Being an academic online

This page is a caveat, a caution, and a confession. I am acutely aware that this website may fuel the damaging and dangerous fantasy that all of us should be working all the time. This horrific work-ethic  is perpetuated by neoliberal governing elites with, as I have written elsewhere, particularly punitive results for those people in lower-paid jobs and those who do not work. But here I want to address its prevalence within my occupation, academia.

Over the past few years I have regularly been asked by students and colleagues: ‘how do I find the time to maintain a website/tweet/undertake public engagement activities/publish alongside doing all of these other activities?’ Underpinning this is the assumption that to be an academic one must be doing all these things, all of the time.

This assumption is assiduously promoted by many university managers. In many UK universities, including several Russell Group universities (i.e. the supposedly “research intensive” UK universities) the ‘working day’ – the hours when teaching can be timetabled – have been extended to 9 or more hours per day. That means colleagues in those institutions can be timetabled to teach at any point between, say, 9am and 8pm.

But it is also promoted by many academics, albeit perhaps unwittingly. When students raise their anxieties with me about whether they can really manage an academic career, they point to the regularly updated blogs and 24/7 tweets of colleagues who seem to be constantly occupied with their research and/or teaching practice.

I’m very grateful to students who have spoken to me about this. It is a brave thing to do because they risk (in their own eyes at least) appearing to ‘lack commitment’ by suggesting that they can’t envisage working ‘hard enough’. And their comments have made me realise that I may inadvertently give the message that I manage to do all of these things.

I do not work all the time. I check email only within office hours (9am-6pm, Monday-Friday). I only work within these office hours, too; and not for the full period every day but for an amount of time that adds up to 35 hours per week. I do not work at weekends. I check Twitter outside office hours but that’s because I don’t use it for work but rather to engage with communities of writers and political activists which are part of my non-work life.

Sometimes students or colleagues object that I can do this because my life is so much easier than their own. At various points in my working life people have said: ‘well it is ok for you because you are on a funded PhD/hold a postdoctoral fellowship/have a permanent job/have a job at Oxford/are a professor.’ But I have never worked on weekends or in the evenings, so I’ve got these posts without working antisocial hours.

The next question is often: how do you manage to curb your working week this way? Here, I paraphrase my Oxford colleague, researcher Emily Troscianko: I do not know how I would manage not to do this without harming my health. Emily Troscianko, an academic who recovered from anorexia, has written candidly about the perfectionism and competitiveness that is rife in academia, and about how destructive these traits not only can be but inevitably are on mental and physical health.

Here’s the confession: I am not perfect and I have at times succumbed to the myth that overwork is fine – especially if it is occupied with something (in my case, historical research, or writing) that you find enormously interesting and enjoyable. As someone who has at times suffered from depression I know that overwork can trigger low mood, erratic patterns of eating, and sleeplessness. And that searching for perfection is a surefire way of turning a fun activity into a millstone round your neck.

I have not managed to get an academic job because I am ‘brilliant’, ‘gifted’, ‘intelligent’ or any of the other insidious descriptions with which academics – and our wider society – suggest that our work and character are umbilically connected. I did not read for any of my degrees at Oxbridge; I do not have a First Class degree; and I have had scholarly articles rejected by academic journals. We can all find academic criteria against which to judge ourselves ‘failures’ – there’s always someone who has published more, or got a better review, or a promotion. And however much you achieve, no one is ever going to give you permission to work less hard. You have to do that yourself. That’s not only true of academia of course; in our financially turbulent world we’re fed the myth that we should all be pathetically grateful for the chance to work, and invest everything we have in any job we get.

I have come to realise that what I have achieved in my career has come about by my refusal to overwork. By ‘achieve’ I mean what I value, which includes a permanent job with a pension, good relationships with students and publishers, the ability to write what I want. In these realms, overwork is unproductive.  As Emily Troscianko writes, over preparation can hamper your research and writing. Similarly, less can be more where teaching is concerned. Take feedback on students’ essays. There’s a huge pedagogical literature that suggests students learn best from praise and that one constructive criticism is sufficient per essay (it is hard for people to prioritise if they are given more than one; it is easy to feel overwhelmed with the work to be done to improve; and you therefore risk either turning students off the subject or encouraging them to overwork – with the kind of results Emily Troscianko discusses…).

‘Work smarter’ is not a complete answer. The limited number of academic jobs available means not everyone who works very hard will get a post. Jobs tend to be distributed according to the teaching and research needs of the institutions that have vacancies, at any given point, so there is no sense that overworking will guarantee, or even improve your chances, of getting a lectureship – even if you are willing to believe that overwork can be equated with greater productivity. But getting a lectureship has never, in any case, been the primary or preferred destination of all PhD students. Many great historians, like E.P. Thompson, wrote and researched while working in adult education, outside the ivory tower. Permanent jobs in higher education still have a lot to recommend them but they aren’t the only way to be a writer or a researcher.

