No End in Sight: Academic Research and “Time Off”
“Can you read these words to me, Amanda?” my first grade teacher asked, pointing at the cover of The Wheedle on the Needle. I shook my head and smiled, thinking this was some kind of trick. How the hell would I know how to read those letters? Later, I asked my friends if they had been able to decipher the book cover, assuming they were as lost as I had been. “The Wheedle on the Needle,” my friend replied, almost casually. The others nodded and I felt betrayed: when did everyone learn to read? This was 1983, when it was not assumed that children would enter kindergarten knowing how to read. But still, somehow, between kindergarten and first grade, I had fallen behind my peers.
Soon after my fateful reading test our teacher sorted us into reading groups. I was, of course, placed in the “remedial” reading group while all of my friends were in the “advanced” group. Though I had no way of knowing this earlier — this was the first time any kind of judgment had been made, implicitly or explicitly, about our intelligence — I now had confirmation: I was stupid.
I decided then and there that I would learn to read, as quickly as possible, and I would get the hell out of the remedial group. After several months of intense concentration and effort — it was the first time I can recall applying myself fully to academics — I was in the advanced reading group. It felt good to be back with my friends and sure, it felt good to learn how to read. But the biggest lesson I learned that day was that I was built for studying: a natural born student.
Fast forward to 1999, my first year of graduate school. I had just graduated magna cum laude from an Ivy League institution and I was pretty confident in my intellectual capabilities. As an undergrad I had stuffed my brain with the likes of Doris Lessing, Tom Stoppard, Toni Morrison, Euripides, and T.S. Eliot, but I quickly learned that these names meant nothing to my new classmates. They had abandoned the text, that frivolous playground of undergraduate English majors, and moved on to more challenging writers with unfamiliar names like “Foucault” and “Deleuze” and “Baudrillard.” When did this happen? Why did I not get the memo? I was behind everyone else and grad school had barely started. It was first grade all over again.
To cope with this brand new bout of imposter syndrome, I set to work “catching up” with my peers. I made lists of “essential” books and essays — the stuff I thought I should have already read, before coming to graduate school — and tried to fit them in after completing all of my assigned coursework (which was impossible since my coursework took up almost all of my time). How does one cope with such an impossible work load? Easy: you never stop working. And when you do stop working, you must berate yourself about your decision to not-work because, in the world of the scholar, you can always be working. That’s why alcohol is so useful for graduate students. No one feels bad about not reading Foucault while intoxicated.
Sometimes I would be in my apartment, rereading an incomprehensible passage in The Acoustic Mirror for the fourth time, and I would be seized with a bottomless sense of doom, like I was free falling down a long dark well, only it was the inside of me that was falling. The only way I knew how to keep my body from collapsing in on itself, like a black hole of dread, was to get into bed, squeeze my eyes tight, and breathe deeply until my internal gravitational pull slowed to a stop. Sometimes this took minutes, other days it took hours. Then I would get out of bed, pick up The Acoustic Mirror and my yellow highlighter, take a deep breath, and begin again.
At the time I had no idea that there was a name for these episodes: panic attacks. I just thought I was too dumb for graduate school and had a bad time coping with that reality. But after some consultations with my doctor and my parents I realized that the best thing for me to do was to take a leave of absence after completing my Masters. I hoped that a year off might help me to decide whether I should continue on to do a PhD or move into some profession that would not cause my body to regularly seize up with dread or cause the skin on my face to erupt in angry pulsing nodules of adolescent acne.
The year off was good for me. I worked for AmeriCorps, watched a lot of movies, read all of the Harry Potters, got a puppy, and learned how to share a home with the man who would eventually become my husband and the father of our two kids. At the end of the year I felt refreshed and returned to the University of Pittsburgh, fully ready to begin a PhD in film studies. I still had the occasional panic attacks, suffered from imposter syndrome, and regularly believed that there would never be enough hours in the day to complete all of the reading, viewing and writing that I thought I needed to complete. But I also knew that being a scholar was what I liked best and so the constant anxiety, a kind of low-level hum –my body’s own white noise — was the penalty I had to pay to do what I loved.
During those 5 years I was always wondering if I was doing “enough” to succeed. I distinctly remember sitting around with my fellow PhDs, comparing the amount of hours we spent on our coursework each week — not to brag or one-up each other — but out of a genuine desire to determine whether what we were doing was truly “enough.” Because there was no other way to measure the knowledge we were slowly and painfully accumulating. Was 50 hours enough? 60? 70? (Answer: it is never enough).
Of course anyone who pursues a post-graduate degree — doctors, lawyers, nurses, veterinarians — finds themselves devoting all of their free hours to their studies. But the difference for professors is that this frantic need to always be reading or writing, to always be a student, never really “ends.” In this profession we are made to feel as if teaching and committee work and the occasional article or book are not enough. If we’re not publishing books with the top presses or publishing articles in the top journals or being offered jobs at R1 schools, then we don’t really matter in the field. If we’re not always working (and I mean always working) then we don’t exist.
William Pannapacker addressed this issue quite well in a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is worth quoting at length, because it is fantastic:
If someone asks, “How are you?,” I sigh, shrug, and say, “Busy, like everyone else.” If pressed, I will admit that I spent some time with my family—the way a Mormon might confess to having tried a beer, once. For more than 20 years, I have worn what Ian Bogost has called “the turtlenecked hairshirt.” I can’t help it; self-abnegation is the deepest reflex of my profession, and it’s getting stronger all the time…
Surely, the Catholic tradition of monastics and mendicants lies behind this tendency that I share with my profession, but there are other traditions at work here. As H. L. Mencken said, Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Happiness is worldliness, and idleness is sin: Work is an end in itself, as Max Weber observed in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Likewise, there’s an old, unspoken commandment, “A professor shall not be seen mowing the lawn on weekdays.”
