Beyond a boundary

In baseball or football, the league lends stability to each team. Pro cycling, on the other hand, follows a more Darwinian model: teams are sponsored by big companies, and compete to get into big races. There are no assurances; sponsors can leave, races can refuse to allow teams. The result is a chain of perpetual nervousness: sponsors are nervous because they need results. Team directors are nervous because they need results. And riders are nervous because they need results to get a contract.

Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle, The Secret Race, (2012 p 35)

For obvious reasons, I’ve been wondering why academics overwork. Most of us in Australia are governed by an enterprise agreement setting out what we can expect in return for a very humane 37.5 hours a week.  The minutiae of what we get in each round of bargaining is scrutinized, haggled over and voted on; the fantastical proposition that what we give — even in average — is a regular full time week is waved through.

Let’s stop and think about this for a moment.  Imagine that the university offered to pay salary X, but in any given pay week, multipliers applied to X on the basis of worker need in the moment. Imagine that your employer could hike up your rate of pay on demand like this, without any need for forward planning or budgetary calculations.  Oh, you need more cash this week?  Sure. How much more? 

Because this is exactly what university workers offer in return.  It’s Thursday and you need this report by Monday but I’m already in meetings or teaching all day Friday and grading on Saturday?  Sure, I can offer Sunday, would that do?  And of course, I’ll spend most of Saturday night thinking about it because I’ll be at a Christmas concert for my kids so I’ll have some mental calculation time and could check an updated version if you email it to me, provided I’m sitting up the back. So yes, we can meet on Monday and you’ll have your report, because I ride for the team. Obviously, if I wasn’t doing your report I’d be trying to meet a publication deadline, so I’ve already more or less paid my weekend up front anyway, as a downpayment on something or other. Don’t worry about the publication though, I’ll make that up next weekend.

The question of why we do this is important to me because I’m wondering how come I spent 12 months not finding time for a health check that would have significantly changed the situation I’m now in. It’s three weeks since I discovered I have breast cancer, that is not entirely not-advanced. I’ve had surgery which has shown that the cancer has got away from its starting point, and now I’m waiting to see whether the next move is more surgery, before beginning chemotherapy early in the New Year.

Friends and colleagues have filled our house with flowers and fruit. In the days after surgery when we were bewildered and disoriented, people quietly delivered meals and left without a word, which was exactly the thing we most needed. Beyond this I’ve had astonishing, thoughtful support from people I’ll never meet from all around the world. My immediate teaching responsibilities have been taken up by a casual academic who is willing and available to work at an hourly rate through the summer, and who has gone out of her way to manage this handover, well beyond what she’s being underpaid to do. I’ve also had calm, practical assistance in relation to sick leave. I’m immensely grateful: nothing has been made harder than it needs to be.

But this doesn’t diminish the way this diagnosis has left my children angry and scared, when they have already given so much to the university that is so careful with its money and so reckless with our time. My three daughters are 8, 12 and 14. They have all grown up with a full-time academic parent. Every weekend of their whole lives has been framed by “yes, but we’ll have to be quick because I need to get some work done this afternoon”. Even with the generous maternity leave provisions available to academics, as a full-time breadwinner I was back in my office when each of them was under 6 months. I have stockpiled sick leave, not because I’ve never been sick, but because like all academics, when I’ve been sick, I’ve just sat up in bed with the laptop and carried on from home.

We all do it.*

And here’s the big thing: I’m not especially ambitious. If I was I would have made a different decision about becoming a parent. I would have found more time at evenings and weekends to focus on publications, and I would have spent less time engaging with students and colleagues, or pursuing curiosity about committee work and governance.  I certainly wouldn’t have written this blog, or explored the gypsy world of Twitter.

All of these activities have been really enriching: university workers are genuinely nice people by and large, and committee work is one of the remnant collaborative activities routinely undertaken by people who aren’t in it for their h-index.  The students who come to our university are straight-talking and funny.  My colleagues give the lie to the idea that high quality academics are only to be found in high-ranking institutions. And writing it all out in public has enabled me to think, listen and learn in a way that’s more congruent with things that are important to me than the messy practice of citation-farming.

