“I wonder if anyone has ever died from academia,” asks Gareth Dylan Smith, a senior lecturer in popular music at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance in London, on his Dr Drums Blog.
“More to the point, I wonder if it will kill me.” The self-confessed wannabe rock star describes himself as working “in the foothills of academia”, comparing this experience to when he “used to smoke copious amounts of weed”.
“The high is enveloping and immersive, but it makes me very anti-social and makes everything else in the day seem boring, hilarious or impossible,” he explains. “And I can never find my keys.”
The “allure of academia”, he continues, is that it “so closely resembles a meritocracy” – leading to long hours and an ever-growing to-do list.
“While I worked towards my PhD, my wife never saw me, except when I was nervous and stressed and trying to work. And now that’s all the time. I’m less free now than I ever was…I’m editing books and starting up a journal. I’m writing and co-writing chapters and articles. I’m working on two more monographs,” he says.
“I’m focusing my tweets and my Facebook comments, and feeding back on students’ work at all hours of the night. I am teaching three days a week, and being dad on two of the others, and again I’m working in Michigan this summer for less money than it’ll cost me to travel.”
Although a lot of people seem to like his work, it is never enough for them to hire him full-time, he says, adding that they tell him that “one day I’ll be huge (didn’t they say that about Van Gogh, Mozart and Bach? They all had to die first!)”.
So why do academics work so much? Philip Nel, university distinguished professor of English and director of the graduate programme in children’s literature at Kansas State University, asks this question in an essay on Inside Higher Ed. He proposes six answers.
“Part of it is habit,” is the first. “When we’re just starting out, we learn to say ‘yes’ to everything.” Second, is simple economics. “At my university we have no ‘cost of living’ raises. We have merit raises, but only when the state budget allow[s],” he writes, in keeping with Dr Smith’s perception of meritocracy.
Third is the fact that busyness is built into the structure of academia: “The more you do and the longer you’re in the profession, the more opportunities and obligations accrue,” Professor Nel writes, before moving on to number four: “Work that is ‘fun’ is often not perceived as real work. Academics may be busy, but, hey, we’re doing what we love, so we can’t really complain, right?” Wrong.
Technology is to blame, according to reason number five. “Email, accessing databases from your laptop, and skyping with collaborators in distant cities all help us be more productive,” he says. “But can you turn it off? If you do, you may miss an important conversation.”
Finally, the volume and nature of academic work “erases the boundary between work and not-work”, Professor Nel says. “Because we have too much to do and because much of what we do is genuinely interesting, work always spills into the rest of our lives. This is both boon and bane.”
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