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.


Here’s one for the “learn something new every day” box. Last week Middle Seaman, via More or Less Bunk, alerted me to the idea that “the shy cannot learn.”

It’s an intriguing diagnosis, not to mention very bad news for shy people everywhere, and I went off in search of its origins. Like any aphorism in translation, the exact deficit represented by shyness is really a matter of the intent of the original, and I’m not here to argue about that—I really have no idea.

But here’s the thing. Although it’s often quoted by itself (especially by teachers—go figure) it’s actually part of a bundle. One translation of the full version (Pirkei Avot 2:6) is this:

A brutish man cannot fear sin; an ignorant man cannot be pious, nor can the shy man learn, or the impatient man teach. He who engages excessively in business cannot become wise.* In a place where there are no men strive to be a man.

These sensible thoughts come from Hillel, and while the translation to “shy” is pretty consistent, “impatient” appears in different versions as “strict”, “irate” and “arrogant”.

I’m clearly not a scholar in the Jewish tradition, but it seems to me that the latter two parts of the sentence belong together. So before we dismiss too quickly the possibility that students who seem shy to us are simply unsuited to the increasingly overcrowded classrooms that underpin our do-more-with-less budget strategy, perhaps we could also think about what kinds of impatience we exhibit when we brush off their experience.

All this came about because I’ve been defending online learning on the basis that it suits some students, without really thinking about why I’ve shorthanded these students as “shy”.  I certainly don’t mean “unable to learn”, or “reluctant to question”, but perhaps I do mean “at a social or linguistic or cultural disadvantage in the often awkward environment of a large class”, or “less confident with the material under discussion and reluctant to jump in without checking facts several times”.  “Shy” is a whole lot quicker, but also lazy, and it’s earned the rebuke.

Still, I can’t overlook the fact that some students do better online than in the classroom for a whole range of reasons, just as some students have a worse time.  I base this on what I observe, and on what students themselves say about the difference in the experience.  There isn’t a win-win solution here: different individuals enjoy different opportunities to lead or to fall behind as the conditions change.

So it’s just like my favourite metaphor for everything, the Tour de France.  There are sprinters and climbers and local favourites who can’t win and attacking riders who crash and riders who need looking after but come good in the end and riders who can get back on their bike after being upended through barbed wire by erratically driven media cars, and steering the whole thrilling, crazy enterprise of the peloton through this madness are the mighty domestiques. It’s as good a metaphor for diversity in learning as I’ve seen, because it makes so clear that changes in terrain don’t hit everyone in the same way.  Even the best sprinter in the world needs help from others to haul himself over the mountains.

The whole thing is really a titanic caution against hubris: one day you’re the windshield, and next day, frankly, you’re the bug.

So every time I think I’m going to quit teaching online and join More or Less Bunk and Margaret Soltan at the barricades because the 178th use of “going forward” by someone spruiking an enterprise level content driven learning solution was just one teeny wafer thin after dinner mention too many, I’m going to remember this counsel against getting irate. We’re not trying to find the golden mean, the perfect balance: whatever we do, there are gains and losses. But for the sake of all our students, not just the ones who are confident in class, it’s worth holding out for a diversity of approaches, so long as all are driven by the qualities we know are important to good learning, whether online, or conducted under a tree in a courtyard.

* (Polite memo to vendors, investors and prospectors eyeing up the higher ed. market everywhere: it’s not that we can’t do business with you, but we can’t do it excessively, or there will be an opportunity cost in the very thing we’re trying to protect. Hope this helps.)