Thoughts on Academic Life


Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 9.09.52 PM.pngAs an antidote to the heckling academics sometimes get from outside the Ivory Tower, as well as our tales of woe within, I turned a few weeks ago to Jennifer Burek Pierce’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the “Small but Cool Moments of Faculty Life” (Pierce). I devoured this op-ed, nodding vigorously with every sentence — and, yes, sniffling a little bit, too, if you must know. But immediately thereafter I, together with thousands of colleagues in Renaissance studies, hit crunch time. Our most important annual conference arrives at the same moment as parabolas of springtime grading and committee work crest. March is also the part of the academic year when many grad students and junior scholars whom we care about are getting bad news about postdocs and assistant professorships they didn’t snatch from the clutches of our notoriously stingy academic job market. We suffer together. Airing of disappointment skyrockets on academic social media and in campus hallways. But along with these legitimate protests come more general, and I think more questionable, gripes about the profession from folks in relatively comfortable spots. Like me. Yes, I’m as guilty of busy-bragging and perpetuating time-crunch narratives as anyone. Yet I’m starting to wonder about some of the whinging — my own, and that of others.

The contrast between Pierce’s eloquent celebration of the opportunities academics have to do interesting and useful work, and the epic complaining I’ve heard (and voiced) lately has given me a prod to step back and take stock. Since it’s the twenty-first century, naturally I’ll take the results of this private musing straight to the Internet.

As you may already know, there are two common (and related) complaints from the luckiest academics, i.e., those with tenure or who have tenure-track posts:

“I do the work of three people.” Many academics indeed do the work of three people. In addition to teaching, we are also expected to produce original research. Beyond teaching and research, we do committee and editorial work for our departments, universities, and scholarly societies and journals. And that’s to say nothing about the various forms of voluntary teaching and mentoring we offer to undergraduates and graduates, from independent studies for which we get no credit to serving on dissertation committees for which we get minimal credit. Like a fair number of jobs these days, a professorship is not so much a single post as a bundle of tasks that will grow as large as the employee can bear — and sometimes well past their grip.

“I have no life.” Particularly in the early years, as a scholar scrambles to excel in research, teaching, and service to earn tenure, the pressures really are serious. Even beyond tenure there is often considerable truth to academics’ sardonic quips about work-weeks shading imperceptibly and even dangerously (for the mental health of the scholar) into “work-ends.”

Both of these complaints have some justice to them. But a number of writers I’ve been reading lately have made me wonder about ways even these troubling dimensions of our profession could be looked at in more positive ways. In addition to Pierce, I’ve been binge-reading (at intervals) books about how humans today conceptualize and allocate time — or, better put, how we misunderstand, misrepresent, and haphazardly allocate our time! In case you’re interested, I especially recommend Juliet Schor’s True Wealth; Oliver Burkeman’s Help!  or, if you’re really pressed for time, his punchy short video “I Feel Too Busy” (Burkeman vs. Busy-Bragging); and Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time than You Think.

One practical thing these writers have taught me to do is keep a daily time log, which helps correct some typically human cognitive misfires such as wildly overestimating the time spent on things we don’t like — and just as wildly underestimating the time spent on things we enjoy. More philosophically, they’ve helped me see time not as linear but as something more like a patchwork. Today (a Sunday, as it happens), I’ve admittedly done a few hours of work. But it would be inaccurate for me to crank out a narrative about my “work-end.” My time log reminds me I’ve also enjoyed several hours of human interactions, interests, and pursuits totally unrelated to my income. The patchwork, upon reflection, turns out to be pretty complex.

Since I’m paid to do academic work, moreover, I’ve also started to think about my job itself as a patchwork. Not all of what I do — even if it’s technically what I get paid for — should really be billed as labor, or at any rate not the kind that conjures images of grindstones. There’s a lot of pleasure mixed into what pays the bills.


Here I am hard at work — no kidding — but I’m also in an archive in, well, Italy, and learning things about amazing dead people that sometimes make me so happy (or sad or thrilled) that I have to leave the desk and go cry or jump up and down (subtly, of course) in a nearby courtyard. So, should I bill those hours to business or pleasure?

Put another way, there are many parts of my job as a history professor that, if I had to earn my income in another way, I would think of as cherished hobbies, volunteer opportunities, even spiritual practices. For the record, here are a few of them:

  1. Reading old documents, as well as modern books and articles, that fascinate me and yield new and sharper images of the past.
  2. Using other languages, with all the promises and perils that entails!
  3. Writing books and articles. How many humans dream of publishing something and never do? Well, academics have to publish. Yes, there’s a lot of pressure, and some nastiness and disappointments in the process — but there’s also a lot of pleasure, and learning, and satisfaction, too.
  4. Helping young people develop their minds and push past constraints both self-imposed and societal.
  5. Working every day with smart and creative people (even if they can be grumpy).
  6. Meditating regularly on the beautiful and the good, on the artifacts of the past worth conserving — and on the opposites of all these things.
  7. Being in constant motion, intellectually and physically: traveling to archives and libraries in the US and overseas, thinking, conferring with others at home and abroad, and (above all) being forced to rethink and change my mind frequently.

All things considered, then, what I’d add to Pierce’s thoughtful essay is this: The cool moments of academic life can indeed be beautiful in miniature, but they can also be the main events. Many of our core occupations — research, teaching, mentoring — would be the pursuits we’d probably scramble to make time for after-hours, if we did other things to earn a living. One of the coolest things about academic life, as I see it, is that when elements of paid work spill over onto evenings and weekends, they’re often the kind of legitimately satisfying endeavors that would belong there anyway.

What do you think, though?




Are you interested in history? Renaissance Europe? The classical tradition? Italy? Women and gender? The history of books and readers? Theater? The delights and dangers of teaching at the university level in the twenty-first century? Excellent; so am I. Leave a comment if the spirit moves, and in any case thanks for stopping by this site.