“Assessment” Continued: Academic Success Vs. Health and Well-Being

This is day 40 or more (depending on how one counts) of a major strike in British universities, which has been nearly ignored by the news. (This and this are exceptions to the rule.) It is also day four or more (depending on how one counts) in the aftermath of an attack on tenure at my university, instituted through the escalation of time-wasting and mainly redundant “post-tenure reviews.” There is so much I would like to say about these matters—but to begin, this piece addresses some of the human costs at stake.

I’m happy to report that the AAUP’s Academe blog saw fit to repost my earlier “assessment” reflections—as did this excellent blog called Small Pond Science. Thanks to the Small Pond folks, I have now read this 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 well and have sometimes filled out my time management reports with percentages that add up to 150% or even 200% of “full time.” Of course this requires setting a baseline definition for full time. Virtually no academic faculty merely work 40 hour workweeks for nine months of the year, taking advantage of our supposed “summers off.” Everyone knows that 100% falls far above that level. Nor does this trouble me, since one of the best things about academia is how work and pleasure often blur. I would be very content if full-time signaled 50 hour workweeks during most of the year, setting aside a month for vacation. (Assuming such a baseline, I have sometimes clocked in below 150% effort.)

Should “full-time (for nine months)” imply 70-80 hour weeks for the entire year—minus a handful of vacation days that themselves are chopped up by blocs of work-related reading and email? This is typical, especially for graduate students—who, remember, do the main work of teaching for apprentice-level wages and no promise of later employment—and pre-tenured faculty. In practice, aspiring scholars push toward whatever maximum levels they can sustain (perhaps 175% of 40 hour weeks, over and over? 250% of forty hour weeks in short bursts with occasional lulls?) before their efforts become counterproductive or they crash and burn.

It is hard to judge the severity of the 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 concurrent tendency to humble-brag about how busy and overscheduled one is.

eighthour2Please support the great work of Ricardo Levins Morales!

Although I don’t conceive of this blog as a place to curate and repost other articles, I do want to shine a spotlight on Bodovski’s article as an extension of what I wrote earlier about multiple levels of an “assessment regime” in academia. Impacts on health might be the level where the crises of academia hit hardest.

“Assessment” is not an ideal shorthand term to approach this matter—whether in banal time-wasting forms, pernicious “can-we-dumb-things-down-a-little-more” forms, or transmuted into critical evaluations that we cannot and should not evade, such as refereeing manuscripts or winnowing 400 job applicants down to one. As long there is an extreme glut of candidates for every job, exacerbated by policies of replacing tenured faculty with lecturers or graduate instructors, is hard to see any end to a climate of hyper-competition and anxiety—education as a Hunger Games of our best and brightest students.

Nevertheless the assessment mentality that Mark Fisher calls “market Stalinism” (as I discussed earlier) does make the stress of academia worse. It structures and justifies dysfunction—not least the effort to save money in the short run (killing a golden goose in the long run) by hiring non-tenured faculty. Importantly, it distorts the metrics in terms of which survivors of these Hunger Games are decided, twisting an inevitable baseline of competition into something surreal and demoralizing, along the lines of 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 we could be “realistic” and stipulate that—by definition—the (assessed) winner of the race is “the swift.” But I want to sustain my earlier distinction between worthy goals (which I compared to high-level music or basketball) versus goals transmuted into and debased by assessment metrics (comparable to piano key repetitions and counting calories on a treadmill.)

Let’s take this line of thought a step further. Can scholars survive the academic Hunger Games if their 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 talk? That may be a step too far toward fantasy, yet it could be a union demand, and it certainly is more defensible than many actual academic priorities.)

Such a goal is often the first thing lost in the translation toward assessment metrics. In fact, scholars may take a perverse pride in not valuing the goal—expressed indirectly through 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.

I have only two and a half smallish comments to add to Bodovski. My half-comment is that this concern is not mainly for women, as her article sometimes tends to imply. I agree that there are many cases when problems intensify for women, especially if they have children. But pressures on men are often comparable. And which sex is more socialized to be a “silent workaholic,” really? That seems debatable from case to case. Even after granting that in many cases the famous women’s double shift is decisive, still the point to underline is how this is an issue for everyone.

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 shut down and she wound up in the hospital, not unlike what happened to Bodovski. 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 bean counters: In both cases, health issues cut into assessed productivity. One can’t squeeze blood from a turnip—although assessment metrics absolutely can reward someone for stretching out the juice from a turnip, not simply counting it once for baseline juiciness, but counting it over and over in watered down turnip juice products. Even if metrics entirely disregard impacts on health, still someone’s simultaneous pursuit of success and health may result in such corner cutting and resume padding, adding nothing to actual quality.)

My second addendum is that the work expectations of academia may have a severe negative effect on family systems in general and children in particular. (I’m thinking about faculty families, but we could also talk about students and their families.) Let’s posit a two-parent family with kids, in which poverty is not an issue and each parent steers clear of physical collapse or depression. Suppose this family solely has to deal with 60 to 80 hour workweeks, handled more-or-less with aplomb—although in practice physical health, mental health, and time management are mixed up. Even in this best-case scenario (obviously we could think of tougher cases) time pressure and unrelenting anxiety is a huge stress on 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 it over. Certainly I would try, in a hypothetical do-over, to make fewer mistakes as a father and spouse. I also would like to revisit some of my successes and try do a better job of building on them. Still, I doubt that I could improve all that much. At worst I think I’ve done a passable job of steering toward lesser evils, after factoring in a modicum of grace for baseline human imperfection.

Nevertheless I have come to feel that the negative trade-offs of my campaign for an academic career—which, once again, I don’t think I could improve much even with a time machine—have done serious damage to my family. Quite literally I think that career demands have been structurally abusive to us—despite my reasonable success at choosing lesser evils within the structure.

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—which I would clearly “lose” compared to most migrants and many others too—still it bears notice that an academic labor regime also causes serious stress and suffering, if and when it separates parents from children or spouse from spouse, measured in raw available time and in emotional unavailability caused by distraction or depression. In the middle of stressful semesters, academic concerns often turn even my sleeping hours—my dream work if I’m lucky and wakeful hours if not—into a site of anxious labor. This goes double in daytime interactions like distracted meals with the family, grading papers at a kid’s soccer game, or composing a lecture outline while running errands. Such problems are compounded if academic careers imply living in long-distance relationships or living far away from extended families.

In this sense, it is not a 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 forced difficult choices that at times stressed and damaged it. I have a deep well of anger about this.

No doubt part of the blame lies with me—I could sometimes manage it better, along the lines of the voice in Bodovski’s head saying “if you are too weak, go elsewhere.” So part of the anger turns inward. Even so, why should my job be structured as the enemy of my family, so that the main question becomes how I can do a better job fighting this enemy? And what will be the long-term consequences for our universities if—more and more pervasively—the “swift” winners of its Hunger Games are workaholics who feel pressured to sacrifice their families for their victories? Like it or not, part of being a teacher is being a role model.

The sickening priorities I have discussed in all three of these “assessment” posts add up to a good case study for why so many people around the world believe that the United States—as a sort of world leader in neoliberal austerity politics—is becoming dangerously unhinged and out of control. We have some of 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 largely spend it on prisons, weapons, and tax breaks for billionaires, while blighting the quality of life for our children and people who teach them.

Simply amassing more money—even through benign means, not to speak of 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 various ways to pursue this goal, there are many good reasons to invest—and no reason not to invest—in our universities and in improving the quality of life in university spaces.

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