Sunday, January 1, 2006

On the inflexibility of academic life

[Welcome Inside Higher Ed readers. Now I know why I'm getting new commenters, which is terrific! Please forgive the typos!]

For those of you who'd like to know, my mom is now in the nursing home for her rehabilitation. It's so close to the old homestead that she and Dad could probably communicate by semiphore flags if they were so inclined. But alas, I am far away -- back in Rust Belt City -- and that has prompted the subject of this post.

When I went into academia -- a little more consciously than I allowed in the last post -- one of the reasons why I thought the life would suit me is because I'm generally self-directed (I have trained myself for four marathons, after all) and much happier organizing my own time than being on a set schedule. Indeed, I pretty much hate being on someone else's clock. And yes, the academic lifestyle is often about organizing your own time, especially on days or in periods when you're not teaching. You decide which hours you'll devote to sleeping, working, eating, running errands, watching tv, socializing, blogging, exercising, etc., and sometimes departments can be amenable to setting your teaching schedule in ways that are most convenient for you. (I had an interview at MLA one year in which the interviewer cheerfully told me their department scheduled courses according to faculty members' biorhythms!) That can be a real *problem* for some people, though, and even I struggle with procrastination almost daily. [Edited to add: As The Bailiff and I were discussing in the comments, the day-to-day flexibility of academic life is indeed one of its great perks. It makes the little stresses and responsibilities of life so much easier to schedule. But there's a flip side to this, and that's what the rest of the post is about.]

But what I wanted to talk about now, just generally, is the ways in which the the academic life can be surprisingly inflexible. Or, at least, it was a little surprising to me. Anyone with kids knows that the school year patterns a family's life, but the majority of people entering grad school do not have kids and, if they are like me, haven't thought about how fixed that calendar is. Take, for example, my family's current situation. I'm really lucky it all happened over Christmas, when I could be there for most of the hospital stay. I'm not there now to be Mom's support through the rehabilitation, however, because classes start in a week and most of everything I needed to get things going is here in Rust Belt City. (Not to mention the research and grant deadlines I have coming up.) The semester starts when it starts, and it ends when it ends, and in between the work is non-stop. If it had been absolutely necessary, I might have been able to arrange sick or family leave for a week and delayed the first meeting of my classes, and I would've done it if it had been necessary. But my classes would have had to be trimmed of some of their material (epsecially hard in the linguistic classes, where each week builds on the former), because there's no one really in my department to cover for me. I'm the only medievalist. And I don't know what would have happened if I'd needed the whole semester -- as one of my colleagues recently did when her teenage niece was tragically orphaned. In my colleague's case, there were others in the department who could take over her courses, and she had a sabbatical coming, as well. In my case, I'm sure something would've been worked out, but a lot of students might have been seriously inconvenienced, since many in my current classes need those classes to graduate and to complete requirements. And as I just had a semester off from teaching, it might not have looked great, either.

That's not to say that in other professions you can drop things willy-nilly. But there's a little more flexibility. People work in teams or pairs in many other professions and there's someone to pick up the slack when shit happens. A person can rearrange vacation time, meetings can be postponed, and work can be shared or delegated. [Edited to clarify: I'm thinking of other professionals here, the kind with a month or more of vacation plus personal days. Not the lower rungs of 9-to-5ers, of which I have been one, or retail workers (also been there, done that) or factory shift workers, etc., etc. I was trying to compare apples to apples or professionals to professionals.] That's often not the case in academia, especially in the humanities in small colleges and univerisities, where we work alone, often the only one in our field, both in the classroom and in our research.

And it's not just in times of distress that the inflexibility is felt. One of my best friends and I keep talking about traveling together, but generally my most flexible time is summer, which happens to be her busiest time in her current job, not to mention peak travel time above the equator and therefore the most expensive time to travel. We did manage to fit in a hiking trip on the Isle of Man over my spring break one year, and we picked the destination not only out of interest but because Man is pocket-sized enough to cover in a week!

And then there are the plans that the Boyfriend and I have for cohabitation. We're both ready to plan and make the move, but there just won't be time for such chaos until the school year is over. On the one hand, that gives us time to have all those necessary discussions about who's job it is to mow the lawn and all that, but on the other hand, wouldn't it be nice to already be sharing a home!

And everything is planned so far ahead and moves so slowly in academia. It takes a full year for the job market cycle and a full year for the tenure process. Classes are scheduled and assigned a year ahead. Fellowships and grants must be applied for six to eighteen months before they're needed. And if you want to get pregnant and take maternity leave, you better start scheduling it while you're still trying to get pregnant or, at the latest, soon after you become pregnant.

And even summers aren't the flexible times that non-academics think they are. If you teach summer school, you're still on the term-time clock. And if not, that's when everything else happens, when research time must be scheduled, when trips to specialty libraries and archives and field work sites are made, when preofessional development institutes and seminars and meetings are held. Solid blocks of time are precious commodities and other plans must be balanced with those needs.

