Last week a colleague and I gave a talk to new faculty on work-life balance. It is part of series of forums for first year tenure-track faculty sponsored by our Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning. While I was flattered to be asked, I was also a bit nervous. Like most of us, my ability to juggle work and life varies from day to day. Yet I was also shy to admit that there are times when I am, gasp, not working. Academia fosters a culture of workaholism, and folks who challenge this hegemony are often labeled less serious. “Competitive martyrdom,” a friend calls it.
Our acceptance of harried overwork creates a stressful climate for new faculty. The palpable anxiety of the new faculty last week brought back memories of how daunting that first semester as a professor felt for me. I too felt overwhelmed by the size of my classes, and the challenges of teaching interdisciplinary courses. Starting a tenure-track job takes most of us to unknown cities, often far from family and friends, and forces us to prove ourselves, once again, to a new group of judges. The stakes are high since if one fails, the career in which one has invested most of one’s life could easily be over. Sadly, we’re expected to work nonstop just when we most need to spend time becoming integrated into a new community, finding a sense of connection (and for some of us, a partner).
I don’t know how helpful our talk was. My colleague gave good pragmatic advice about how to use community service (something our university values) as a way of getting to know folks outside of one’s department. On the other hand, his astonishing record of publications and cheery disposition might have been more daunting than heartening to some. I hastened to remind them that at our institution we generally hire people we expect to tenure. Of course it is challenging to produce quality scholarship under our heavy teaching and service load, but I urged them to ask for help from mentors, official and otherwise, and to remember that everyone wants them to succeed.
Most importantly, I shared my own epiphany. After several years of putting my job first I realized that the institution was never going to reward my devotion by offering me a life. Not after seven years, not after 30. If I wanted a life outside of the academy, I was going to have to make that decision myself.
During my talk I forgot to mention one of the best decisions I made during my first months on the job: I became a mentor through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Initially a 5-hour/week commitment, there were many Sundays when I felt pressed for time to grade the innumerable essays and work on revising articles. But unlike other forms of recreation, this involved a commitment to a child. Not only did mentoring this girl turn into a life-long friendship, it also provided me with a much-needed sense of perspective. And, just like the advice to give money away when you’re feeling poor, giving my time away precisely when I felt most rushed showed me that I had more than enough.
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