on being behind

My calendar is a masterpiece.  I keep up on birthdays and pay my bills before they’re due and go to the doctor regularly and spend small fortunes on preventative maintenance. I’ve never been responsible for missing a flight.

I reckon that none of this would come as a surprise to people who know me at work.  As a professor, I’m punctual and reliable.  My classes begin and end at the appointed minutes.  I generally respond to student emails within a day.  I return graded papers promptly, and sometimes earlier than promised.  During my short stint this semester as an interim department chair, I handily kept the proverbial trains (and most of the meetings) running on time.

But otherwise, I am so behind.  When someone asks me how I am, “so behind” is an increasingly common answer (along with “fine” or “tired.”)  This behind-ness is concentrated heavily in my research agenda.  Of course, I meet deadlines in all but the most extraordinary circumstances, and sometimes even then.  But I still have this sense of being off, of lagging, of inertia, of delay.  Relative to what, I’m not sure.  Maybe nothing. But it’s there, and insistent, nonetheless.

Admittedly, outside the realms of obligations and have-tos, I’m often running late.  I text en route apologies for my tardiness.  I scoot into the yoga studio moments before the teacher hangs the “class in progress” sign on the door.  If restaurants and salons didn’t have grace periods on reservations and appointments, I’d have to do a lot of rescheduling.

But my experience of “behind” is different.  “Late” is concrete and quantifiable.  “Behind” is abstract.  “Late” is preventable with basic adult skills like time management and learning from past mistakes.  “Behind,” at least as I experience it, does not have a behavioral fix.  Lateness is basically a function of the laws of time and space, of their constraints.  Behindness, on the other hand, doesn’t have much to do with logic.  Instead, it’s a backward-looking perception of all that I didn’t do, and should have done, while time passes, heedless of my agenda or efforts.

white-rabbit
I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.  With my research agenda.

I’m not alone in this, I don’t think.  My academic pals voice similar complaints.  “I am totally caught up on everything,” said no academic,  ever.

A couple of years ago, I read Sarah Sharma’s remarkable book, In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics.  Sharma develops the idea of “power-chronography” to capture the saturating overlay of power onto time in the domains of labor, embodiment, and social life. It would be absurd to compare the work that I do to that of the taxi drivers, for example, that she studies extensively; my situation is much more comfortable, far less precarious.  But all of the people that she describes in her book have jobs that vex their experiences of time.

Professor-ing has its own temporal idiosyncrasies.  We get a lot of breaks and time “off,” but this also means that we make a lot of transitions.  The interval between writing a thing and seeing it in print is yawning, and variable.  Every semester, in the classroom, we start from scratch.   Our workflows depend, in fundamental ways, on the whims of dozens of 18-year-olds.  Set arbitrarily to a 5-to-7 year cycle, tenure clocks tick, or get stopped.

In various ways, academics talk a lot about our time.  We extol the virtues of winter and summer breaks or sabbaticals, lament how fast they seem to go.  We note, appreciatively, the relative flexibility in our schedules.  We lament or humble-brag about how busy we are.  We evaluate ‘work-life balance’ and our allocations to each side of the hyphen.

These are all relatively tangible things.  “Behind,” on the other hand, is not.  Experiencing oneself as “behind” is, I think, central to the temporal experience of academic work.  It arises at the intersection of whatever psychic characteristics predispose us to pursuing this career and the practices of the institutions where we enact it.  In my own life, it underpins writing guilt (because if I was working instead of enjoying myself, maybe I wouldn’t be so behind).  It inspires me to say “yes” when I should probably say “no” or “not now” (because it’s more appealing to agree to a new project that I’m not behind on yet).  It prevents me from appreciating what I do accomplish (because the focused effort required to finish one thing left me even more behind on everything else).  And so “behind” perpetuates itself.

And I’m not sure what to do.  I work to capacity most days, while still endeavoring to preserve a life that is tolerable and meaningful outside my office.  So  I think about those workplace renegades who, finding themselves hopelessly deluged with email, simply zero out their inboxes with a wild “Select All” and “Delete,” on the assumption that if there was anything important, the sender would write again.   Theoretically, I could do the same thing with my calendar, tear out those old pages full of their undone to-dos.  Clearly, none of them were absolutely essential or really time-sensitive, so I’m not sure what I’m holding on to.  But somehow, I can’t bring myself to do it.

So I work suspended between my past expectations and hope, endlessly deferred, for a future in which everything is current, and I am always right on time.

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