Inquiry: Estrangement IV – Quality of Life & the Academic Hunger Games

by Mark Hulsether, Ph.D.

This series seeks to understand some of the differing faces of estrangement and the crossroads it approaches for good or ill.

A couple of years ago, I posted an earlier version of this reflection on MBE: Mark’s Blogging Experiment. I’ve lightly revised it for NPJ’s conversations about estrangement. 

At the time this reflection first appeared we were at day 40 or more (depending on how one counted) of a major strike in British universities, which was nearly ignored in the U.S.  (This and this are exceptions to the rule.)

It was also day four or more (depending on how one counts) in the aftermath of a major attack on tenure at my university, instituted through the escalation of mainly redundant and outrageously time-wasting “post-tenure reviews.”

There is far more to say about both these matters than makes sense for one short post. But as a contribution to our discussions about estrangement, I would like to say a few words about some of the human costs at stake.  I’m very well aware that this is not a story about being highly oppressed—in fact it presupposes important kinds of privilege.  But this is not a good reason to sweep under the rug the non-trivial forms of suffering and estrangement that it is about.

 Extreme Overtime (Blamed on Oneself) as the New Normal.

Let’s begin by considering this fine piece by Katerina Bodovski in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Bodovski is a tenured professor who, like me, is well aware of and grateful for having a good job compared to others further down the academic food chain—but who nevertheless has a serious complaint. Her body simply shut down—she “collapsed” and was bedridden for five weeks—from overwork and exhaustion. After discussing her crushing load of teaching, mentoring, and related service, she comments: 

“My job description stipulates that I should spend 60 percent of my time on research, 30 percent on teaching, and 10 percent on service. The duties I describe should have taken only 40 percent of my time but in reality, took nearly all of my time. Yet the research component of my job is the main ingredient that affects promotions in academe.”

I know this feeling and have sometimes filled out my time management reports with percentages that add up to 150% or even 200% of “full time”—although by now the electronic forms disallow this. This requires having some baseline definition for “full time.” Virtually no one I know on the faculty side of academia solely works 40-hour work weeks for nine months of the year, taking advantage of our supposed “summers off.”  Everyone knows that the workload falls far above that level.

Nor does this necessarily trouble me, since one of the best things about academia is how it sometimes enable work and pleasure to blur. I would be very content if “nine months of full-time” signaled 50-hour work weeks for most of the year, setting aside one month for vacation. (Assuming such a baseline, I have sometimes clocked in below 150% yearly effort.)

Should a “full-time for a nine-month contract” signify unrelenting 70-to-80-hour weeks for the entire year—minus a handful of vacation days that are themselves chopped up by large blocks of time for work-related reading and email? This is typical, especially for pre-tenured faculty who fear being expelled from the system if they don’t produce at a higher quantitative level compared to each other, and for graduate students who do the main work of teaching for apprentice-level wages and no promise of later employment.

In practice, most aspiring scholars push themselves toward whatever maximum levels they can sustain before (or perhaps after too) their efforts become counterproductive or they physically crash and burn. Perhaps that means 175% of 40-hour weeks, over and over, or 250% of forty-hour weeks in short bursts with occasional lulls.

It is hard to judge the severity of this problem due to a weird etiquette of half-silence about it. This blends pervasive posturing to project an image of being highly productive without breaking a sweat with a strong concurrent tendency to humble brag about how busy and overscheduled one is. This can deepen estrangement by masking it—especially if it blends with an awareness of relative privilege that makes it seem ungrateful to speak about the problems.

Academic Assessment Meets “Market Stalinism”

I shine a spotlight on Bodovski’s article, partly because it extends what I wrote in another article that is slightly out of sync to my current thoughts.  It was about the “assessment” of values in academia, and it originally preceded this one on my blog

Impacts on employees’ health may be the level that cuts the deepest, among the multiple crises of academia that I approached from this direction.

“Assessment” is not an obvious angle from which to approach health matters—whether we are talking about assessment in banal time-wasting forms, or more pernicious “you-must-dumb-this-down-a-little-more” imperatives, or “if-you-can’t quantify-this-goal-then-it-doesn’t-exist” portals to despair—or somewhat less gloomily, transmuted into the sort of evaluations that we cannot and should not evade, such as refereeing manuscripts or winnowing 400 job applicants down to one.

