Academics are some of the best complainers I know. In my field of English, I explain our penchant for complaining by saying that we are, after all, critics — and we can always find something to criticize. But it may be an occupational hazard for all academics — we spend an awful lot of our time, after all, grading, reviewing, and measuring, and things are bound to fall short more often than not. So we complain.
Then we have the issue that many of us have moved to small cities or rural areas from larger population centers, or that we live far from the regions we once called “home,” whether that’s where we have family or simply where we settled for a particularly pleasant while. So we complain about our surroundings.
When we’re done with all that, there are the issues of compensation, of work-life balance, of an ever-higher bar for hiring, for tenure, and for promotion — often without more time or money with which to do the work. There are increased service demands, bureaucracies that seem determined to swallow up any free time we might once have had, new assessment rubrics or reporting requirements that similarly seem not to provide a return on the time invested. These are legitimate complaints, by the way — I mention them not to mock but to explain the world-class complaining that I’ve both participated in and witnessed.
This past weekend, though, I just couldn’t find fault. I had family visiting for a long weekend — their spring break was just ending, and they stopped off here on their way (a somewhat long way!) back home from a visit with my parents. The first evening of their visit, we all went to a performance on campus by a world-class taiko drumming group. For free. I often don’t make it to arts events on campus — there are so many, and I have so little time! But this one was just right — fun for the whole family, a convenient time, an unbeatable price.
Friday I had to abandon our guests while I went to work. I taught, held office hours, and completed some administrative tasks that needed to be done before the weekend. But it was a sunny and pleasant Friday, and I’d managed to front-load my week so that I could spend some time in the afternoon walking around town with my sister. That evening, we all walked a few blocks to a food truck gathering right in my neighborhood. Among others I knew, I saw the president of our university there with his wife, though I don’t know if they saw us — they were in a pretty long line at the time. But it was nice to see that they, too, could get out and enjoy the pleasant weather and some inexpensive, fun meals. We sat on the grass with our food, marveling at how pleasant the weather, the food, and the vibe all were.
Saturday we found another free event — an arts festival down by the Richmond riverfront. Again, the weather cooperated, and I was delighted to see folks from all arenas of our local life — colleagues, current and former students, friends from our kids’ schools and from church, even my hairdresser — all enjoying the sunshine and the art. There are advantages to small cities, after all: events aren’t so far away that it’s not worth trying to get to them, there’s usually parking, and you can see all kinds of people you already know.
Yes, the weekend ended with a pile of grading still to do, and yes, the coincidence of lovely weather and a variety of indoor and outdoor events was, perhaps, unusual. But for once, I’m not complaining — and as we go into the final week of the semester, that’s a pretty nice feeling. I’ll need reminding of it in a couple of weeks when I’m drowning in a sea of papers and the weather turns muggy, but for the moment, life is good.