Academic Mondays: On Overwork

Why, a reader asks, are students and faculty alike expected to work so much? Ze says:

What strikes me as really weird is how incredibly much work everyone is expected to do. Students, faculty, everyone. We’re all so busy that we collapse into puddles of stress at the end of the semester and every single person I’ve talked to seems to be cutting corners and doing their work kind of half-assed. I don’t understand why we, academics, in general, don’t just do less work and do it better, pay more attention to it, spend more time on it. I think that would be a better choice. If nothing else, we would know that when we gave so much of ourselves to write something, it wasn’t just going to get half-assedly skimmed by whoever winds up reading it (if anyone does). The way things are set up it all seems so pointless and futile because we never spend enough time on things, because there is “too much” that we “have” to do. Why is that, anyway?

One answer I can think of is, we are trying to prove that what we do is actually work. What do you think?


26 thoughts on “Academic Mondays: On Overwork

  1. I have attempted to do something like this for several years, but the price is the annual ritual of humiliation that is merit review, the drumbeat of negative gossip by colleagues and students, and the loss of funding opportunitites due to barren CV. But if I don’t cut back, my health collapses and I’d have to quit. so why do we do it? because if we don’t, we get dinged in ways that range to minorly annoying to being threatened with post-tenure review.

    Having said that, I have cut back and take my lumps, with varying degrees of equanimity, because the alternative is to quit, and I don’t want to quit.

  2. The reader’s question is why so much work is assigned in the first place.

    One answer is that professors are expected to provide a full time research assistant in the form of their wife.

  3. And grad students are expected to provide an independent income. Either from their parents or a spouse.

    Maybe part of it is because new projects sound like so much fun at the idea stage, and we grab too many like kids with our hands in a cookie jar.

    Or maybe it’s just the nature of the beast. Research and teaching are both time-consuming, so add both together and you get Ridiculously Time-Consuming.

    I dunno. I try to protect at least part of my weekends for fun and social time, but my grad school friends don’t seem to do even that (or else they just don’t want to socialize with me, maybe).

    I dunno.

  4. They’re stressing so as to seem heroic. I figured out early on you have to take off 24 hours straight at some time during the week. I vote for Friday 5 or 6 to Saturday 5 to 6 — being a nerd, I like to study Saturday night, it is quiet then and far from the week, but some 24 hour period is essential.

  5. I thought for a second you meant that you had to work for 24 hours straight without sleeping. I was about to freak out on you!

    I bet you’re right about the heroic thing. In at least one case I know that is what is going on. Student claims she does not have time to grocery shop, therefore has no food in her house. I’m like, really?

    And yet, I don’t think it’s all JUST a pose, because as I mentioned before, everyone, including the faculty, gets ridiculously stressed out toward the end of the semester. You can see it in all their faces.

    I deliberately made sure I had a lighter load my first semester. I’m awfully afraid I won’t be able to get everything done this semester, because I can’t bring myself to do things half-assed. It’s a problem.

    1. Well, there IS too much work, and they DO expect you to do it. I suspect professors assign students too much because we have so much that we don’t have time to figure out how much is not too much.

      1. I was floored when I found out that in some other disciplines, they don’t assign a book per week (plus an article or two, maybe) in every single class.

    1. Ideally you find out how much work each thing really requires. You don’t half-ass, you just decide what level of perfection each thing really needs.

  6. Let’s face it: men are more popular than women. And that goes double for older women. Men get helped where women get stopped. I don’t know the solution to these realities.

    One good way to fight back, I’ve found, is to stop editing yourself.

      1. Yes – I agree with human on this one, and I speak from experience.

  7. To clarify, the academic world is natural and comfortable for men, but it isn’t for women. And that is the source of most of the stress female academics experience.

  8. Well I would have gotten a lot further had I not been so outspoken, I do believe. I’m not sure about the “popularity” question and I haven’t come to the age problem yet. I wasn’t treated well when I was younger, people equated youth with vapidity.

    Men get helped and women get stopped, yes, definitely, and it’s something everyone needs to see (it is always alleged women stopped themselves).

    I feel very comfortable in the academic world, though. What I’m uncomfortable with is discrimination, passive agressive behavior, verbal abuse, and harassment.

    1. Yes, and all the hazing BS and the constantly finding excuses to look down on other people for not magically or telepathically knowing exactly what is expected of them. The absolute contempt for undergraduate students who dare to have different attitudes than their elders toward email or reading or the internet, for anyone who has ever struggled academically, for people who do not subscribe to ridiculous academic priorities (books come before food, sex, and sleep!)

      Thankfully, this is not as much a problem in my department as it seems to be in some other places, and yet it does intrude.

      1. Yes — this weirdo superiority cult and all the condescension, where does it come from? From the old days when academia was an old boys’ club — or what?

  9. Women do get stopped/severely discouraged, and it is really why Marechera’s life is so instructive, too, because there is a lot of similarity between the experiences of the white woman and the black male. The rules for both are in terms of the following:

    You are to understand that you are on probation only, and that this probation never ends. With any luck, you can past the test, and perhaps be rewarded by your father in heaven, or be reincarnated as a member of the correct gender (in the case of black men, “race”). In the meantime, you are to learn from those of the correct identity how to become a proper person. Any deviation from your ongoing training, say, by thinking up ideas of your own, or coming up with different ways of doing things, will be soundly punished as a sign that you are not at all interested in making progress. Such punishment is for your own good, nonetheless, as you will never become a proper person by deviating, even slightly from the patterns of obedience and submissiveness set out for you. It is imperative that you learn, in this lifetime, how to distinguish between right and wrong, and all white males are out there to educate you on just specifically this topic. You have to respect them and show them the honour they deserve, because they are out there watching out of pitfalls for you. They are a good colour, and they have straight up and down-ness. They will save you from messing up in this life.

  10. Probation only, yes, and all white males there to educate, yes. Because you are semi allowed, and so on.

    Then there are the women of color.

  11. Black women are those whom I am going to Zimbabwe to teach. I have read in a book about colonial psychiatry that black women were considered to be insane by default, just by being black women. By comparison, white women were considered educable, but only by being bound with twine to the patriarchal stake. Black women were simply mad — and black men were potentially educable but also prone to instability.

    1. Women of color — “beyond the pale” — yes, that’s how it is (how they are seen).

  12. On condescension: there’s a certain academic blogger, and I bet you can guess who I’m talking about if you think about it but I don’t want to put her name down – who is a very smart, thoughtful feminist who writes very interesting and often valuable posts. But she has this tendency to throw out blanket statements about who is and isn’t suited to academic endeavors, whether it be undergrads succeeding in a class, getting admitted to grad school, doing well in grad school, getting a faculty job…

    She’s constantly making these statements about how People Who Do/Are XYZ obviously are not suited.

    Then a commenter will say “But I did/was XYZ and things worked out for me!” and this blogger will carefully backtrack and explain how the commenter was obviously an exception to the rule, because look, s/he succeeded!

    It makes me want to throw things, honestly. If you’re successful, obviously that proves you had what it takes. If you’re not successful, obviously you didn’t. It’s like there’s no such thing as accidents that interfere with your studies or barriers being thrown in your way by others.

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