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Take It Easy: The Wisdom of Robert Boice

Advice for practicing mindfulness during academic work.

November 5, 2015

Madeleine Elfenbein is a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. You can find her on Twitter at @maddy_e.




Over the course of years of training, my grad school peers and I have gone from hungry consumers of advice to jaded connoisseurs.


So much of today's academic advice literature is tinged with bad faith: the serenity it promises as a reward for doing everything right is really just the temporary relief of the base-line anxiety it endorses as essential to academic survival. Those of us seeking careers as scholars are advised to turn up the speed on our grindstones, churn out applications and publications, relentlessly promote ourselves, avoid controversy, disguise our love of teaching, exercise regularly, dress expensively, lower our expectations, publish in journals locked behind paywalls, write an excellent dissertation but remember no one cares about it … and love what we do.


When such counsel gets counted as “wisdom,” we know our profession is in trouble. If the growing body of quit lit has taught us anything, it's that there are plenty of unhappy professors out there, both on and off the tenure track. How to avoid becoming one of them? Better still, how to help each other avoid such misery? How to fix things so that misery is not the norm?


In that spirit, I know of no one wiser than Robert Boice. A professor of psychology who began his career in the 1960s, using rats as subjects, Boice soon switched to studying professors, and it was here that he made his mark. His research focused on identifying the behavioral patterns associated with academic success and failure: what makes for a good or bad teacher, a productive or a blocked writer, a happy or disgruntled colleague. Through his research, he developed a reliable and widely tested set of best practices for academic labor.


Today, Boice's books are out-of-print cult classics, widely cited but remarkably hard to get ahold of. Tracking them down is well worth the effort. As I see it, there are two features of Boice's work that make it stand out in the crowded field of academic advice manuals: the soundness of his methods and the underlying humanism of his approach. As he observed in the introduction to one of his books, “The professoriate quietly subscribes to a kind of Social Darwinism that supposes those of us without the 'right stuff' will weed ourselves out of the profession.” A former psychotherapist and a practicing Buddhist, Boice came to regard the academy’s sink-or-swim approach to new recruits as inhumane, not to mention counterproductive, and his life’s work was to develop and promote a better alternative:a generous, democratic, and compassionate approach to academic life.


Despite his laconic style, Boice’s books make it clear that he regarded scholarship as a sacred calling. His 1990 book Professors as Writers opens with an epigraph attributed to the prophet Muhammad: “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” What he resisted was the idea that scholars should themselves be martyrs. The essence of Boice's approach is captured in the title of his 2000 book Advice for New Faculty: Nihil Nimus, the Latin phrase for “everything in moderation.” From this deceptively banal premise, Boice derives a set of principles for working that amount to runs counter to much of the received “wisdom” about how to get ahead in academia. For Boice, what counts is not which papers you decide to shuffle, but the emotional state in which you shuffle them. To attend to and moderate the feelings that shape our working habits, he suggests, is the first step toward working pleasurably and efficiently.


What, then, is the ideal state for working? The answer, as he tells us repeatedly, is mindfulness. The answer may sound suspiciously Buddhist; that’s because it is. (Pema Chödrön is one of the many sages quoted in this book, alongside Francis Bacon and Rita Mae Brown.) But it’s also because mindfulness leads to good results in the realm of academic productivity. A further reason, he notes, is that mindlessness stresses us out: “When we work mindlessly,” he writes, “we encourage an excess of tense and negative thinking that distracts and undermines our writing.” There are charts in the book to back this up. They show that academics who engage in behavior he classifies as mindless--working intermittently in long stretches, in postures of physical tension, and experiencing cycles of euphoria and despair--produced considerably fewer pages of publishable scholarly prose over the course of a year. They also reported substantially higher rates of depression. What did these folks in, says Boice, was that they succumbed to busyness: a condition of mindless rushing driven by an impatient desire to get to the end.


But isn't it reasonable to want to finish something? Perhaps, says Boice, but try pausing anyway. “Active waiting,” as he calls it, “allows clear seeing of what most needs doing and it encourages the constancy and moderation that bring the most productivity and health over the long run.” To support his counter-intuitive claims, Boice lays out his case in gently painstaking detail. Drawing on decades of careful observation—much of it spent literally sitting in the offices of assistant professors and watching them try to work—he correlates the range of behaviors exhibited by early-stage academics with the range of outcomes for their careers. The winners, it turns out, are the ones who figure out how to work in brief, daily sessions, pause frequently, assume “a playful and tentative stance” while working, cultivate “mild emotions” in lieu of alternating despair and euphoria, strive to “moderate over-attachment and overreaction” to criticism, and actively reach out to others to give and receive support. The ones who prefer to keep to themselves, over-prepare for teaching or neglect it entirely, obsess over their writing, and avoid sharing their work are those who tend to leave the profession, or, worse still, remain in it as deeply grumpy people.


I'll close with one of my favorite bits of Boiceian wisdom: “Begin before feeling ready.” Why? Because, as he reminds us, “early beginnings get us working on task before it seems we are really working.” Boice recommends this approach for every aspect of scholarly work, from teaching preparation to writing and making friends. It goes well with another line that Boice is fond of: “Be quick, but don't hurry.” And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a dissertation to write.


Who’s your favorite dispenser of academic advice? Take a well-earned break and let us know in the comments below.

[Image from Flicker user Jimmie, used under a Creative Commons license.]


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