So there’s an instrinsic reward factor that causes academics to work beyond the hours that we’re paid. In the NTEU Annual Lecture last week, Professor Marian Baird put it like this:

To return to my question about workload: apart from the difficulty in apportioning our workload hours to their various categories, there is the difficulty of limiting our workload. If we did actually work our hours, or ‘work to rule’, the university would come to a shuddering halt.  Not only that, there is the problem of imposing limits on ourselves. For those interested and invested in public debate and the social good, there is no doubt that we spend more than 37.5 hours a week on work. Our academic roles are two-edged swords – it is both a problem that our working time tends to be boundaryless, but also positive, in that we have considerable time and personal autonomy and can therefore spend time on issues at work and that go beyond work.

This is the story academics tell ourselves as we flip open the laptop on Sunday mornings: we tell ourselves that the boundarylessness of our time and service is a privilege and even a practice of freedom. Over and over I have heard academics say that they couldn’t bear to punch the electronic time clock as our professional colleagues do. But the alternative is the culture of deemed time: by flattering us with what looks like trust in the disposal of our modest obligations, the university displaces all responsibility onto us for the decisions we make about how much to give. There is the problem of imposing limits on ourselves.

This is why I’m finding Daniel Coyle’s book (co-written with pro cyclist whistleblower Tyler Hamilton) about the culture of doping such a thoughtful companion to this difficult time. In the past 24 months, armchair fans like me have asked why so many elite athletes took up performance enhancement, at such personal risk and cost.  The answer’s pretty simple, it turns out. In the Darwinian world of pro-cycling at the end of the 1990s, racing teams learned that the only way to level out competitive opportunity was to meet the standards set by the most committed. To ride within the limits of your own ability became naive, disloyal to the team, and uncompetitive. Young riders waited to be invited to join the inner circle who were doping, and accepted pills handed to them on the basis that it would make them healthier; team management understood and allowed this to happen, because results had become the currency for economic survival, not just for individual riders, but for vast whirling enterprises of sponsorship, employment and profit.

This book has made me think differently about the question of why academics overwork. I now think we don’t yet understand this as behaviour that is harmful to others, not just to ourselves. We overwork like cyclists dope: because everyone does it, because it’s what you do to get by, because in the moment we argue to ourselves that it feels like health and freedom.

But it isn’t.

*Update: it’s not just academics who work sick: all of our senior professional colleagues do it too, and even higher education workers on the electronic timeclock still check emails when they’re not at work, especially those working in service teams.

33 thoughts on “Beyond a boundary

  1. Thank you Kate for your reflections. This reminds me of reading the psychologist Dorothy Rowe who in a book on depression says that many of us would rather be “good” (as defined by others for us of course) than happy. And often this driven by an undefined fear. While the structures of the university shape that kind of environment, it is also the case that we go along with it and the ‘solution’ may lie not simply with the workings of the university but with the workings of our own minds. For some of us- for me at least- the struggle is also to find our own path. Best wishes, Chris,


    1. I think this is genuinely a tough one, Chris. Both need to change: the business models of the universities we work in are now entirely unsustainable without the exploitation of adjunct labour and the volunteered time of the tenured. Everyone knows it, no one knows what to do about it. And as you say, the “going along with it” is a critical part of how this carries on. That’s why the culture of pro cycling interests me, because it’s such a precise and observable example of how organisational culture and individual decision-making are entangled. But what also becomes interesting is exactly how pro cycling (and other industries like it) have exceeded their own tolerance for corruption. Lines were crossed.

      The twin challenge is therefore both for us and for our institutions: in this particular sandstorm, where are the lines that I drew before? where did they go? where are the lines that the institution might choose to draw now, if different values were in play?


