Wednesday, October 12, 2016

At CHE: How to Live Less Anxiously in Academe

At The Chronicle, "How to Live Less Anxiously in Academe" Carl Cederstrom and Michael Marinetto suggest four ways to live less anxiously. [There's actually a fifth, and it's a big one: be tenured, as Cederstrom is, or in a presumably secure lecture position, as Marinetto is, but let it pass.]

Here they are, with commentary, in descending order:

4. Teach well.
This takes on the old canard that teaching doesn't matter--that, indeed, teaching too well means you're not serious about your research. The authors advise putting "care and attention" into teaching, to which I would say, "well, who doesn't?" Maybe people need this reminder, though.

3. Stop writing badly.
This is an example of "begging the question"--that is, it assumes that everyone writes badly and that, as the authors say, they do it on purpose. Does this really happen? Still? I don't read a lot of really bad writing in academe, although working through theory-dense reading to get to a Captain Obvious point, which happens a lot, makes me stabby.

2. Be an amateur.
This is the old "follow your bliss" and "do what you love," which, okay, makes good sense if you have the security of a position that lets you do it. It charges and stimulates your brain.  They're basically saying don't be afraid to speak out even if you don't think you have the credentials.

1. Kill your institutional aspirations.
Also known as "say no to service," this advice got a lot of blowback in the comments from people who noted, correctly, that if white male academics are busy following their bliss, the service demands will fall on women and people of color. They congratulate themselves on, as they quote one person's prescription, distancing themselves from the university "spiritually" while leeching off its money. [The sentiment is phrased with such an obnoxious sense of entitlement that I won't quote it here, because see above: makes me stabby.]

Some of the commenters mention that institutions bring this on themselves when they require committee reports, surveys, etc. and then completely ignore the results and ask for the same things again, over and over, resulting in a colossal duplication of effort and waste of time.

So is there a way to live less anxiously in academe? The shorter version is probably "do your utmost with things you care about and let the rest go as much as you can."

Edited to add: Don't forget Sophia Gould's wonderful "I am the woman in your department who does all your committee work":

And see xykademiqz's great post on a different kind of entitlement:


Bardiac said...

I think "be male" should be on the list, too. (It's not that I think men are without anxiety, but given the preferences men seem to experience, especially when it comes to tenure in many fields, and rearing a child, it's a huge advantage.)

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Here's my suggestion for living in academia with less anxiety: don't be a perfectionist. Just do your work. Don't feel that everything has to be done right now, or perfectly. Write first. Then prep and grade. Go to the meeting and participate. Fill in the forms when you have time (will your students really not have books if the bookstore gets the order form tomorrow or next week? This is the age of Amazon; your students may not even go to the campus bookstore). If you have to fill in one of those forms saying how you spend your classroom time, guess, rather than trying to figure out what you really do. Appreciate your students, the ones who try, the ones you can help. Don't think about the ones who are annoying. Similar advice re colleagues. Go home and do something else that matters: raise your kids, read a book, plant/cook/eat good food, listen to music, learn a language just because.

I admit that it really helps to have married out of academe. When I go home, I can hear about big-corporation work hassles instead of continuing to think about beleaguered-university budget troubles. Nonetheless, I think a lot of anxiety about work is self-inflicted. I am not saying "check out mentally" or "refuse committee work." It's more "keep work in its place; think about the big picture." Doing my job is important to me. But I don't want to worry about doing my job.

People's big pictures vary, and this is why academia is tricky---it is, or can be, like artistry. That line about no one wishing on their deathbed that they'd spent more time on the job---I think artists and novelists may well wish that they'd produced one more painting or novel. If you feel like that about your research, then spending more time on the writing job is a wise use of time. If what you care about is teaching, then maybe you do want to write up the detailed comments for everyone, in hopes that it will make a difference to someone. But do you really need to do the detailed comments AND work on research every day AND knock yourself out planning initiatives that may or may not get funded? I think it's fine to pull your own weight---but no more---and refuse guilt trips and flattery trips ("oh, you'd be so good at this, we really neeeeeed you." The answer to that is "We need to give someone else a chance to develop those skills," if you have already served, or are serving elsewhere).

undine said...

Bardiac--being male probably helps, given the numbers floating around out there about tenure rates.

Dame Eleanor--I see that you've posted this at your place & will respond over there. Thanks!

profacero said...

My anxiety is not self inflicted. It has to do with the constant threats, we will cut budget, we will cut program, we will do this and that to prevent work and to cost you money you do not have, and we will sanction you if this has any effect on you at all, and we will say it is your fault if we win, because you were lazy or you were this or you were that. And with the fact that we do not have enough information to evaluate each threat, we are blocked from having such information, yet we know from experience that the threats are more than half real.

profacero said...

P.S. There is also the administration-inspired harassment. This is another problem not of our making, and "just think about other things" is not the solution.

Also, at the personal/individual level, my anxiety is and has always been the same as I would have jumping off a cliff. It seemed self-destructive to continue in academia but everyone said you must, you only imagine that it will make you this unhappy / this poor; you will adjust to living in a hostile environment far from home and the things you love; you will be able to do the work you wanted to do despite not having anything like the conditions you would need for it. My anxiety is about not following my better judgment; about trying to suppress my own perfectly logical analysis of the situation; and about the fact that the anger, disappointment and pain often make it hard to focus, and that so much energy has to go into managing these. I had and have projects I wanted and want to do, and there are things I am interested in. Perhaps if I were less interested, I would be better able to adjust, but I notice that the people who are most interested are the ones who quit.

That is why these articles like the CHE one merely serve to increase anxiety, as they so miss the point, both about many institutional situations and also about individual ones.

These things having been said, the only answer for anxiety reduction I can think of is still that of DEH, above. So, ignore the threats, and insist on more information if being asked for major action to forestall them. But that is still HARD in the context of emergency meetings, sudden and drastic measures, etc.

profacero said...

(...but I do have self-inflicted anxiety, not about academia in particular, just about my duty to everything, I feel exaggerated pressure and responsibility about everything. I'll try to reform on that.)

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