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Essay reflecting on academic work in 2012

Running 'Round the Ivory Tower
2012 in Review
February 8, 2013

Last year I was accused of writing a "Christmas letter" instead of a column around this time of year, so this year I figured I would just go ahead and write a New Year’s column – no resolutions, just some looking back and forward: "Year's end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us." --Hal Borland

Work/Life balance re-emerged as a big issue in 2012 with the publication of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic Article on the fallacy of "Having It All." I think this is all part of a bigger issue that goes beyond work/life balance; it’s really about the culture of work in the U.S. and how we are expected to handle stress and basic personal and family issues. I think there’s a general tendency, particularly for women, to put on a happy face, and not impose our issues (e.g., grief, health issues, and family problems) on others. There’s nothing wrong with this, and for some people it’s an important coping mechanism. For others, like me, I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve (hence this column). Universities can and should do more to help faculty and staff manage these issues – often faculty members are unaware of resources that can help them in difficult times. The specter of suicide by faculty members on several college campuses in the past year, including Texas A&M University, makes these issues even more important.

Our work culture goes well beyond academia. As someone who spends a great deal of time studying and traveling in Europe, I admire the fact that they have more of an attitude of "working to live" rather than the American model of "living to work." The typical American is lucky to get two weeks of vacation and a few holidays per year, while Europeans tend to take at least 5 weeks of vacation and many more holidays. They don't have to work so hard to pay for their children's college education since it is often free or very heavily subsidized. How can families manage if we expect so much sacrifice? I hope that the discussion around these issues will continue, and that policy makers and employers will do more to help working families. If I were to have a resolution for the New Year, it would be to spend less time working in the evening, and more time with my husband – but then he’s got his laptop out, too.

The recent and much-maligned article in Forbes magazine that called being a professor the "least stressful job" came out in 2013 but I’ll still include it here – the absurdity of the article played out in the Twittersphere and I made a scathing comment or two myself (if you’d like to follow along, I’m @TerriGivens). IHE’s Scott Jaschik had a good review of the article and the furor it caused -- the comments are definitely worth looking at as well. Academe is very stressful, particularly for women for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the difficulties that come from never really being off the clock. Of course we choose this profession for many good reasons, and the flexibility that comes with it is often a bonus. But I can’t remember the last time I took a "vacation" without my laptop, or at a minimum my smartphone. We all make choices, and being a professor is a pretty awesome job, but it is far from stress-free.

Of course academic institutions are under all kinds of stress these days. Budget cuts, political pressures, dealing with a new world of online courses, all of these things cause administrators to lose sleep. It’s not looking like there will be any let-up in the coming year. My university is still absorbing budget cuts that began several years ago. Graduate students are still having difficulty finding academic jobs. As I was reviewing this year’s crop of graduate school applicants, I was more harsh than usual in my assessments of their suitability for a position in our department. Given the current circumstances, we need to limit admissions at a time when continuing students are often struggling to find funding.

I am continually writing letters of recommendation as my graduate students try to find funding to do their dissertation research abroad, given that they all work on comparative European politics. It is difficult to determine what the job market will look like in 5-10 years, but I can’t help but be pessimistic. Even as more students want to attend college, the budgets of many public universities will continue to shrink for the foreseeable future. Even with higher revenues in Texas this year, it’s not clear that any of that money will be re-invested in education, and higher education is likely to be last in line when there are other more urgent needs.

But I would not want to end my column on a pessimistic note. Even as class sizes increase, there is much going on in politics and the world that is generating enthusiasm in my classes. Working with students always gives me hope for the future. The bottom line is that I enjoy being a researcher and teacher, and although the future is uncertain I still appreciate the many opportunities I have in my life.

 

 

 

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