Thursday, March 12, 2009

Fun At Work

Professor Zero has a very interesting Heretical Post up arguing the easily summarized heresy that:

Writing is fun and publishing is easy.
I like this post very much. I particularly like the concluding remarks about the gatekeeping functions of "so many warnings" and the emphasis placed "on fear and suffering." I do have one suggestion, though, to add about the origins of these academic bad habits.

I'm reminded of some previous blog exchanges about the love of teaching. As in those discussions, the fact that there are often pleasures in writing, just as there are often pleasures in teaching, sometimes runs the risk of over shadowing the mundane fact that what academics do is also still work. Lots of folks outside of the academy enjoy their work. Many also hate their jobs just as bitterly and deeply as the most disaffected academic. All other things being equal, it's certainly better to be one of the folks who enjoys their job, than one who hates it.

The question of why so many academics equate writing with suffering, then, can be answered simply: it's because so many academics hate their jobs. We tend to exhibit this job dissatisfaction in the sour advice we offer to graduate students and junior colleagues, and in the sour blogs we write too. The question of why so many academics hate their job needs more explanation, of course, but I think it remains true that the fear and loathing of writing, or teaching, are simply symptoms of a broader dissatisfaction. It's not really about either writing or teaching. It's about the job. Academics often hesitate at seeing themselves as workers, though, so we tend to look elsewhere for the source of the problem. I think that if morale was higher among faculty in general, you would hear more discussions about the joys of writing. In passing, I'll just note that both Professor Zero and myself are on sabbatical this semester, and I think we're probably both enjoying our work more right now because of it too. Writing is fun and publishing is easy.

My own less heretical one-liner, though, would be:
Teaching is work. Writing is work. It's always good to have fun at work.
It's just important to remember that the fun doesn't mean it stops being work.


  1. Good points and what a great followup! I wrote this post because there was a very good and nice post up at Center of Gravitas on advice to new faculty. It drove me around the bend, though, because the advice (to me) seemed to presuppose a magnanimous institution. All *my* new faculty problems, except when I was at magnanimous places (where I have only ever been a Visiting), weren't about the sense of entitlement Gayprof addresses in hir post but about real and amazing sabotage. I tried to get external advice on this and only got general happy advice on how to do things I already knew how to do, delivered in patronizing tones.
    So when I hear that advice now, even when it is well meant and well placed, what I feel is rage.

    It is misplaced rage but at the same time I know I am not the only one who has had the experiences I've had.


    On hating jobs. Yeah. Until I went on sabbatical, without enough money to leave town, I thought I didn't like the town. Big surprise: without having to go to campus so much and deal with Certain People, I downright enjoy the town. This is a big revelation. Big. One thing it reveals is how truly unpleasant certain interactions on campus actually are.

    A whole lot of my colleagues, including myself, are in more pain than we realize about these things.
    I figured it out the other day when I was in a symposium at another university. There were big name speakers from elsewhere but also a lot of people from that school, a lot of whom I know because I've been around forever. Watching them interact I realized, they are happy! You could tell it wasn't just because it was a party day, or because they were on good behavior ... their degree of ease around each other was too deep for that. It was very interesting.

  2. Exactly! Great post. We live surrounded by evidence that, once people learn the alphabet and how to run their fingers over a keyboard, they can't wait, of their own free will, to sing like birds to each other. To define work in terms of sacrifice creates a society in which, eventually, work gets judged not on its content but its reward - and then we are off to the moronic inferno of our current social order, in which we see people glorified for "quantifying risk", or, in other words, coming up with neat systems in order to gamble money in the worldwide casino. It used to be gambling addiction was something you sought help for - now it is the economy. But the real economy better be about work that you love - the more you love it, the more you see into it, the more fun it becomes.

  3. Actually, I always find it easier to understand academia by (a) insisting that it's work, not the Vaterland or something (for which one is supposed to be willing to die, to work for for free, and so on) and then (b) translating things to love/marriage/dating terms. Love the person ... but how is the relationship? They love you ... but does it mean they can support you?

