On, on, on

Life chez Simpson was not normal, Helen now reflects, principally because a constant eye had to be kept on anything that might affect Simpson’s performance, whether he was racing or not. … “Social life [as a couple] was non-existent. I often used to think it would be really strange living a normal life, going out and having a meal with people.”

William Fotheringham, Put me back on my bike: in search of Tom Simpson (2002)

In the past 4 months I have kept seeing accolades to Andy’s amazing productivity – the 100+ articles, the zillions of case books, etc., and I have always told people that yes, he led a normal life, yes, he got plenty of sleep and yes, he even took plenty of naps. But that’s not really true. His life was not normal, at least not to me, and it certainly wasn’t balanced.

Patty Sun, “Thoughts on Work-Life ImBalance from Those Left Behind“, 2014

It’s Tour de France time again, and I’ve been reading William Fotheringham’s sensitive and ambivalent search for the story of British cyclist Tom Simpson, who died on Mont Ventoux in 1967. In the history of professional cycling, it’s one of the landmark stories of ambition, risk and terrible loss—the grainy prequel to all the doping scandals that came later. Fotheringham spoke directly to Simpson’s widow Helen, and to those who were closely involved at the time of his death, including Harry Hall, the mechanic who helped Simpson back onto his bike on the mountain, and was the last to hear him speak.

He had seen riders pedal themselves into a state of exhaustion or hypoglycaemia before, but of Simpson collapsed against the bank telling him to put him back on his bike, he can only say, ‘At that moment I don’t know what I thought. I just don’t know.’ What Hall does know is that Simpson’s last words were murmured, in a rasping voice, just as he was pushing him off: ‘On, on, on.’ He could have been exhorting the mechanic, or telling himself to keep going; Hall seems to think it was both. (p34)

500 metres further up the mountain, Tom Simpson fell again, and did not survive. He was 29, and he left Helen and two tiny daughters.

What can we possibly do with this kind of career sacrifice? When someone pushes himself to these limits, who takes responsibility? Who exploits ambition, and who profits from it? Fotheringham puts a subtle case historically against both the Tour organisers and the newspapers that followed the race, both of whom had an interest in promoting the heroic struggle of cyclist against mountain.

At the turn of the last century, the public appeal of the Tour de France lay in the fact that the competitors were pioneers, setting off to do things no right-thinking mortal would attempt … That was the great attraction for its first organiser, Desgrange; that was why his paper’s circulation went up during the Tour. (p111)

Fotheringham also lays out sympathetically the personal and cultural circumstances under which any individual might calculate that the price paid for professional success can’t be too high. It’s such a sad read; I can’t imagine how it must feel for his family to have lost someone so publicly, even to the extent that his final wavering moments on the mountain are preserved in shaky black and white footage on YouTube, remixed to funereal soundtracks by many cycling fans. And those fans—and all of us couching it through the Tour again—are part of the problem. Isn’t this exactly what we came to see?

Patty Sun is the wife of law professor Andrew Taslitz, who died earlier this year. Like Helen Simpson, her loss has been shaded by public celebration of her husband’s professional work made in comments like this:

He is one of the most amazing faculty members I have ever met. So many of us excel at one of the three major aspects of being a faculty member. Taz excelled at all three. I was always amazed at how he could write reports for committees, facilitate tenure files, attend events, write multiple law review articles a year, write a book every other year, and still manage to be one of the most effective teachers in the country. … He was certainly one of a kind, and of the kind that this world could use much more.

Tom Simpson memorial (Flickr: Mirko Tobias Schaefer)
Tom Simpson memorial (Flickr: Mirko Tobias Schaefer)

Let’s think about this for a moment. What happens when academics celebrate each other’s achievements in these terms? What happens when we think this is something the world needs more of? Which world? All I can think of is the cyclists who make the pilgrimage to Tom Simpson’s lonely memorial on Mont Ventoux and leave their water bottles there, passing on a powerful message to every young rider who comes along after them, hoping for a spot on a pro team.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I started to think about the connection between why professional cyclists dope and why academics overwork, and got about half way there: that it’s impossible to keep up with a doping peloton unless you’re willing to entertain the same personal cost. Richard Hall has taken up this post a couple of times, in a way that has cleared up something for me. In his latest discussion of academic labour within the “anxiety machine” of the university, he connects the shame culture of performance management to practices of self-care, and ultimately to the ways in which both our hidden and attention-seeking gestures of overwork entangle us with the lives of others:

