One of my new year’s resolutions this year is to improve my work-life balance. It is with some irony, then, that I find myself finishing this blog on the second Sunday in January, particularly considering that I started writing it during my annual leave over the Christmas vacation. I’ve tried to justify this to myself by claiming that writing these blogs is a part of my job that I really enjoy, that I do it not for its promotional prospects or because of its value within my institution, but for myself. This chimes with a broader discourse of pleasure that permeates academia and discussions of academic work. In an interview for Aca-Media last year, Will Brooker epitomised this in his response to a question about managing the demands of prolific scholarship, editing Cinema Journal and teaching and management roles at Kingston University: ‘If you find a job that you really enjoy doing then you’re not going to do a day’s work.’
This is a sentiment that emerges elsewhere in academia. At my own University, there is a ‘Study what you love’ initiative aimed at prospective students. This initiative suggests that if you study what you love then ‘work seems less like work’. Here the boundaries between work and leisure are deliberately blurred as students are told that they can practice the skills learnt in class through extracurricular activities and hobbies. That the ‘study what you love’ rhetoric exists at all and is mobilised within the press and University recruitment campaigns is symptomatic of the commercialisation and instrumentalisation of higher education. Namely, a degree now being something that you put yourself in debt for in order to get a job, rather than something that you engage in for three years in order to develop and grow intellectually and personally. This University of Nottingham video produced as part of the Study What you Love initiative is indicative of this rhetoric.
Here studying what you love is instrumentalised and justified as a route to career success.
The rhetoric of study what you love was a key driver for me when deciding what to study at University. I was an all rounder at school, with A-levels in sciences, arts and social sciences. I could have done a maths degree and thought seriously about studying psychology and biology, but my decision to do a drama degree was ultimately driven by the desire to spend three years studying something that I absolutely loved. And this rhetoric was important to me in justifying my decision against those who implored me not to waste my academic talents and told me about the low rates of employment for drama graduates. Once at University, my experience as a drama student was one in which the boundary between work and leisure was frequently blurred. A core part of the expectation and pleasure of the course was putting on productions that required working weekends and evenings. This continued into my PhD. I chose to write about a subject (and some programmes) that I loved. As I began to teach, keeping up with contemporary television came to be a core part of my job and I found it increasingly difficult to separate out leisure and work.
There has been a fair amount of debate in the press in the last few years about poor work-life balance within academia. The Guardian has run a series of articles and blogs about the rise of mental health problems within academia. One Guardian article by Claire Shaw and Lucy Ward pointed to ways in which
academia promotes the blurring of lines between the personal and the professional – often described as “doing what you love”. “This means that doctoral and early-career scholars are seldom trained in how to firmly draw that line and value themselves beyond their work,” says [Nadine] Muller [lecturer in English literature and culture at Liverpool John Moores University].
However, what I find troubling about Shaw and Ward’s article is that it has a tendency to place responsibility onto individual academics. They do point to a study by the UCU that revealed heavy workloads, long hours cultures and conflicting management demands as reasons for growing stress levels within academia. Yet when this is interrogated, much of the blame seems to be passed on to the individual, rather than the system. The section on tackling perfectionism ends with a statement about the one-to-one and group support offered by my own institution, the University of Nottingham, to help with problems related to mental illness. While these services are to be welcomed (and I frequently recommend them to my students) here it is implied that the responsibility lies with the individual to ‘get better’. Elsewhere academics are blamed for not taking advice offered in the interests of their mental health because ‘we don’t like being told’ what to do, or because ‘some academics simply do not like the changes in their sector that have taken place over the last 20 years’. Indeed one mental health consultant working within education states that prospective academics simply need to be more informed about the university working environment before taking up the career. What this does is to detract attention away from the institutional structures that shape the working cultures within which academics, as individuals, operate.
Indeed, the placement of responsibility on the shoulders of the individual resonates with what Rosalind Gill has argued can be seen as a ‘structural feature of work in capitalist society’ in which ‘the contemporary Academy operates in and through technologies of selfhood that are producing new kinds of labouring subject: individualised, responsibilised, self-managing and monitoring’. Gill argues that much of the academic work on cultural labour can be applied to academic labour, something that has struck me forcibly this semester in teaching cultural labour to masters’ students for the first time. Her brilliant analysis draws attention to precariousness, time stress and surveillance as structural features of contemporary academic labour. Yet, as Gill argues, this picture of exploitation sits uneasily against the ‘intense, passionate attachments that academics and “creatives” have to their work’. If I ‘love what I do’, how can I be the subject of exploitation, unless it is self-exploitation? The problem with this reasoning, as Gill outlines, is that the notion of self-exploitation can lead us back to individualising and self-blaming. The rhetoric of ‘if you love what you do then you never do a day’s work’ becomes a justification for self-exploitation and if you find yourself stressed, unhappy and overworked, then perhaps you just don’t love the job enough. As Gill argues, what we need is ‘to formulate a language for moving beyond the individualising, toxic, self-blaming accounts of academics’.
To do this, I want to argue that we shouldn’t turn away from the highly personalised narratives that Ruth Barcan argues characterise the few accounts that exist of academic labour. Talking about our own academic labour need not be seen as indulgent and ineffective moaning, or the over-individualising of broader structural and institutional problems. Rather it can be the start of a collective language and action that can be powerful and empowering.
