Finding Pleasure in Academe

We can savor the good in our work in a number of ways, write Jennifer Lundquist and Joya Misra, who list seven distinct facets of academic life worth treasuring.

August 11, 2016

Why has there yet to be a reality television show about professors? In the popular imagination, we are a fascinating lot who lead eccentric lives. We pontificate to rapt classrooms while wearing historical costumes, we spend time trekking across distant lands in the name of field work, we shout, “Eureka!” in the lab and we carry on stirring, intellectual debate in the drawing room.

But the reality of what most of us do may seem less captivating. The image of a person hunched over her computer alone most of the day before rushing frantically from classrooms to meetings does not keep viewers on the edge of their seat (although Big Brother meets the faculty meeting might have serious reality show potential).

Still, few professors would claim that their work is not engaging and fulfilling -- even despite the fact that the creeping corporatization of the American university has led to overwork and stress among many professors, as well as agonizing uncertainty and low pay among those of us in the adjunct labor force. These are major problems that must be resolved, and in the meantime, academic social media routinely features essays on why people should not become academics.

Despite the alarm and dismay, however, many people still make the choice to become professors because they are consumed by their passion to teach and to conduct research. Unrealistic productivity expectations and exploitive working conditions are a modern affliction of many occupations, not just academe. The long hours and lack of boundaries between work and life do not set us apart from other highly educated professional workers (even if they often receive better pay).

So what causes the intensity of our demoralization? Perhaps it stems from the clash between our expectations for what the university could be and the reality of what it often is. The university was protected from neoliberalism longer than most institutions, with many people continuing to believe that education is a public good that deserves support. And while some things still move incredibly slowly in higher ed -- such as curricular reform, or diversification -- expectations tilt ever faster for faculty members to publish, win grants, teach more students with the latest technology, teach better and perform more administrative work with less staff support. Frankly, it’s also hard not to get defensive when Forbes still calls the professoriate the least stressful job in America, just ahead of hairstyling. (The ranking moved from No. 1 in 2013 to No. 3 currently, with the telling caveat “tenured” added to the title.)

All that said, the very nature of academic work has great potential to beget happiness and satisfaction. The 2016 book The Slow Professor extends principles from the slow food movement to academe. Its manifesto of slowness should not be misunderstood as a call to negligence nor read as the self-indulgence of the tenured, as some critics have argued. Rather, the authors, Maggie Berg, a professor of English at Queens College, and Barbara K. Seeber, a professor of English at Brock University, advocate simply that we take small steps to undertake our work mindfully and deliberately. That advice can be applied to all professions.

When we become unmoored from the joy that drew us into the profession, our work becomes less creative and our relationships with students and colleagues fray. William Yeats wrote that “happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.” We would argue that campus life can cultivate a holistic growth mind-set; every day we have the opportunity to learn, explore, question, teach and build. A key aspect of the slow movement is the deliberate focus on savoring what we love about our profession. Doing so does not mean taking our eye off of what needs improving; in fact, it should serve as inspiration to foment reform. The act of savoring is being attuned to what we enjoy most in order to prolong and intensify that positive emotion. Or, as social psychologists so cozily describe it, “up-regulate positive emotions.”

Systematic change is necessary to retool faculty work-time expectations and to expand job security for all professors, but we don’t want to lose sight of what drew us into our work in the first place. So, we take a moment in this week’s essay to list seven distinct facets of academic work life that are worth savoring. These are the elements of our day-to-day work life that continue to make academic work so seductive that many of us are willing to risk the uncertainty, overwork and frustrations that it can bring.

Reinvention. Each term is a new beginning. Working on the academic calendar means that we have endless opportunities to start over and try something new -- whether experimenting with a new pedagogical method, prepping a new course on a topic that we have always wanted to explore or taking on a new administrative position. When having bad experiences with teaching or with specific students, we know that this too shall pass. And although research does not necessarily take place on an academic cycle, we have the freedom to choose new research directions if and when we wish. Kerry Ann Rockquemore talks about the academic career as a book with many chapters, and each one is a new opportunity to learn new things.

Gratitude. Professors sometimes get a bad rap for one-upmanship and scholarly vindictiveness. But what profession makes it a virtual commandment to cite one another like mad? Academics credit scholars, alive and dead, for every good (and bad) idea. Citation is not just a beautiful model of knowledge-building capacity; it is also a form of communal recognition. Although we may sometimes feel like we work in isolation, read through any bibliography and it becomes clear that we exist in a vibrant academic village.

