All work is the avoidance of harder work.” So says the American poet James Richardson in his famous book Vectors: Aphorisms & Ten-Second Essays. I’ve often paraphrased this quote—in sincerity and in jest—when talking for the millionth time about the workload that comes with a career in academia. Plenty of smart people have articulately described what it feels like to do this job; one of my more recent discoveries is Amanda Ann Klein’s “No End In Sight: Academic Research and ‘Time Off’”, in which Klein, considering what it would take to get to the status of full professor from associate, states “I came to the realization that the stress and late nights, the self doubt and loathing, were now unnecessary. I am not going to get a better-paying job and my current employers, no matter how many books I publish, how many students I mentor, or how many committees I serve on, are not going to give me any more money. Or at least not much money.” As I think about the way the academic labor force/market has changed, and how academia in general has changed, I know that what Klein is saying is more true than false.
In the last year, I have had some pretty intense ups and downs. The day after my 34th birthday I became engaged to my long-time love, and started to envision future stability. Six months later, my mother suddenly died, leaving my entire family (immediate and extended) heartbroken and bewildered. The fragility of life became very, very real, and my days were punctuated with terrifying thoughts that everyone I love could be taken from me in an instant. As I returned home to Pittsburgh for the holidays, I started to realize that no matter how great the writing center was, how well I performed my service obligations, how sharp and consistent a teacher I was, nothing about my job would improve. Nothing would change the attitudes of those colleagues who disliked me from day one. Nothing would persuade all of my students to complete their readings and projects. Nothing would move me closer to my family, my friends, my fiancé, and a grocery store that isn’t Walmart. The only thing that had the potential to improve my life in any way was obtaining tenure (and it’s becoming less and less likely that tenure can do much to improve anyone’s life). And in order to get tenure, you need publications. It’s the sad thing about academia; the only thing that validates you as a person is getting a manuscript you spent years of your free time working on into the hands of of a few dozen people at most. Busting your ass getting organizations and conferences and workshops and learning centers going, and performing sizable amounts of of emotional labor to get a few lost student souls to figuratively come to Jesus—none of this means much of anything when it’s T&P time.
In the last few days, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a number of my colleagues about their work habits, and found, to my surprise, that many of them have drawn clear and sturdy boundaries between their home and their work lives. Some of them have far heavier teaching loads than I do, and they still find a way to leave their work at work. I can’t go quite that far, but I think I can control the kinds of work I do when I’m at work, and the kinds of work I do when I’m at home. So, I’m going to do my very best to do most of my teaching and service work at work. That means no course prep or grading when I’m in my apartment, and none but the most pressing of emails after business hours. I will then devote the other half of my life to a different kind of work, and do most of my research and writing work at home. I’m not aiming for perfection; just a more defined set of boundaries, and a better way to fend off grading creep.
Julie’s 52 Habits Update
Week 6: My latest frog (commenting on papers) is waiting for me when I sit down at my desk tomorrow morning (assuming we don’t get like a quarter inch of ice overnight and the entire state shuts down).
Week 5: Still in the process of getting my budget together, but I did manage to tie up a few significant loose ends in my finances.
Week 4, Week 3, Week 2, Week 1: My schedule was disrupted last week by a conference/road trip, and I have another one to go to at the end of this week, so I’m going to go easy on myself and wait until next Sunday to get back on the wagon.