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.



apparently even the pentagon needs a snow day

There should have been a story today about new photos of prisoner abuse by the U.S. military.  This should have been the denouement – albeit partial, as apparently there were over 2000 photos in question – to a legal fight between the ACLU and the Department of Defense that started in 2004.  Today should have been the day that the Department of Defense finished ‘processing’ the photos and released them.

But (blame it on Jonas) not.

The American media is apparently not super interested in this latest chapter of the long, long story about torture photos.  I learned about the impending release yesterday on Al Jazeera.  The longest story, and most durable link, I could find was on Russia Today.  There was a quick mention, since disappeared, was on Yahoo! News.  So I’ve been depending on Jameel Jaffer’s Twitter feed for updates.  And the latest is that the DoD needs more time, because of the snow.


I can understand the ACLU’s exasperation.  I get the argument about transparency.  A court order is a court order, and to the extent that we all benefit when the DoD follows the law, there are reasons to demand timely compliance.

For my part, however, I don’t see much reason to be enthused about the release of these new photos, and the victory for the crusading forces of transparency that they seem to represent.  Not because I agree with the President’s contention that the photos should be kept secret because they pose a danger to American military personnel.  I am not in a position to assess the accuracy of that prediction.

I have a different objection: to the veneration of ‘transparency’ and the implication that it serves as a meaningful, and harmless, redress for the people whose abuse will be made public in these photos, and for the fact of the abuse itself.  I’ve argued elsewhere that the mandate of transparency in the Global War on Terror often settles on the bodies of the most vulnerable.  When the government complies, whether begrudgingly or voluntarily, with a call to be more transparent about its detention and interrogation practice, the result is often hypervisibility of the detainees themselves, on terms set once again by the state that holds them captive.

Whether or not the DoD is being ingenuous in its explanation for the cause of this delay, this workweek will end without any new photos for us to gawp at.  It’s a tiny, and not catastrophic, encounter with the recalcitrant temporality of the state, a feeling with which its detainees are presumably quite familiar.

Maybe the interim affords some time to mull over the complex ethics of transparency, the claims of entitlement upon which it rests, its limitations, and its costs.


i heart snow days (even on sabbatical).

… just waiting for it to start snowing.  Already, UMBC has cancelled its first day of classes; no matter for me, really, as I am on sabbatical, and already every day feels a little bit like a snow day: lucky, open, forgiving, tinged in the evenings with that little bit of dread at the thought of a return to normal.  But it’s not technically a sabbatical until everyone else has to show up for things that I don’t, so I guess that means Monday for me will be a combination sabbatical snow day, which still feels like something even if the fact of the sabbatical diminishes the reward of the snow day.

Not long ago I was chatting with a colleague who said he found snow days incredibly frustrating, that he resented their interruption of his classes and the rhythm of the semester.  If his students have assignments due on a day when classes are cancelled, he still expects them to submit the work electronically and on time.  For future snow days, he says, he is thinking about experimenting with ways to convene class online.  I admired his dedication, but something about the conversation made me sad.

Sad in the same way that I feel sad when I hear academics say they never take days off or humblebrag about their 80-hour workweeks, the same way I feel when I get emails timestamped from the very wee hours or on weekend evenings.  In those instances, it’s a sadness overlaid with writing guilt, which spills into annoyance, which gets tangled with compassion (which I suppose allows me to offset the writing guilt by feeling superior) for them, for their families, their pets, their bodies, their friends.  It’s a rich text.


The snow day is an assertion that there is something bigger than my priorities, my ego, my expectations.  To be an adult is to be reminded, daily, that the world is almost entirely unconcerned with these things, and most of those reminders are unpleasant at a minimum.  But the snow day delivers a reminder in a different, gentler form: it takes the shape of a reprieve (of course, I have the supreme luxuries of a job that will pay me anyway, and a house that will keep me warm so I can simply take it.)