Still there is an extreme glut of qualified candidates for every job, exacerbated by systematically replacing tenured faculty with lecturers or graduate instructors, is hard to imagine an end to any of these variants of assessment, as part as parcel of a climate of hyper-competition and anxiety—education as a Hunger Games of our best and brightest students.

In this context my earlier article spoke of an academic “assessment regime,” following Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Fisher describes a “market Stalinism” that combines the worst features of a free market reduction of everything to a commodity form, the Kafkaesque opacity and thuggishness of bureaucrats in a command economy, and the aesthetic ham-handedness of Soviet Realism at its worst.

The key point at hand today is that this regime undoubtedly makes the stress and overwork of academia worse. This is what structures and justifies dysfunction—not least in the effort to save money in the short run (killing a golden goose in the long run) by hiring non-tenured faculty, but also more pervasively.

Importantly, this distorts the metrics in terms of which we find out who thrives in the Hunger Games, who is expelled from the machine, and who is crushed under its wheels— thus twisting an inevitable baseline of competition into something more surreal and demoralizing, relatable to the Bible’s classic diagnosis:

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to people of understanding, nor yet favor to people of skill; but time and chance happens to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11)

Of course, one could be “realistic” and stipulate that—by definition—the assessed winners of the races are “the swift”: we have no other way to measure, especially if “we” are the deans who have no expert knowledge about the subject matters of the faculty and courses being assessed. This encourages precisely the wrong people, those who have learned how to game the race, while discouraging those who are driven crazy by the game, which further weighs them down in the race.

Meanwhile, I am trying to sustain a distinction I proposed in my earlier article between educational goals with real value (which I compared to learning to play high-level music or basketball) versus goals transmuted into and debased by the metrics used to declare whether one is a “good teacher” (which I compared to piano key repetitions and counting calories on a treadmill.)

In today’s academy, assessed “successful teachers” are often ones who set their thresholds for student “success” at or below the cutting edge of a race to the bottom in dumbing down standards. Aiming higher does satisfy many of the better students, but often at the cost of mixed/mediocre evaluations overall. If one digs deep into what matters, especially in areas where it is part and parcel of quality to work against the grain of student expectations, there are many courses in which this nearly guarantees that one will be “objectively” assessed as mediocre at teaching. Trying harder against this grain is as likely to lower one’s score as make it higher. No doubt this problem varies significantly across different subject matters, but I insist that the problem is pervasive; moreover, variations create extreme apples and oranges discrepancies which the metrics pretend to mask.

The Cost of Success Measured in Quality of Life

Let’s take this line of thought one step further. Can typical scholars survive the academic Hunger Games with its equal parts of teaching, research, service, and working on assessment reports? Fisher is brilliant at showing how time spent on research and teaching is, in practice, transmuted into time spent on reports to evoke an appearance of research and learning—or at least the reduced proportions of it still deemed relevant.

But what if valid goals include a healthy quality of life-–operationalized not as salary or prestige but as happiness and work/life balance? Dare we imagine a world where employers prioritize this, in practice as opposed to cheap pep talks? That may be a step too far toward fantasy, yet it could be a faculty union demand, and it certainly is more defensible than many actual academic priorities.

Quality of life is often the first thing that we lose track of when translating everything into assessment metrics. Indeed, scholars may take a perverse pride in not valuing this goal—expressed indirectly in their humble-brags about overtime.

The great virtue of Bodovski’s piece is how she zeroes in on this point

“Like many faculty members, I somehow became a silent workaholic. I do not believe that was a conscious choice…. [One is] socialized into this trait of academic culture. This is how things are done, goes the unwritten agreement. If you are too weak for the challenge, go elsewhere.”

Workaholism for Women and Men

I have two and a half smallish comments to add to Bodovski. My half-comment is that her core concerns are not mainly for women, as her article sometimes tends to imply. No doubt it is true, and important, that in many cases the problems intensify for women—especially if they have children. We definitely should not minimize this.

Nevertheless, pressures on men (especially if they have children) are often roughly comparable. Who is burdened more, men with kids or women without them? And which sex is more socialized to be a “silent workaholic,” really? This seems debatable from case to case. Even after fully granting how in many cases the famous women’s double shift is decisive, still the point to underline is how this is an issue for everyone.

Workaholism for Physical and Mental Health

My first main comment is that mental health is no less important than physical health. I know someone who was able to maintain a remarkably upbeat and outwardly positive emotional demeanor in the face of crushing work demands—until (more than once) her body simply shut down and she wound up in the hospital, not unlike what happened to Bodovski.