Just as the high-performing athlete recalibrates the performance of those around her, and creates a productive new-normal, so the workaholic professor does the same. And the irony of my sitting here at 11.22pm writing this is not lost on me. And maybe this is because I am committed. And maybe this is a form of flight or a defence against the abstract pain of the world. Maybe it is a form of self-care, through which I am trying to make concrete how I feel about my past and my present. And maybe as Maggie Turp argues, this form of overwork and performance anxiety is a culturally acceptable self-harming activity. I am performance managed to the point where I willingly internalise the question “am I productive enough?”, which aligns with “am I a good academic?”, which aligns with “am I working hard enough”, which risks becoming a projection onto those around me of “are you working/producing enough?”

This is such a vital step: to connect the personal pathology of overcommitment (including to the welfare of others) to the creation of profit from machines and systems that facilitate labour. And then to think about what it means to understand universities in these terms, especially as we lurch towards a more competitive and more marketised higher education system. In other words, in thinking about the hamster-wheel cultures of academic overwork, we don’t need to look much further than the mechanics of the wheel itself, whose whole design and purpose is to keep on keeping on, which is precisely the problem. As Harry Hall, the mechanic who put Tom Simpson back on his bike, later reflected, cycling and rowing were the two most dangerous sports for athletes because of their mechanised nature: “The individual is pushing a machine which doesn’t know when to stop. It always asks for another pull of the oars, another pedal stroke.” (p41)

But the anxiety machine of the academy isn’t a component, like a bike or even a hamster wheel: it’s the whole system. It’s all of us, helping each other on, on, on. It’s the formal incentives and rewards for overwork that we chase, and it’s all the informal ways in which we perform, celebrate and even lament our own willingness to work to exhaustion—without ever stopping long enough to think about how we could change this, and why we should.

Things to read

If you’re looking for one thing to read on academic productivity, Melonie Fullick’s post “By The Numbers” is outstanding. Also thanks to Deborah Brian for sharing the work of Maggie O’Neill on the slow university.

Nadine Muller’s post on stress, self-care and the need to work together to achieve change in academia is great.

And please, please read Patty Sun’s shattering take-down of the personal cost of academic overwork.

27 thoughts on “On, on, on

  1. This echoes parallel issues in workplaces, especially high performance professional services organisations (law, medicine, architecture, accounting). I’m particularly struck by your description of the “shame culture of performance management to practices of self-care, and ultimately to the ways… our hidden and attention-seeking gestures of overwork entangle us with the lives of others”. This suggests we are unconsciously (or perhaps wittingly) party to collective methods of mutual destruction. And, as you say, we take these as the norm without really questioning the rules we’ve bought into, or considering why things need to change.

    A powerful post, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Joanne, nice to see you here.

    Yes, I think this is where my thoughts have arrived: that we are contributing to each other’s destruction.

    And that’s a really hard thing for adrenalised professionals to accept, especially in a sector that is defined by the idea of individual freedom. If academics want to work all hours, and forego other experiences, isn’t that just their right? But this is where Richard Hall so helped me think by linking this to the way machines enable profit, because once the standard is set by the most overworking, all others fall into deficit. We’ve seen this in so many parts of the corporate world, with such harmful impact on health, families, love.

    So I guess I’m asking the question: what would it take for the overworkers to recognise that slowing down is political, not just personal?


    1. Hi Kate, if you and your readers are seeking the theoretical underpinnings of what Richard is referring to, it can be found in Marx’s categories of 1) ‘socially necessary labour time’ (the dynamic, constantly changing measure of value); 2) ‘relative surplus value’ (the improvement of productivity by whatever means possible so as to reduce the socially necessary labour time required to produce a commodity); and 3) ‘real subsumption‘ (when the capitalist mode of production changes the labour process so as to achieve a greater rate of relative surplus value).

      What should be noted is that improvements in productivity do not increase the value of the output, but rather decrease the value of it. i.e. Greater productivity makes labour less valuable.