None of this is to say I don’t work on snow days.  I do, but less than usual and with a sense of relief, gratitude even.  And sometimes that little perceptual shift is enough to make the day feel really different.  If possible, I try to reapportion snow days for my own work, reading and thinking and writing.

But beyond the pleasure of a break from grading and class prep, I think there is a pedagogical value for students in snow days as well.  Doubtless, administrators would prefer that we find some creative way to teach despite the circumstances, but beyond communicating with my students about how we’ll adapt to the change in plans, I don’t.  I let them have their snow day.

More than anything, I want to cultivate curiosity in my students, and curiosity requires an openness to the world, a divestment of their expectations, a relinquishment of their position at the center of the universe, an awareness and a willingness to be surprised, and sometimes even derailed.  Snow days, I think, reinforce these lessons.

Surely, the routinization of crisis under neoliberalism can have a similar effect, and some of my students probably don’t need much education about precarity, because they live it.  All the more reason, then, to give them the day off.



all the best,

My very favorite tweet on Shit Academics Say:


Funny because it’s true, of course, butt it suddenly strikes me as very odd.  Look how illuminating social media can be!

I suspect that most of us academics have our own taxonomies of email closings.  I do.

“All the best,” is my go-to: administrative, scholarly, pedagogical.  In the absence of strong feelings about the recipient or the content of my email, I use this.  And I think that might be a problem (about which more below).

I recently tried “All my best,” for correspondence with a person to whom I was especially grateful.  At first, it made me feel really sincere and human.  But then it made me feel promiscuous.

Speaking of sincerity, it turns out that “Sincerely,” is the one I use when I’m not feeling particularly sincere.  My instinct is to use this for an email that is stern, serious, maybe a little cold … this is for those where-is-your-paper? queries and gentle reprimands of wayward students.  It’s for those circumstances when wishing the best seems disingenuous or inappropriate, but conveniently ambiguous (it can be read as “I sincerely hope you have not turned your paper in because you got mauled by a bear” or “I sincerely wish you’d turn in your effing paper.”)

And when my reprimands are not-so-gentle, I dispense with the closing altogether.  The austere “-Prof. Adelman.”  I’m not sure what the “-” signifies in this instance.  Maybe a withholding or subtraction of “the best” that I previously might have bestowed.

On the other hand, when I’m corresponding with a colleague (including those I know well, or respect, or genuinely like), I say even less: “-r.a.a.”.

Taken together, this reveals that the people to which I wish “the best” are those for whom I have least invested in seeing that come to fruition.  Excepting the “-r.a.a.” crowd, it appears that I am most honest with the “-Prof. Adelman”-ers, for whom I express no good will at all, just a neutral affirmation of my own textual existence.

My only other habitual deviation from “All the best,” is “Take care,” which I use quite selectively, most often in professional contexts for students in some kind of crisis.  But this, too, is curious, for at the precise moment when they might actually need the best given to them by some external magic, I instead imply that they might want to fend for themselves.  What I am really intending with “Take care,” is to use my professorial authority – such as it is – to encourage them, give them permission, to prioritize their own well-being in a difficult period, but it’s a curious way of communicating that.

This bit of introspection makes me wonder about how variations of “Best” became hegemonic in academic corresponding.  I have a vague recollection of making the switch myself (though I can’t remember what I used before it), sometime in my later years of graduate school, but I’m not sure why, other than a sense that it was the right thing to do, a subtle way of performing my apprehension and mastery of the subtleties required to be a credible academic.

But what, really, is the substance of “All the best,”?  Of what does the “best” consist?  And does the definite article preceding it imply that there is a consensus about what “the” best is, or presume that I and my correspondent are in agreement on this matter?  Do I have the authority to distribute it?   And is anyone really entitled to “all” of it, whatever it is?  Have they earned it simply by reading to the end of my message?

