Work and Guilt

November 8, 2013

I live in New York City, and, once upon a time, I did my fieldwork in rock clubs. As such, I’ve been coincidentally privy to many, many bathroom conversations. I’ve heard overwrought sobbing about relationships, tried to ignore people doing drugs in club bathrooms where I just wanted to wash off my coat after some drunk dude spilled a beer on it, and watched an elderly woman balance her checkbook in Time Warner Center’s expansive ladies’ loo.

However, the conversation I eavesdropped on earlier this week just depressed me in its banal replication of one of the worst aspects of academia.

Grad 1: “Hey. Did you work over the break?”

Grad 2: “What? Work? What kind of work do you mean?”

Grad 1: “You know, your work. For classes.”

Grad 2: “Oh, yeah. Some.”

Grad 1: “I did so much work. I was in the library the whole time! I couldn’t believe how much I got done.”

Here are a few things you should know about this conversation: 1) The aforementioned break was two days, plus the usual weekend. It wasn’t a week. It wasn’t a long time. It was two days. 2) If you can’t tell it from the dialogue, Grad 2 was not exactly thrilled about entering into this conversation.

All I could think was: Jesus Christ, I’m glad I’m not Grad 2! Grad 1 has clearly internalized the pernicious notion that academics must constantly work, or else their lives have no meaning. And, worse yet, she’s decided she needs to foist a hefty amount of guilt onto Grad 2 for not getting enough done–or at least, not spending the entire break in the library, giving the appearance of doing work.

The discourse of constant work is destructive, personally and professionally. It’s true that academia is demanding, but it’s also true that people work better with some level of rest, like that which the tiny fall break is supposed to give. It’s also the case that academics are not working in times when they say they are. No, they are panicking, procrastinating, pulling their hair out, because they should be working, but oh, god, there’s nothing I have to say about this topic/someone said it better/if this isn’t perfect in the first draft I don’t know what I’m going to do/fill in your own personal freakout here.

And what does all of that work bring? Do people read your work widely? Do you get a job from it? Or does it just linger in journals that everyone subscribes to, but no one reads? In my experience, it’s that last one.

Of course, this kind of statement coming from an adjunct doesn’t mean much. People could easily hold up my failure to get a tenure-track job as a failure to work hard enough. But that’s because the goalpost of “hard work” shifts constantly. Successful people will always have worked hard enough, and those who aren’t successful will never have put in enough work. It doesn’t matter that the two most successful social scientists I know–MacArthur geniuses, both–had enviable work/life balances when I took classes them, or that most adjuncts are teaching at a pace that would give most grad students an ulcer. The discourse of constant work is pervasive, so destructive, and quite possibly the least psychologically healthy thing that happens in academia.*

There’s no reason to sacrifice your humanity to work in the humanities (or social sciences, or hard sciences). It’s just not worth it.

*Aside from the rudeness, which is also a global problem.

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