February 26 2017

Choices and Limits: Thinking about Work and Life

by Courtney Wilder, Midland University

black and white photo of several pocket watches

That there is an AAR conversation on work-life balance reminds me of a very funny and too-close-to home tweet from the Twitter account called Shit Academics Say (@AcademicsSay): “Yes, I've heard of work-life balance. I gave a workshop on it last week and am co-editing a related special issue to which I'm contributing.” More beautifully, the poet Adrienne Rich asks in Twenty One Love Poems: “What kind of beast would turn its life into words? What atonement is this all about?” We might consider what kind of worker turns her words into her life, and back again, so that the lines between speech and writing and work and life blur?

More prosaically, I have this anecdote: at the beginning of a recent semester, I received an e-mail from an advisor on my campus asking if I would provide a directed study for a student whose schedule did not allow for her to take one of the six available 50-minute discussion sections required as part of a large humanities course I coteach. I parried; had he considered all possible other changes to the student’s schedule, including asking if she could switch sections of a course taught by my departmental colleague? Could she take my class next semester, and had he worked out her schedule to see? I did not think, I told him, that a directed study would adequately replace the opportunity for conversation and peer editing of papers with other students that was the purpose of the discussion section. It emerged in our conversation that the student had attempted the course in the past, and dropped it. She could take it the following semester, but preferred not to since she anticipated taking a number of other challenging courses. Ultimately, I declined the request to provide her a directed study. The advisor cheerfully noted that he would ask my colleague if, instead, the student could take a directed study of his course, to free up her schedule so she could enroll in mine.

The conversation made me reflect again on the difficulty of responding to a slew of competing demands. I had missed the previous day’s required faculty in-service, having called in sick for perhaps the fourth or fifth time in eight years of teaching. On the way out the door to school, my 12-year-old pivoted and vomited neatly in the kitchen sink, and rapidly the morning fell apart, as then my 15-year-old, who had insisted her low fever could not keep her out of math class, turned pale and said she didn’t feel so well. We stayed home and played board games and cautiously ate soup for lunch, and I got behind on the start to the new semester.

Last year I had two major surgeries, and I scheduled each to happen right after I turned in the semester’s grades. The recommended six weeks of recovery per procedure thus fell outside of my teaching time. I felt grateful to be able to take so much time “off” without endangering my job. Who else but an academic, I reasoned, could take twelve weeks of time away from work during one calendar year? This flexibility is a tremendous privilege. It wasn’t necessarily time off, however. During the recovery from the first surgery I continued to work on a book project; I gave myself a week off but then spent some time each day in research and writing. It seemed feasible, and after all, I had a deadline. When I did need to request a short extension, I carefully laid out my progress up to that point and mentioned the seriousness of the procedure. (It probably helped that I was writing a book on disability; at any rate, my publisher was immediate and gracious in giving me the time I asked for.) During the recovery from the second surgery, six months later, I began editing a book and organized a regional conference. Before the surgeries, I spent several years with increasing chronic pain and decreasing mobility. I learned some things: there is not enough time and energy to do everything a person might put on her own plate. You have to pace yourself.

I am still perfecting the skill of being selective about the places into which I pour my valuable, limited capacity for work. The more day-to-day compromises of my time are minor, but they are also cumulative. The request for a directed study was a small but sharp example of the ways in which being a good and caring teacher sometimes puts me at odds with being a loving and dedicated mother and partner and a reasonably healthy human being. I would like to respond to every student who needs support, and often I do. However, each instance takes time: a directed study so that a student can take two classes held at the same time, each required for one of her majors; a small, focused discussion section of students participating in the brand-new honors program; long conversations with students about their vocation; supervising students’ thesis projects; taking students to an out-of-town conference.

All of these additional extensions of myself into my work represent hours I cannot spend doing other necessary or pleasurable things. One small directed study for one student, to replace one 50-minute weekly discussion section, is really 15 hours’ work over the course of the semester, and perhaps more if the student needs help finding peers to work on her papers, needs to reschedule a meeting via e-mail, or needs additional time past the 50 weekly minutes. Agreeing to dedicate that time to her is the functional equivalent of assigning the whole class an additional paper, and grading it. That time is two full weekend days that might be spent with my kids, or working in the garden, or relaxing with my partner, or putting a conference together, or researching something interesting, or volunteering in my community, or sleeping in one extra hour once a week.

My daughter’s dedication to school notwithstanding, I notice that frequently she observes my work habits and seeks to avoid my situation. (She also tells me, flat out, that I am doing it wrong.) She takes one dance class, plays in the school orchestra, and volunteers as an orchestra tutor once a week, and so far has firmly refused any other activities. When her debate teacher began wooing her for the team, she tearfully refused to attend the informational meeting, arguing she did not want to commit to something she didn’t know she would love. She says that more scheduled activities would interfere with her ability to be at home, curled up in bed reading. My son has also focused his attention; he sings in show choir but does not, as his peers largely do, have a sport, much less one for each season. He is now in confirmation, and this adds up to several nights a week that I’m driving children somewhere for something important. I am divorced, have primary custody of my children, and my partner lives in another town, so we are a household of three. Luckily for all of us, we like to stay home and read when we can. My children’s inclination toward home rather than a series of lessons, clubs, and sports makes our life easier, but it also leaves open time for me to work more, if I need to or choose to. Sometimes I do.

I have mixed feelings about the model of work and parenthood and partnership I am providing for my children. Recently I observed out loud that the house was untidy (it still is) and my daughter immediately countered: “You do research instead.” And I do not regret that choice, but it is one made of professional and intellectual and bodily necessity rather than an intentional rejection of women’s social role as the keeper of the home; call it the default position of the tired, sometimes-disabled feminist. Work/life balance feels to me more like task-capacity balance: I am limited. Choices have to be made. At our house, we land on the side of mostly healthy meals, clean clothing, good humor, and a basically sanitary home. I have come to prefer a modest job well done to an all-consuming attempt to rise to the top. I work hard, don’t sleep quite enough, and regret my finitude. I ignore the cat hair, do my best with the yard, and forego the siren call of more gracious living, of pushing my kids to over-commit, and of a wider academic reputation. Instead we’ve found ourselves living a humbler and more sustainable life. Sometimes this means saying no; sometimes it means offering a limited and calculated yes. Whenever possible, in my family we offer full, joyful assent to the work we have chosen.

Image: "Clocks" (CC BY-ND 2.0) by santinet