I came back to academia after being in a professional role for over three years with a promise to myself: I will not work across weekends.
As I mentioned in a recent post, some people derided my promise. Many more laughed in disbelief, or were encouraging in their words but exuded an air of ‘that promise is doomed, doomed!’. Having been in a professional job where I found it extremely easy to maintain the boundaries between work and non-work time, I was very used to having weekends in my life. I assumed that transitioning (again) into an academic role while keeping weekends free would be relatively easy. It was the status quo for me at the time, after all.
Two and a half years after returning to academia, then, how is my promise of ‘not working on weekends’ going for me?
Terribly, I have to say.
And I acknowledge this with some shame.
I know a lot about academic overwork, peer pressure dictating how many hours we spend at our jobs (sometimes pushing scholars to quit careers), and the dominance of ‘administrivia’ in our working lives.
I’ve read heaps on work/life balance in academia (from many sources including Tenure, She Wrote, Raul Pacheco-Vega, and various scholarly studies [like this one by Osbaldiston and Cannizzo]), and how overwork is not necessary for success. I constantly advocate for self-care and regeneration time for researchers. I loved Dani Barrington’s post in RW and cheered her declaration that “although research will never ‘just’ be a job, it is, in fact, a job” (Escaping the ivory tower).
And yet…I have a confession to make.
You know those people who derided me about making that promise not to work across weekends?
One of those people was me.
I didn’t ever really believe that I would be able to sustain it. Even as I made the promise, and committed myself to the effort required to maintain that boundary, I knew I’d break it when I had to. It was just a question of when. That said, I break the weekend rule for only a few types of work things.
These are the things I will automatically turn down on weekends: book or journal launches and readings; seminars, lectures, and conferences; work-type meetings, even if they are with shiny beautiful people (this kills me at times – can you tell?); and research project meetings.
These are the kinds of work things that I will do on weekends: Research Whisperer blogging and management; my research network (AASRN) management; once-a-month, all-day Saturday Write Ups (on which I have become very dependent to keep research momentum going); and events organisation if I’m foolishly convening yet another conference or similar. Except for the focused day that is Write Up, my work on weekends consists of the kind of ‘pick up and drop’ types of tasks that lend themselves to a day while running around doing family stuff. For the most part, I feel like I spend good, fun, nourishing time with my family. It’s never perfect, but it feels like ‘enough’ (whatever that means, at different times).
I do have many work-free weekends, but they aren’t as sacrosanct a zone as I would like. The working week gets eaten up with the everyday tasks and workshop/seminar schedules that must be fulfilled, the meetings that must be had (and, believe me, I’m a meeting minimalist), and getting regularly bogged down in research administration. Only occasionally do I find myself doing what are considered the gold-standard research activities like actually researching and writing.
The constant push of academic work into after-hours slots and weekends is notorious. I’m not going to re-hash all the reasons why this is so. The links I’ve included above tell this story in various forms already.
Why do I do it, then, given all I know and have empathised with?
Because I know too much about these issues, and I don’t want my career to be a dead end. I feel that if I don’t push the boundaries of the week to get the research done, it doesn’t get done. If I push back on my working week schedule to fit in some research, basic role responsibilities don’t get done. And don’t come at me with the ‘but isn’t doing research part of your basic role responsibilities as an academic?’ question – not unless you have about four hours, and an endless supply of hot chips and coffee handy.
Because I know how passion for our research work can be a pathway to exploitation and ‘free’ labour, and being able to do my research, support and enable others, and be part of a global conversation in my field is what keeps me here. It’s why I keep coming back to academia, and how I let it leak into my off-work time.
Because I know how important time out of work is for inner serenity and a richer life, and I’m really good at justifying tasks that take ‘less than an hour’.
Even as I’m typing all this, I’m on the verge of ‘Select All + Del’. Why share such a woeful tale of professional hypocrisy and cowardice? It’s because I think it’s important to be aware of the contradictions and contestations that endure within our academic lives. This is true even of those we may think ‘should know better’. I’m not of the traditional ambitious mould, but this does not mean I’m without ambition.
I believe passionately in the need to re-humanise the scholarly sector, and to make it an industry role-model for respectful and empowering workplaces. I admire deeply those who speak about, and enact, slow scholarship. I believe wholeheartedly that the metricisation of our working lives and institutions is wrong-headed and unsustainable; we need to find better ways to value the work that’s done in academia.
I believe all of this but don’t often feel that I’ve made determined moves in these directions. Is this a classic case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’? What’s to be made of it?
You tell me.