Half a world away – 18 December

Exhaustion takes many forms, some less destructive than others. With term over and many things left on a rather long ‘to do’ list I return to these ‘work notes’ with a sense of regret – that I did not manage to keep to my aim, to regularly write, and that quite so many things feel left undone. Nevertheless, I did not write for self-protection – to combat feelings of exhaustion. I was faced with it feeling like ‘yet another thing’. It may well be possible to turn that sense around and make it something productive but, honestly, it just felt pragmatically better to let some things slip. I am very tired, for a number of reasons, and I recognise exhaustion in many other colleagues (not just ‘academics’) across my institution and more broadly. Working in academia in the final month of 2018 is fraught, as many can attest and as documented by our trade union and in the pages of professional publications. As I reflect upon not maintaining these ‘work notes’ and on the final term of this calendar year I want to offer some thoughts about negotiating ‘exhaustion’ in academia.

A ‘permanent’ position in academia is a privilege, even when it (often) doesn’t feel like one. It brings choices and some freedoms, alongside (over time) growing responsibilities. When a university is functioning as we (historically) expect, we are, more-or-less, free to structure aspects of our work around our lives. For a number of reasons I chose to commit to commuting around 80-miles/ 1 ½ hours (each way). I am able to ask for timetable adjustments and to compress my hours to accommodate childcare. These are measures that are simply not widely available to other workers. There is no requirement to be in my office outside of term-time, or even outside of timetabled and/or contractually required commitments. Many of us work in all sorts of places. Nevertheless, such apparent freedom and choice comes with a host of accompanying issues that, if you are like me, can be quite hard to negotiate. I think I want to make two points about this privilege, and how ill-prepared I have felt to negotiate it, in relation to exhaustion. The first is in relation to how to choose and how this relates to the character of working as a lecturer. The second is in relation to commuting.

As I reflect upon now being in my current job for the longest period in my career so far, I cannot help thinking academics are really poorly prepared, in terms of professional development/ training, for the choices we are able and are required to make. My experience of academia is that you are largely left to get on with it, on your own. There is no ‘team’, in the sense of the other kinds of work I’ve done – in administrative office work (circa late-90s) and in web development (circa mid 00s). We do not necessarily have to regularly negotiate with colleagues about how to conduct work together, unless you do fairly involved team teaching. We have meetings, of course, but in my career to-date this does not appear to go hand-in-hand with weekly or monthly cycles of work in the way it can in other areas of work. So, we must make individual decisions about what to prioritise, what work to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to and in who’s interests we can or should act.

These sorts of issues tend to come out in relation to specific sorts of work when they’re discussed on blogs, in professional publications and so on. For example: much of the ‘how to write’ literature is concerned with time management and the sorts of choice we can or should make. The onus is often placed by commentators and advisors on the individual, even when, in the same argument, the evils of ‘neoliberalism’ or other articulations of individualism and self-interest/personal gain are bemoaned. Of course, it is true that much of the manner in which we are addressed by institutions, government policy and professional organisations is as autonomous individual academics – and, indeed, some of that involves pitting us against one another as ‘entrepreneurial’ competitors (for funding, status and so on). Nevertheless, it seems to me that we rarely talk about how to take decisions in solidarity, while attending to self-care and for a sustainable career. Choices, when faced alone, when required frequently, can be exhausting.

With a finite number of universities and jobs spread across them, we cannot always live and work in the same place. Academics are, in some senses, fortunate to be able to choose. Nevertheless, commuting is really tiring. Even when it does not involve driving and the public transport works, travel over a particular timeframe is tiring. You have to be prepared – you need to plan and be alive to timetables and so on. You have to give over a small amount of background concentration to your travel. In circumstances where your choice are limited – say: one train per hour – you have to make choices about contingency, how early should you be, just in case? When the transit systems are less than reliable it can mean carrying a permanent low-level anxiety about being able to get home for children and so on. When the systems do not function it can be very stressful – asking colleagues to apologise to students when you won’t be there on time, or not getting home til late take an emotional toll.

I have no easy answers about making productive or sustainable choices, beyond suggesting that I think we need to consciously make time for negotiating the choices we must make. Dealing with our autonomy, however free or restricted it might be, in academia is work – I have been slow to recognise this. Perhaps to do it effectively we need to actively acknowledge this, give it proper time and consideration and (kindly) hold ourselves to account for the choices we then make. To be ‘critical’, ‘radical’ or other flavours of autonomous and responsible intellectual workers (contra ‘neoliberalism’ etc etc.) should not, I suggest, mean to be in some way chaotic or to avoid choice. Neither should it mean that we take on more responsibility than we can or should be expected to handle (you can choose to say ‘no’ productively). Rather, I increasingly feel the need to find ways to make those choices in solidarity – in a way that minimises exhaustion, both for ourselves and for others. Perhaps this simply means we should allow ourselves to take time.

Half a world away – R.E.M

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