee. Kirstyn, I’d also agree in that this is doubly true for those of us who are simultaneously working to fund our progress through the degree. There’s something weirdly Puritan about some academics’ valorization of research-work, an almost solipsistic fetishization of work for work’s sake–even when, as you point out, an extra 2-3 non-research-related jobs are vitally necessary to keep food on the table and out of future debt.

    Maybe this is just par for the course in most professions that require a long apprenticeship? I can easily imagine prospective doctors also face long hours and a culture that *seems to* applaud filling those hours with work (but in reality does not), because it recognizes–though, crucially, never discusses–the taboo fact that young doctors, like young academics, are often dangerously close to burning out.

  4. Thanks so much for this post and all the comments! It’s interesting that these things are on our minds; I just finished a post about working second jobs, that I’ve been pondering for a couple of weeks…so maybe it’s just that time of year when we all feel a little overworked and a little guilty for time spent away from school.
    Anyway, I appreciate the conversation that is going on here, and the fact that we are validating the attempts we make to seek some balance in our personal and professional lives. It’s nice to know we’re all in this together.

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