Monday, July 25, 2011

Work vs. Summer: Variations on a Theme

Earlier this week I found myself posting a mildly histrionic status update on Facebook. "It is mid-July," I wrote, "and I am way behind on my summer to do list." This slightly whinging update garnered almost 20 replies in a very short period of time. Either I have indulgent interweb friends or I hit a nerve.

As I sat down to write this post yesterday I realized that almost everything I've written for the blog this summer has related to overly ambitious lists (read: desperation), relaxation (read: guilt), or anxiety (read: I don't have a special word to make this sound better). What's the deal?

It is true, I am behind on that list I wrote in the spring, but I'm behind on a wildly ambitious list that was written in my end-of-May-classes-are-over-I'll-get-everything-yes-EVERYTHING-I've-evern-been-meaning -to-do-done-this-summer-and-learn-to-make-jam-exuberance. It is also true that I haven't been lounging on the couch eating bon-bons and watching Mad Men reruns, though that sounds nice. Since May I've done two rounds of a job interview, one of which was at Congress, one of which was across the country. While at Congress I also gave a paper, chaired two panels, and danced on the speakers at the ACCUTE dance party. Then I came home and finished teaching, finished grading, submitted grades, began two new collaborative projects, wrote two book reviews, began revising a conference paper for an article, created a new graduate course replete with week-by-week reading and assignments, began talks with a production company for a community building performance project, made new friends, hosted an old friend, got married, worked on syllabi for next year, began circulating a book proposal to publishers, and am working on several grant applications. Oh yeah, and I'm writing an article.

So why do I feel like a layabout?

Last week Aimee posted about the kind of tangible confidence and authorization that something like a receiving a grant can do. Indeed! But what I am realizing (again... I'm a slow learner) is just how very true her post is for me. External validation is *so* vital. And while this might be contentious or simply navel-gazing, I'd warrant this is especially true at the student, graduate student, sessional, LTA, tenure-track-but-pre-tenure stage of things. Or maybe not, but based on this and this I'm going to bank on that pernicious sense of guilt easing off. A bit.

Sure, part of my sense of bon-bon eating idleness is my own deeply entrenched masochistic work ethic. Working hard feels good; working hard helps me to feel as though I have some control of my future in this unpredictable profession. But I'm well aware as, I'm certain, are you readers with whom this chimes, that not only is there a limit to how hard one can work, there is certainly a point where 'hard work' morphs into anxious procrastination. Moreover, I find that while I am regularly and well-meaningly cajoled by my friends and colleagues to take it easy it turns out that for me being told to relax is ridiculously stressful.

So what's the solution to saving some summer and some sanity? In the short term I am reorganizing my to do list to include only necessary and (more) realistic goals. I'm also reserving some time at the end of August to go on vacation (which I should point out is easier said than done as I am currently unemployed until my contract--and paycheque--begin in late August).

In the longer term, however, I think the work-round-the-clock-slaving-academic-mentality needs to be thought through together (and without Margaret Wente $#!&^). What would a slow academy really look like? What does summer ideally look like when one works in the academy? Not laziness, necessarily, but surely not this intensified sense of failure and anxiety. Might it look like Jennifer Blair's wonderful meditation on procrastination? Or like Bethany Nowviskie's brainchild #alt-academy? You tell me. For now, I'm going back to paring down my list, doing a few hours of work and then, because it is a rare sunny day in Halifax, I'm knocking off to the beach.

8 comments:

  1. Erin, you've articulated exactly how I feel. Working hard, and working as non-stop as I can manage, is the only way I can feel somewhat in control of my wildly uncontrollable future as an academic (I'm just about to start Year 4, and my dissertation). By the end of the summer I will have taken two additional training courses, submitted an article and two author biographies, published a book review, given a paper, worked on my digital edition, worked on someone else's print edition, written my dissertation proposal, launched an online peer-reviewed journal, and started renovations on a house. And most of the time, that seems like a completely reasonable list of things to have done--because if I don't get a job, it damn well won't be for lack of trying. And I know it's not healthy, but the fear of not having done everything I possibly could have scares me more than burnout. I'm still not sure what a good solution is; one of your previous posts inspired a brief detour into more reasonable work hours, but that only lasted until the next deadline. And it's hard to find time for introspection!

