Why Should Professors Return to Work?
Like the rest of the labor force, Covid-19 took so much away--but it also gave us the power and time to re-imagine how we want to live
This post might move you to comment about your own work: I won’t say more until you read it, but I hope it does. I suspect that you, dear reader, have as much or more to say on the topic of work as I do. If you know someone who would enjoy contributing to our conversation, please:
Again, I want to thank the paying subscribers who acknowledge that writing this newsletter is a choice that I have embraced—and that writing is also work.
Why work? Or perhaps, more practically, why continue to do the work you have always done in the way you have always done it?
Every day there are news items about how the pandemic has changed Americans’ relationship to their jobs. New York Mayor Bill De Blasio’s recent order to bring city workers back to the office for eight hours, five days a week, has generated significant pushback. In a New York Times opinion piece, Jennifer Gravel, De Blasio’s director of housing and urban development, explains how working remotely allowed her “to serve the city while also tending to my family and to my own health.” However, she writes, “after only a few days of being back in the office full time, I’m already feeling a familiar sense of weariness and anxiety,” a body memory of overwork and being pulled between work and family.
Now, before the pandemic, Gravel was not just a working mom: she was being treated for breast cancer, as well as occupying a tough job for a legendarily dysfunctional Mayor. But people whose situations are less exceptional are also pushing back. In June 2020, NPR’s Andrea Hsu reported on the many workers at all levels of the economy who are participating in the “great resignation.” As Hsu explained, all kinds of workers
are leaving their jobs in search of more money, more flexibility, and more happiness. Many are rethinking what work means to them, how they are valued, and how they spend their time. It's leading to a dramatic increase in resignations — a record 4 million people quit their jobs in April alone, according to the Labor Department.
Hospitality workers realized they were disposable and left the cities where they struggled to support their real dreams on tipped wages. Restaurant managers are sick of fighting with customers and missing holidays. Tech workers became aware of how much they were expected to overwork and how stressful it was: they now insist on telecommutes from Bozeman, Montana. People became aware of how much they missed distant family they rarely visited at the best of times because they couldn’t get away from work. In other words, workers across social classes and occupational categories had time, as one resigner put it, “to think about what you really want."
As it turns out, so did university professors.
I should say that higher education workers have been writing about the culture of overwork and diminished rewards for several decades. This is ironic since those who are in a position to write such books generally have more flexible schedules, fewer formal obligations than the average professional worker (or average college professor, for that matter), and spend more time working from home than the vast majority of professionals.
But these books long preceded the Great Awakening of 2020 and the virus that would upend our attachment to employers. Anthropologist David Graeber, a red diaper baby and a prominent figure in Occupy, wrote the influential Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018), in which he lambasted the large number of (often surprisingly well-paid) jobs that have no meaning or purpose; the forms of suffering that constitute contemporary workplace virtue; and the damage that such work does to the soul. And in No More Work: Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea (UNC Press, 2016), a book originally entitled Fuck Work and appears under that title in France, historian James Livingston argues that our workplaces do not support us, spiritually or practically. Meanwhile, he notes that socially beneficial work like art, music, and teaching is deemed “no longer socially necessary, which means it doesn’t pay.”
I don’t think anyone working in a college or a university today doesn’t believe their work is socially necessary, but it certainly doesn’t pay well. And even when it does—- is that enough? In one of the best essays on the topic that I have read lately, a former Chronicle of Higher Education opinion writer William Pannapacker, who occupies an endowed chair at Hope College, has announced that he is taking unpaid leave “to write, retrain, and look for new career pathways.”
Pannapacker was, however, surprised to learn that he was
part of a trend: professors leaving academe even though faculty positions are so difficult to obtain and seemingly so secure. To walk away from a tenured position, especially in the humanities, is to accept that you probably will never work in the profession again. If I leave, and my faculty line isn’t discontinued, hundreds of highly qualified people will apply for my position.
According to Pannapacker, this trend is driven by some of the same factors that are causing other workers to quit their jobs: “there’s ample evidence,” he writes, “that many faculty members — especially women with small children — feel overworked and underappreciated.”
I, too, have watched with dismay as cherished colleagues who have never been able to confine institutional commitments to a 40 hour week are hitting the wall almost immediately as they return to a former life now complicated by testing, masking, and quarantining, in their own and their children’s schools. For the first time, I have heard colleagues sound genuinely frightened about entering the classroom, either for themselves or for immuno-compromised and as yet unvaccinated household members.
