i wonder what it’s like to love your job …

… To say this is not to make a passive-aggressive complaint about mine (it is summer, after all).  Rather, to say this is to query the nature of the experience being conjured when people say “I love my job.”

Miya Tokumitsu offers a brilliant takedown of the “do what you love” mantra that seems to define the emotional imperative of neoliberal capitalism, particularly for creatives and knowledge-workers.  The problem with this formulation, she writes, is that it begets “the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate  — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.” The do-what-you-love model banishes menial-seeming work to the realm of the unloveable, taking certain types of workers along with it and compounding their chronic undervaluation.

Clearly, unequivocally, academics do not suffer in this way, even as we are carried along by the same current.  For those of us, like academics, who ‘get’ to do work that we (are expected to) love, devaluation takes place at the intersection of the two economies –material and affective — in which we labor.  Even as the kind of work that we do is idealized as culturally meaningful and personally fulfilling and hence infused with affective worth, our actual compensation often lags.  For academics, traffic in the currency of love is especially vexed, because so much of our labor is free, or virtually  free (Exhibit A: your last royalties check).  Loving what you do becomes compensation for this, and also for being regarded with derision in an anti-intellectual culture, for the ambivalence of our students, for the bureaucratic insults of the neoliberal university.  For all these reasons, I think Marc Bousquet’s “We Work” should be first-day-of-Ph.D-program required reading for everyone.

However, I want to ask a slightly different set of questions, about the actual dynamic that a person might be referring to when she claims to love her academic job.  But first, a quick detour through postcolonial theory.  In “In Terror, In Love, Out of Time,” Asma Abbas reflects on the ways that love becomes a vector for fear because it attaches us to things that might become objects of terrorism or violence, as the most devastating forms of either target our beloved objects.  Obviously, I’m writing about a radically different context, but I think Abbas’s work is helpful as a reminder of how loving something exposes us to various kinds of predations.  (Lauren Berlant’s Desire/Love might also be useful here.)  Loving one’s job — or one’s anything, really — too much is dangerous because it leaves us vulnerable to extrinsic and intrinsic forces.

To love something is to create a soft target for another entity that seeks to do you harm.  It is also to open yourself up to an internal undoing.  This is because love, fundamentally, is intersubjective.  It necessarily involves another being, some kind of interaction, even if that interaction is only imaginary or wished-for, and that interaction rewrites us, for better or worse.

But if one loves her job, who or what is the object of the feeling?  To what, precisely, is this affection being directed?  What is the implied or imagined object when one expresses her love for an academic job?  One’s students?  The act of teaching?  Colleagues?  One’s institution?  Its administration?  The pursuit of knowledge? Some vague notion of the academic enterprise?  How the work makes you feel?  The attachment to each of these objects brings its own kinds of risks, some perhaps more readily apparent than others.  For example, love for one’s colleagues risks mystifying our shared context of labor and the competition (financial and otherwise) that it fosters or rewards, and even the most well-intentioned or benevolent of institutions are mechanisms of subject-formation that operate as easily by consent as coercion.

But I think the most dangerous might be the love of how the work makes you feel.   In any of the other instances, it is possible — if logistically difficult — to detach.  We can attempt to change jobs, renegotiate our positions, coast on tenure, invest less in teaching, etc.  But to disconnect from a feeling is far more difficult.  Even as loving one’s job with this kind of meta-feeling might increase, at least temporarily, the amount or intensity of the pleasure we can derive from our work, it opens us up to new kinds of exploitations and injuries.  We work all the time to chase, restore, or preserve that feeling, toggling between frustration when we cannot access it and greed for more when we can.

The danger of loving one’s work becomes most acute in the breach.  Personally, the the loss of love for my work often functions paradoxically to make me want to work more, as I am always certain that the next project, or the next, or the next will be the one to reinvigorate it.  So I am perpetually overcommitted and at least a little worn out or disenchanted, but still saying “yes” because some part of me reasons that working more will make me love working more.

And to the extent that I’m not alone in this pattern (and my anecdotal evidence suggests that I am not), this matters because it shows how love, and the pursuit of it, works to serve the institution’s best interest.  In the moments when we see or experience our work as something less than loveable, the illusion threatens to break, to reveal work for what it is, and all it ever was: work.  And theoretically, that revelation should make us want to work less, to take some time off for not-work.  But instead, reverses that dynamic and draws us back in more deeply, encourages us to work harder despite our circumstances being unchanged.  Of course, when we love another person, there are often very good reasons to resist the temptation to walk when they seem unloveable.  But this is not that.

Just as we can be good, or kind, to people that we do not love, I want to find an affective orientation to my work that enables me to do it thoughtfully, conscientiously, and well without ever loving it again.

 

 

a similar complaint?

