With our own meaning

I met for the first time the essential questions of my own mortality … None of us have 300 years. The terror that I conquered in those three weeks left me with a determination and freedom to speak as I needed, and to enjoy and live my life as I needed to for my own meaning.

Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals

Short version: it’s about this.

Please donate.

Long version

Last week was national Go Home on Time Day, and for me, the anniversary of all this. After a year of writing about academic overwork—why we do it, and what it costs us in human terms—I spent the day at the NTEU Insecure Work conference in Hobart, learning about makes these personal choices part of a larger system in which, as a colleague said to me a couple of days ago, labour itself is broken.

To nudge overworking academics into going home on time, the NTEU put out straightforward and sobering resources, including the astounding fact that “Australian workers donate $110 billion unpaid overtime to their employers.” I’m not sure how we manage to do this, given that a recent UK study showed their overall unpaid overtime value to be a trifling £640 million, but the general point is clear: the most developed economies run on a chronic habit of overwork for some that’s chained to a chronic problem of underemployment and underemployment for many, that together leave millions locked out of the benefits of having a developed economy at all.

UK reports are now consistently showing that the problem of overwork is being driven by the “culture of extra hours” of workplace managers who lead us from the front in using their early mornings, late evenings and weekends working and communicating with their staff, continuously promoting to the entire workforce a powerful lesson about what it takes to flourish in this culture:

Almost half of UK managers work an extra day of unpaid overtime per week, a study into working practices has suggested. … Around 13% of managers work two days unpaid overtime per week, the Institute of Leadership and Management said.

To say that academics can relate to this pattern of work is to enter the terrain of bears, woods and shit. It’s so obvious that we hardly know where to begin in thinking about it. Although if you listen to any group of academics talking about their own experience of overwork, you’ll still hear from people who think it’s about the privilege of flexible working lives, the ability to work when and where we want, to get on with doing what we love at all hours of the day and night.

This packaging of system failure as personal privilege is precisely how we cooperate in ensuring that the unpaid overtime never gets back on the balance sheet, never amounts to business intelligence that not enough people are being hired to do the work the organisation wants done. Your day of unpaid overtime might feel like the only strategy you have, the only way to survive, the only hope of future promotion or the protection of those around you—and it actually might be all of those things—but it’s also the sound of someone else’s job not being created, not even being reckoned with in the budget and the strategic plan and the audit of the sustainability of the organisation where you work.

And universities are leading whole communities in this way of living because when we do this, we also send this message to our students and our kids and our friends and our neighbours that secure employment now naturally involves relinquishing the political solidarity it would take to do what we came here to do, and that we do well, within the compensated hours on our contracts. This is also how we find ourselves without even the time to listen to one another in ways that would make our work more effective and durable, because every day we’re being chased by deadline after deadline, and our whole thinking lives are galvanised by interruption and crisis: because the system as a whole has said yes to too many things at once.

So the lesson that I’ve learned in my year away from all this finally sank in this week. A visitor came to our campus, and a small group of us sat down together to reflect on the questions about the fragmentation and repair of academic life and practice that he had raised for us by sharing a short piece of his work in progress on networked participatory scholarship. We didn’t come out with a grant proposal, a research paper, or an outcome of any kind. This work would show up on any reckoning of our productivity as a little gap, an inefficiency, a nothing.

But I came out smarter, better at listening.

And we also came out to a world of hurt, like people who were on a plane when the big news broke. As we sat in the room, #FergusonDecision. The immense, desperate spectacle of anger in the US on a scale that Australians find hard to imagine. And from Australia, the anger in return of all those who live here under the shadow of our own reckoning that some lives matter less than others: that some people get to participate in our economy and enjoy its prosperity and raise their kids in freedom, health and safety, and some people don’t, and that’s just the way things are.

So I got snagged there for a moment there on the problem of how to sustain practices of hope that will lead to change when the evidence seems to pile up on all sides that we have already broken the environment we live in and that the best we can hope for is to pull off surreptitious gestures of resistance or appreciation, before going to lie down in a darkened room and wait for the finish.

Then some things happened. That is, things didn’t happen differently, but having taken time to think, I noticed things happening that add up for me to a way of looking differently at this mess we’re in.