So what alternative might we develop to the ‘do what you love’ rhetoric that pervades academia? What rhetoric might encompass the sense of ‘passionate attachment’ that characterises much academic labour without justifying self-exploitation? One rhetorical shift might be to substitute ‘intellectual curiosity’ for ‘love’ within discourses of academic labour. Personally, I have long felt that intellectual curiosity far better characterises my attachment to my research which has been driven, since my masters, by a desire to understand forms of overlooked or marginalised culture – from telefantasy to promotion. What the discourse of intellectual curiosity does is to retain the sense of an attachment that is felt in emotional terms, while situating it quite clearly within a notion of work. ‘Intellectual curiosity’ as a term allows for all of those features of research that are dispiriting, difficult, and simply hard work. And intellectual curiosity is different from leisure. It enables me to create a space where I might engage with the same text within a different register – for leisure or for intellectual curiosity. And it articulates a distinction between the emotional attachment that I have for certain leisure activities (knitting, walking, sewing) and the emotional attachment that I experience in relation to my academic research.
This is a rhetoric that we can take beyond our own individual research and into our teaching and mentoring. We should be actively encouraging our PhD students to find effective means to separate out work and leisure, to talk to us as supervisors and advisors about their work-life balance, and to take their annual leave allowances. We should be doing the same with each other – with our colleagues and our peers – providing the space to talk about the difficulties of managing the pressures of life and work, sharing advice on how to achieve a more effective work-life balance, encouraging each other to take time off, not work weekends, to develop passions beyond work. And we should be open with our students about the work demands placed on us and our need to place boundaries around our availability (although this often needs institutional support).
A recent article by Patience Schell in the Times Higher argued that working less actually increased productivity, suggesting that we would be more effective workers if we didn’t work weekends. This caused some debate when I shared it on Facebook. For me, it was a useful example of an academic actually legitimising working less: a valuable intervention within a broader discourse that seemed to be dominated by talk of overwork (in which there didn’t appear to be a space in which it was okay to say that you weren’t working weekends and evenings). For others, it was hugely idealistic and failed to recognise and point to the structural features that led to cultures of overwork.
Writing in response to Schell, Doris Ruth Eikhof addressed some of these structural features, particularly the problem that within academia expectations are ill-defined and amorphous leading to a working culture in which is it ‘impossible to say how much is enough – to fulfil one’s contract, to get promotion or to stand out in the labour market’. Eikhof’s solution is that institutions should be more realistic and transparent in their expectations of academic labour and should not reward those who choose to do extra work. Eikhof’s suggestion is a contentious one within a work world in which we are judged increasingly by our individual productivity – the metrics of student evaluations of our teaching, the number of journal articles and books we publish, the number of citations we receive and so on. It could be seen as unnecessarily harsh – why not reward those who are the most productive? The problem here is that, in jobs where staff are often on ‘hours as necessary’ contracts, academic work is characterised by unrealistic expectations that can only be achieved through over-work. Unless employers set more realistic expectations for promotion and employment, and implement them, they are effectively creating a working environment in which to get on you need to overwork.
Although Eikhof is right to argue that there is little benefit to universities in the long term if they run their staff into the ground, I am rather pessimistic that Eikhof’s ‘coalition of the sane’ will emerge any time soon within the ranks of university senior management. However, those of us in middle level and senior roles within our institutions should do what we can to advocate for realistic expectations when sitting on selection committees and promotion panels. Beyond that, I would like to encourage further debate and discussion, particularly amongst those of us lucky enough to have a permanent job, about the ways in which we might positively influence the promotion, recruitment and working cultures within our institutions. I would very much like to hear from senior colleagues on effective strategies for influencing Deans, Head of Department etc., and finding ways in which we can move from talk to action.
In a wonderful plenary at last week’s MeCCSA conference Karen Boyle talked eloquently about many of these issues and pointed me to a number of the articles referenced in this blog. Boyle, drawing on the work of Audre Lorde, argued that we should also understand our own personal choices as political acts and responsibilities. She claimed that the most radical choice that we can make in response to the growing pressures within academic life is to care for ourselves and to insist on a work life balance and that to do so is not only in our interest, it is our responsibility to ourselves and to our colleagues and our students. And so, I end here by taking up Karen’s call to arms and re-stating my intention to improve my work/life balance in 2015. And to start I’m going to resist the temptation to sort through the wealth of emails that have appeared in my inbox while at MeCCSA and instead take myself off to watch the BDO men’s darts final.
Catherine Johnson is Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham. She is the author of Branding Television (Routledge, 2012) and Telefantasy (BFI, 2005) and the co-editor (with Andreas Fickers) of Transnational Television History (Routledge, 2012) and (with Rob Turnock) of ITV Cultures: independent television over fifty years (Open UP, 2005). Her latest book is The Promotional Screen Industries (Routledge, 2015), co-authored with Paul Grainge. Her research is characterised by an interest in the production cultures of the media industries (primarily television) and she pursues this through both contemporary and historical research. She is currently researching the ways in which the television industry is adapting to digitalization.