      For example, if Employer A improves productivity over and above the social average productivity among their competitors, it allows Employer A to charge the same price as everyone else and achieve a greater level of surplus value (profit) than their competitors. However, as competitors, the efficiency gains they observe in the work of Employer A will be copied and eventually all employers in the sector will be producing at the same level of productivity, producing more output with the same input of labour. When that happens, the average labour time required to produce the requisite output will be reduced and therefore the value of labour (quantified by its time engaged in the production process) is reduced too. According to Marx, all value can be reduced not to the direct labour time invested in producing the commodity, but rather the *socially necessary labour time* required. Methods of increasing productivity are simply methods of reducing the actual labour time invested relative to the social average labour time. In an ideal, completely ‘free’ market, there is a small window of opportunity for the employer who can increase productivity more than their competitors because they can still charge the same price as everyone else and achieve greater levels of profit (price and value are two separate things – a low value and high price results in high surplus value/profit).

      The question is, I think, what does this look like when the logic of capitalist production is being imposed on higher education? Personally, I think we are witnessing an on-going historical process of real subsumption of the sector which increasingly requires academic labour to demonstrate its productivity in a way that it never had to before. As you so well document on your blog, it results in academic labour internalising the logic of competition, self-valorisation, increased productivity, and so on. It also results in more ‘superfluous’ and precarious labour because one of the ‘products’ that higher education produces is graduates seeking to become academics within a system that is ruled by the logic of reducing the labour time required to produce those graduates. When there is a surplus of academic labour available in the labour market, then the value of that labour decreases just as a surplus of any widget on the market will result in the price of those widgets coming down. Wages, too, are put under pressure as university productivity increases and as more academic labour is pumped into the labour market (though other factors effect the price of labour).

      This is a partial view of what is happening and does not take into account the demand for the product by student consumers, nor the level of state regulation and subsidy that smooths things over so as to avoid a crisis of overproduction and underconsumption, but what is key, I think, is that we can retrospectively look back at higher education and see the logic of the capitalist mode of production really subsuming the sector. The pain and anxiety that we are experiencing is the result of what the Historian Moishe Postone calls an ‘objective, quasi-independent logic’ that no-one really controls. It’s not our managers or even our VCs, nor the State, but a determinate logic that was set in motion hundreds of years ago, based, according to Woods, on the idea of ‘improvement’. Of course there are winners within this ‘game’ who seek to protect and impose what is essentially out of their control, as well as losers who seek to resist and abolish it i.e. class struggle, but what it reinforces, I think, is the necessity of understanding the deep historical, often abstract, processes at work as well as their surface appearances.


      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey Kate, the irony of reading this after discussing things with you at 4am my time (I could defend myself that it’s Ramadan and I was up eating and praying earlier but that would ignore the fact that I do this in non-Ramadan days as well) ,earlier is not lost on me (and Richard Hall finding his 11:22pm writing time extreme made me laugh in comparison).
    Reading the beginning of your post I was nodding my head in agreement. I cannot understand why athletes risk their lives in those ways. Then when you started talking about academics, I could sort of understand why academics overwork themselves, and the connection lit a lightbulb. I love Joanne’s expression “collective methods of mutual destruction”. Your response to her, mentioning adrenaline almost highlights the internal culprit that motivates athletes and professionals (not just academics, right? Corporate world, too, as you mention). I would argue that there’s a similar culture of overwork in MOTHERhood that also encourages women to burn themselves out being parents to the extent that they stop caring for themselves.
    In some ways, I personally “need” to give myself to my career “as” my way of caring for myself, as a break from motherhood. I’m going to follow up on all those links you provided. How interesting that you wrote this today, when last night I had been thinking about whether someday I would lose the adrenaline rush that comes to me when one of my articles gets accepted for publication? Blogging sort of reduced that rush, distributed it, but it’s still there… Teaching also gives me an adrenaline rush (a more short-term one than research, obviously) and I do often take on more teaching than I should.
    I will follow up on those links you’ve provided and reflect some more. Thanks again for writing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Maha, welcome. Yes, I think it’s really complicated for parents. I’ve heard many mothers (including those working as adjuncts) explain overwork as a compensation for the things about mothering that they want to balance in their lives.

    But who profits from this?

    I think the focus on esteem addiction is important for academics to understand. Why do we get hooked on feeling good about short-lived congratulations? Why do we fall for this?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Came here from the verandah to the fresh air amongst the deckchairs to say thank you for this post and for the reminder to not only go slow but to value it. I still forget.


  6. Hi K, welcome to the deckchairs.

    I think the issue is that we get no encouragement to remember to go slow, to protect ourselves, because our underfunded institutions depend on the gifted extra time that we shovel into their pockets. This is actually how higher education copes in austerity, a bit like churches: vocation amounts to volunteered time.