      1. This letter from my morning feed reader catch of the day touches on time and quality of life issues although focusing on the institutional more than the personal (that too seems part of the problem),

        The more we accept the time/workload demands, the more willing we may also become to expect them of others. Realizing and watching for that may be a step in taking a better, more humane direction. Following where this (tangled, knotty) ball of yarn leads me, I recall a George Bernard Shaw aphorism from Maxims from Revolutionaries [sic?] in Man and Superman: “Self sacrifice is that virtue which enables one to sacrifice others without blushing.” On reflection, it may even have a lot to do with my own ‘acadomestic’ sense of beleaguerment and no one recognizing yours and sending you off with orders to take better care of yourself.

        We all need to take better care of ourselves and others too. One is part of the other,


  2. I’ve been a scared coward, telling myself every day to write — even looked up your email in case you weren’t checking in here. Today would have been the day — someone had to let you know Jonathon and Stephen were retweeting each other…

    My mother died of cancer. I left UC Davis graduate school all ABD with a written dss to take care of her. My friend, colleague and comp teaching mentor from UL Lafayette English MA program fought breast cancer as an adjunct. We shared sick jokes and tasteless asci art that I continued to share in her memory. Next Donna Reed, my dss director’s wife and CompLit Lecturer at UC Davis (first course there I TA’d in) fought it and won. Then my cousin, with MS and working too long as assistant to the provost at Lewis and Clark for the insurance, fought the same battle, chemo counter indicated because of MS.

    Is there a connection here with higher ed stress and all these stories? I was brave then, but the bravery ran out.

    I’m so glad and relieved that you are still here and will be most put out if you don’t stay. And I won’t be alone.

    Your comment to me on an earlier post, somehow so prescient, touched me deeply at a time when I was feeling singularly beleaguered. Your comment rescued meat the top of the page of my online day book, ahead of the day’s date. Here it is:

    “I’ve been worried a little by the kind of fatigue carried by adjunct organizers. It’s such an overwhelming task. Your curation is so important, and really appreciated all the way over here on the other side of the planet. And I think you’re right that in many conversations, including about MOOCs, there’s something that feels like sweeping the leaves, as we all try to keep up, and keep up together. Thank you, and thanks for making the time to add a comment. You have really got me thinking about blogging, curation and acadomestic labour.”

    I guess this is a version of the same sentiments right back at you. Thank you, Kate


    1. Vanessa, this blog has brought me a million privileges, but one of the really big ones is the company of serious activists like you, who do so much to knit it all together.

      Thank you so much for sharing those stories; I really understand what you mean about honouring people who have gone through stuff like this.

      We’ll all stick around together, as long as we’re able. It’s time to think about how higher education can be a better version of its present self, even in these times.


  3. Just reading your blog, very poignant. I have to say that “punching the electronic time clock” has a lot going for it as it ensures that you only do the hours you are paid for. The work stays at work. It doesn’t go home and intrude on your life. Lesley


    1. Yes, every time I’ve suggested this to academic colleagues they’ve said “Oh, but I like the freedom to work when and where I want to.” The miscalculation about the unpaid time this freedom represents is truly immense. So to the university manager who once said to me that putting academics on the time clock would be a good way of making sure they were working properly because “they’re never in their offices”, I can only say: bring it on, honey, bring it on. No university has a flex budget big enough for what that would mean.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree Kate. Not to mention that even the ‘time card punching’ experience has its draw backs, especially in non traditional academic support roles, as you find yourself not really writing down all the hours you do work. Having difficulties drawing lines in the sand that constitutes as ‘official work’ and ‘expected work’. And when you have such a strong work ethic you find yourself…giving as much of yourself away for free as your salary co-workers..yet without any of the benefits or security. Working contract to contract always in fear of not having work after this one. Ad being a mostly virtual worker into the mix and you have all work…all the time, but not all paid.