I’m wondering about the imperatives behind “All the best,” both affective and ideological.  It is a tiny, reflexive expenditure of affective effort from me; to prove I am a credible academic, I demonstrate that I wish the best for anyone who crosses my path, regardless of whether it’s true or I know them at all.  Moreover, it’s a way of partaking, I think, in the fantasy of the ‘good life’ that Lauren Berlant and others have critiqued of late, and perhaps also of locating it within the sphere of academic work.  It’s a three-word replication of neoliberalism, while the fragmentary nature of the phrase, without verb or actor, implies that one might simply call “the best” into being by force of will.



a holiday from expectations

The last picture I took in 2015.

For some reason, this time around, even though my hatred of the holidays in general finds its most visceral expression in my hatred of New Year’s Eve, this year, I am experiencing the new year as something.  Maybe it’s the relief, admittedly arbitrary, of having an extra shitty 2015 in the rearview.  Maybe it’s my list of resolutions, which so far seem easy to keep because I haven’t had to leave the house much since the year began, and their potential to orient me toward an existence veritably sparkling with peacefulness and productivity.  I don’t know.  Circumstantially, nothing much has changed with the turn of this new calendar page: my list of problems and deadlines hasn’t gotten any shorter, nor have my stores of patience or aptitude increased.  But still, it feels like something.

There are lots of social, cultural, and economic reasons why people dislike New Year’s Eve (the internet tells me), and they all make sense: pressure, generalized FOMO, and the cost or difficulty of realizing most of our desires for the evening.  And these are plausible explanations for the drinking and the fireworks.

For my part, I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts during this go-round of the holidays, the intricacies of exchange, presentation, and expectation that accompany them.  Lots of people (again, according to the internet) experience these rituals as burdensome, both socially and financially.  So do I.  Surely they persist because of massive, globalized, and finely-tuned apparatuses of production and consumption.  But the season that extends from Thanksgiving to just after Christmas is, symbolically at least, perhaps the most orderly part of the year.   The instructions and expectations, impossible though they might be, are crystalline.  And in most instances, the shortest and most direct route to fulfilling them is consumption.  All of us who observe the Christmas holiday know what we ought to be doing, which is comforting, albeit in a way that’s prickly and anxiety-provoking.

Marking the new year is different.  The only real uniformity and guidance comes from the glittery synchronicity of televised celebrations. And as a holiday, it’s relatively unique for being untethered from rituals of gift-giving.  It’s cheaper that way, but also, I suspect, discomfiting.  The arrival of the new year is an empty signifier.  Hence, I think, the drinking and fireworks.  Insubstantial observances for a meaningless transition.

But still, this year, it feels like something.  I’m finding pleasure, of a sort, in the emptiness of the signifier.  It feels, in this brief stretch where so much seems to be on pause and very little is mandated, like a relief.

going blank

Writing-wise, I have been stuck for weeks.  Some of it is circumstantial: middle of the semester, other responsibilities, fatigue.  Some of it is a garden-variety set of complexes and insecurities, magnified (quite unexpectedly) by getting tenured. But there is no reasonable calculation by which these things add up to the sum of my present condition.

I’ve been able, of dire necessity and immovable deadlines, to get a few things done. The resultant work has been functional, provisional, and the preceding process disheartening and extractive.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out what the problem is.  I can map its component parts – cognitive, emotional, physical, logistical – but can’t seem to fit them together.  I suppose I could describe this feeling colloquially as my mind going blank.  When I picture it, that blank is unbroken, blindingly empty, horizonless in every direction.  No landmarks, no interruptions.  It manifests corporeally ingoogle search the sensation of something compressed and stuck behind my ribs, and a numbness in my hands that manifests when I try to type anything that isn’t an email or a lesson plan, or set on paper anything that isn’t a to-do list.  Behaviorally, it takes the form less of procrastination (I have no desire to avoid or postpone my work, quite the opposite) and more of careful, compensatory attention to other tasks, and more still of standing at the kitchen counter, eating cereal out of the box.