    I also occurs to me that the people who say academia is so wonderful and they love what they do so much (and the rest of us are ungrateful), and those who say it is so hard so hard and so painful (and the rest of us are unrealistic Pollyannas) actually share the same point of view, namely, that it shouldn't be work. It's just that some are well enough set up so that it doesn't feel rough, and others are poorly enough set up so that it feels downright painful. I wonder.

    Finally - I think I should write a yet more heretical post sometime, about how service and administration are rewarding and creative! That will be even *more* heretical and will cause much gnashing of teeth! ;-)

  4. P.S. "The question of why so many academics equate writing with suffering, then, can be answered simply: it's because so many academics hate their jobs."

    It's also voice. Writing is hard work, and even though as I claim you can probably publish your work somewhere, you don't know that for sure, you don't know if you'll be able to answer the question you set out to ask, etc. So you had better be interested, I mean really interested in the topic and be approaching it in a way you find valid, on the off chance that you might be doing it for its own sake or for the sake of what you are learning from it right now.

    Add to that the pressure of writing something marketable enough to get you points at work, and writing can be suffering.

    My example is my infamous book, which needed to be in English and at a U.S. university press to satisfy my dean, when the topic - ONE author from a non central country - wasn't an obvious sell to editors. So I took the contract I got, although what the press wanted me to do with the project wasn't something I thought actually added to scholarship (or rather: to make it actually viable, and not b.s., along the press' lines would have taken more time than was allotted).

    So I, the author, didn't have enough authority in the project, which did in fact turn writing into hell.

    Voice. Apparently people have trouble accepting criticism but I was atypical there too ... the review the press suppressed because it had "negative" language (just a brusque tone, really) was actually the smartest & best informed, even if the most critical. It would have been much easier to rework the mss. on those lines because they criticisms were on actual content of project, not on how to dress it up to attract the largest number of buyers.

    So writing is hell because of market conditions, and academic writing isn't like journalism, write a piece and sell it, because you're supposed to believe your data, or whatever, really is valid, so you have to care.

  5. P.S. My God I am chatty ... it is because what I am reading is so thorny, I break after every couple of pages.

    It occurs to me: we are supposed to say we love teaching, that writing is really hard, and that administration is awful.

    If writing is hard and administration is awful, that means we are scholars and we are working at it, not being dilettantes. Teaching, we have to love because that proves we are moral beings ... do you think?


    I actually *DO* like teaching when it's content based, I just get bored in skills type courses where I do not have curricular control, some input on materials used, and so on. Yet admitting to chafing about teaching is what we're not supposed to do, whereas chafing about research is an expected martyrdom, and chafing about service is practically required. There is meaning in this somewhere, I suspect.

  6. A day later I am still thinking about it! I think it is the hard work and for what factor.

    Graduate students, not sure they want to be graduate students or that they will ever have academic careers beyond graduate school, writing to try to please certain professors.

    I remember looking at the pile that was my edited book, on a gray day when I was exhausted from demoralizing classes and meetings, and didn't have money even for gas until the end of the week. There was so much mechanical work the authors had left to me to do ... and one of them turned out to have double submitted her piece. I am doing this for exactly what purpose, really? I wondered.

  7. Here's another lemma - writing is hard, and thinking is hard, and you need time to do it.

    Every writing director says the claim that one needs "big blocks of time" to work in is false, and that short sessions are better.

    I agree but especially if I'm working on something big or new I need that time cushioned by other time that's leisure. I need to clear my mind and let the ideas settle into their places.

    If for example I have a class on something even vaguely related, that contributes to writing and I don't need so much transition time. If my other activities are stressful and unrelated to the project, the head clearing time is essential. Depending on how related one's other work is or is not to the project, that buffer time can be shorter or longer.

    Trying not to need it is what most often makes it hard for me to write.

  8. Z: "I think I should write a yet more heretical post sometime, about how service and administration are rewarding and creative! That will be even *more* heretical and will cause much gnashing of teeth! ;-)"

    Yikes! I can feel my teeth starting to gnash already. I'm looking forward to this post... I think.

  9. It's up.