academia’s weird pseudo-productivity: the summer edition

First off, what a bizarre intractable rhetorical situation this is! There is the broad cultural characterization that professors do little work because they teach so few classes, which even in itself is accurate characterization of many professors’ workloads. This is followed by a whole sub-genre of essays describing the intense demands placed on academics, how they work 60 hours a week and so on. All of that is further complicated by the conversations around adjunct faculty. In that context it just seems gauche for tenured faculty to complain about their work.

barton_fink_02And so it goes… into the summer. Here’s a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on “Making Summer Work.” This is the basic premise if you’re not an academic (though why you’d find this post interesting I’m not sure): academics generally have 10-month contracts, so they have no specific work obligations in the summer. And we are not paid to work in the summer either. At the same time, faculty generally work. They do research and/or they might teach a summer class for extra money. This article essentially offers advice on how to make the unstructured time of the summer more productive by establishing routines and setting short-term goals. That’s fine, but I think the whole thing misses the point. A larger context is called for.

What is that context? First, it’s American work culture. The average American worker gets 10 days of paid vacation.  And, as you probably know (or this Wikipedia page will describe), many countries have far more minimum days of paid holiday and vacation days: more like five or six weeks instead of two. And that’s the minimum. This article suggests that faculty should take some time off during the summer away from work. “At least a week” they suggest. One should note that these are unpaid vacation days. That’s a week of unpaid vacation carved out of the expectation of my otherwise two and half months of unpaid work days, right?

Now before anyone gets too upset about that claim (see the first paragraph), we have to recognize that academic work doesn’t fit all that well into our general understanding of labor. You could punch a clock if you want but there’s never going to be a fixed relationship between time spent and productivity. Spending more time won’t necessarily make you more productive as either a researcher or a writer. An extra week spent reviewing secondary research won’t assure you of a new insight. Spending 8 hours in front of a word processor instead of 4 won’t mean that you end up with more publishable prose.

I’m fully sympathetic to the situation of academics, especially those who are untenured though we all have expectations for productivity to meet. The measures of grants submitted and won, articles published and cited, books published and reviewed are all direct evidence of a kind of productivity, but they are at best correlations if the ultimate measure one has in mind is that one is making a meaningful contribution to society or at least a field of knowledge. That’s why I call it pseudo-productivity. Still I understand the drive to use the summer to grind out a couple publications or whatever. I am even open to the argument that even though technically academics are on 10-month contracts that really the expectation is that it’s a 12-month job and that this contract language is really there to protect academics’ time and make sure they have space to meet expectations for research, professional development, course planning, and so on.

That said, I still object to the unexamined assumptions of articles like these. The hamster wheel of publication will produce enough juice to crank the tenure and promotion engine, and that’s part of our reality, but let’s keep in mind what’s going on. As the opening paragraph makes clear, no one is going to sympathize with the plight of academics trying to figure out how to make their “summers off” productive. Not even other academics. I would be reluctant to play into any of these commonplaces about working harder, putting in hours, and increasing productivity.

In other words, “I’ll show you the life of the mind.”