If you’ve ever used a can of spray insulation, you know how the toxic goo expands to fill every hole and crack. It’s like bread dough rising in a time lapse film, still creeping towards you long after you think you’ve sprayed it in place. As I teetered on a step ladder in the searing heat last weekend, watching the stuff grow like a kitschy movie blob, I knew I’d found the right analogy for this week’s post. I tried not to wipe my sweaty brow with a foul, sticky glove and thought, “This is how work can expand to fill every space if I’m not paying attention.”
It’s understandable, of course, that professors get swallowed up by actual and self-imposed overwork given that we are under the scrutiny of a skeptical public and increasingly out of touch university administrators. With a conspiratorial wink, an uncle informed me decades ago when I got my first professor job that it sounded like a “sweet deal.” And I’ve suffered through countless meetings with administrators who reactively push for higher teaching loads, quite certain that we professors just aren’t doing enough. They clearly do not appreciate the amorphous nature of the job, the pressure we are under to permit it to overlap with, flow over, and otherwise obscure the rest of our lives. To make this more concrete, I made a record of my activities on a typical morning last week — snippets below. The pace of my daily routine is especially striking to me when I keep in mind that, in the eyes of a critical taxpaying public, and, increasingly corporatized career administrators, this is the bon vivant, summer vacation chunk of my calendar.
Many instructors never really leave their work. Their sense of responsibility to students and to the subject area they love, combined with the almost open ended nature of research and the teaching relationship, guarantees that there is always more to be done. Certainly, if lines and limits are to be drawn between our “work” and “life,” this will not come from the time clock, the setting sun, or the factory whistle. By and large, we must draw them ourselves. Being a professor is not unique in this way, of course — many other jobs share these qualities — and this lack of specialness is worth keeping firmly in mind.
That setting priorities and effectively drawing boundaries is hard for most people is clear from the glut of self-help books on this topic. I’ve read and appreciated lots of them, especially those that reveal the deeper questions at play, psychological, and maybe even spiritual ones. When deciding how to spend our time, we must, after all, decide what really and truly matters to us. If it turns out, say, that the very burden of work tasks we complain about actually serves to happily distract us from personal or existential woe, then we must be honest about that. It’s obvious that many privileged individuals who complain of being “busy, busy, busy!” are classic workaholics, with little satisfaction or even sense of identity beyond their career. Some don’t like their personal life much, but find it less wrenching and more socially acceptable to complain about their demanding job than about their husband or exhausting tween children.
Ultimately, then, though professor jobs are not the walk in the park that many imagine, they are also not intrinsically more demanding or diffuse than many other other jobs or activities that routinely swallow up peoples’ lives. Saying no or calling it a day is, for those of us with the luxury of managing much of our own time, as much an exercise in honesty, authenticity and courage as of practical time management. We must learn to tell the truth about why we’d rather send just one more email or grade one more paper, now, tonight. And, as one of my great teachers urges, “to tell the truth about whether or not we’re telling the truth about that.”
Some of us have tried every trendy time management scheme — the hulking Franklin organizer, the Palm Pilot, or the understated iPhone or Moleskine bullet journal — but if I fear what lies behind all the planning (which often becomes an excuse for yet more busyness) — the silence, the uncertainty, the potentially bottomless mysteries of joy and grief — then nothing will ever really change. I’ll busy my life away with this or that VIT (very important task) complaining all the while — the better to establish my importance to others and myself — until a crisis forces me to make different choices. And if, as a relatively independent, privileged, well-employed individual, I focus only on the supposed grappling hooks that others have imposed on my life, I will overlook the agency that I do have.
I am not, of course, focusing here on the many who must work multiple jobs at the whim of others with little claim on their own time. In fact, I write this post partly in honor of adjunct instructors who piece together their livelihoods from scraps discarded by full-time professors, or stolen from professors and reassigned to adjuncts by jaded, penny-pinching administrators. And I write it in honor of the remaining academic collectIve bargaining units that support professors’ struggle to retain some measure of independence and dignity. We must continue to fight against the trends of increasing teaching workloads — for all instructors — even as we resist the temptation to make our jobs a scapegoat for why we never do whatever it is that matters most to us.
Excerpt from a typical summer workday (boring, but requested by a reader!)
I woke at 5:30, fed my dog and cat, and graded the first of four sets of assignments my students do each week (I’m teaching summer school). After 90 minutes of grading, I spent another twenty minutes composing a note summarizing the results of my grading and offering guideposts to my students for what’s coming next. Then I took my dog for a quick walk, showered, and got my books and computer packed up. On the way to the coffee shop where I’d planned to work for a few hours, I stopped to pick up some necessities for later — lemons and chocolate — and then at the hardware store for giant paper lawn bags.
At the coffee shop I ran into a junior colleague who wanted to chat about his upcoming tenure process. After a pleasant half hour with him, I opened my computer and began seeking and skimming articles I’ve collected over the past year for my upcoming LGBT Studies class. As I read, selected and rejected, I tried not to get sidetracked by the mostly fascinating material, but did stop to post one article to a professional social media site I’m responsible for and also emailed it to a colleague at another university. As I sent that email, I noticed an “urgent” message from one of my current students with questions about an assignment that’s due tonight. I responded to her and then returned to culling articles.
About the time the lunch crowd began to arrive, I went to a nearby park to eat outside and enjoy a quick walk while listening to a chapter from an audiobook version of a text I’m teaching in the fall. Next I went to my campus office to finish my morning grading, sort through some student papers from last semester and meet with a graduate student who’s doing an independent study. About 4:00 I raced off to a dental appointment I’d nearly forgotten and then went home to mow the front yard — the back can wait — and put out the trash, recycling, and lawn waste…..