This was originally posted in 2011. As you can see from the title, at the time I expected to write a lot more posts about work-life balance. I’m just getting to that now, in 2016!
Since opening The Professor Is In, the question I’ve been most often asked, by women, is “how can I maintain some kind of work-life balance while pursuing a career in academia?” (The question I’ve been asked almost as often is, “when should I decide to throw in the towel and quit trying to have an academic career?” That question I will confront next week).
This question is difficult. The fact is, maintaining a work-life balance has become almost impossible in any job in the downsizing U.S. economy. We are expected to do more and more with less and less. Hours are increasing while pay is falling in most professional sectors (law, medicine, etc.) Even the “booming” sectors of the economy, like IT and Finance, are based on truly inhumane expectations for hours of work. The eight hour day and the weekends for home life are becoming things of the past.
In that context is the academy. Academic pay scales are declining while work expectations are increasing. Expectations for tenure go up, class sizes go up, administrative duties go up, and support goes down.
Women in the academy are trying to juggle, on the job, writing, research, teaching, service, and if tenure track, the clicking tenure clock, and, at home, partners, children, home life, spirit-sustaining personal interests, and the biological clock. Even thinking about timing a pregnancy, for a graduate student or assistant professor, can be overwhelming.
Senior female colleagues are not always that helpful either as models or mentors. Once, as a new assistant professor, at a dinner at a national conference, I turned to the woman sitting next to me, a highly productive, prolific department head about 40 years old, and earnestly, oh so earnestly asked, “HOW did you manage to have two kids??” Barely glancing my way she replied, with a sneer in her voice, “well, I had sex with my husband….” before turning away to talk to someone more important.
The senior women with children in my departments mostly fell into two camps: those who paused after tenure to dedicate themselves to child-rearing and remained affably at the Associate level, and those who handed their children over to full-time nannies and worked ridiculous hours, and made it to Full.
I was never happy with either of those choices. In the end, chaotic life circumstances placed me into the former category, although I was never affable.
In my first year on the tenure track I applied for and won two major research and writing fellowships, including the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for University Professors. My department generously allowed me to stagger them, and I ended up with two full years off. I spent those two years writing my book and commencing a second project. And having my first child. When I returned to work full time, my tenure case was secure, so I felt comfortable having a second child.
After the insanity of the first year, and its all new class preps and the unfamiliar rounds of committee meetings and department obligations, and demands of undergraduate and graduate students, my life came to feel sort of balanced. When I went back to work after my 2 years of leave, my children were in daycare, but I religiously picked them up before 5 PM, and dedicated my time at home, when they were awake, to hanging out with them. I did not work a lot on weekends, and limited my conferences to two large national meetings a year. I woke early and wrote while they slept. I worked out every day. And I had a spouse who did his part—got the kids up and fed and dressed for the day, cooked dinner, and did a lot around the house.
Basically, my experience of the tenure track echoed my experience of graduate school: balance of personal and academic life is possible when you are well and abundantly funded, freed from excessive teaching or service responsibilities, and have support at home. It’s why I am so fixated on grant-writing, FYI.
I know that for many, these resources are unavailable. TAs, adjuncts, the un- and underderemployed, assistant professors on the tenure track in penny-pinching, chaotic departments—so many in our world are scrambling desperately to keep their heads above water.
What struck me at my R1 institution, however, was the degree to which even those who did enjoy access to these resources refused to use them to ease their lives. Indeed, they just seemed to work harder.
My tenured colleagues never let up. They were always in their office. They were always working. They never had time for lunch or dinner or coffee. They were always at this conference or that symposium, or if not actually there, then writing the paper in preparation. They weren’t just grading, or in meetings, or in class. They were launching a new university-wide initiative, or spearheading a new major, or starting a film festival, or creating a regional consortium.
None of these things is bad. In fact a lot of them are good. But what I could never entirely understand, was: why? The hours the faculty put in to accomplish all of this were impossible. They didn’t make sense. They seemed counter-productive.
I came to feel that university faculty are more thoroughly interpellated into the logic of capital than anyone else in the economy. Because after tenure they’re basically given a choice about how much they’ll work, and they STILL work themselves practically to death.
Why couldn’t senior faculty just take a break? Why couldn’t they slow down? Why couldn’t they sit still for a moment, and take a breath?
It’s my view that they don’t want to. Tenured professors have a choice, and too many choose to have lives out of balance. Why, I’m not sure. But I increasingly suspect it’s because if they slow down, if they sit still, then they might have to notice.
- Notice the disintegration of their workplace.
- Notice the whittling away of their power in the institution.
- Notice the marginalization of their voice in society.
- Notice the scared graduate students and the struggling adjuncts and the anxious assistant professors.
- Notice that their privilege rests on countless others’ exploitation.
Professors are smart. So they keep moving. To keep that knowledge at bay as long as they can.