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?