Carrie: Happy (?) Academic New Year! I want to ask all kinds of questions about what the New Year means to you and how it feels, in a new town, a new institution, a new job … but let me focus on one thing (for now). You’ve been keeping track of your work hours. What form has that taken?
Carla: Happy New Year! Yes, this year brings a lot of change after what felt like two years of being in transition for various reasons: a new job in a new city in a new/old house working on new projects. It’s a lot to manage all at once, and I’ve consequently been thinking a lot about the kind of Professor Historian Person Human I want to strive to be in this new phase. On top of that, my new position explicitly calls for me to take a leadership role here. And so I’m trying to use my own experience to help (learn to) do that.
So, part of all of this is about learning how to make my job into what I need it to be in order for it to feel maximally healthy and generative. It will be news to no one that it can be very difficult to balance life and work in this business, and I’ve not yet learned how to do that well. (Even after 20+ years living in the world of universities, I’m relatively clueless.) I find the socialprofessional academic world exhausting even it its best forms, and I need a lot of alone time to recover from that and I’ve become very selfish about taking the time I need. In this new place and new position, I’m finding myself simultaneously (1) needing to figure out how to use that time for work routines that are sustainable and make sense for me, and (2) not wanting to impose structures on myself that I will inevitably rebel against, as I always do.
I know that to make this work I need to be better about learning to say No to things. And right now, I tend to agree to serve on committees and do admin (and contribute essays that I don’t really want to write to edited volumes) out of a sense of guilt or obligation. Even when I know I don’t want to and don’t have time to do more, there’s always the, “But we’re short-staffed and everyone needs to pitch in to help!,” or the “This is how you show that you’re a good citizen!,” or the “If you don’t do this, So-and-So would have to and he’s really bad at committee work so for the good of the program you need to say Yes” pressures.
Carrie: Seriously, though, that last one! I mean, it literally amounts to saying that So-and-So is bad at his job and instead of addressing that with him we’re just going to put his work onto you. How is that in any way OK? And yet we hear it so often! This needs to stop.
Carla: I hear you. On the one hand, I do get it: when someone constantly drops the ball, why keep putting the ball in his hands? On the other hand: yeah nah. The rest of the dept shouldn’t have to pay the price for that. And I’m just not willing to do that anymore.
With that in mind, a few weeks ago I was trying to think about how to make non-guilt-based decisions about what to take on. And I realized that I had no idea how much time I have for Additional Things because I had no idea how much time I was already spending on workthings. So I decided to start keeping track, not as a way of trying to change my behavior but instead as a way of seeing what I was already doing. (Of course, by observing something you also change it. And that’s definitely the case here. A little more on that below, but there’s more to be said about this.)
I have an Excel file where I record all of the work I do every day, including work emails and admin, writing, conferencing, meetings, research time. And I total up the hours every day, and keep track of how much time I’m spending on each of these things. I’m being super conservative about what counts as worktime: just straight-up constant making-or-managing-of-stuff-my-employer-pays-me-for, down to the minute. (With that said, these categories get tricky. What counts as “work”? This is probably worth a much longer conversation. Increasingly, as a writer and storyteller, I’m trying to bring “life” and “work” together into a harmonious whole practice. When I talk about “work” below, then, the background is that I’m simultaneously trying to make choices such that the work I agree to do is something that I feel is meaningful to me, something that I can substantively contribute to, something that feels of a piece with the rest of what I want from my one finite moral life. Not every part of my job can be that. But in making choices about what I agree to take on, I’m trying to prioritize this as much as I can. And rather than asking for permission to count things as university-recognized work, I’ve decided that I’m at a point in my career where I have a good sense of what is part of my Work (capital-W) and I’m simply declaring all of that to be part of my jobwork. This, for example, counts as part of my work. I’m also fundamentally an optimist about this biz, for better and for worse, and so it’s important to me to try to make it into what I need it to be while I still believe that might be possible...)
Carrie: We should absolutely have this longer conversation some time. When I’m writing I sometimes find the word “practice” more accurate than “work.” But it’s a complicated area of terminology. So much baggage.
Carla: Yes, I think practice is definitely more accurate for me, too. At the same time, there’s stuff that feels purely like work (...so many admin and committee things, for example…) and not really like part of my practice. I wouldn’t do these things out of a sense of fulfilment or enjoyment if I weren’t obligated to because of my job. I wouldn’t give students number grades and calculate all of that stuff, instead of just giving substantive feedback and talking with them about their work, if I wasn’t obligated to. That kind of stuff.
Carrie: While tracking your worktime, have you learned anything that surprised you? What were you expecting from the exercise, and is that what’s happening?