This “turtlenecked hairshirt” doesn’t go away when you finish your dissertation, or (if you’re lucky) snag your first tenure track job. It doesn’t even end when you get tenure. I know professors who have climbed as far as they can up the academic hierarchy (and it is a woefully stubby ladder to begin with), but who still regularly churn out monographs and anthologies as if they are getting paid by the word. But here’s the thing: they’re not getting paid by the word. Or the chapter. They’re barely clearing a few hundred dollars for what is often years of tireless research and writing. No, academics are “paid” in positive reviews, citations, and ego stroking.We’re paid with tenure or new job opportunities. Those of us on the tenure track are “paid” in new titles: Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Full Professor.
I am a tenured professor working at a state university that has ceased to offer raises (including cost of living raises) to its faculty. When I started my job in 2007 I was making approximately $53,000, a solid starting salary for an Assistant Professor circa 2007. Today, after 7 years at the same institution, I’m proud of my research profile, the classes I’ve taught, the students I’ve mentored and the film studies program I’ve helped build, but my salary is a mere $2,000 more than it was when I started 7 years ago. I have been told by numerous administrators that I should not get my hopes up for a raise, that money is tight (even though newbie professors fresh out of graduate school are hired every year at much higher salaries). The $2,000 I received for getting tenure is likely going to be “it” for a very long time. Yes that’s correct, the only raise I’ve received in 7 years is $2,000 for getting tenure. Oh, you can also call me “Associate Professor” now. I know academic titles carry a lot of weight so I wanted to make sure y’all knew about that, too.
I had planned to spend my summer — as most academics do — working on a major research project, in this case, my next book project. I would find a way, as I always do, to fit research and writing into the pieces of time leftover after teaching a summer class, driving my kids to their various activities, and visiting the family and friends who live too far away to visit during the school year. My summer research projects always drain away the time I spent with family and friends, but I have done this every summer since I can remember: to get a job, to get tenure, and because I was always advised to work for the job I want, not the job I have.
“Why are you always working in the summer, aren’t you a teacher?” my non-academic friends often ask me, while my academic friends usually ask “What are you working on this summer?”
A few months ago, after a failed attempt to get a job at a university that might actually pay me a salary commensurate with my rank and experience, I came to the realization that the stress and late nights, the self doubt and loathing, were now unnecessary. I am not going to get a better-paying job and my current employers, no matter how many books I publish, how many students I mentor, or how many committees I serve on, are not going to give me any more money. Or at least not much money. Initially this realization made me despondent: if no one is paying me more money to produce more work, and very few people read the peer-reviewed articles or monographs I’m trying to crank out, then what happens? What happens when a professor no longer has any incentive to work at the breakneck pace at which she has been encouraged to work since she first embarked upon that great and arduous journey towards a career in academia?
Nothing. Nothing happens. And, dear reader, it is glorious.
Yes, this summer I decided to stop: panicking, working at 9pm after the kids go to bed, working on Saturday afternoons, bringing “work” with me on vacation, making myself feel guilty for not working on vacation, complaining about how “busy” and “stressed” I am all the time in real life and online, writing articles or presenting at conferences just to add a line to my CV, writing shit that no one will be able to read because it’s locked behind a paywall, viewing the success of my friends and colleagues as a indictment of my own (non)success, and staring at my computer screen while my kids ask when I will be done working so I can play with them. Plus, most people believe that professors are lazy layabouts in the summer anyway, so I decided to start living up to the stereotype.
So this summer I’ve been on vacation — a real, honest-to-goodness vacation. Sure, I taught a 5-week class and I’ve answered urgent emails. I’ve spoken with colleagues about conference panels and workshops. And right now I’m writing this blog post. But I’ve stopped with the “musts” and the “shoulds.” I’m only working on what I want to work on. And sometimes, even when I really do feel like I’d like to say, brush up on the history of broadcast television, I decide to go out to lunch with my kids instead. Just because. I’m saying “no” to “Would you like to chair this blah blah blah…” and “yes” to “Would you like to sit in this chair and drink a cocktail?” And I’m enjoying my family and my life in a way that I haven’t been able to since…well, since I started graduate school back in 1999.
I want to be clear: I love writing and researching. I love the feeling of finishing a sentence and knowing that it says exactly what I want it to say. I love following an idea through all the way and producing scholarship that is readable and functional. I’m incredibly proud of my first book and I think it’s doing something useful in the subfield of genre studies. But my scholarship won’t cure cancer. It doesn’t provide fresh drinking water to drought-stricken regions. It’s not even the kind of writing people stay up all night reading and then eagerly discuss with their book club the next day, like Twilight. That’s just not how humanities scholarship works. So I’m in no big rush to publish my next piece of scholarship. While I love doing good scholarship I don’t love feeling like a hamster on a wheel: working, working, working for no tangible reward and with no end in sight. At least the hamster is getting exercise.
Last week my children and I drove up to Connecticut to spend a few days with a dear friend and her family. They swam and dug holes and her kids taught my kids how to catch (and release) frogs. They were having the kind of summer I remember having when I was young — days that unspool in no particular hurry, with no clear agenda. As we walked home in the twilight, holding hands, my daughter said to me “This is the best vacation ever!” And she’s right, it is.