In addition to the sacrosanct culture of citation, we are also one of the few professions where each of our products begin with expressions of gratitude. Theses, academic books and even research articles contain heartfelt acknowledgments. (See some funny examples, as well as some notable ingratitudes, here.) While scholarly writing tends to be dispassionate and subdued, the acknowledgment section of a dissertation or book is anything but, with heartfelt sentiment expressed toward mentors, colleagues, families, god(s), institutions, grant agencies and even pets.

Flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as the elation and fulfillment that emerges when people get caught up in a challenging activity they love. The act of doing research and of teaching summons Csikszentmihalyi’s flow for many of us. Although you can experience plenty of frustration in the research process, those moments of euphoria when you get lost in the stream of consciousness of writing or coax out a lucid epiphany from a tangle of data are hard to beat.

And nothing forces us to live in the moment so much as teaching. While we’ve all had bad days in the classroom, they can be balanced with a driving transcendence when students suddenly make that connection or the class discussion catches fire. It is not surprising, therefore, that many people who get their Ph.D. refer to teaching and research as a “passion” or “calling.”

Peer review. A colleague once told us how annoyed his spouse became with him when he complained about having to go through the tenure process. She said she only wished her work performance could be evaluated by her peers rather than by her one very biased boss. Because the peer-review process provokes so much anxiety, not just for promotion but also for regular evaluations by colleagues, we often tend to resent such benchmarks.

But it’s a rare privilege to have your work reviewed and judged by scholars in the field who have never met you, who are basing their judgment solely on the material you have produced. (Although unscrupulous administrators can strategically choose some external reviewers to try to tank a case, the other eight to 10 letters will usually outweigh this threat.) In addition, multiple levels of internal review that are independent from the reviews of your chair and department help ensure that your performance will be judged for its own sake rather than simply on the basis of departmental sides and battles.

We work on a college campus. While design and creative play are all the rage these days in coolest-offices-to-work-in ratings, it’s almost impossible to beat the overall energy and vitality of working on a college campus. Yes, Google may have scooters and nifty little office pods, but how many people get to work in a near constant hub of intellectual and social activity? We have museums, protests, performances, speaker series, debates, libraries and many, many interesting people in constant motion about our workplaces. We have the luxury of gyms and grounds, in some institutions manicured, to stroll about on when we need to escape our offices or cubicles. Many adults consider the intellectual vitality (and parties) of their college years among the best years of their lives. While professors may not feel that faculty life is the social highlight of their lives, the opportunity to engage intellectually in a work context is a true rarity.

Academic freedom. For the minority of professors who have been lucky enough to get tenure-track jobs, tenure brings not just job security (assuming reasonable job performance) but also academic freedom. That means the freedom to pursue research free from censorship as well as the autonomy to decide the substance, structure and pedagogical philosophy of the classes we teach and the research we do. When serious charges are brought against faculty members, academic freedom usually ensures their right to due process and a hearing by their peers. In such a climate, academics have the opportunity to grow in their research and teaching, addressing new puzzles or developing new streams of research. While many people with Ph.D.s working outside of the academy have wonderful jobs, the academy provides more freedom and autonomy in choosing our focus than almost any other position.

Autonomy and flexibility. The decentralized nature of academic work means that, on a daily basis, only you prioritize how to spend your work time. Academic time-management advice tends to focus on the downsides of that, advocating that faculty members learn strategies to manage multiple discrete requests from colleagues and students who do not see the larger constellation of previous demands already placed on you. While some faculty members are able to say no without guilt, many end up using their flexibility simply to extend their work hours. Yet there is no denying the freedom of having a less fixed schedule. Although faculty still have plenty of work to fill those less structured times, many have the flexibility to choose when and where they work.

That’s our list of the pleasures that can be found in academic work, and which need to be recognized and protected. We believe that the happiest academics are those who have found strategies to emphasize the things that make them passionate about their work, or better yet, those whose institutions support and value these pursuits.

We would like to hear from readers in the comment section what it is you savor about your academic job. This savoring exercise may offend some, especially those who feel that the pleasures of academic work are reserved only for those on the tenure track. But there is something magnetic about the nature of academic work that continues to draw faculty, tenure track and non-tenure track alike, into the vocation. Please dig deep if necessary, and let us know what that is for you.


Jennifer Lundquist is associate dean of research and faculty development and a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Joya Misra is professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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