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.