A culmination of events from last year led me to feel extremely devalued in academia. In response, I decided I needed to set some ground rules for myself and my career. I refuse to have my self-worth determined by academic achievement. Academia is not my life. I am a person who happens to be an academic as a vocation. And as much as I happen to really really enjoy my work, pouring hours of passion and care into it, I refuse for being an academic to be my master status.
I am a person outside of being an academic. I have a life outside of academia, outside of fieldwork, outside of the office, outside of academic socializing, and I am learning to jealously protect and defend these spaces. And to do so, I set some ground rules for myself over the Christmas break.
It has been eight weeks since then and I write this as a reflection on my new work-life balance, so to speak. To be honest, these attempts have not been without backlash, have come at the expense of other things, and have not been thoroughly successful. But as I work my way through refusing a culture of overwork in academia, I hope these fieldnotes bring encouragement or commiseration to others who are trying to do the same.
I no longer work weekends and during my personal time. As an anthropologist who spends hours and days on end immersed deeply in fieldwork especially when it’s on the internet, it is not easy to untangle my body and brain from fieldsites, and switch off Analytical Mode even if I am physically demarcated from work spaces. But I try. This means that if I chance upon an article that may be related to work, I send myself an email to read it during my work hours. It means that if my brain is buzzing with ideas and thoughts, I try as best as I can to jot them down for pursuit later during my work hours. It also means that when colleagues casually ask if a thing can be done over the weekend, I say no. While I appreciate the value of commiseration and transparently calling out overwork culture in academia, there are times where academics do this weird thing of Competitive Onedownmanship, comparing how much each of us is overworking as if bidding for a medal. But we all suffer from the systemic exploitation of free/unpaid/overtime/overworked academic labour.
The sequence of my working hours may be flexible, but their duration is fixed as much as possible. If I start work in the afternoon and go late into the night, I am unabashed about taking the morning off to do the things my heart enjoys. If I have scheduled fieldwork for long stints over the weekend, I give myself a weekday off and try not to feel guilty about not being in the office while my colleagues are hard at work. As academics we have a certain level of autonomy to manage our working hours, and when I know I have clocked my time, I try to shield myself from peer pressure into overworking. This may come at the expense of casual remarks from colleagues who are not familiar with my ‘best working hours’ and assume I am slacking off, but I create the space for conversation and muster the courage to explain that we all have different working habits, and stick to my routine.
I learn to delay replying to work correspondence when it seeps into my personal space and time. I have formed genuine friendships with several colleagues over the years, and most of us keep in touch via various digital platforms. At times, personal conversations may seamlessly evolve into work conversations, or friendly check-ins may turn into check-ins about work. And when the spaces of pleasure and work meld into each other, I exercise the initiative to carve out my personal space. This means telling colleague-friends that we will take Work Talk to email while continuing to catch up on social media, or responding to work-related queries only during work hours even if I am on social media for personal use any way. And thanks to the surveillance timestamps of messaging platforms, it also means that I have to shield myself from the guilt or embarrassment from my colleague-friends who know that I have ‘seen’ their message despite not responding speedily.
I politely refuse workloads I cannot manage without being overly apologetic. I used to feel really guilty about turning down peer review requests, writing up blogposts, responding to student queries, accepting interviews, and other assorted Unpaid Academic Labours when my plate is too full. Don’t get me wrong — I appreciate academic generosity and exercise it whenever I can. But consecutive requests can be really draining. These days I factually respond that I am over-committed at the moment and redirect requests as best as I can. But sometimes this doesn’t work. Often people respond to my refusals with glowing praise over how I am so efficient and so appreciated for my expertise that I must must oblige them with this task that will only take a very very little bit of time. And it is difficult to turn down requests clouded in tones of honour and privilege. But I stand firm and refuse and redirect them politely and professionally, while resisting the urge to inject overtones of self-pity or angst.
All of these practices are still aspirational for me as I fulfill each of them to different degrees at the moment, while learning to stand my ground and protect my space a little bit more everyday. Although it comes with the feelings that I am disappointing people for not being as efficient or reliable or useful as I used to be or as I can be, I am thankful to be arriving at these realizations and drafting out work-life balance strategies so early into my career. I am also learning to reframe my approach to academia instead of internalizing blame all the time. For instance, if I end up not finishing work in the time I had allocated to do it, I rationalize that ‘I have too much work’ rather than ‘I am not working hard enough’, and this is helping with keeping guilt at bay and taking stock of what I do.
As much as I love my work, I want to acknowledge that the narrative of ‘passion’ and ‘labouring for love’ often masks the structural inequalities of the occupation that are disproportionately applied to some of us. I don’t want to feel so overworked and exhausted all the time that I grow to hate my work and myself. Thus these baby steps towards reclaiming myself through the refusal of overworking in academia.
Boy has this been cathartic.
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