How to Beat a Case of the Bartlebys: A Tired Academic’s Resolutions

Pedagogy / Friday, July 25th, 2014

I work too much. I do. I’m a maniac about it.

This English professor’s story started with a love affair: me + books + paycheck = academic happy ending. Somewhere along the road, I lost my way–or got carried away–the details are fuzzy.

In part, my father’s toxic work ethic (read: addiction) is to blame. In part, it’s my mother’s toxic perfectionism (read: obsession). Add to that a youthful energy and persistent optimism that somehow survived my twenties, and you’ve got me: the happy workaholic who is convinced she’s changing the world, semester by semester.

The trouble is that most of us aren’t. We’re cogs that will eventually be replaced inside a machine that will outlast us all. 

It sounds grim for someone like me who is still madly in love with the literature I teach and in love with the idea that many of my students link arms with me and are wholly invested in this great work we’re doing together.

But I will admit to have moved at least a pinky toe over to the dark side when I finally realized this world weighs me in credit hours. 

Still, strangely, some of us are innately bound to that machine. We celebrate like small puppies at the slightest pat on the head. Applause warms us like sunshine. People take our pictures with framed certificates at barbecue lunches, and we smile.

Even when the work day is done, its remnants stick to some of us. Meetings wipe their feet on the mat and come right in the house. Works in progress rest on our heads in the evenings like June electric blankets, and they jolt us awake in the morning with a warmed-over list of to-do’s.

In the digital age, there is really no getting away from it. Those who think an internet holiday is realistic may be overlooking the fact that whether I’m online or not, work is happening. Conversations are happening. Everyone else is there, and I’m in direct competition with them all. The stakes are high: reputation based on accessibility, reliability, and response time. 

I am the prized fish being measured three times a year with student evaluations, lined up alongside my colleagues.

And so I roll with the dings. Texts, emails, and push notifications. I’m what Pavlov had in mind when he experimented on his dog–far kinder than experimenting on a human. Yet here I am, conditioned and fully equipped with a hamster wheel and a steady stream of treats.

But what happens when the treats stop? What happens when the small rewards are no longer enough and we need more to sustain us and to inspire us? What happens when we realize that the very ones who caused us to ask, “Why don’t they care?” transform before our eyes from antagonistic neighbor to sympathetic protagonist?

Something seems madly awry when the roots of work grow so deeply into our foundations that our floors start to crack. 

Recently I realized that, at my current pace and depth of involvement with my students, I will not be able to sustain my current pace until retirement. I am managing classes, other academic commitments, and essay grading around the clock. Somewhere in the middle of my efforts to appear competent and confident (a real Mary Poppins of humanities), I overdid it, overcommitted, said yes too many times.

Some weeks I’m spread so thin that I feel certain I am about the depth of a doormat. 

Imagining a mystery payoff was my own immense mistake. There were never any guarantees of a happy ending. A cake will be served between 1 and 3 on the day of my retirement. There will be no parade or coronation, and even if there were, would that feel like enough?

Sometimes we must work for work’s sake, and as a cog, I’ve decided I must keep an oil can nearby to prevent rusting out.

Here’s my savvy plan for extending my expiration date:

1. Realign your efforts with your goals.

Decide what you want from the semester or the year–or longer–and target those goals with strategic investments of your time and energy. Oftentimes, we add smaller goals to our list, and our efforts and energy become divided. It’s important to stay focused so that you can make more progress to toward reaching that goal; then others can follow.

2. Speak up.

When you are consistently good at the work you do and easy to work with, you don’t have to speak up to volunteer yourself for work; others will do that for you. Speak up to say no sometimes. Keep your priorities in mind and know that saying no to something means saying yes to other things that may matter more in the long run.

3. Set boundaries.

No one else will do this for you. My goals for this year are to limit the time I am flitting from one task to the next, especially online. In order to be goal-oriented, part of speaking up will mean setting boundaries on my time and the depth of involvement I can have with some projects. I plan to limit myself to two open tabs and to silence my phone sometimes. I often tell my students there is no such thing as an English emergency, and I need to start believing that.

4. Know the difference between work and family, and business and philanthropy.

Period. Their business decisions aren’t personal, and neither should yours be. In the words of Batman’s Joker, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” Once the cycle of friendly favors is established, you’ve transitioned yourself into a one-man non-profit. Congratulations on your tax-exempt status.

5. If there’s a stick, make sure there’s a carrot–even if you brought it on the trip yourself. 

The trouble with bridging a gap is that you get walked on. Also, it’s really hard to stop doing something once you’ve started. Saying “not anymore” is far more complicated than saying “no.”

That being said, intrinsic rewards are everything, and if those tasks teach you something, prepare you for something, or just plain bring you joy, take them on.

Just see steps 1-4 and repeat.

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