Friday, December 19, 2014

The Academic in the Coffee Shop

I wrote the majority of my dissertation while seated at a tiny table in the corner of dimly lit coffee shop. At the time, I didn’t have my own office, and working at home was anything but productive. My cat would sit on my keyboard, and I went stretches staring longingly out the window. So, I spent countless hours at my local coffee shop, churning out pages in that melange of extreme focus and nervous agitation that copious cups of caffeine can trigger. For the better part of a year, my clothes reeked of freshly ground coffee beans, and in this period, my own nerdy version of Cheers, all the baristas knew my name (and beverage of choice). It was a magical—and expensive—time in my life, but I wasn’t eager to repeat it.

When I started my faculty job, I was excited to finally have an office. In what has now become a tired cliché, office space was limited and competition for coveted offices in my department was (and remains) fierce. Office space was so scarce that, when I was hired, the dean couldn’t guarantee me an office in our building. In the end, I was issued a decent space near colleagues in our building—a little office with a window and collection of relatively new furniture.

Prior to the start of the semester, I tried to purchase a few decorations to liven up the space. I pictured an eclectic mix of artsy, globally inspired photographs and shelves lined with books. My degree, newly framed and prominently displayed. Evidently, I thought these things would make my office seem legitimate. As it turned out, my office never quite lived up to these expectations. Things got busy, and decorating took a back seat. Fortunately, having an unadorned office wasn’t a major issue.

Within a few weeks, I learned that my colleagues were only sporadically in their offices. In fact, the message I received was that faculty avoided being in their offices at all costs. Sure, they came in for meetings and office hours. Otherwise, however, they took advantage of the beautiful autonomy this profession grants by working elsewhere. (This, of course, is the great irony of faculty fighting over offices.)

Because our office hours only occasionally overlapped, I was surprised by how little I saw of my colleagues, even those whose offices were in close proximity. In order to get to know people in my department, I reached out to them and asked to meet one-on-one. Where did we usually meet? Coffee shops. Soon thereafter, I started meeting up with a colleague for structured writing time. Because I was joining his routine, I followed his lead. And so it was, after a brief respite, that I found myself once again spending large chunks of time in coffee shops.

This wasn’t a terrible turn of events. I was getting to know my colleagues, and I was writing, which I have gathered is important in this gig. Coffee shops are also a great way to learn about a new place and get the pulse of a community. In between sentences, I would often overhear conversations or observe random moments in people’s lives. Frequently, I would look up and see other faculty from around campus working through a stack of grading. It struck me that there are a variety of spaces in which academic work gets done. This is partly due to technology changes, which also means there may be generational differences that influence which spaces faculty prefer.

Thanks to the internet and widely available, free wifi, faculty are able to access a great deal of the materials they need to work from multiple places. For example, provided I have wifi, I can access through my library a range of e-books and virtually any journal article I need to aid my research. Since my courses are hybrid, I do a fair amount of student-interaction through a web-based video platform. I access student assignments and enter grades through a website. I expect that the same is true for many faculty members, suggesting that, for many of us, work is less of a location than a list of (probably overdue) tasks. If wifi is the key criterion for workspace, why not find a place that has, historically, fostered creativity?

The centrality of the coffee shop to academe makes sense in this regard. For centuries, coffee shops have been hubs of information exchange and knowledge production. I’ve seen and read a few historical papers about the role of coffee shops in spreading radical ideas, fomenting rebellion, and sparking literary innovations. Academics today are simply continuing this long tradition. 

Yet I was reminded recently that the nomadic academic wasn’t always the norm. One Friday afternoon, after most faculty had vacated the building, I chatted with the dean about how quiet it was. This comment seemed to induce nostalgia, as he shared that the profession was quite different when he started as an assistant professor. Back then, prior to the advent of the internet, it was much harder to work from home. You needed your physical books and files. It just wasn’t practical to lug everything home with you each night. As a result, he said, more faculty were in their offices, and there were more opportunities for informal interactions. Some of the older faculty in the building still preferred to come into the office everyday. He misses those moments of community.

As I listened to the dean, I reflected on my own return to the coffee shop. I didn’t go back for massive lattes or funky music—I went purely for the chance to connect with colleagues. In academe, the mixture of autonomy and the internet seems to mean, at least in my little world, that people simply aren’t around that much. As an assistant professor who is new to the campus, the result has been brief yet recurrent feelings of isolation.

Since I don’t foresee the internet disappearing anytime soon, this might mean that universities need to put more effort into building community among faculty members. It seems that at least a handful has a dedicated faculty club, which might provide one venue for faculty to get together. It could also be that there is no “fix,” in which case I’ll just suck it up and suck down a few more coffees.  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Many Reasons Academics Work So Much

This week, Philip Guo, an assistant professor at the University of Rochester, wrote an article for Inside Higher Ed on why academics feel overworked. This is certainly not the only piece about how much academics work, or the only piece debating the appropriateness of professors feeling overwhelmed by the numerous demands on their time. The nature of work in faculty life is practically its own genre. Guo's contribution to the conversation is the argument that academics don't have a boss and their work comes from multiple, independent sources that have no knowledge of one another.

