In Search of Lost Time
As I am writing this article, I should be writing something else: an email to an editor, an email to an author, a letter of recommendation, notes for tomorrow’s classes, comments on students’ papers, comments on manuscripts, an abstract for an upcoming conference, notes for one of the books I’m working on. I cannot remember the last time I ended a day having crossed everything off my to-do list.
Why do academics work so much?
1) Part of it is habit. When we’re just starting out, we learn to say “yes” to everything. Join this panel? Yes. Send article in to special issue? Yes. Write a book review? Yes. Join committee in professional organization? Yes. Indeed, we learn to look for things to say yes to. This is how you build your C.V. Go to conferences, publish, get involved. If you don’t do it, you won’t get that elusive tenure-track job. Then, should you become one of the few who get the job, you’ll need to maintain a level of production in order to get tenure. Should you get tenure, you’ll want one day to get promoted. If that happens, and you reach full professor, well, best to keep publishing … just in case. What if your university falls on hard times? Or you need to move? Tenure is good, but portable tenure is better. So you just get on that treadmill and never get off.
2) Part of it is economics. At my university we have no “cost of living” raises. We have merit raises, but only when the state budget allows. So you always want to be in the top tier — the “Highest Merit” group — just in case there’s money for a raise. And I’m speaking here as one of the lucky, tenured few. For adjuncts, the situation is more dire. Everywhere, they teach more classes and for less money just to make ends meet, and may not even manage to do that. Employed at the whim of the academic labor market, adjuncts are increasingly joining the ranks of the working poor.
3) Busy-ness is also built into the structure of academic work. The more you do and the longer you’re in the profession, the more opportunities and obligations accrue. Writing letters for colleagues and students, getting onto committees, contributing to a book edited by a contributor to the book you edited, giving invited talks, writing grant proposals, and so on. Some of this work is interesting (I enjoy traveling and giving talks, for example), but it’s still work.
4) Work that is “fun” is often not perceived as real work. Academics may be busy, but, hey, we’re doing what we love, so we can’t really complain, right? We can and we should. As Miya Tokumitsu recently wrote, the “Do What You Love” mantra “may be the most elegant anti-worker ideology around,” and it’s particularly pervasive in academe:
Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.
As she says, “Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love.” Indeed, the “Do What You Love” philosophy’s ability to refashion academic labor as a form of leisure contributes to the unrelenting sense of busy-ness. We work because we love it. Or because we think we should love it.
5) Technology is both help and hindrance. Email, accessing databases from your laptop, and Skyping with collaborators in distant cities all help us be more productive. We respond by doing more work, and foregoing leisure. Social media informs us not just about friends and family, but about new articles and ideas, upcoming conferences, planned essay collections… and can be an unrelenting time-suck. You can be selective about technology (attending to emails and social media only during certain hours), but can you turn it off? If you do, you may miss an important conversation. One result (for me, at least) is that I am too often online.
6) The volume and nature of academic work erases the boundary between work and not-work. Because we have too much to do and because much of what we do is genuinely interesting, work always spills into the rest of our lives. This is both boon and bane. As Kate Bowles writes,
we tell ourselves that the boundarylessness of our time and service is a privilege and even a practice of freedom. Over and over I have heard academics say that they couldn’t bear to punch the electronic time clock as our professional colleagues do. But the alternative is the culture of deemed time: by flattering us with what looks like trust in the disposal of our modest obligations, the university displaces all responsibility onto us for the decisions we make about how much to give. There is the problem of imposing limits on ourselves.
This limitlessness is a big problem. For Bowles, postponed checkups (too busy!) meant that she did not discover her breast cancer until it was fairly advanced. (She’s had surgery, is undergoing chemo, and is taking things one treatment at a time.)
My 60-plus-hour weeks have not led me to so precarious a place. But I can see how it could happen. As Bowles points out, “we don’t yet understand this as behavior that is harmful to others, not just to ourselves. We overwork like cyclists dope: because everyone does it, because it’s what you do to get by, because in the moment we argue to ourselves that it feels like health and freedom. But it isn’t.” To work long hours because everyone does it or because that’s how you get by is to live under stress. That’s not healthy. I often joke that I’m just barely keeping my head below water. (“And not waving but drowning,” as Stevie Smith wrote.)
I should point out that I’m writing about academe because I am an academic. I’m aware that many jobs encroach on what was once “private time,” that fewer and fewer people have a boundary between office and home, and that many of us feel the pressures of our thin-boundaried lives. I expect people in other careers could write a similar diagnosis of their busy lives. If they could find the time.
And that is one of my points: Time is all we have. One day, we’ll reach the last page of the calendar, the clock will stop, and our time will cease. While it is a privilege to pursue interesting work, we also need to make time to live.
My other point is that we need time to think. I mean this quite literally: thought requires time. Ideas need some idle, nonproductive space in which to thrive. This kind of sustained thinking is an important part of being human, but it’s also vital for good academic work. Peter Higgs, who won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the Higgs boson, recently said that the imperative to publish all the time would disqualify him from contemporary academe. “Today I wouldn't get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don't think I would be regarded as productive enough,” he observed. “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.”
Though university administrators may not want to hear me say it, we need to encourage people to become less productive. Make time to not work. Make time to think. Make time simply to be.
Philip Nel is University Distinguished Professor of English and director of the graduate Program in children’s literature at Kansas State University. His most recent books are Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, Volume One: 1942-1943 (co-edited with Eric Reynolds, 2013), and Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012). He tweets as @philnel and blogs at Nine Kinds of Pie.