I am surrounded by workaholics.
At every college where I have taught, the unspoken mantra is that you must always have a project to work on — a new book, a journal article, a series of poems, or a grant proposal. In the faculty mailroom, the most common question is “What are you working on?” An unheard-of response is “Nothing.”
My adjunct colleagues are trying to publish themselves into a tenure-track position, while the tenure-track faculty members know that if they do not publish their way to tenure, they are done. Then there is the tenured faculty. They set the pace for everyone else by keeping their foot on the gas. Some of these people are in their 70s, with bags under their eyes, and CVs as long as Jack Kerouac’s scroll of On the Road. Yet, they never stop. As one of my colleagues once told me, “Academia is like a pie-eating contest where the reward is more pie.”
It is no surprise, then, that every department that I have taught in is permeated by what we might call productivity anxiety. This is the uneasy feeling that there is always something left to do. If you finish a journal article, write another one. If you outline a short story, start drafting it. To quote the author Steven Pressfield, whose work has circulated among my colleagues, when you finish a book, “Take the rest of the day off. Take your wife or husband out to dinner. Pop some champagne. Give yourself a standing ovation. Then get back to work. Begin the next one tomorrow.”
Every department that I have taught in is permeated by what we might call productivity anxiety.
The fundamental characteristic of most anxiety disorders is that they are not entirely irrational. Germophobes avoid touching subway handles because they fear contamination. People refuse to fly on planes because they worry about crashes. In reality, people do get sick from touching handles, and planes do crash. In academe, the fear that one is not being productive is also rooted in the real possibilities of disaster that permeate the landscape of the ivory tower. Many, if not most, Ph.D. recipients will never get a tenure-track job. If you get a tenure-track job and are not awarded tenure, it can mark the end of your career. Thus, academics are compelled to “publish or perish.” As a consequence, they feel anxiety when they do not do the things that they could do to secure their professional futures.
Most anxiety disorders, of course, also have an irrational element to them. The germophobe aggrandizes the possibility that he will get sick. The aviophobe distorts the prospect that her plane will crash. Many of my colleagues are drowning in similar waves of paranoia. I knew a graduate student who had 18 articles published, a book under contract, and a degree from an Ivy League institution who worried about not getting a tenure-track job. As a result, she published her way out of all the social relationships and leisure activities she once participated in.
When I was a master’s student, my nickname was “Mythical Adam.” Another graduate teaching assistant drew a unicorn on the white board outside my office with this nickname underneath. I was known for neglecting all social events and for only appearing on campus to take or teach a class. As a member of my cohort put it, I had a work ethic that would earn “the attention of the muses” (the goddesses of inspiration) and “salutations from Saturn” (the god of wealth). I won some academic awards. I published in top journals in American studies. I got accepted into doctoral programs at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard.
I also felt like I had dehumanized myself in the process. One day I asked one of my professors if it was strange that I wanted to spend a weekend where I did not read or write anything. She laughed and told me that it was not weird: It was a good sign that I was not a robot.
Unfortunately, her opinion about the balance between work and life is not the norm in academe, where you are expected to “do what you love” — why else would anyone embrace a job with such long hours and low pay? — and to continue to move your way up the academic echelon. Do not worry if your health, hobbies, friendships, and other aspects of your life fall to pieces in the process.
Unsurprisingly, the campus culture of productivity anxiety is not limited to faculty. In my classes, my students are worried about their job prospects after they graduate. Strapped with thousands of dollars of debt, they worry about the grades that will mark their transcripts. They worry about whether their research assistantships will be enough. In many cases, their anxiety is justified. Like the adjuncts who teach them, the job market they face is bleak.
On the other hand, like their counterparts who are tenured, many students have little reason to worry. When I taught at Bentley University, I had multiple students who would email me about extra-credit opportunities when it was clear that they had already earned an A for the course. I had one student who argued for a homework grade above the 100 percent that she received. Many of these same students had completed two or three internships before they had even arrived on campus.
So what can colleges and individual faculty members and students do to relieve anxiety when across the country, higher-education budgets are being devoured, jobs with livable wages and benefits are disappearing, and student debt is surging?
For one, colleges should put more resources toward counseling and mental-health services. That includes supporting meditation programs. I started to meditate in graduate school, and it has been the single most important tool that I have incorporated into my life. It has also been a valuable resource that I use to start classes that I teach. Most of my students report that they feel more relaxed, centered, and focused when we begin class with a short exercise that brings their attention to their breath. Some of these same students have gone on to incorporate meditation into their life outside the classroom because of the positive results they have experienced.
For another, faculty and students should defend their leisure time as rigorously as they defend their periods of work. For example, one of my former colleagues joined a competitive fast-pitch softball team when he was in graduate school because it forced him to have downtime each week. He could not bail on these events, since his team depended on him. He said that this structured commitment to leisure during a demanding period of his life prepared him to have a healthier work and life balance when he became a tenure-track professor and later a tenured professor.
While neither of these approaches is a substitute for reforming the external conditions that influence our levels of stress and anxiety, both are worthwhile interventions that can improve the quality of our lives. With less agitation and unease, we may even be more productive.
Adam Szetela is a Ph.D. student in the sociology department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.