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  2. Erin, your loooong list of all the amazing things you have accomplished this summer blows my mind. You definitely deserve a day--or a week!--at the beach relaxing, no matter what guilt trips the Puritan/academic work ethic says. (Isn't it interesting, btw, that Puritan work ethic and academic work ethic are synonymous?) And amid all that, you slyly snuck in the fact that you got married too! Congrats! :-)

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  3. @ Melissa: I'm glad/frustrated that the post struck the right chord for you. Glad because (selfishly) it means I'm not alone, frustrated because (less selfishly) it means I'm not alone! You've listed a HUGE amount of accomplishments! I see what you've done & I commend you: brava! And yet, like me, I see you struggling with the is it enough/it isn't enough ennui. Perhaps at this stage in the game introspection comes in part through discussion/sharing?

    @Pantagruelle: Thanks so much for the validation and support. I appreciate your readership, but even more so your friendship! & yes, the Puritans were on my mind very much (along with fears of denunciation/burning at the stake...I actually think there's a richer, more fearsome metaphor to string out between academia and the Puritans... Yikes.) & hah! I didn't mean to be sly, but yes, my partner and I willy-nilly decided to make a (post-NYC law change) public statement of our commitment. Photos on FB if you're interested in the party (there was no wedding per se but rather a civil ceremony outside in Point Pleasant with a JP and two friends/witnesses) and a smashing garden party care of my friend CD. Thanks for the congrats! We're thrilled!

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  4. @Erin: I agree-conversation seems to be the order of business. The other problem is that I tend not to talk much with my immediate peers about what I'm up to (and how I feel about it), because I (foolishly? weirdly?) don't want to sound like I'm bragging about being productive to a group of people, myself included, who often struggle with productivity issues. Coming here helps, but I think I need to figure out a way to have more conversations about this 'round home. Maybe our professionalization workshop program is a place to start, as gaining work-life balance is as much a part of professionalization as anything else, I think. Or it should be. And I love your choice of wedding locale--I didn't get to PP the last time I was in Halifax to see Dean, Emily et. al., but I'm picturing how lovely it must have been! Congrats!

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  5. I think this goes way beyond academia. Our culture increasingly treats all time off as a symptom of laziness. Leave the office at 5? Don't work on weekends? Actually take a vacation?

    What is important to remember is that you NEED rest. Regularly (evenings, weekends) and long periods from time to time (vacation). Actually taking that time off might enable you to be MORE productive when you get back to work.

    Anxiety and fatigue are not the companions of your best work.

    I've read a couple of other posts recently that touch on some related issues. I'm not sure I agree with their conclusions but the patterns they identify are worth thinking about and addressing.

    One is from Charlie Gilkey http://www.productiveflourishing.com/how-is-your-perfectionism-feeding-you/

    The other from Julie Clarenbach http://www.escapetheivorytower.com/2011/07/avoid-the-infinite-deferral/

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  6. I can barely force myself to work on my MA major research project, and it's due in two and a half weeks. The fact that I could be working on it every waking moment, combined with my deep, instinctual desire to sit in a park rather than the library, has formed this paralyzing research guilt ball that causes me to neither enjoy the time I take off, nor to be very productive when I actually am working, since I've built the task up so much in my mind. Yay summer! :S
    And congrats to you and your partner! :D

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  7. If I may advise about vacations, if and when you take yours (honeymoon perhaps?), don't over-schedule. Plan nothing. Get away, don't bring a laptop, only bring recreational reading materials, get out of the range of cell phones. Unplug. Go deep into the wilderness if necessary. it's just not a vacation otherwise. It is a healing process and one that, if you need the reassurance, will actually help you be more productive in the long run. Just because our culture is on a breakneck pace towards nothing in particular, doesn't mean that we have to be as well. Or at least we don't have to be all the time.

    I had the opportunity to do this recently, and it took me three days to get to a pace that was relaxing, it was such a foreign feeling that I hadn't even realized it was missing. I cried tears of joy, literally, for the feeling of being able to forgive myself and not direct negative thoughts at myself for a few days. It's powerful stuff this guilt. It may be a good motivator, but it's probably not the best motivator we can find. I hope that you're able to give yourself a break, you deserve it.

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  8. @ Helen: Hang in. I completely empathize. Please send me a message if you want to set up a checking-in-word-count-per-day kind of team. We can keep each other afloat... or at least laugh!

    @maepress: Thank you. So much. I'm unplugging for ten days at the end of August!!

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