Thursday, May 22, 2008

Another Beer? Yes, Thanks! I Am Working, After All!

Trying to explain to non-academics the nature of what academics do is a fraught enterprise. When I travel to South Africa, say, I may spend a lot of time in pubs, or seeing friends, or wandering Cape Town or visiting old haunts in Grahamstown, or catching up on South African sport and pop culture, but most often I am also there to work. Indeed, all of those supposed diversions qualify as work inasmuch as I want to understand South Africa from the inside. The same goes for when I go to do research or hit a conference in the United States. And then there are the "breaks." During the summer months, or for a few weeks in December and January, or for the week of spring break, I can set my schedule. I can certainly choose how much to work. But in the end, that is not time off. Lying on the couch, reading? Probably work. Blogging? Sometimes. When I do it at the FPA Blogs it is absolutely work. Here? Sometimes.

The reality is that in the humanities work is also a fungible concept made all the more inexplicable by the fact that we are lucky enough to be in a profession in which much of our work would qualify as leisure activities for others. Hey, Tiger Woods works his ass off at an endeavor that for most of us is the quintessential example of a leisure-time pursuit. Most people would not ascribe academia with the glamour of professional sports, but at least in this sense there is a workable analogy. If I am lying in the living room reading Sports Illustrated even I would have a hard time saying with a straight face, "I'm working," but at the same time I teach and write about sports and have begun the early stages of a book about sports and society, so much like when I read the newspaper or a magazine about politics, I may not be working but I'm not exactly not working. And then there are those times when I am not working because I need the chance to let my brain work, in which case, I may actually be . . . well, you get the point.

My guess is that most academics, and especially those in the humanities, deal with this issue all the time. It was thus refreshing to see this Rachel Toor article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Toor discusses this exact question -- the sometimes amorphous nature of what qualifies as work in the weeks, months, even years leading to publication.


Anonymous said...

Now this is an interesting blog. I must say that my schedule is nowhere compared to a university professor, but I must say that being a community college is instructor is hectic and time consuming. On the other hand, I try not to feel so guilty for enjoying free time. How do you balance your free time and academic time. I'm sure this has taken a while to get the right balance, but please share your wisdom!

dcat said...

Tramaine --
Thanks. You know, one of the issues that we deal with is that we are in the business of knowledge acquisition, which to an outsider probably can look remarkably like loafing. reading books and articles, and yes, the newspaper or magazines of the internet, can all be valid.
Perhaps the ultimate example of the fungible boundaries between work and not-work is email. is much of the email that I read and respond to on a given day actually directly related to work? probably not. But if I do not deal with it, work becomes all the more difficult. And of course many emails are work-related, and others fit in that netherworld, like reading online news sources.
I am not certain there is a "right" balance except inasmuch as there is a "right" balance for you. It probably takes a whole career to strike that balance. But not letting yourself feel guilty when you are operating in that netherworld between work and not- work is probably a nice step to take.


mgarc said...

I would be boasting about this life as well. Can't beat it Derek "Tiger Woods" Catsam, although I'm sure that your golf game is nothing like his but I am sure he doesn't have anything on you when it comes to African affairs. Take that Tiger!!