Work smarter is no solution to the bigger problem – the cult of overwork. It is relatively easy for me to talk – I work in a privileged institution where there is a lot of respect for academics, great administrative support compared to most other universities and a manageable staff:student ratio. But let’s be honest and admit that it is the fact these conditions do not exist in many other institutions that explains a lot of overworking. Too many blogs and tweets give the impression that we all enjoy overworking – or should do – and that it does not entail many sacrifices.

The work ethic in universities is not going to be solved by each of us resolving to work less hard, but by collective action against neoliberalism. As Stefan Collini describes, academics are treated by managers and politicians as delinquents who must be made to work harder for their student-consumers paying huge tuition fees. In many institutions tutors have no choice about the amount of feedback to give on essays; this is laid down by guidelines (usually designed by people with no pedagogical expertise). But that’s a reason to agitate and organise through trade unions or other forms of popular protest; with other tutors but also with those students who want to think about education and the world in a more creative and critical way than the current neoliberal rhetoric of student-as-consumer’ allows. But creating time to do that means taking time away from work, tweeting, blogging etc.

Usually those students who ask me how the hell they are to manage being academics are either parents, or in a relationship, or both. Those of us with those responsibilities to others are generally forced to recognise that working all the time is incompatible with leading a full life. But many students and early-career researchers don’t have those responsibilities, and often believe that they must work all the time to have any chance of getting an academic job. Some choose to postpone having children or relationships indefinitely; Emily Troscianko offers some thoughts on where that can logically take you. Those who do decide to create a family life find that either someone else has to be primary carer (usually a woman) or (if they are women) they conclude that having an academic career is incompatible with their personal responsibilities and often leave their job/don’t feel entitled to promotion/feel endlessly guilty about not working hard enough.

I do not believe that it is possible to work 24/7 without harming your health. It is certainly impossible to do this and enjoy a full life. The work-ethic goes hand-in-hand with the utterly contradictory fantasy that one can ‘have it all’ – which in neoliberal terms means to work exceptionally hard and have a family life. Both can be fulfilling, but what kind of society is it where we are meant to see working and caring for children as a nirvana that is incredibly hard to achieve? That should be a minimum standard of living (for those who want to do both). Instead, those of us who want to have a full life have to be very confident about asserting our right to it.

I’ve talked a lot here about ‘us’, and in doing so I’m including in my academic community all students, wouldbe students, aspiring academics and those of us in temporary and permanent academic posts. But I have had to recognise my own privileged position within this world as someone who might be seen as ‘having it all’. I have deliberately not given a great deal of personal information on this site because I draw a distinction between my work and my private life, and see this website as being about the former. Also, I worry about the extent to which academics blur the boundaries between private and working life; I think there are good ethical reasons why a social distance should exist between students and their tutors, and I also worry (as I’ve said above) about the impact on our own health. But I have been forced to recognise that talking about my partner on this site, including holiday photos and mentioning my academic credentials can tap into the perfectionist myths that corrode academia.

For the record, I could not imagine sustaining my relationship with my husband if I worked at weekends or in the evenings. I have never sacrificed a relationship for work. I always take at least 2 long holidays every year, and before I had the money to go away I took a lot of regular, shorter breaks (I’ve always worked and studied in institutions that offer a lot of autonomy for that – I recognise that is changing in many universities). One of the reasons I entered academia is because of the flexible working day and working week that it offered – and indeed still does offer, compared with most people’s jobs.

I have not struck a perfect balance.  My use of Twitter, for example, raises the issue of how one draws boundaries between work and non-work if you are fortunate enough to work in an occupation that includes some activities you love (like writing or political debate for me). So do speaking engagements, lectures and seminars that take place outside office hours. No relationship, or life, is perfect, and I continue to be conflicted about how to combine work, family time and politics with spending time with friends, for example. I have struggled with depression and a drive to perfectionism has contributed to this. Neither depression nor perfectionism have proved helpful in my writing or my career.

Overwork is just never a good thing, regardless of your job or your family responsibilities. My research involves reading tons of autobiographies and what’s clear to many of the people I read is that life is about so much more to life than being a parent or a partner or a colleague: lounging around reading a novel, going to the cinema, sustaining friendships, becoming involved in politics, taking a holiday and cooking a meal for oneself are also valuable activities because they help us to relax, engage with others, and engage us with other parts of the world in which we live.

The chance conversations we have in a cafe, the thoughts sparked by a supposedly ‘light’ novel, the beauty of a city street at dawn whether in our home town or abroad, might fuel our own work in immensely helpful, intangible ways. Or they might not – they might just be wonderful experiences in their own right. And possibly they might help us, collectively, to work out what kind of world we’d like to live in and seek to create one that’s a bit healthier for all of us than the one we’re negotiating now. And in the meantime, if you don’t want to tweet or blog, or burn the midnight oil, don’t let that stop you researching and writing.