The Myth of Academic Leisure

Every semester will be different, yet every semester is the same. With all due respect to the Charlie Foxtrot that is the Spring of Covid-19 I think it’s time to disrupt the myth that a life in graduate school is one of relaxed reading, occasional writing, and laid-back teaching. I don’t know who needs to hear this…wait, I do. It’s me. I need to hear this, and I need to hear it from my own, lying mouth.

It’s a joke I have made several times in the past, to various graduate classmates. “Every semester we say, ‘This semester will be different!’, and by week three, we’re back to our usual selves.” The hope I bring to the start of semester, the desire to start early and work toward big projects a little every day, all disappear like mist as I struggle to keep up with the reading and chase down a million different research interests, not a single one tied with my current classes. By the end of the semester the ambitious scope of big projects have been scaled down to “what I can get done now” and, within recent years, the idea of taking an Incomplete becomes a real possibility. Ever since entering graduate school in 2016 it’s been the same, though, I admit, the incompletes only happened while working on my PhD. Looking back, I have no idea how I actually wrote a thesis and completed my M.A. on time. It’s almost like that Heather is a completely different person.

There have been some outside obstacles since joining my PhD program — none of them school related and I’m not going to go into them in this post. That’s for another time. However, the mental energy pool from which I used to pull my focus seems all but depleted these days. Perhaps because I’m getting older (planning to make it to my 50th birthday in December) or perhaps because this fall will be my seventh year in academia (two years to finish my B.A., two for the M.A and two to get through my coursework before comp exams). I’ve never held a job for longer than 8 years or so. Could this be the seven-year itch?

Nah. I love teaching too much. I love researching too much. I love talking about weird shit with people and talking about writing with students and telling kids, for the first time, what great writers they are. Man, that’s a feeling that’s hard to be, I tell ya. So no. It’s not the itch. It’s not the Covid. It’s not the zoom. It’s me.

I spent way too long playing with Zoom backgrounds.

All my workarounds, rough-hewned, jerry-riggings, MacGyveritierations cannot save me anymore. As we near the drop-deadline of the end of the semester, I’m hurting more and more and, to be fair, I’m still one of the lucky ones. I’m not necessarily looking at an uncertain future or trying to teach kids while worrying about rent. I’ve got it good in the scheme of things. My biggest battle (possibly) is with my brain and, land-sakes, is it fighting with me now.

(This took a turn into the neuro-diverse space. And while, yes, I agree with you and yes, I will look into it, I think there is a larger conversation to be had, if I could just refocus and have it. Dammit.)

The thing is, I never seem to be able to achieve that leisurely pace**: writing a couple of hours a day, reading after teaching, taking some color-coded notes into a leather journal. The real work of academia is much faster and grungy. As the semester moves on you start bargaining between primary and secondary readings. You find ways to teach articles that you haven’t had a chance to read yourself. Writing becomes an aggressive act the night before a deadline. Professional development? I don’t know her.

The woman I do know tries, she tries real hard to get it right each time. She fails (I’m sensing a theme this week) every semester, but she keeps trying. Maybe this summer will be different and I’ll work on side projects and writing and reading for my exams. Maybe I’ll take some time off and get some projects done around the house that will make my life a little less stressful. Maybe I can take this time of self-isolation (which is default for me anyway) and be productive on my own terms. Maybe maybe maybe.

I have read so many productivity blogs, listened to so many productivity podcasts, that I am an expert on this stuff for other people. Teach me how to focus that onto my own life. Show me how I motivate myself. Give me the strength to stop writing this post and finish my projects.

My apologies for the lack of cohesive theme or narrative. You know me by now.

**I think the fantasies of academic leisure come from four sources: 1) people who feel themselves outside of the academic world and think summers off mean no work; 2) people who only exist in an academic world and have nostalgic memories of their grad school days; 3) people with MBAs; 4) white men.

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