I take a deep breath.  I run through the litany of advice that I give to colleagues and students (who almost always return in effusive gratitude for how they are now, astonishingly, un-stuck).  Accept that doldrums are an inevitable part of the process, very likely to be followed by periods of intense, almost effortless creativity.  Stop comparing yourself to others (and ignore the posturing gaucherie of people who tell you, casually and apropos of nothing, that they wrote 25 pages in a long afternoon). Know that it isn’t just a matter of will power or brute mental force.  Soften your gaze at your own work, and write without judging.  Write about why you can’t write.  Write something, anything, just to get back in the habit of filling the page.  Don’t panic.  Let go of any attachment to the outcome.

And yet.

So I’m trying to make the experience interesting, at least, to experiment with what it feels like to be caught by something that I can’t identify, rationalize, or undo. Unable to think my way out of this, my only option is to note how it feels to be unable to think, to work around the edges of that incapacity, waiting – without expectation – for something to catalyze in that open space.

Dear Cubs, Thanks for the Affective Pedagogy

Watching the Cubs lose to the Mets last week for the fourth and final time, I was more profoundly disappointed than I expected to be.  I wanted to have a reason to watch the World Series, but not only: I wanted to believe that things could be different, that the stars could align in new ways, notwithstanding curses and patterns and decades of the same frustrations.  The game ended just before midnight and as I sat on the edge of the couch reflecting, blearily, on this compounded disappointment, I felt a little knot of sadness constrict in my throat, and then felt it unravel almost immediately and almost completely at a single thought: wait ’til next year.

“Wait ‘Til Next Year” captures the abiding essence of what it is to be a Cubs fan (lovingly visualized in a plucky  documentary by that very title), but it also suggests a way of drawing sustenance from  a hopeless-seeming world, in which the stars cling stubbornly to familiar configurations.

Having recently been up to my ears in affect theory, it’s hard not to think about this doggedness in terms of Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism.”  According to Berlant, “the affective structure of an optimistic attachment invovles a sustaining inclination to return to the scene of fantasy that enables you to expect that this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world become different in just the right way.”  This kind of cruelty, she writes, supplies “the ‘hard’ in a hard loss”; the loss is costly in itself, made more damaging by its violation of the optimistic attachment underpinning it, while that optimism makes the loss more catastrophic yet by compelling a renewal of that fantasy.

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 13: A detailed view of the shirt of a Chicago Cubs fan prior to game four of the National League Division Series between the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field on October 13, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

But I’m not sure that’s what is happening here.   Instead, “Wait ‘Til Next Year” is a gently expectant futurity, unattached to any specific outcome.  The “next year” is perpetually renewable – there will always be a next year, and any next year could be the next year that we’ve been waiting for, or not, but okay – there will be another after that.  The open-endedness of the timeframe means that no one is making any promises, and so offers a way to look forward with minimal risk of disappointment.  And then there is the pleasure of the waiting itself.  The uninterrupted string of next years since the 1908 World Series has conditioned a form of waiting that can be an end, or achievement, in itself; there is no plausible telos other than another next year (guaranteed) and the sweetness of re-encountering that undangerous hope anew.

In this way, I find the “Hey Hey!” and “Holy Cow!” (or “Holy Mackerel!” depending on one’s preference) with which local announcers and fans greet any good Cubs news to be particularly evocative.  These nonsense exclamations, rooted in Cubs history but untethered from any actual signification, suggest a capacity to be surprised, delighted, an openness to a happy event but no reliance upon it, really, to sustain that hopefulness.   753472a28393a574b945ae89162c1d94

Of course, the cruelly optimistic attachments that Berlant considers are much more damaging (to formations like neoliberal capitalism or heteronormative family forms), much weightier than sports fandom.  But undoing those kinds of attachments, if it is possible at all, takes practice, and that practice might take the form of lingering, waiting, in quotidian forms of fulfillment and despair, expecting that each will follow the other as surely as next year will follow this.