The end of last year and the beginning of this one was a less-than-stellar season, workwise. Nothing went wrong, exactly … but neither did much of anything go right. Or to be more precise: neither did anything go much of anywhere at all. I maintained what needed maintenance (sometimes late or barely), attended to things I had already committed to do, but I didn’t make much forward progress beyond that. At first, I narrated it as “Holiday Slacker Mode” – the semester was over, my time off had barely begun, and I made a choice to be a normal human person and spend time, laptop-less and out of range, with family over the holidays. Then I missed my friends and also wanted to invest a little more energy in the forgotten daily pleasures of my life. Then I was out of town. Then I got a cold. Then personal upheaval. Then picking up the pieces, stitching them back together in to the shape of something functional. All the while I was insisting that today, tomorrow, next week would mark the beginning of a new and refocused season of productivity. Then the semester started and all I could see was everything I hadn’t done. I have the sense that I’m starting to find my footing again but also that this re-establishment of order is tenuous.
Unsurprisingly, I have been fretting about my lull in productivity. It’s okay, the supportive voices reassured me: you just needed a break, you have totally earned a break, so you took a break. But that doesn’t seem quite right – it feels much more like a break took me. Absent the initial intention to take, to give myself, such a break, the time “off” (which was really not “off” for very long at all) instead provokes a different set of stresses, and, in turn, digs me in more deeply to the whole mess.
A good friend who hails from a wide-open state in our Midwest reminded me about the necessity of letting fields lie fallow, and that helped for sure, though on reflection I wondered what my position is in that metaphor: am I the field, left to recover after seasons of taxing production, or the farmer who makes the decision to leave the land alone?
My inability to answer that question underscores the thoughtlessness in my approach to this period of rest, or whatever it has been (for the record, I don’t really feel rested). I was intentional about my time at the outset but progressively less so as the weeks passed. At first it was a deliberate decision to turn (mostly) away from work and be present, and that did feel recuperative. But over time I lost control of it and whatever rest I could find seemed less of a decision and more a capitulation.
The point of all this, as part of my ongoing reflection about academic labor and how we might maintain more humane existences while we toil at it, is that I think we might need to think, and speak, more precisely about the kinds of breaks we take from work. There are obvious kinds of breaks: the scheduled vacation, the holiday (of course, the fact that they are ‘obvious’ does not mean that they are easy to take). There are the compulsory breaks engendered by illness, the unexpected ones demanded by emergencies. There are lucky breaks like snow days. But not all breaks are so readily identifiable.
Academic work is often defined by its unboundedness: temporal (because theoretically we could work all the time), spatial (because we are potentially always accessible and so much of our work is portable), and experiential (because it can be so difficult to determine where thinking for/about work ends and regular thinking begins). This means the edges of our breaks can be amorphous too. What if we “only” read, but do not respond to, email while on vacation? At what point on the weekend do we start thinking about, or preparing for, the week ahead? How much of summer is given over to recovering or digging out from the preceding academic year? In these moments, we’re not working, but we’re not not-working either.
Doubtless, some people are quite content to have work and not-work bleed together. I’m finally able to admit that, at this point in my life, and my career, I am not one of those people; the phrase “working vacation” makes feel a little cold and sad inside. Beyond my own personal reservations, I believe vagueness about whether we are or are not working (and why we are or are not working) at a given moment engenders a range of problems: political, economic, ideological. This murkiness also makes it virtually impossible to recognize when we need, for whatever reason, to be unequivocally not-working, until something gives and we are forced to give in.