  4. Kate… I’m dumbfounded as always by the hypocrisies of the academic culture. Citing quality and a utopian vision of knowledge l and equity for all….but in the same breath it belittles, road rails and constantly overlooks the humans that make the workings of this ‘great machine’. It is indeed the reason as I stand on the precipice of my own career in it… I do not know which way to turn…for I have witnessed this as an example of the life I may lead if I choose this path. I am soul filled and passionately committed to the vision, but not to the delivery, and the expense of it. I did not return to education to change my a detriment to my health. Something I have seen in so many, something I can already see is happening to me…

    I am however, as always, speechlessly inspired by the tireless, selflessness and utterly awe-inspiring passion and heart achingly dedication of those humans within the machine. Your thoughts, your raw honestly, and self disclosure here …utterly humbles me. I cannot thank you enough for being in the position that you are in…and speaking your truth, speaking the truth of many. And in such a profound and personal way. If the system has a hope of changing, and not being inadvertently supported simply by their deafening silence, whether its through fear or perhaps indoctrinated into believing that is what a ‘good educator’ does (I know many hold this opinion about after hours work, looking down on those who dare to leave at 5pm). .. it is because of brave voices…like yours. Brave voices that give others the courage to choose their own paths also. Or perhaps even have the opportunity to help break the cycle if they are persons of adminstrative power.
    I am foundationally honoured to have you share this heartbreaking news, and for you to use it, as an EDUCATION for all….in that selfless way …inspirational educators seem to always manage do…
    My hopes and love go out to you and your family as you journey this path together.


  5. Lovely to see you here Phemie. I think there’s a great deal of change being achieved simply when people at early career stages like you speak up about the bargains that you will and won’t accept in return for the offers on the table. But above all this whole thing has taught me that we lionise “courage” when the most effective hope of change is solidarity with others. So making connections as you do is the most important thing. Best, K.


    1. Yes, I am often lurking here, reading/absorbing your words, I have just had little time to actively engage this year, which was the reason I felt I could not NOT comment on this particular blog post. As I leave my Melbourne station (next week!) for a sunny Darwin relocation, I find myself wanting to make many more lines in the sand to not have more years like this one, where I am all used up at the end of it. While my current work continues virtually, I think I would like to explore new opportunities (assuming there are any for me up there) for many reasons. Not the least of them is developing a more wide reaching career. But I am fearful of what they might bring with them. The above post and further commentary touches on much of what I fear , you know. While I am desperate to be seen and heard in my own career right…I dont know if it will really provide that. Better the devil and all that . And though I want to draw more lines in the sand and have more choices..the truth of it is…Im not really in the position to do it (especially as I am married to the army and have little choice in my location changes).As an early career (pfft, early! at 32!) I especially feel the constant pull to ‘prove my worth’…over and over and over. And Im already burnt out., I reflect often on what this be like in 10 years time if this is how I feel now. To be fair I have juggled more than just work (masters, business etc) this year..but all done so that I can have more job security and be more flexible due to my moving arrangements…but to what end you know? I think the challenge that so many people find in our entire society and every industry, is the balance between our families security, and our own wellbeing.
      But perhaps that is no different to the balance sought for thousands of years. Now we toil away at computers and fall ill of stress related causes, where in yesteryear it was of broken field toiling bodies…perhaps the secret lies in doing more with less…*shrugs* I dont know. Im still working it out, but I am grateful to you in allowing us such a personal space in which to talk with you on it. Thank you again K.


    1. This is something that really interests me: for many of us who have moved into social media as a parallel life to our formal professional activities, it’s not entirely clear whether Twitter, blogging etc counts as work.

      Certainly, our universities don’t count it. This blog has far more readers than anything I’ve published in a peer reviewed closed access journal, for the crashingly obvious reason that it’s easier to get to. But I do’t do it for that reason, so when I’m writing here, it doesn’t feel like I’m working, even though I’m using the same skills that I use when i’m doing that other kind of writing that no one will ever see.

      I’m interested to know more about this divide between work/not work when it looks the same to the casual observer: laptop open, typing.

      Welcome to the deckchairs, Ed.


  6. Hello, Kate. I ran across your post via a Tweet by my #etmooc friend, @AlisonSeaman. The post title caught my interest, and as soon as I started reading, I was engaged in your reflection. Reading the comments was also a blessing. I was pleased to see that Vanessa Vaile, whom I met through my MOOC experience, was here in the conversation.