Meanwhile, I also know someone who stayed out of the hospital but (in the face of a similar load) instead, suffered years of low-to-moderate depression that caused great amounts of suffering.

I do not wish to say which of these is worse. Both are bad enough.

Aside to the university bean counters: In both cases the health issues cut into assessed productivity.  We are circling back to my comment about continually pressing beyond a point where it is counterproductive, even in the short run as measured by the debased metrics. As the saying goes, one can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.

But assessment metrics absolutely can reward people for stretching out the juice from a turnip, not just counting it one time for baseline juiciness, but creatively counting it over and over in watered down turnip juice products, creating a multiplier effect for wasting numerous people’s time, sprawling out in all directions. Even if metrics are entirely to blind issues of health, still someone’s pursuit of health may well result in such corner cutting or resume padding.

All of this is before we turn to questions about how the erosion of collective morale and collegiality affect both “productivity,” as well other forms of quality and value that are illegible in terms of the productivity metrics.

Workaholism for Family Values

My second addendum to Bodovski is that the overwork built into academia can have a severe negative effect on family systems in general, and children in particular. (Here again I’m thinking largely about faculty members’ families, but we could also think about students and their families.) Let’s posit a fairly high level of privilege: a two-parent family with kids, in which raw poverty is not an issue and each parent is healthy enough to steer clear of physical collapse, depression, or addiction. Suppose this family solely has to deal with two adult 60-to-80-hour workweeks, handled more-or-less with aplomb—although in practice physical health, mental health, and time management will inevitable become mixed-up at times.

Even in such a best-case scenario (obviously we could think of tougher cases) anxiety and time pressure is a huge stress to family systems.

Like Bodovski, I understand that I enjoy real privileges as a tenured professor. By no means has this been all bad for my family, and I’m not sure I would choose a different path if I had to do this over. Certainly, I would try, in a hypothetical do-over, to make fewer mistakes as a father and spouse. I also wish I could revisit some of my successes and do a better job of building on them. Still, I doubt that I could improve markedly. At worst I think I’ve done a passable job of steering toward lesser evils, along the lines that Scarface raps about: 

Mistakes, I’m forced to live with that, I’m knowing more mistakes to come.  I’m human, that’s my best excuse, in fact my only one. (From “Keep it Moving” 2015)

Nevertheless, I have come to feel that the negative trade-offs of my campaign for an academic career—which, once again, I don’t feel too guilty about, and I don’t think I could improve very much even with a time-machine—have had strong negative effects on my family. Quite literally I think that career demands have been structurally abusive to us—despite what I think was my passable job of choosing lesser evils within the structure.

Un-Acknowledged Faculty Privilege Versus Un-Acknowledged Faculty Suffering

Consider how a migrant labor system may separate a father or brother from the rest of their family, on opposite sides of the U.S./Mexico border, then force them to cope with constant anxiety around deportation. Anyone can see how this causes stress and suffering.

Without entering an “Olympics of suffering” competition—a competition I am very well aware I would “lose” decisively compared to most Mexican migrants—still it bears notice that an academic labor regime also causes non-trivial stress and suffering, if and when it separates parents from children and spouse from spouse, measured both in raw available time and in emotional unavailability caused by distraction or depression.

In this sense, it is no stretch to say that demands of academia have hurt my family significantly—despite all due acknowledgement of good things on the other side of the ledger—and damaged my relationship with them. I have a deep well of anger about this.

The sick priorities that Mark Fisher calls “market Stalinism”—both inside and outside its manifestations in the academic Hunger Games—help to explain why so many people around the world fear that the United States is becoming dangerously unhinged and out of control, in its role as a sort of world leader in neoliberal austerity politics. We have the greatest technological resources in world history, and we have massive wealth that if divided up halfway intelligently and equitably would allow us to do untold good. Yet we spend it on prisons, weapons, and tax breaks for billionaires—plus bread and circuses encoded in things like hockey stadiums—while blighting the quality of life for our children and people who teach them.

Simply amassing more money—even if done through relatively benign processes, but especially if done through structurally abusive ones—is not a valid goal in itself. Using wealth to invest in the future and improve our quality of life is the defensible point.

Among the many ways to pursue such goals, of which a global Green New Deal might be the single most compelling, there are many good reasons to invest—and no-good reason not to invest—in our universities and in improving the quality of life in their spaces.