    But the very perverse thing is then that the scale of this gift from some is turned against others in performance management. There’s a basic equity problem that goes unscrutinised, and it’s really complicated to imagine that we might even look at it.

    Let’s try.


  7. Thanks KB for a terrific and thought provoking post (read during extended sick leave which had had a lot to do with overload!). What can be done about it? We should talk more, of course, but also share experiences honestly, as you have generously done, and discuss tactics as in any industrial workplace. I am very grateful that my partner laid down an ultimatum a decade ago to stop working on weekends or I’d be dumped. We’re still together and I’ve never worked a weekend since. There are choices but we should discuss these much more openly – and defend our private lives if need be from colleagues who expect that we be ‘always on’. I have become very bolshy about email and not having it on all the time during working hours. I’m paid to think, read, supervise, experiment, write, discuss and debate, not to be glued to email. I know it annoys colleagues and my students but when I challenge them to try and have email-free mornings or whole days for their own well being many can’t seem to imagine it is possible. When did email become a compulsory and ubiquitous presence?? It doesn’t have to be. Perhaps beyond macro-scale industrial battles there are also more mundane practices closer to home where we can reassess things? Thanks again. I will definitely chase up the recommended reads.


  8. You’ve nailed it, Chris — email is a huge part of the problem of “scope creep” that academics are facing. I think this is one reason why universities have been universally terrible at understanding how quickly things became unhealthy at every level, from the overworked casual to the overworked senior academic. Email is the common problem, or at least the expectation that it raises that we are always able to be contacted, to the point that people experience this as a kind of addiction. Funnily enough part of the trigger for this post involved a conversation about email.

    Two issues: one, I think everyone genuinely needs to create stronger separation between work and other communication channels if they can. Two, we need to speak consistently against the standards set by chronic overwork, and look instead at the hours we are actually paid to be at work and the reasonable expectations that calibrate to those.

    At the moment universities don’t have to ask where their publications/grants come from — no one is required to ask how much of our collective research output is coming from time taken directly from the families, neighbours, friends or communities of academics who work weekends. There’s a major uncosted problem here, and eventually it’s not going to be sustainable, except by madness.

    Thanks for this comment — really important that senior academics speak up.


  9. “Email is the common problem, or at least the expectation that it raises that we are always able to be contacted, to the point that people experience this as a kind of addiction. Funnily enough part of the trigger for this post involved a conversation about email.”

    The thing is – I pushed back from this and have never noticed a reaction – I think it is about managing expectations. So I make it clear that I don’t work weekends and part of that is that I don’t read emails in the evenings either – I read them between 9am-5pm and that is that – nobody has every commented and it has had no impact on my career.

    The real trap I think is the “do what you love” – I do this as a job, I enjoy it (broadly) but it’s not my passion and therefore I find it not too stressful because when I go home in the evening, I get on with one of my passions I don’t spend it on work – I think it’s allowing that work-life balance to erode that causes a lot of the problems.

    It’s also baffling to me why – “I’ll work myself to death so three other people nobody else has heard of will have heard of me”.


  10. I’m thrilled by this comment because I think we really need to see that it’s possible to say all this (and I know Chris would agree with you strongly about emails and personal limits) and see that the sky doesn’t fall.

    Two thoughts: first, the more people are open about the limits that they set, the more it becomes possible to isolate overworking behaviour as unsustainable rather than accepting it as an inevitable norm. It’s not nuts to imagine this is possible, when you look at other kinds of “mundane practices”, as Chris puts it, that have changed over time. Recycling springs to mind.

    Second, I think we need time to stop and develop new passions. They’re just not there automatically. In a sense, once work has flooded in and engulfed your thinking, it’s hard to imagine spending time differently. Most academics who’ve spent their holidays feverishly checking email suspect this isn’t because anyone else actually expects it of them, but because it feels harder to stop doing it. So we do need to talk, gently, about the ways in which we end up supporting each others’ work addictions.


    1. I am reading all this (as a compulsive email checker) and thinking of several things:
      Have you read Jesse Stommel’s anti-email article on Instructure?

      Also: two important things need to happen for me to not check email too much:
      1. Separation of personal from professional email (as Kate suggests)
      2. That people stop sending so much email, or else not checking it results in info overload – which is why it is important to be explicit about these practices both as a form of advocacy (as in, none of us should *have* to check email rather than be with family) and setting expectations (i.e. You’ll never get a reply from me on a weekend, so don’t try).