The Koori Woman wrote this about the kindness of strangers. The Smart Casual—the most kick-ass colleague you could ever hope for—came flying out of the corner where higher education had her boxed in and wrote this astonishing piece about grief. My daughter Clementine wrote this about what she has learned from her dad. Australian journalists Mark Colvin and Julia Baird shared this conversation about resilience, love and survival in the face of life. A bunch of famous Australians got together and made a thing that—even if celebrity singalongs aren’t your cup of tea—at the very least shows a group of influential humans right in the act of saying that the way things are won’t do for them any more.

And while thinking about tipping points, I came out to an email from the organisers of a health campaign that really matters to me, telling us that the tipping point has been reached, and they’ll be converting the pledges to donations. This is great news. But they have a way to go, so they are reaching out for the practical support of anyone who can give a small donation in the final 13 days of their campaign.

I support this campaign because these women, in the context of their own community and in line with their own cultural meaning, will get this done. It’s their idea, their cause, their health, their plan, and their determination to change the way things are. The donation process is really, really simple and quick. Please find time to read about them, please pass on this message, and please consider giving them a donation if you’re in a position to.

Dianne Biritjalawuy and the women of Hope for Health, I really hope this helps.

14 thoughts on “With our own meaning

  1. That baldy old Tibetan guy once said “kindness is my religion”. The etimology of the word ‘religion’ is , I recently found out, re link, so connection. Only connect with kindness. This is the wisdom of Buddhism (and Christianity) and the positive psychology research about happiness, and well, probably any one with a wise word. The queston then is: why are we not as kind as we would like to be? (I won’t answer that here).

    Another question is why we go along with overworking? Yes i agree it is an instituional issue and you have expressed this well Kate, so i won’t add to that aspect. But, we actually don’t have to do it do we? Don’t we do it because other people are? And don’t we do it because we want more money or fame or something like that? In other words, while the politics of universities needs to be addressed as you do, i think perhaps we need also to address our hearts and minds so we can move ourselves from over work to kindness.

    I don’t say it is easy, but we I think we will be happier for it.

    love Chris

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  2. Such a gift in those stories, some refilling of sprit given the hope chilling news in Ferguson. That a taxi driver shares perception and music (I had one in Singapore who explained his Buddhist belief and gave me a “lucky” card I still carry. That a woman’s painful loss of her dad has a moment in that emptiness of Monty Python of all things. And your own daughters wisdom on niceness over equality.

    Wow. What medicine. I’ve always trotted out Churchils quip about being an optimist because there’s not much use in being anything else– been so tested.

    These small tiny giant stories I relish. Thanks for linking them in.

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    1. Alan, you were so on my mind when I was reading Mark Colvin’s comments about the value of stories. He says in the conversation I linked to this lovely thing on how he survives:

      “I love the sound of the human voice telling stories, and I’m really quite obsessed with this.

      I think quite rightly all radio producers focus very strongly on the idea there should be good audio, music, effects and natural sound running through a story, but I like good writing, a good voice, telling a story well – it’s underestimated. Beautiful words or words put together elegantly are really important. Just when I sit down and write PM every night, I like to think that there’s one to two sentences in there that are just perfectly balanced. I’ve just rewritten that sentence so it’s exactly right. The voice telling a story is a sound I can’t do without.”

      That phrase has been going round in my head all day as the stories pour out of the Ferguson protest, and the voices come back from here about all the things we’ve neglected: the voice telling a story is the sound we can’t do without.

      Interestingly for those of us who work in edtech, it’s also the biggest thing big data cannot deliver to us.

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  3. Lovely to see you here Chris.

    I’ve thought up till now that we do it because we don’t know how to stop. A story from when I was a little kid, we lived on a steep hill, and one day I was flying down a hill on my scooter because a bigger kid suggested I should, and about half way down I realised I had no idea how to stop. And so (this is kind of embarrassing) I threw myself off my scooter into a lamppost. The outcome was kind of cartoonish, as you might expect.

    But what I really remember was how full-on that lesson in the physics of momentum proved to be, and how difficult it was to think sensibly in the moment of a good way to change the course I was on.

    Maybe the first step is to recognise that going fast isn’t the solution, it’s the problem. Melonie Fullick advocates consistently and patiently for going more slowly, and less productively, and I’ve really come to value her counsel on this. But it takes courage to do in professional settings that measure by speed and output.

