Thursday, June 14, 2012

Soul-destroying Labor

"Today we need to persuade our critics that the time we spend consuming the scholarship of others is worth the investment, and that the relative brevity of the time we spend in the classroom is justifiable. Then, perhaps, the self-reported 50-to-55-hour work week claimed in so many faculty surveys will become more believable." (Bruce B. Henderson)

In the 1980s, Robert Boice got faculty members to estimate their workload at around 60 hours per week. But when he asked them to keep records of actual work-related activity they came up with a mere 30. They had especially overestimated their research-related activities (including, of course, their writing), and I think Tara Gray's interpretation of the result is dead on. "These faculty members were working 30 hours per week and spending another 30 hours worrying." Their self-reports weren't lies, they were just counting a great deal of unproductive time in their estimate of the effort they put in. I tell this story at my writing seminars and I am always quick to assure participants that my goal is not to teach them to convert those 30 hours of worry into 30 hours of work. I do not want to make the surveys Henderson mentions more "believable". On the contrary, like Jonathan Mayhew, I think they should be ridiculed.

As a scholar, a worker in the "spirit", you are by definition to avoid soul-destroying labor. You should spend a great deal of your time actively engaged in activities that keep your mind healthy. This means going for walks, getting some exercise, reading good books (not just scholarship), listening to music, watching films, etc. You should also seek out the company of intelligent people and, well, enjoy that company. Talk to them. You should make good company of yourself for them as well, i.e., give them your time in conversation. You are not just "consuming the scholarship of others", and it is not just an "investment". It is work on what Jonathan calls your "scholarly base".

It is in many ways a privileged and somewhat "leisurely" life to be a scholar. We should not try to make our administrators and publics believe otherwise. We just have to ask ourselves how we think an expert in Joyce or Proust, or World War II, or how people make sense of their organizational reality should live their lives. Should they be engaged in "productive" activities 50 hours every week? Or are we going to give them a break? The problem with Henderson's suggestion is that it grants "our critics" the basic and mistaken assumption of their argument, namely, that intellectual labor is as tangible as any other kind of work. (What I'm saying doesn't just go for academics by the way: many "creative industries" need to stop worrying about whether or not their employees are being kept busy enough.) There are tangible aspects, to be sure, and I can help you manage your time to be more effective about them. But if they only fill up 20 or 30 hours a week, that's plenty.


Andrew Shields said...

Research in general is so misrepresented in the public sphere, as if every bit of research should always have an immediate application.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for following up on this topic. I agree with everything you say here.

Anonymous said...

What an honest post! I couldn't agree more that 20-30 hours is "enough." I have always been one of those who can work/think/write for no more than 4-5 hours a day (I am mostly a vegetable after 2pm). I have always been this way, even in high school and college. While my peers would toil away for 12 hours or more each day, I would pack it in by lunch, and then spend the rest of the day feeling vaguely guilty for "not working harder." The guilt remains (although it fights for emotional space with resentment--resentment at having to feel guilty!!! Ah, the tangled webs we weave . . . .) I don't quite live it yet, but I am ready to "believe" that 20-30 hours a week is good enough.