Two perspectives on the academic workplace

New Kid has already posted about Mark Bauerlein’s latest Brainstorm post, “Stop Pushing Yourself.”  In general, if her understanding of Bauerlein’s point is correct, then I agree with her and her commenters.

But I understood the post to mean, in effect, “you may well be busy, but if you are, a certain amount of this is self-generated–and if that’s the case, why declaim so loudly about it?”  (One of New Kid’s commentator’s hits the partial reason: that it’s a defensive answer to those who say academics have it easy.) If *that’s* his point, though, then I probably agree with him.  (Especially because tenure-line faculty comments about workload tend to obscure the most important academic labor problem–the contingent faculty.)

I’ve long-since stopped tracking precisely how many hours I work.  On a typical (non-grading) week, it’s close to 45-50 hours; grading weeks or the weeks before a deadline can easily be up to 80.  Having said that, almost all of that is self-generated.

For example: This semester, I’m teaching 2 wholly new courses, plus a significantly re-designed third class. (There’s also a workshop that’s unchanged from last year, plus I’m cashing in overload from a previous semester–so, in a semester I’m supposed to be teaching 9 credit hours, I’m teaching 11, plus several independent studies. ) That third class was successful last time, and I could easily have re-run it and saved myself some aggravation.  I could also have replaced the 2 brand-new courses with 2 sections of the survey, and cut my work time considerably.  I didn’t have design all the clever new web 2.0 assignments, which take a lot of up-front time.  I’m on some committees that are time-consuming–senate, information technology (which I chair), and assessment–and I probably don’t need to be doing all 3.  I’m on the union council, for which I do less than I should. I coordinate our undergraduate research & creative achievement day, which is coming up.  I’ve arranged for a Very! Exciting! Speaker!! to come to campus at the end of the month.  Then there’s a a variety of writing projects, some of which will count a lot for promotion someday (Alton Locke, Paul Clifford, some articles & conference papers), and others that count for less (Bookslut, PopMatters, et al.).  And, as regular readers know, I spend a certain amount of time during the week at home to keep the kid out of daycare.

So, I’m pretty busy, I guess, but it really is stretching it to say that more than 40% of this is required or expected.  I’m at a 4/4 school, and I have some articles, a book, plus a book-like thing which is not a book.  I could’ve rotated 4 classes: comp, the survey, the Victorian age, and the Victorian novel, and those only.  And  I could’ve done, say, one university-service thing (plus dept. service): maybe the senate, or chaired ITC, or coordinated URCAD.  I’m pretty sure that would’ve gotten me through promotion & tenure.  (Knocking on wood, of course, because I’m still untenured–though no additional amount of accomplishment would’ve gotten me tenure last year.)

It’s also worth acknowledging that the factor that drives many tenure-track professors at 4/4 schools to overwork–“ooh, I’ll write my way out!”–doesn’t apply in my case: How would I leave a school where A. & I *both* are on tenure-line appointments?

When so much of our work is self-chosen, then, complaining about overwork is rhetorically peculiar.  It does occur to me that there’s something weirdly Puritanical about the way academics talk about being busy, as if the # of hours they work were itself a sign of virtue.

For a different take on work, compare this post at the 37signals blog, where Jason Fried talks about some of the ways his company has encouraged people to work less.  Some of them will be familiar to many academics: a shorter (or more flexible) workweek, “funding people’s passions” (what my school would call a “faculty development grant”), and a discretionary spending account for work-related materials (what my state university would probably call “theft”).

I can’t find the passage tonight but Donald Hall (the speaker mentioned above) has described how, despite his productivity–much of which while at a 4/4 school and while being chair–he still is usually able to be done at a reasonable hour.  Elsewhere, though, he writes:

These are the two extremes that continue to plague academic existence: that of Casaubonic paralysis and Carlylean workaholism.  Neither is self-aware or honest, neither integrates our intellectual and theoretical beliefs with our practices in any defensible way; nether is communally responsive and responsible; and neither leads to anything like equanimity in our professional, or indeed personal, lives.  In sum, both are avoidance strategies and make for both miserable and–in the communities of our departments, classrooms, and larger profession–misery-making existences.  (The Academic Self, 8-9)

Although Bauerlein’s style is more caustic, I think it’s a pretty similar point.

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