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  4. It is so good to hear from you again, and spend some time thinking about overwork. The point about the overwork we do leading to the colleagues we will never hire and never have – that’s the thing that sticks out for me. Yes, yes and yes.
    I have begun to actively ‘not fix’ some stupid workplace projects (requiring numerous ppl to overwork to fix), and let them crash and burn to great effect. Drop the bundle occasionally. Much more likely to get more or new staff allocated that way. In other words, do a great job in the hours you have and the stuff that you don’t have time to do properly – dont do it. Leave the 200 unread emails and move on. It’s taken me years, but i’m finding there is power in not replying to emails after work hours too. It’s my new favorite thing.

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  5. I did exactly the same when I came back to work part-time: mostly effectively (that is, except when I genuinely forgot) I made it clear that I would not reply to emails after work hours, because I would turn off notifications so that I didn’t even see them. I particularly made this clear to students in relation to weekends.

    The first student who emailed me on a Saturday wrote “Dear Kate, I know it’s Saturday, so I understand that you won’t read this till Monday morning, but here’s my question”. I honestly felt I had achieved something, and it was that easy. It also enabled her to make that gesture back to me.

    I agree completely with your strategy of allowing things to fail. We have to let that be the case, calmly and collectively, because when we say “Why yes, it’s completely fine for you to have all of the things you want at any cost even if you don’t have the money to staff them appropriately” we’re treating our employers like spoiled children, and we’re voluntarily subsidising their KPIs with our own human time.

    This is real time, a real resource, that is actively taken away from our own families, lives, health and environmental care; while at the same time actively (if accidentally) hoarding employment for the few. And after a year of thinking and learning much more about how the economy ticks along I’m at last beginning to see how—just as with environmental impact—it’s the lifestyles of the most included that lead to the impacts on the most excluded.

    Good to see you here too. x

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  6. Wondering about the informality of academic labour and the sharing economies.

    As an almost self-employed person, I see now (much more) how much free work I do to get more work and to improve on paid work. I wonder how this ties into uber, or airbnb and sharing resources rather than time as a pure object. Then I think about collegiality and how this is a sharing economy – peer review as helping others indirectly, same as helping cover lectures etc.

    Then I think about working a weekend to get a promotion to get more pay to pay for a house and see a weird debt culture (partly economic, partly polite) based on a promise of some other, but the promise underpinned by a faith in others.

    So I guess the dark part of me sees a lack of faith in others – why help if never reciprocated, why go past the mean if it doesn’t come back, why do more than P because P does nothing, which I wonder if is a sort of drowing of socialism and community. We still share, but sharing is now mediated through marketplaces (online dating as a starker example) rather than community relations.

    I remember as a child neighbours asking for a cup of sugar. Now I just want my neighbour to turn their TV down. I daren’t ask of course.

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  7. Pat, this is so thoughtful — I’ve sat with it a bit as I’ve thought about faith in others. What if you do more? What if they do more? Shouldn’t there be a roster for all this? And what about community relations, or neighbourly relations? When is a favour imposed? When is an imposition such a breach that you need to ask for it to stop?

    One of the responses I had to this on Twitter involved thinking about labour sharing as a climate harm mitigation strategy. And this of course spins out into a whole lot of stuff about how much better we’d be at sharing resources if we had time to think and operate in a planned way instead of constantly reacting to pressure.

    The example that gets to me is washing machines. In older smaller apartment blocks, a shared laundry is still common. This is vanishingly rare in new high density projects; and has never been part of suburbia. But realistically, few houses need a washing machine that runs 24/7. Wo why not share? Likewise lawnmowers. And big freezers. And chainsaws. And then once you start to think about it, it’s only a short hop to a communal car for whoever needs it.

    I’ve heard of some really fantastic community projects starting to work in this way, that have also included shared volunteer time — community gardens are the obvious ones. And academics so rarely participate because we don’t have evenings or weekends to give.

    So academic overwork really depletes the economy in a big way.

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    1. I guess this is an interesting distinction between a shared resource and a community owned resource. If it is shared, you do your own administration. If it is community owned, then the administration requires some organisation / funding to maintain it. I guess this is the difference essentially between informality and formality.

      This is where it ties into academia I think, because the formality creates a grey area in which it can be coercive on personal capital and time to work, as opposed to being a decision made of your own volition.

      And I think I use capital to mean time, because people ask others for it so as to avoid it, or because they need it.

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