Reflecting on this argument, it strikes me as reasonable and probably part of the equation. Professorial work comes from many places, and we academics are largely responsible for filtering what we decide to do each day. As a freshly minted PhD in my first semester as an assistant professor, I've had a fair amount of time to think about (and complain about) my job. In so doing, I've identified a few other reasons why academics work so much. Although we often complain about external pressures to perform, most of these reasons are internally generated.

1. The lines between work and non-work are fuzzy.

Academic jobs require a high degree of passion. Many of us elected to go to graduate school and pursue intellectual work because we derive immense satisfaction from exploring questions, discussing issues, and sharing our expertise. Honestly, sometimes our work doesn't feel like work. I've been known to read a book about my research area in bed before calling it a night. For my wife, this is completely bizarre and further evidence that I'm the nerdiest person she knows. Those moments feel leisurely, but they are also scholarly. So, we sometimes work too much because we love what we do and don't always recognize it as work.

2. We are our own arbiters of "enough."

There are certain lower limits on academic work. We often have determined teaching loads. Tenure criteria sometimes spell out a minimum amount of research activity to achieve promotion. However, there are no upper limits: more of everything is always seen as better. As Guo pointed out, we don't have a "boss" and don't really have a great sense of our performance until periodic reviews roll around. Like most salaried jobs, professors must regularly have internal conversations about whether or not they have accomplished their goals or "done enough." Because there is no external or contractual yardstick of "enough," we decide for ourselves. And the result of this deliberation, I believe, is a perpetual sense that we haven't done enough, even when we recognize that we are working ourselves to exhaustion.

3. Academics are prone--really prone--to competitive comparison.

I have yet to meet a professor who isn't in some way motivated by prestige. We are swayed by a narrative that we work in meritocratic institutions in which the best and brightest are rewarded for their efforts. In order to establish we are among the best and brightest, we compete. Sure, there is a fair amount of collaboration and collegiality in academic work. But for anyone who thinks the life of a professor is that of an isolated, contemplative hermit, let me enlighten you: it can be cut-throat and brutal race with no clear end game. And the race is rigged in ways that benefit certain individuals over others. Moreover, we often judge our success through reference to successful peers. "If I want to be known," we say, "I need to do work like so-an-so (high profile academic) who publishes a book a year." Of course, there some folks who are less influenced by competitive comparison. They march to their own beat, and I commend them for that. However, they seem to be the exception to the rule.

A quick anecdote on competitive comparison before moving on with the list. I was recently at a workshop for new faculty in my field. Over dinner, conversation shifted and several people began discussing the ways in which they were positioning to move to a better institution. We've only been on the job for a few months! The pull of prestige can be remarkably strong.

4. We are increasingly subject to productivity management.

Yes, many of the things driving faculty to work so much are internally generated. However, there are a few that are not. Increasingly, the expectation is that faculty demonstrate, through measurable outcomes, their productivity. This means documenting virtually every detail of our jobs. I worked in university administration at a public research university for seven years. We are talking the height of bureaucracy here. Not once did I have to record my activities as I do as a faculty member. To some extent, the notion that faculty members enjoy extreme autonomy is a myth. Our time is becoming managed in order to satisfy the whims of administrators and legislators. The ability of faculty to challenge this process is compromised due to the steady erosion of shared governance.

5. There is a norm of overwork.

One result of so many articles being published about academics working so much is that it creates a norm. Faculty, in their day-to-day interactions, help to create and perpetuate this norm. Conversations about how much we work, how little we get paid, and how frustrated we are with the system are so ubiquitous it's jarring when we come across someone who seems to actually have balance in their life. As a new faculty member, when you enter a space where everyone talks about how behind they are in grading, how huge their inbox is, or how many meetings they have to attend, you start to wonder if your time should be similarly taxed. You start to question, "Have I really done enough today?" And so the cycle begins anew.

There are probably other reasons why academics work so much. Some people are workaholics and just happen to be professors. Some people use work to escape from or compensate for something entirely different. Some people are legit academic rockstars whose work does real good in the world. Some people just do a lot of work and are grateful to have the opportunity.

In my mind, I've stopped paying too much attention to questions of why I'm working so much. Rather, I've started to put real thought into whether I'm using my time in ways that allow me to flourish. Similarly, I've focused my attention on thinking through the question: what kind of academic do I want to be? It's not that thinking through reasons we are overworked is futile. I just don't have the time to over-analyze it because I have a stack of papers to grade.