I’ve been away, on a holiday with my husband and dog down by the sea. We had a marvellous time, eating too much, sitting in our cottage kitchen looking out over the ocean, walking with the dog along the Cornish cliffs, and drinking plenty of ale and cider. We had two iPads and a web connection (sporadically), and some mobile service (occasionally, when the wind direction was right…), so we weren’t completely cut off, and we both checked our email once a day (just to make sure nothing was on fire). But for the most part we were switched off, and I had no problem (to my surprise) leaving my computer at home.
I’m acutely aware that this shouldn’t be news of the “activist classroom” variety: academic goes on vacation. What’s noteworthy about that? But that’s just it: when academics take a proper break, it’s damn significant news. Because we don’t do it enough.
There are a lot of reasons for this reticence toward holidays among those of my profession (and no, quick trips to museums or historic sites while at a conference do not count as holidays!). First, we actually do three jobs: I am a full-time researcher, a full-time teacher, and increasingly I could do a full day’s worth of administrative labour and barely dent my to-do list. So we’re busy, and evenings and weekends (not to mention whole weeks off!) represent time we need to get our jobs done. Second, we are excellent at making work for ourselves: I strive to be productive and efficient, but I could be much better at triaging my tasks and protecting my time. (See here for my recent attempt to get the most out of a summer’s work day.) Third – and this one’s the kicker – we like being crazy-busy just a little too much. When was the last time you heard an academic colleague say “I worked all weekend!” or “I’ve worked every night this week!” with something of an air of satisfaction about the phrase? Probably not too long ago. Complaining about all that work we have to do is an academic fetish: it represents me to myself and to my colleagues as extremely committed to my research, diligent and thorough. Working too much has become some kind of warped academic bona fide: I couldn’t possibly get that book done without working all those evenings and weekends. It wouldn’t be good enough if I didn’t.
Full disclosure: I’m as guilty of the Overwork Fetish as anybody. But here’s the thing: it’s a performance, not my truth. In term time, yes, I work a lot of evenings, but I don’t often work on the weekend. I never work on Saturday: that’s a rule I instituted in graduate school, and it has stood me in good stead all these many years. I need the break Saturday (or the full weekend, whenever possible) represents: I need to put emotional and cognitive distance between myself and my book, my article, my students, my committees. Without that distance I can’t come to work fresh on Monday, or sustain momentum through the week. I consider Saturdays off as an investment in my productivity, as well as in my psychic and social well being. So why don’t I trumpet this choice more often, rather than “performing overwork” and giving my colleagues the impression I’m perennially slammed?
Increasingly I do trumpet this choice – now that I’m quite confident in my abilities as a teacher-researcher, and now that I have a significant teaching portfolio and research profile to demonstrate those abilities to the world. When I was younger and less experienced, though, the performance of overwork acted as compensation for my fear that I wasn’t a good enough researcher/wasn’t working hard enough to become a good researcher. The Overwork Fetish is related in this way to Academic Imposter Syndrome: most of us fret that we aren’t smart enough, and pretending to work all the time somehow functions as a kind of self-grading mechanism – as long as we’re working, we must be doing something right. Right?
Nope. What we’re actually doing is modelling profoundly unhealthy work habits, and a flawed measure of productivity, for each other, for our junior colleagues, and especially for our students. I learned how to perform overwork in grad school – right around the same time I decided Saturdays were off limits. The latter was a very good choice, but the former was a tenacious problem that kept me anxiously behaving for far too long like I wasn’t working hard enough/wasn’t living up to the image of myself as hardworking academic-in-training. Now that I’m finally able to own my holiday Saturdays, I make a point of telling my graduate students about them, and I encourage those students to build measures of time off into all work plans. And I celebrate going on holiday – it still doesn’t happen nearly enough, or flawlessly (witness the checking of the email while in Cornwall), but it happens more and more, and better and better.
I’m a member of the Guardian’s Higher Education network, and recently I read a terrific blog post there by Eleanor Highwood discussing academia’s 24/7 culture and why we need to work to change it. (Read the piece here.) At the same time, I’ve been engrossed in some work-related reading about the very nature of contemporary work, and about the ways in which violations of human rights like zero-hours contracts, and the rhetoric of “creative class” jobs meant to be their own reward, have slowly but surely transformed our sense of what is “normal” on the job. Highwood captures this new “normal” nicely from the perspective of a university labourer:
…academia actively encourages the extension of working hours. I’m an academic who has worked 80% of a full-time role for the past five years, first as senior lecturer, then professor and head of department at a world renowned research centre in meteorology and climate science. My contract doesn’t even specify hours – it merely says that I am expected to work the time needed to perform the role. Try figuring out what 80% of full-time is when full-time is not defined.
I don’t doubt that part of what we are doing, when we fetishize our overwork now, is feeding the neoliberal machine by convincing ourselves and our students that “the time needed” is and should be our academic “normal”. As Highwood notes, however, not only is this notion of “time needed” inaccurate and dangerous; from a labour-rights standpoint, it’s outrageous.
So: in the spirit of her call to think differently, more precisely, and more actively about how we work, how much we work, and how we could work less, better, and happier, I invite all of you to tell me about your summer holidays, send me your snaps, and share any and all tips you might have for working less, and getting more for it.