time off / be productive

Being on sabbatical is not as uncomplicated as I expected it to be.  I mean, it’s fantastic. And the thought of how I will eventually not be on sabbatical is almost too unbearable to entertain (and yet, there it is, every day, when I look at my calendar).  But it also amplifies all the various forms of utter lunacy  mental anguish that rattle around the interiors of pretty much every serious academic I know, including me.

It took me about a month to figure out that sabbatical is hard (and here is the point where everyone who is not on sabbatical starts feeling stabby) because it’s this massive contradiction: Time Off to Be Productive.  Okay.  And like all contradictions that originate in institutions, it’s left to individual subjects to negotiate them with virtually no guidance and a keen awareness of the stakes of getting it wrong. So I’ll work on that.

So far, my negotiation has taken the form of really acute, and generally fruitless, writing guilt.

No writing guilt here …(Pablo Picasso, “Femme Ecrivant,” 1931-32)

But it’s also increased my skepticism of all the gestures that institutions and other academics make toward “work-life balance.”  Right out the gate, I’d like to suggest that, as a concept, work-life balance is a crock (and I was so cranky when I Googled that very phrase and discovered I didn’t invent it).  And insofar as institutions advocate it with an eye toward increasing productivity, it’s a little too cozy with neoliberal imperatives to work for me as an aspiration.  “Work-life balance” is essentially a soft mandate for employees to work out structural tensions, contradictions, and responsibilities themselves, shouldering all the risks associated with failing to do so, while sharing the benefits of success with the institution.

Too often, I think, academic “work-life balance” becomes just another thing to fail at, and so it devolves into an unfunny punchline about ‘getting to choose which 60 [or 80, or whatever] hours a week to work.’  Academics, I think, can rightfully aspire to more than that.  But so few of us do.  On the other hand, the people who do seem to manage that balance become objects of envy or skepticism to the rest of us poor fools who are groping around for it … and on the rare instances when I seem skate into it (very temporarily), it feels like a dirty secret.  In the absence of good models for how to achieve that balance, I often just default to work, because that’s a thing I know how to do, should always be doing.

I think “work-life balance” reflects a similar incommensurability to that embedded in Time Off/Be Productive.  Which is not to say that sabbaticals are a crock.  Sabbaticals are marvelous and necessary and I am so grateful for mine (really).  It’s just that they refract the dilemmas inherent in neoliberal approaches to academic work, filtering them in more gently but also, I think, more insidiously.  The experience of Time Off to Be Productive aids, I think, in the formation (or buttressing, if you were already there – I was, for sure) of subjectivities that internalize, and indeed run on, the demands of productivity.  And in the absence of an institution that metes out reprimands for failing to do so, I do that work on its behalf.  Of course, I can’t fire or un-tenure myself, but I can antagonize myself with unrealistic expectations, denial of true rest or time away from work, and nonstop internal chattering about squandering my time and generally being a failure.  Done, done, and done.

With a few extra moments to reflect on my attitudes and behaviors, and maybe those of the people around me, afforded by my Time Off, I can see a bit more clearly the costs of Being Productive.  Too often, “work-life balance” amounts to a thin compromise, tiny corrections to make unreasonable expectations (some, but not all, self-imposed) more humane and, perversely, more sustainable.  Things like avoiding email after certain hours or on weekends, setting boundaries around time invested in students, giving oneself permission to say ‘no.’  That’s the work side, and even those commitments erode, whether by incessant demands or the difficulty of establishing new patterns when so many others benefit from the damaging ones we usually maintain.  On the life side, maybe it ends up being time for family and friends (but set rigidly aside and often spent calculating opportunity costs of missed work).   Efforts to get more exercise or prepare healthier food (but postponed until we’re too tired or overwhelmed to enjoy them).

Of course, I am well aware that my tenured life is relatively cushy, and that these kinds of problems are derivatives of tremendous privilege.  And all of this grousing underestimates the extent to which academic work can be fulfilling, energizing, even restorative.  But I don’t hear many people talk about it that way, and I’m not sure how many of us experience it in those affirmative registers.  Except on sabbatical or over the summer, maybe.  Which is a problem.

More to say on this, surely, but it’s my sabbatical and I need to get back to work.



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