My efforts to manage the structural contradictions embedded in the daily practice of tenured associate professor-ing meet with varied success.  One of my perennial sources of professional frustration is the incompatibility between the three dimensions (research, teaching, service) of my job.  Pretty much everybody I know has a similar lament, so there’s no need to rehash the problem here.  Most of the time, this incompatibility is temporal or logistical, that scarcity of working hours relative to the vicious abundance of things that need doing which brings its own anxieties.   But I’m finding that this tension, for me at least, is also affective.  The three elements of my job are inefficiently discrete: none of them form a pair of birds that can be killed with one stone, and their demands on my time are mutually exclusive.  But the affective transit between them is dynamic, constant, and largely unpredictable.

The most obvious example of this is tiredness.  Usually, if I am worn out from teaching or grading or advising, that weariness translates also saps me of ambition to do my own work, or makes me resentful of my service responsibilities.  Sometimes, though, an enervating meeting or a frustrating class leaves me desperately motivated to seek out something interesting, and on the occasions when that isn’t Netflix or Elena Ferrante, it’s research.

All of those exchanges happen, straightforwardly enough, in a closed system (i.e., me), but get more complicated when other people enter the picture.  This complexity becomes most acute, I think, at the juncture of my research and my teaching.  And again – this isn’t simply a matter of spending too much time on the latter and not having enough for the former.  Instead, I’m curious about how the affects that attend these forms of labor travel, or don’t, between them.

rmp

I recently watched a short film called “Professor,” by Eli Daughdrill.  The eponymous professor is a middle-aged white man, described in the synopsis as “tenured,” “burned-out,” and a “failing writer.”  In the opening sequence, he checks both his email and his voicemail, and we watch as he is passed over by publishers, henpecked by a female administrator in voicemail, and pestered by students.  After a depressing pillage of the communal refrigerator, he returns to his office to find a student with a grade dispute waiting for him outside his office.  He makes his case for why she deserves to fail the course; she counters that she tried to do the work, and that she’s a single mother, and so (presumably) worthy of a special dispensation.  Ultimately (spoiler alert!), the professor decides to pass her, though we never learn his reasons.

The film nicely captures the pressures to capitulate to these kinds of petitions.  When resources of time and energy are scarce (and student course evaluations are looming), this path of least resistance is especially appealing.

It also suggests a structural affinity between student and professor that often goes, I think, overlooked: here, they are both unlucky and unsuccessful, believing themselves to be victimized by capricious systems of merit and reward.  The film does not adjudicate whether these portrayals are accurate, but rather emphasizes the consequences of feeling, or believing, that they are.  There’s something interesting about this.  Like many other professors that I know, I complain often that students misrecognize grades as things that I give rather than marks that they earn, and feel myself get prickly with indignation when they complain that I’ve graded them unfairly.  On the other hand, I’ve also been critical about the vicissitudes of the peer-review system in general, and found myself yowling about the nerve/arrogance/obstinacy/general dastardliness of many an anonymous reader of my own submitted work.  The possibility that my students and I are articulating a similar plaint leaves me very uneasy.

I believe that there are important differences between their gripes and mine (there, I feel better); of course, academic entitlement is a serious problem.   And for my part, I like to think that I deal pretty effectively with my own gripes.  But I also think that there are probably similar perceptions operative in each case.  So I wonder – in a way made more comfortable by the vantage of early summer –  whether the similarity of our feelings on the issue might provide the foundation for some kind of empathy, operative in both directions.  Honestly, I’m not sure if it’s possible in every instance, or what it would look like in practice.  But maybe it would make the work of grading, and being graded, a little less agonizing for everyone involved.

 

 

chimeras after all

As is customary pretty much everywhere, when I was up for tenure at my university, my students were invited to participate in the process by completing a survey about their experiences with me as a teacher and advisor.  Unsurprisingly, I found myself fielding a lot of questions about the process.  My sense is that, for better or worse, the intricacies of academic hierarchy are opaque to most undergrads, and I don’t lose a lot of sleep over this. I huff and grumble privately when a student addresses me by my first name or, worse yet, as “Mrs. Adelman” but never reprimand them directly.  I wager that exactly zero of them noticed when I changed the signature line of my email from “Assistant” to “Associate Professor.”  Again: totally fine.email-signature

Nonetheless, the most interesting question anyone has ever asked me about the tenure process came from one of my students who asked, simply: “Why?”  While it was still early days in my review process, the subject-formation mechanisms had been grinding away on me for years, and so I gave a brief procedural answer and then turned to things like “intellectual freedom” and commitment to the profession.  The soundwaves from this exultation (delivered even while I was imagining how satisfying it would be to change my email signature, how many people would totally notice) had barely hit the back wall of the room, when she shook her head and waved her hand like a fly was bothering her.  “No,” she said.  “That’s not what I meant.  Why do you have to go up for tenure?  Why can’t you just stay an Assistant Professor forever if you want?”

I had never even considered the possibility.  Of course, there are practical reasons to not stay an Assistant Professor forever (though I am still awaiting the landing of the heavenly chorus that I thought would surely sing once my tenure was official).  And of course, I knew what would happen — institutionally, if not psychically — if I were denied tenure.  And I knew that I had no choice but to go up.  But it had never occurred to me to question the requirement itself, and when I’ve shared this anecdote with other professors, they’ve all expressed the same never-thought-of-that incredulity.