But the pandemic has also created the space and time for a shift in values that may be long overdue. As Pannapacker writes, many of us had a chance to gain a long-overdue perspective about what we want from life:
Being away from the campus has made many of us realize that we are unhappy — for a host of reasons — and do not want to return under any circumstances. The decision often focuses on academe’s culture of overwork and rigid status hierarchies. What might it be like not to work every weekend and holiday grading papers, applying for grants, preparing for meetings, and answering work-related phone calls, email, and text messages? Not to worry constantly about what senior professors and administrators think of you? Not to feel like a failure because you are not tenured at a leading research university?
In the last year, I have watched act on this in real-time and done it myself. For example, the most meaningful thing I have done in years was to help elect Joe Biden. My volunteering was possible because I was no longer commuting to another state every week or attending meetings.
Other friends have taken bigger leaps. For the first time in a financial position to buy a house, one colleague at another campus purchased a dream home not in the place where they work, but in the place that they and their partner have always loved best and hoped to retire. Another, a man who teaches at an Ivy-League university, responded to his mother’s illness by taking a leave of absence to live with and help his siblings care for her. “I know where I need to be,” he said, and it was clear that was not a classroom.
While Pannapacker cites the effects of the most recent round of culture wars, the imperviousness of higher education to change, and his own desire not to impede a more youthful and diverse workforce, his shift in consciousness is somewhat different: that he might be able to the work he cares most about without a university job. “While the humanities are languishing in higher education,” he writes,
I see them flourishing in the larger society, especially in big cities like Chicago, where I now live. All kinds of people go to festivals, museums, theaters, and galleries; they buy books and paintings, attend poetry readings, and drink craft beers. It is often standing-room-only at those events and places, despite the pandemic, while many college courses barely attract enough students to break even. The public understands that the humanities enrich our lives, foster deep conversations, and make people happy.
Willie Sutton said he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is.” The humanities are no longer thriving in academe, but they are alive and well out here.
It’s a scary jump, but an attractive one. How many of your mornings have been destroyed by email or filling out forms online? How many times have you reflected on the fact that every new faculty consultation creates a new committee that must be filled, staffed, and scheduled? How many meetings have you sat in watching completely disengaged colleagues not listening or participating, but grading, fiddling with their phones, and otherwise trying to make a dent in the daily avalanche of tasks so that they could reclaim some time for themselves after hours?
We still may need work to live: we may want to do that work where we are. Unfortunately, few of us have enough money socked away to walk away from a job without knowing what comes next. But what we don’t have to do is return to the hamster wheel we stepped off of in March 2020.
What if you could start a conversation on your campus that means you are not returning to the same way you always worked? Let’s not allow this moment to die. In every tragedy, there are opportunities too—to reconnect, reset, and remake our world—to find out how to better be ourselves.
“There has always been a nastiness and racial grievance at the core of Carlson,” writes Alex Shepherd of The New Republic, “but, for much of his early career, he also sought a degree of respectability.” That’s over: Tucker learned that there’s no audience on the right for respectability, so, Shepherd writes, he leaned in on the mean and dishonest. That said, Tucker-watchers will find aspects of the article to dispute, such as the notion that Carlson has been uniformly Trumpian in his attitude towards Covid-19. Multiple sources, including Wall Street Journal White House reporter Micheal C. Bender) have argued that Carlson was among those who tried to persuade the Former Guy that he needed to address Covid-19 seriously. (September 16, 2020)
What do you do with a BA in philosophy? Run for Congress as a Democrat in Alabama’s Second! That’s what 26-year-old Jack Slate is doing. A 2019 graduate of Auburn, he then did an MA at the University of Chicago, writing his thesis on the J6 insurrection. Running against anti-masker Barry Moore, Slate’s platform includes criminal justice reform, Medicare for All, and raising the minimum wage. Go, Jack! You can donate to his campaign here. (John H. Glenn, Alabama Political Reporter, September 16, 2021)
At the Columbia Journalism Review, Hunter Walker reports that White House press briefings have become professional once again: policy breakdowns, straight answers to questions, no lying, and a President who shows up once a day and doesn’t insult them. So why do they miss Trump? “Yet the White House press corps has lost something from the Trump years: nearly unfettered access to behind-the-scenes drama and the presidential id, through freewheeling speeches and stream-of-consciousness updates on Twitter. Biden’s highly professional press shop makes it harder for the media to penetrate the depths of the White House—internal debates, developing ideas—and to locate pressure points that can take things off script.” (Fall, 2021)