Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Don’t get to the point where it doesn’t feel good anymore

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

I am not a big eater, but it’s a big deal in our culture not to waste food (other people are dying of starvation) and once a friend watching me try to finish a plate of food told me, “don’t get to the point where the food doesn’t taste good anymore”. Yeah, I reach that point quite early on at restaurants, esp when i lived in Texas with the Texas sizes meals.

But this post isn’t about food. It’s about “biting off more than one can chew” in academia (expression by AK on fb triggered the connection above). Been thinking of Kate Bowles’ post on academic overwork (I a, really happy it got republished in Hybrid Pedagogy as it is a great post and deserves wider readership).

My initial response to Kate’s post was about how, for me, my own balance involves taking a break from parenting through work-related activities, and that I enjoy them, they bring me self-fulfillment. But that I also recognize how more academics who overwork create a culture that makes people who want a more balanced life struggle to keep up.

In a twitter convo (sorry, didn’t save the tweets) after Kate’s article was published on HybridPed, I discovered the importance of contextualizing discussions of work-life balance. That what work-life balance is or looks like differs by person and situation.

For me, for the first year of my daughter’s life, I did not do any work whatsoever. For the second year, i taught one course, worked on my thesis, and took some MOOCs. This third year however, was my reaction to being left hungry and thirsty that first year: I went back to work full-time, taught part-time, MOOCed like crazy (it’s an addiction), wrote like crazy (including blogging and more official and peer-reviewed stuff).

But right now, this summer, I am supposed to be on vacation and I have sooooo many open writing commitments to do, it’s crazy. I won’t even count them here and it’s possible i will forget one if I don’t look up my very long to do list!

But here is the catch: I am almost not required to do any of it. If I never resubmit a peer-reviewed article after the peer feedback, no one will care but me. Well, ok, maybe some people will care, but it’s really nothing essential. Not a single one is essential. I am not tenure-track, no one cares if I publish. If i were tenure-track, I’d have already covered a third of my publication quota by now. It’s irrelevant.

But it’s not really, is it? Am I over-compensating for being non-tenure-track, to say, “see? Even though I am not seeking tenure, I can do research as well?” Am I thinking subconcsiously of my long-term prospects, if I ever decided to apply for a tenure-track career? I might be, but not consciously. I only just thought of this as I wrote this and was reading Melanie Fullick’s piece By the numbers. Actually, even if something never translates directly to my f2f career, I have this double-life as this online presence, and I need to feed it by doing visible, readable things, like blogging 😉 I was thinking this as i started reading Fullick’s piece, but she states what I am thinking more clearly later in her article:

“But just as “productivity” isn’t the same as getting things done, something can “count” within a system without it having meaningful effects otherwise. And it can matter elsewhere without signifying anything in this system: I can care about whether people read what I write, whether it prompted them to think about something differently, or whether someone else is drawing on my ideas and doing something interesting with them; those are some of my goals. But that’s not the same as the “impact factor” of a journal, or the number of citations an author or paper receives.” (Emphasis mine)

So I am admitting it: I have bitten off more than I can chew but it still tastes good, and that’s why I am not stopping. I am doing all I am doing because I am enjoying it. Doing it for me. Is it selfish, to take time away from family to do this? Some may say so. But I took time away from me for a long time, so for now, when my kid’s at daycare, or asleep, it’s “me” time, and I can write if I want to 🙂 It’s kind of like that silly song, “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” but more like, “it’s my vacation, and I’ll work/write if I want to”.

So then there are two aspects to academic overwork: the internal and the external. The internal aspect, I think, which I have discussed partially above, is a personal attitude and judgment call of where to draw the line between a healthy sense of self-fulfillment and an unhealthy maniacal obsession. I probably have an unhealthy addiction for MOOCs, but I think my love of writing is slightly less crazy. There is also the importance of gauging whether by taking on so much we are stressing ourselves unnecessarily as Nadine Muller writes here, about something that brought back

“the fun of research and writing for me, while it seemed a looming, threatening obligation earlier in the semester, when piles of marking were covering my desk.”

Oh, and stress, of course, is not necessarily bad (good point):

“Short bouts of stress can be helpful – they can get me writing, they can get me excited. A permanent state of stress and anxiety will result only in a lack of productivity and deep unhappiness for all involved.”

By “external” I mean the effect of our own overwork on others around us (
At this point I am not talking about our families, but students and other academics). I talked earlier about how my overwork sets standards that can be admired professionally but make a more “balanced” person appear in a negative light, or feel guilty (unfairly so).

Before working in education, I was in the IT department of Procter & Gamble. Answering phone calls to solve an IT problem at 6am was not fun, as the end result was to help someone produce or sell an extra few bottles of shampoo or sacks of detergent. No one would consider that a “calling”. To me, it was worth almost nothing. So I left (thank God).

But education is a different thing, and that changes the whole context for me. Answering a desperate student email a midnight? Giving an extra talk to a group of academics from another institution? Staying up to attend a twitter chat about an important topic? That’s meaningful work for me.

But an issue that came up on twitter and which Nadine Muller mentions is modeling work-life balance for students:

“How can I teach my students to manage their workloads and maintain a good level of wellbeing if I can’t do so myself?”

Whether this entails having closer personal relationships with your students (as i do, treating them as whole ppl, part of my social life, spending time with them on their personal issues) or whether it makes more sense to not get too involved with students to free up your existing social life outside academia? That for me is a personal question: which makes you a happier, more fulfilled person?

But again, am I kidding myself? Am I just making the best of my circumstances rather than breaking out of institutional frameworks imposed on me?

Back to Fullick, then, and the important point Kate had also raised:

“How can scholars continue to work in academe but also challenge its norms on an ongoing basis? “

This question also reminds me of something I was writing on rhizo14 fb in response to a blogpost of AK‘s. He was pondering near the end of it whether one (non-tenure-track as he is like me) should focus on academic publishing or open projects that we believe in more. My personal belief is that in some fields like the ed tech field, if enough of us start taking alternative paths, these paths will start having value, and “counting” in some ways, and they already are. Check out Bonnie Stewart’s research!

Melanie Fullick says

” change happens not just through grand external “disruptions” and/or engineered unbundling but also through small actions and decisions – and the resistance – made by people every day. Asking how those things occur, and how they’re affected by context, is another step towards figuring out what kind of academic life we’ll have in the future and what will “count” towards it.”

That’s all for now. But I know I am still avoiding the elephant in the room… So still another post coming up….still reflecting.

One Comment

  1. I like this post Maha. Often we do things because it feels like the right choice or maybe it’s just in our nature to be involved and not just watch. How many times have you been told to “leave things alone!” and not listened, or gone back later because you couldn’t leave it alone?

    Right now I’m struggling with idea of “participation” as an unavoidable urge but also have other obligations and responsibilities and maybe I would resent them as limiting me? Yes, except being mindful moves them from limitations to choices. The activity of choosing separates me from the regret of missing something and allows me to do better on what I choose. And even when there aren’t choices it matters immensely how we perform what’s necessary.

    This short article is about death and grief but I’m not referencing it for that. Only that we can honor losses, even the simplest ones by being actively attentive to how we live our lives. Hope this makes sense?

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