It’s an interesting question because it queries the value of the security and recognition that tenure afford.  My hunch is that the student didn’t understand the implications of being tenure-less or the practical and professional reasons why one might desire it.  But even bracketing this, her question is worth pausing over.  Of course, I’m glad I have tenure, and I’m not forgetting for a minute that I’m super privileged to have the certainty and stability it affords.   But as I fumbled with my student’s question, I realized that I had never really considered why I was going/putting myself through the tenure process, any more than I had wondered why I get older every year.

In the academic universe, we tend to conceptualize movement toward tenure as (ideally) ineluctable, which also envisions scholarly careers as linear and progressive.  Even as many of us eschew the narrative of History-as-progress on a larger scale, I’d wager that most of us imagine our careers along such an inevitably upward-turning arc.  But I’d also wager that few of them actually play out that way.  For a variety of reasons, we might go months or even years without making much in the way of forward progress; we might choose to slow down or be compelled to.  Priorities shift.  Projects stall, collaborations fall apart, proposals get rejected, we are compelled to revise, resubmit, and wait.  These things happen to everybody, but nonetheless, we instantiate constant and quantifiable progress as both norm and ideal of academic work.  Indeed, even the prevailing metaphor of the tenure “clock” (stoppable only in the most extreme circumstances) replicates this logic.

My student’s question was therefore truly inconceivable, even apart from the institutional requirement, as a condition of my hire and employment, that I go up for tenure by a certain year.  In effect, she was proposing a refusal of institutional mandates and expectations, or imagining a refusal of this compulsory pursuit of security.  It’s an imperfect comparison, to be sure, but imagine how clear the answer would have seemed if the student had proposed opting out of other coveted and widely-valued forms of security or legitimacy like … marriage.

As mechanisms for subject-formation, institutions work by conditioning our assumptions and expectations, offering recognition and security in exchange for alignment with preferred forms of each.  My student, howsoever unintentionally, hinted at an alternative to this arrangement, in which ‘progress’ or ‘success’ might be measured by a different metric, or maybe recognized differently, as chimeras after all.

 

 

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.

home economics: an appreciation (albeit perverse) prefaced by a confession (quite belated)

I have always had a hypertrophied conscience, that tends to manifest itself most powerfully and implacably around academics.  Once, in elementary school, I accidentally saw a classmate’s graded math quiz at the top of a stack on my teacher’s desk.  I may have even seen an answer or two.  My completed, graded math quiz was also in that stack, but I was gripped with panic that my inadvertent look might somehow have warped time and implanted this stolen help from a classmate in my brain while I was taking the quiz, thus giving me an unearned advantage, a transgression that seemed especially egregious precisely because I was always so lousy at, and anxious about, math.  Even then, my guilt was faster than the speed of light.

Except in the case of Home Economics.  In Home Economics, I cheated wantonly.  I cut corners on recipes and insisted – despite visual and gustatory evidence to the contrary – that I had followed the directions to the letter.  When we had to make our own clothes, I chose the easiest patterns and tearfully convinced my mom that, because I wanted so badly to succeed, because my whole sense of self hinged on being able to make this t-shirt perfectly, I needed her help with the sewing machine, then backed slowly out of the room while she set to work.  My greatest, most ignominious triumph was during the unit when we had to sew stuffed animals.  I thought I’d done a pretty great job on my little white dog, until ten minutes before class when his ear fell off.  So I asked the orchestra teacher for a few pieces of tape (never specifying why), and jerry-rigged the polyester oval onto the side of his head, and turned it in.  I didn’t feel so much as a twinge of remorse when I got an A.

Over this past long weekend, I did a lot of home economics-y type things, and there is a part of me that loves baking in the wee hours, or Swiffering, or going to Target.  I can’t discern any connections between my enjoyment of these things, or my aptitude for them, and my many years of mandatory Home Ec classes.  In a cursory stab at gender parity, or because they were concerned we might make it to high school without knowing how to cook French toast, my school district required all students to take these classes (for the record, I don’t remember much besides “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey” from the Shop classes that were also required … also, I made a small wooden carving of a seal, though girls, as I recall, weren’t allowed to use the jigsaw.)

Personally, in terms of skills acquired, I don’t think my training in Home Ec was a success.  But if the classes themselves weren’t all that useful,  the requirement in and of itself was an unintentional education in the vicissitudes of domesticity.

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Domesticity accomplished.

Being required to take Home Ec alongside all our other classes presaged an adult future in which women do more of the housework, even and especially when they work outside of the home also and earn more than their partners.   Whatever stress girls might feel when their assigned scrambled eggs burn or their dog’s ears fall off (I can’t have been the only one) prepares them, I suppose, for the adult versions of those feelings, compounded by all the other demands that they have.

Yet the fact that Home Ec was graded like any other class offered a recognition, slow to catch elsewhere, that domestic work can be quantified, and has material value.

At the same time, the institutional pressure to be visibly and verifiably good at domesticity may also have inspired sly forms of creativity – cheats, improvisations, and workarounds – to refashion or subvert these expectations.