    I’m not sure where to start, so I guess I’d like to comment on your journey through breast cancer. My wife, a veteran 3rd grade teacher, went through breast cancer two year ago – two surgeries, chemo, and radiation. It was a challenging and life-changing process. We got through it with the love and support of family/friends/co-workers, medical folks, and the strength, love, and comfort of God. I feel for you and your children (and husband?) as y’all go through this journey together. There are so many emotions and the experience is so unfamiliar. It can feel like being in a dark tunnel at times and then suddenly, for most, they come out of that tunnel into the light.

    Like most in educators, I can really relate to the tension you speak of. I’m 56, and have been in education now close to 20 years. Even though I don’t teach at the university level, I can say I’ve struggled mightily with managing the numbers of hours in my work life (taught as an adjunct professor at one time while a full-time social worker/therapist, then at the elementary level (6th-8th, 4th-6th, then 3rd), and worked as a tech. consultant. I’m now a full-time tech. coordinator in a high school district. Teaching multiple grades and doing all the extra duties overwhelmed my personal life. It was certainly not an ideal way to begin my career. I still battle with the number of hours I work and there is an internal struggle that goes on.

    I think we all want to do well and develop a level of mastery/excellence as we engage our passion for education. But there are also the professional expectations, many which are often unspoken. For someone like me who struggled with needing recognition, I found myself giving away too much of my time as my children were growing up. The personal payoff (not just financial) is something we choose to ignore as we struggle with the tension between professional expectation and our own drive to do well. It can be hard to identify. And in the end, as Vanessa mentioned, we can end up holding others up to an unhealthy set of expectations, as we struggle to rein in our own expectations and develop better boundaries for our personal and professional lives. There are no easy answers. However, life events, such as the one you’re going through right now, brings the struggle into focus. As you wrestle with it, I pray you will find your way to a new “normal”. Going through breast cancer provides that opportunity for clarity and new choices and patterns of behavior. Blessings to you and yours as you find your way with the loving support around you.


    1. I can’t tell you how helpful this comment is to me, thank you so much for writing it. One of the things that really impresses me about pro cyclists is that when they look up at a serious mountain, they don’t just fall off their bikes in horror at what they will have to go through to get up it. But I think it must be because at some level of mental processing they know it’s possible — because it’s been done before.

      So hearing from others who have made it up and over is really a big part of the mental side to this.

      In return, blessings to you for your ongoing struggle with overwork. We’re all in that place, and I think the fact that so many of us are speaking up now means that at least it feels less isolating.


    1. Thank you, seriously. I am really so mad at myself for the delay that has got me in this situation, but I can’t have that time back. Good luck to you.


  7. For a cyclist, there’s a kind of pleasure in turning yourself inside out, to wring every last effort and degree of efficiency to propel yourself as fast as you can. Because you can. self -consciousness fades away and you are your legs, the pedals, the wheels. It’s addictive.

    As an academic, there’s something similar. I’ve seen it elsewhere too – in publishing. you work for an idea. and because its an idea, you can take it wherever you go. it wrings every last degree of creativity and brilliance from you. because its an idea, it has no clear limits, it romances you, you become the idea, at least, sometimes you think you might.

    Nobody who works for an idea gets paid according to their labour, in my experience. i’m sure a manager senses it, and it is a silent member at the bargaining table.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Drew, this really hits home with me, particularly now. besides be central to “acadomestic” exploitation the well intentioned, what you describe is used to advantage not just by managers at the bargaining…this welding to and pursuit of an idea is a major element in volunteer run advocacy projects…


  8. I’m so glad to find a cyclist here, as I am not a person who even wobbles down the street on wheels. But I sense that you’re right: addiction to something is significant I’m not sure though that the addiction is simply to the flow of the experience. There’s something else in here: addiction to esteem, which is really just the flipside of fear of losing esteem.

    What an interesting comment, thank you. Really thinking about this.


  9. Dear Kate, I wish you all the best with your health issue and speedy recovery. I have been neglecting myself and my health as a junior academic, but no more, after reading this post. Thank you for rattling my cage. Best wishes in solidarity, Andreas


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