or else / just because

The last time I posted, summer hadn’t even happened yet.  And now it is so over.  I lost track of time a little bit.  And I ran out of my words.

The past five months or so have been unusually deadline-intensive (and we aren’t done yet): a logorrheic scramble that included the submission of the full draft manuscript for my second book project.

Most people who write insist that it’s a naturally cyclical process, that periods of being stuck will be followed by stretches of productivity … that give way, eventually, onto new deserts of wordlessness, which in turn lead to insights that beget the next profusion, and so on.  And that’s pretty much been my experience, though I don’t yet have the confidence to sit through the dry spells with poise, equanimity, and faithful anticipation of the return of my words.  Mostly I pass those seasons in torrents of profanity, interspersed with sniveling.

Professionally, I was super relieved when my creative mind finally got unstuck after months of feeling disordered and cottony.  This dislodging happened with just barely enough time left for me to meet my various and sundry writing commitments with the delivery of products that were reasonably complete and not too embarrassing.

But the urgency of these commitments artificially accelerated my progress back to writing.  This was not a steady and natural movement back into the circuit that links my ideas to hands to words on a page.  It was necessary and desperate.  The resultant work was decent, maybe even better than that in places.  But it did not, does not, feel quite like it is mine.  It feels familiar, but vaguely, as if composed on my behalf by someone who knows me very well.

Writing from the vantage of or else begets a particular kind of alienation.  I tend to idealize writing as the luxury part of my job, the part of my work that bears the least resemblance to general understanding of what “work” entails.  Especially now that I’m tenured, writing is the work that I “get” to do, at least theoretically.  But it doesn’t feel that way.

It’s hardly a revelation that work is supposed to indistinguishable from pleasure under late capitalism, and that this is a problem.   This affective blurring at the intersection of desire and necessity is part of what makes neoliberalism tolerable, and it’s particularly (though not uniquely) acute for academics.

But the work/pleasure nexus has been iterating itself differently in my writing practice lately.  Finding myself somewhat disconnected from the content, yoked to deadlines and editorial predilections rather the exploration and refinement of ideas, writing feels less like intellectual pleasure and less like creative work and more like mechanical habit.

Yeah, it was kind of like this.

After I submitted my manuscript draft I exhaled.  And then thought about how I was now freer … to do more work.  And not really any work in particular, no long-neglected pet project or some experimental new venture.  Just: work.

This kind of productivity is not the opposite of writer’s block, except in the most functional terms.  It’s a different kind of incapacity, to think for the sake of thinking, to write just because instead of or else.  Hence the long stretch of quiet in this space, and elsewhere in my life.

I have a few more commitments to satisfy, a few more writerly have-tos in the coming weeks.  And, now that I think about it, a handful after that.

Despite this, I want to reclaim just because writing.  At the same time, I want to insist on the difference between work and not-work.  This distinction is important, I think, for personal, mental hygiene reasons, but also political ones.  It’s a privilege, surely, to be able to enjoy one’s work.  But work itself is not the privilege.  And there is a cost to misrecognizing it as a pleasure.

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.



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.