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    A blog about education, higher ed, teaching, and trying to re-imagine how we provide education.

On Not Working
June 23, 2014 - 8:36pm

Right now, I’m waiting to start my new job (July 1!). It’s taking every ounce of my being not to start working on my new job before it actually starts.

Of course, it’s a nice “problem” to have. But it’s really made me reflect on how much work higher ed asks us to perform when we’re not actually getting paid, or even started our jobs. I was on a nine-month contract, which meant that over the summer, I’m not getting paid to work. Of course, all I did all summer was work. Work on my syllabus. Work on my professional development. Work on my research (which, again, I wasn’t technically paid for my research at any point as I was “just” a teacher). Work on my writing. Work, work, work.

How much work do we do between the moment we find out we have a tenure-track or full-time teaching position and the moment our contract actually starts?

And of course this doesn’t even take into consideration all of the unpaid work adjuncts do (who needs to get paid for class prep, grading, and office hours?).

No, the amount unpaid labor higher education gets to extract from us in the name of love or loyalty or sacrifice or just outright fear is staggering. It’s not new, I’m not the first to say it, but I’m reiterating it here. The privilege of being able to avoid the trap is making it all the more visible to me.


My family is concerned about my “transition” to a “normal” job. You know, my mom keeps telling me, you’ll have to get up EVERY DAY and go to work from 9 TO 5. And work ALL DAY. She says all this to me slowly and emphatically, like I’m a new graduate and about to start my first grown-up job. After she gets done telling me how proud she is and how hard I’ve worked to get where I am.

I’m pretty sure many members of my family think I got into academia because I am a fundamentally lazy person. It fits nicely with their view of me; I spent most of my teen years being called, directly and indirectly, lazy. Never mind that I swam 30 or more hours a week, participated in various afterschool activities, and either babysat or lifeguarded and coached. I worked summers either babysitting full time or lifeguarding, and chose a BA that ensured I had “real work” experience built into the degree. Because they were all activities that I “enjoyed”, I wasn’t really working. Ever.

No, going to grad school and wanting to become a professor reflects my more natural state of laziness and pleasure-seeking, according to them, but also fits nicely within the popular narrative that professors get summers off, don’t work very hard, don’t teach a lot of classes, have lots of free time, and get to do what they love so where do they get off, etc, etc, etc. No matter how many classes I taught, no matter how many other jobs I worked, no matter how many side projects I did, because I could work at home on Tuesday mornings, I didn’t understand hard work.

They didn’t see this blog as work. Or Twitter. Or know about the late nights grading, writing, researching for class, researching for a book, an article, often all at the same time. My five-year-old son observed to me the other day, “You’re job isn’t very hard, is it, Mom.” And while it’s not mining coal or landscaping or any other obviously physically taxing job, it’s challenging. The nights where you can’t fall asleep because your brain won’t stop. The days that start before the kids get up and end hours after they’ve gone to sleep because it’s the only way to get everything done. The stress.

It exists in all professions, certainly. But I find it laughable and a little insulting that so many people doubt that an academic, any academic, will be completely unable to work from 9-5. Are there those who can’t and won’t? Sure. But there are people who never became academics who also eschew the “daily grind”. It’s not the people in the job, it’s everyone else that have made that particular fiction into a popular reality.


I write about these two things together because they are connected in a lot of important ways, for me personally and for the profession more generally. Is it that the admin class has grown so much because we recognize more easily the managerial class and the work they do, rather than the work that professors of all stripes do? Is it because we assume administrators don’t “love” their work and thus deserve all the money and the stability? Do we keep working in simultaneously invisible and unsustainable ways because of the myth of the lazy professor, but also out of fear for our own professional lives in the face of all of these pressures?

I don’t know. I’m relieved that I’m moving on to a new and different, but hopefully more sustainable, source of work. A different kind of hard.


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