Needed: A Real Conversation About Academic Hours Worked

That busyness and overwork have become status symbols is probably not a surprise, write Carolyn Dever and George Justice, but what interests do they serve?

December 11, 2019
 
 
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In November, celebrated classicist Mary Beard started a Twitter storm when she asked faculty colleagues to share how many hours a week they typically work. Beard helpfully identified her own working hours as somewhere north of 100 each week.

That figure elicited widespread shock and dismay -- and anger, frustration and accusations of ableism in the protection of status for those who are physically capable of shouldering a bruising schedule. Some respondents correlated academics’ tendency to overwork with an abusive employment culture that extracts more labor from ever fewer laborers, enabling the rapid shrinkage of the professoriate.

A surfeit of pride in one’s in-demand status has come to be called a “busy brag.” The busy brag has attracted media attention over the past several years; see, for example, here and here. A recent article in The Atlantic links the busy brag to a reversal of Thorstein Veblen’s theory of labor and status. In his Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Veblen wrote, “The conspicuous abstention from labor becomes the conventional mark of superior pecuniary achievement.” Not so today. Not so in higher education. Not so more widely.

In a 2016 paper in the Journal of Consumer Research, Silvia Bellezza, Neeru Paharia and Anat Keinan present a very different picture of American culture today, where “busyness and overwork, rather than a leisurely life, have become a status symbol. [Today], complaining about being busy and working all the time has become an increasingly widespread phenomenon.”

That busyness and overwork have become status symbols is probably not a surprise. And if Veblen was right, the status symbol was born during the past century or so. So, whence the busy brag? What interests does it serve?

For those of us pursuing careers in higher education, Bellezza, Paharia and Keinan venture a theory that should cause us to take notice. The busy brag is a form of conspicuous consumption, they suggest, that “operates by shifting the focus from the preciousness and scarcity of goods to the precariousness and scarcity of individuals.” They argue that “positive status inferences in response to long hours of work and lack of leisure time are mediated by the perceptions that busy individuals possess desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition), leading them to be viewed as scarce and in demand.”

It’s all about human capital, in other words. In a scarcity economy -- and the faculty ranks of colleges and universities clearly fit that bill -- the busy brag serves to enhance an impression of the specialness, the uniqueness of those who own the biggest numbers of hours expended. Positive status inferences are in the eye of the beholder.

This is a spat about status symbols that distracts from an important conversation about academic labor. We may work 35 hours each week, or we may work 100. Different people approach their work differently. In faculty careers, the organization of time is often discretionary to the person rather than to the institution. Recognizing that, let’s think hard about how we talk about our work, in order to reduce our complicity in supporting a system that variably abuses the talents of those who hope to join and of those who have joined.

The Pitfalls of the Busy Brag

For some faculty members, the unbounded nature of academic time is the best thing about the job. A great deal of the work can be done where, when and how we choose -- as long as the work is done.

But for many other people, unbounded time is the worst quality of the faculty role. The autonomous nature of academic time can be treacherous, stressful and even dangerous. In many cases, academic work requires discipline that is primarily self-motivated. And for people who are high achievers, perfectionists, ambitious, driven, passionate, confident, anxious or deeply caring about student well-being, a lack of limits equates to a trap. It equates to a feeling of insufficiency or even failure when one meets a natural limit, set by the body, by partners, children or other care commitments, or by outside interests or other claims on time. Or by the wall: as in, the wall that you hit when enough is enough, and you have nothing else to give.

In many areas of higher education, success is subjective. In research environments dependent on peer review and funding, in climates where resources are scarce and poorly understood, those who are hoping to succeed march to the drumbeat of “more, better.”

And for the ever-growing ranks of faculty members whose roles are precarious -- contract workers in one or more institutions, dependent on enrollments, budgets, planning and politics entirely out of their control -- the evaluation of a job well done does not reliably lead to employment stability.

Then there’s the public perception of faculty and universities. How can it be that glorified teachers who are sometimes in the classroom a mere six hours a week -- or less -- can plausibly claim they are overworked? The public is outraged, but the faculty members who are stressed and underpaid testify to the inhuman working conditions their institutions expect -- especially of adjunct faculty and others in probationary roles, including those on the tenure track. Support for students outside the classroom, including mentoring, advising and crafting detailed recommendations -- not to mention grading papers, problem sets and exams -- eats up the clock.

Back to Mary Beard and the debate on Twitter about academic time. Later that same month, faculty members in the U.K. hit the picket lines. Key elements of the faculty strike include reductions to current workers’ pensions to service the pension costs of previous generations and losses in real pay over the last decade. And, yes, they also involved working conditions of faculty, including a casualization of faculty roles that leaves many university workers ineligible for pensions, sick time and holidays. In addition, as The Guardian points out, faculty who walked out were also protesting “an ever-growing workload driven by often unachievable targets.”

In November 2019, U.K. faculty members on strike met Mary Beard’s 100 hours on the other side of the issue. It’s all well and good if we choose to work 100 hours to fulfill personal research goals. But how many hours can and should our institutions expect from us? One hundred? Forty? Some of Beard’s Twitter respondents advocated for abbreviated workweeks as an investment in well-being that would also open up more faculty positions -- in theory.

So many faculty members think of our work beyond the classroom as personal. But we must remember that we work in systems and institutions. A relatively privileged model of tenured academic life cannot become the cultural norm when many of our colleagues, including those who teach and do research alongside us, let alone staff, have neither the security nor the freedom of faculty with tenure.

When those of us who have tenure “busy brag” about the demands of faculty life, worries about our own insufficiency, precarity and vulnerability underlie the boast but do not undercut our individual work conditions. Our 100-hour weeks produce a defensive overvaluation of big numbers. But we know it shouldn’t be about big numbers. Rather, it should be about the quality of what we’ve done with the time we spend.

Bio

Carolyn Dever is professor of English at Dartmouth College, where she served most recently as provost. George Justice is professor of English at Arizona State University and the author of How to Be a Dean, recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Together they have begun Dever Justice LLC, which supports faculty leadership of our colleges and universities.

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