Carla: The first thing it confirms is that I cannot say Yes to anything else without getting rid of something. I kind of knew that, but now I can come to future conversations armed with data supporting it. It’s just not possible. With a clear sense of the scarcity of my available time, it’s making me brutal about evaluating each part of my worklife according to whether it’s worth the time I’m giving it, and whether it’s bringing me some sort of fulfillment. If not, it goes, or if that’s impossible then the time I give to it gets reduced to the bare functional minimum. At this point, I do not have “extra” time to “volunteer” for workthings: if an employer wants me to do an extra Thing, we need to talk about where that time is coming from, or else I cannot do it. (Here’s the thing: this should be true for ALL of us. This profession can be really toxic in the way it encourages and rewards overwork, exhaustion, and burnout. Lots of people have written about that. Yes, I have major discomfort about thinking of myself as a disciplined part of a capitalist labor pool. I don’t want to be that, but the reality is, I am employed by an institution and in a profession that conceptualizes me in that way and I have agreed to be part of this. So if that’s the case, what happens if I start analyzing my time the way the institution analyzes my productivity: by treating the minutes of the day as countable individuals and my time as a scarce resource? That’s what I’m trying, here. And it has confirmed for me: I cannot just keep adding things and staying healthy. Honestly, I think there’s really no way to argue for sustaining the practice - so common in academia - of piling on extra workthings until a person reaches breakpoint. Zero. And there are consequences to that. I’m completely rethinking how I evaluate candidates for jobs, for example, or grad school applications, or how I’m advising graduate students. On what basis should I be comparing candidates if not on the basis of these sorts of dehumanizing CV-numbers? What responsibilities do I have as an advisor to safeguard the wellbeing of my students and simultaneously prepare them for success in a business that is currently set up to do the opposite? How can I try to be part of a solution, here, and not part of the problem?
Carrie: Yes! And I think this is a great suggestion: when we’re asked to take on extra tasks, we can ask which part of our existing workload we should take time away from. Just asking the question feels like a powerful thing, but also such an obviously reasonable one.
Carla: Yes, thank you for that. It also made me realize how much I’m actually working on most days. In this business we tend to internalize the listable-product as the measure of value because that’s what our institutions demand of us: if I’m not racking up publications or book chapters, I must not be working enough. Turns out, that’s really toxic. And it makes us feel shitty about ourselves for no good reason and with no good outcome. Yes, I’m working more every day than it feels like. With that said, I’m not trying to maximize my work hours or become a maximally efficient member of a labor pool. The larger goal is to figure out what I need to be a functional and fulfilled-feeling human. As part of this exercise, then, I’m trying to get a sense of how I tend to spend my time on days and weeks when I feel like I’m eating/sleeping/resting enough to feel healthy and balanced. (Achieving that feeling of balance and personal health takes real work for me, for all sorts of reasons.) That’s my baseline. I feel like I have a better grasp of that, now. And I also have a sense of how important it is to keep prioritizing that.
Keeping track of my working minutes has encouraged me to smoosh workthings into defined chunks, for ease of accounting: in general, I no longer spread work emails throughout the day, for example, or address them as they come in. I will set aside work-email-times (different each day, depending on how I’m feeling). It’s also helped confirm: conferences are work. Work-dinners and work-receptions are work. If it’s something that I am doing out of a sense of professional obligation and not because I would choose to do it independently: it’s work. And it gets categorized as such.
Carrie: I love this. Especially for introverts like myself, something like a work-dinner is absolutely work, and if I am required or expected to go to one then that time has to come from somewhere else. There’s no such thing as a free work-lunch!
I’ve also found that limiting work-email to specific times of the day is crucial. I have started thinking of it as if it were physical mail: I “collect” it at a particular point, and I “do my correspondence,” like in ye olden Jane Austen days. This also helps me manage the risks of toxic content in my inbox (not an uncommon thing for public-facing philosophers, or anyone working in a toxic environment). I only collect my email when I am ready to deal with what’s in there. I am not simply open at all times, which (for me) is psychologically unmanageable, and (for most people, I suspect) is distracting and unproductive.
Carla: Yes, you’ve been an inspiration in this regard!
Carrie: Thanks for sharing your awesomeness on this topic. Any last thoughts/tips for people reading this? I’m guessing the people who’ve got this far are pretty interested in the idea, maybe even considering trying it out for themselves …
Carla: The only thing I’ll add is that I think a lot of academic-overwork comes from a self-imposed sense of obligation to not disappoint or inconvenience colleagues, which is created by the weird social/professional enmeshing of academia. The lines separating friend/colleague/mentor/mentee and personal/professional can be very blurry-to-nonexistent. The people you’re drinking with are the people evaluating you for tenure. This blurring can be very good. It can also be very bad. For one thing, it can result in saying Yes to things you don’t want to do (or don’t have time for) because you don’t want to let people down. You like them and want to help them even as they’re making what feel like unreasonable demands on you. In this and in the work/play/life issues I discussed above, I’m feeling a strong tension between being a person who really doesn’t like static labels/categories, and feeling that I need to label myself and my world more as a form of self-protection. I don’t know how to navigate that yet but I know it’s something I need to think much more about, and doing this has helped me see that.