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  • Uneasy Work
  • Jeffrey J. Williams (bio)

Academics don’t work very much. At least that’s a common impression. After all, they only teach a few hours a week, and they have summers off.1 The claim that they might spend a lot of time preparing doesn’t stave off the general impression—reading books really doesn’t seem like work. They not only have slim obligations but are sanctimonious about it, added to which their anemic hours are protected by the impregnable shield of tenure. They have an easy ride.

To avoid reinforcing this image, once in the early 1990s while I was working at East Carolina University, the provost circulated a memo that we should avoid sunbathing or gardening in our yards during weekdays because it gave a bad impression to the people of Greenville, North Carolina. The UNC system was suffering from budget cuts, so the provost was worried about public relations; he was careful to acknowledge our academic freedom, etc., but didn’t want to fuel the idea that we led the life of Riley.

Yet, most of the academics I know are always working. They run from the keyboard to a meeting to coffee to teaching to office hours to home, where the work continues, reading for an article or a manuscript for a press, back at the keyboard finishing an article or chapter, or culling through the endless stream of email, or wincingly grading papers. Rather than aristocrats in smoking jackets leafing through leather-bound tomes, they are sleep-deprived and over-caffeinated, working on deadline to finish the book manuscript for tenure, the talk they have to give in three days but haven’t started, the papers they have had for two weeks so really need to give back tomorrow, the job search committee they’re on that received two hundred applications, and the legal-case-thick tenure file they have to review. Work slides from office to home to coffee house to airport to car, thanks to technological conveniences like the Powerbook, Notepad, Kindle, and Books-on-Tape. Work seems to absorb all time in its path: sun to sun, an academic’s work is never done. [End Page 219]

One new professor who left a real-world job to join academe observed in a Chronicle of Higher Education column that “More than members of any other profession I’ve ever known, academics complain about how busy they are” (Randolph 2005). He himself recounted the onerous schedule during the first few years of his new academic job, as well as its tax on his family. According to a survey conducted by the AAUP and encompassing a range of institutions, faculty members work an average of 54 hours a week (“Nota Bene” 1999, 11).2 Consider that 9 to 5 with an hour for lunch is 35 hours a week, so that leaves 19 hours more to work. 54 hours translates to 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, or 9 to 9:30 p.m. with a dinner break. If one decides to work on weekends, then it might be 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday. It adds up to about 2,800 hours a year, a steep rise from the postwar average of 1,900 hours, and approaching 3,100 hours, the average of nineteenth-century laborers before fair labor laws, the eight-hour day, and the five-day work week (Schor 1991).

The word “work” itself carries an almost talismanic charge for academics. “My work” is invoked with a sanctity approaching “my faith” or “my kids.” It of course refers not to the myriad tasks we do but to one’s parcel of research. Distinct from tasks like attending a committee meeting or teaching, it is what one uniquely possesses, an individual activity going under one’s name. In turn, it defines one’s professional status. In academe, one is one’s work.

In short, “work” is a keyword of academic life, indicating one of the ways that we fashion ourselves, as well as the ambivalences of fashioning ourselves thus. It rests at the crossroads of the image and the reality of...


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pp. 219-227
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