I made such a long comment at Undine’s that I thought I should bring it over here.

Caveat: this is definitely about the individual. If you are in a truly oppressive environment, you may need to work for change, or change jobs, or at least not beat yourself up for not being able to manage your job via managing your feelings. But if you’re in an only ordinarily difficult situation—budget cuts, lots of students, wondering how to get your own writing done, feeling that other people are somehow coping better—then here’s what I have to offer.

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. And I am not going to do it 24/7.

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.* What parts of your job matter to you? Do those well enough to meet your own (reasonable) expectations—do enough of the other parts well enough so that you aren’t making other people’s lives difficult—and let go of the sense that you have to do everything perfectly.


*Flattery trip: “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.


6 thoughts on “On perspective, again

  1. Very good points. We can push ourselves to the point of serious self-harm attempting to perfect our professional performance. That’s not a wise choice. We all shoulder parts of the collective burden but we can say no to demands that can’t be accommodated and we should!

  2. Dame Eleanor–thanks for the link, and I couldn’t agree more. Do what matters to you, and what you must do, in that order.

    Of the things you mentioned, “planning initiatives” are the ones that easiest to discard. Think about them when you’re in a meeting, but don’t give them brain room outside of that, because the likelihood that any given initiative will be (1) funded or (2) administratively supported is about the same as an external grant in the humanities–maybe 5%. If you think of your brainpower as money, as in ROI, it’s not a good investment.

    1. You do need planning for your own program, though, or someone else will do it, to its and your disadvantage. I can’t afford not to look ahead to next year’s Spanish Club leadership, next year’s courses, good times to work on expansion of study abroad, etc. If you are not under fire then you can meander about, or have explosive bouts of energy and then dead periods, but if you are under fire, you have to come steadily along like a ship. The English department does that, although they are so large that individual faculty members do not feel the burden, and feel that they are acting in a more ad hoc way. Smaller departments and programs have to plan these things, because if not offerings cave in and/or a single person has to make heroic efforts to save.

      1. Z, your situation is covered in the “caveat” paragraph: it’s not just ordinary levels of difficulty that you face. If anyone reading along feels they’re in Z’s situation, listen to her. I would not presume to offer advice to someone in such a position, because I have no experience of it, and I don’t believe in second-guessing the people on the ground.

    2. Although I have got to say: I will never really know to what extent I have been a victim of “Oh, you’d be so good at this, we really neeeeeed you.” And of course, “Your success shows others up, so for the team, you must do less well.” I always believed it was true what I was being told, the place was falling apart and someone had to hold it up. Careful analysis of the situation always told me that this was not like other situations where that is said in a way merely alarmist. It could well have been an illusion although what was real was all the harassment.

  3. This is the right advice if you have an administration that is doing its job / is at least not actively trying to close you down. It is also the only advice — i.e. it is the advice to take even if you have that situation (although it doesn’t talk about needs, sometimes real, to take more active role in shared governance times, active role with legislature, active role in direct action in defense of university).

    For me personally, it’s a question of taking this advice even though I don’t think I, personally, deserve to and also even though I am not in a situation where it seems safe for my program not to watch its back more closely.

Comments are now closed.