      Having said all this, I also think that internet-connected mobile devices make it hard NOT to check, right? And harder yet for social media, esp twitter in my case.

      I still need to think hard about the issue of what it means *for others* when some of us choose to overwork ourselves. It is not fair to set those standards or to glorify them at the expense of others’ wellbeing… So still thinking about it


  11. Part of the reason that the sky doesn’t fall is that management in HE is largely ineffective! so as long as your classes happen, the students don’t complain and you have a reasonable level of output, you sit in the middle and become invisible to the system.

    Where it gets difficult I think (leaving aside the question of people starting out or being an adjunct which is a different set of circumstances I’m not qualified to comment on and creates different challenges) is where academics overestimate the impact of not attending conference X this year or produced x number of papers – that in itself creates its own problems because people then start spending their own monies on attending conferences – giving themselves an effective paycut!

    It was once raised with me why I didn’t attend more conferences and I said I was happy to attend as many conferences as the university liked and they just had to let me know what account to bill it to – the conversation stopped at that point because the University cannot officially ask me to spend my own money to attend (I’ve never spent a penny of my own money on conferences – what a scam!).

    It has never been raised again.

    It’s the same with many of the free labour tasks that come up – nothing bad happens when you say no, they just go and ask someone else until they say yes!


  12. Sorry for being a bit late to the discussion. I appreciate so many things about your post—connecting cycling to academia, references to PEDs (what would a list of banned substances look like for academics?), acknowledging our role in reproducing the anxiety that drives us (mad), encouraging us to scale back.

    Scaling back happens in small, concrete steps. Like Alan Smithee, I changed my email practice: I tell colleagues and students that I check email only during working hours, i.e., no evenings, weekends, or holidays. I promise to respond within two working days, but not necessarily sooner. In return, I don’t expect them to read email during non-work hours nor do I expect a response any sooner than two working days.

    Not only has the sky not fallen, colleagues seem to appreciate my honesty and my effort to stem job-creep. Students too seem to appreciate it—I don’t encroach on their time and they don’t encroach on mine. As you, Kate, say, it’s about being open and honest with limits and expectations.

    Your post coincides with my reading of _Overwhelmed_ by Brigid Schulte, which has some good points about overworking, over-scheduling our lives in general, work-life balance, and the ways U.S. society has valorized overworking.

    I would love to say more, but I am want to go to breakfast before watching the end of the Tour stage.


  13. You’re not late at all. I think this is one of the strengths of blogging — it’s time generous in a way that we don’t quite appreciate enough.

    Since I wrote the post I’ve taken some of these same email steps myself, as part of getting ready for returning to work part-time. The actions themselves are important but I think as you say it’s also about expressing these in a way that colleagues can join you if they choose. Taking steps together to reset expectations about availability could really make a difference to the way we experience work in the context of our lives and families.

    Lovely to see you here, thanks for stopping by.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Very good post. I thought the Patty Sun article you reference particularly powerful and you prompted me to comment on Richard Hall’s thoughts on university as Anxiety machine and also to consider why we feel so pushed into a state of anxiety.

    The comment regarding email (and I might include twitter for myself these days) rings very true. I am trying hard to push back against responding to email out of hours, but it is hard in the face of socially constructed expectations. I just managed a two week holiday without a check so things are moving in the right direction.

    Finally – I think your synthesis “But the anxiety machine of the academy isn’t a component, like a bike or even a hamster wheel: it’s the whole system. ” is spot on. I’ll comment on here in the same vein as at Richard Hall’s – anxiety is particularly insidious, reproducing the system that causes it. I see your post as a call to arms – we must try to disrupt the operation of this particular machine.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    Like CASA? That’s the Australian group blog for/by “casual, adjunct, sessional staff and their allies.” This blog is CASA editor (one of them) Kate Bowles’ original and personal blog. This post ICYMI is about academic overwork and stress: it’s not just for adjunct faculty — or even just for faculty. A friend who recently retired from managing a university hospital program calls the university a predatory employer. This post is relevant for all of us. I’m “retired” but put in enough daily hours as a digital activist to feel that stress too.

    When you finish the post and comments (come for the post, stay for the conversation), take a look at the categories: being an academic (40); casualisation of work (21); higher education (73); edtech and online learning (53) — and more


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