In short, the academic year is an inexorable and unmovable mass and our extracurricular lives must simply be made to fit in the gaps and breaks and crevices. It is, in fact, much like the daily grind of an office job, but on a much bigger scale. Sigh. Despite having obviously been a student myself before thinking about an academic career, being the callow youth that I was, I didn't quite realize all of this until I started to live it.

And I have to say that inexorability, especially its cyclical nature, makes me feel the passage of time and my own mortality more than I ever have before, and that's even before my mom's recent brush with death. I think in graduate school, there was still a sense of "getting finished" and "getting out" to give it a sense of suspended time. (Well, that and the lack of seasons in Sprawling Big City.) But now it marches on, year in and out, and the rigid rhythms of the school year combined with the natural year feel a little bit like doom. Or maybe I've just been reading too much Old English poetry. Still, if you yourself -- you out there in cyberspace -- are thinking about academia or just beginning in it, and haven't realized all of this about the academic calendar, consider yourself warned.


New Kid on the Hallway said...

I hear you on this one - everytime the phone rings at an odd time and I wonder if something's up with my dad, I think, how will I fit this in with my schedule?? It's kind of like, we have so much "flexible" time (i.e. the summer and other breaks) (even though, as you point out, it's really not) that the rest of the time is completely INflexible. Add to that the fact that our work is so individualized, that it's extremely hard to have someone else step in for you. I saw something once that talked about the percentage of academic children born in the summers! And LDH was rather bemused by interviewing for a job, getting it, and beginning it, all in the space of 3 weeks, rather than the sloooooooow academic job process.

The Bailiff said...

It's interesting, after having been an academic and now working more 9-to-5 jobs, I've noticed this issue a lot.

One thing I've notice is how nearly impossible it is to take maternity leave as an academic. Sure, you can stop your tenure clock, but paid time off doesn't really work. In contrast, even if 9-to-5 folks don't get a lot of paid maternity leave, it's pretty easy for them to take it.

Another thing, since I mostly still hang out with academics, is that most profs who haven't done the 9-to-5 gig really don't get what it's like to work 9-to-5. In one situation, I had a friend who wanted me to come visit her, and she really didn't "get" that each non-weekend day that I was with her, I was using up one of my very-precious 10 days of vaction for the year. Weekends are busy for her, so she wanted me to come during the week.

And, IMHO, your cohabitation issues with the Boyfriend are not any easier, and in fact may be more difficult, for non-academic couples who need to be in an office every day from 9 to 5 (or longer). In fact, I suspect this would require doing a lot of home-hunting in the evenings and packing/moving over numerous weekends.

I suppose my point here is that, though there may be less flexibility in your schedule than you imagined, you still have more flexiblity than most workers in this country, even with all of the academy's slow-moving and other quirks. Having worked on both sides, I think it's something that's incredibly precious to the academic lifestyle.

Dr. Virago said...

New Kid - wow, three weeks! What's is that like?! Actually, I remember one of my post-college, pre-grad school jobs in which I was offered the job *in* the interview and that completely freaked me out.

Bailiff -- Oh, I completely hear you. I think perhaps I should edit my post to be clear that I was thinking of other professionals -- lawyers, doctors, business executives -- the folks with a month or more of vacation plus personal days (who could take it off, for example, to do the house move if they hadn't used it all).

Yeah, to be in the lower rungs of the 9-to-5 world sucks in terms of balancing it with the rest of your life. I've been there. It's all evenings and lunch breaks for the personal matters (or the occasional personal day to catch up or schedule a doctor's appointment). The day-to-day flexibility of academic life is a *dream*. (Especially for fitting in exercise -- though I'll be doing my running this semester with the after-5 crowd because of my teaching schedule.) It's the long-term inflexibility that surprised me.

Dr. Virago said...

Oh, and I should add, too, that I remember well the potential inflexibility of scheduling vacation time when I was a paralegal. I had three weeks of vacation, at least, so that helped when Mom and I wanted to take an overseas trip and I still wanted to come home for Xmas. But the office had this weird rule about how no one could take off the day before Xmas, because until I'd arrived, everyone there was from the area and had only to take a train or drive home for the holidays. I was ready to play by the rules and fly home on Xmas day, but someone prodded me to ask for an exception from the partners, which they readily granted, seeing as they had made the rule when everyone was local. But the very literal office manager, the one who scheduled the staff was *livid*. She even argued with the lawyers that it was "against the rules" and what would she tell everyone else. Since she lived to hate me and make me miserable, this only added grist to the mill. I got to go home before Xmas, but man did she make my work life even more miserable after that!

But that's more a story about crazy co-workers than inflexible schedules -- the partners turned out to be very flexible!

La Lecturess said...

Oh, I completely hear you on this on--and it's the strange combination of flexibility (so much "free" [i.e. non-teaching or administrative] time in the average week, but too many things to do in it) and inflexibility of the academic life that is so crazy-making.

(And incidentally, I was also a paralegal, post-college and I also experienced the lunacy of limited vacation time--just two weeks, in my case. Which sometimes makes me feel all the more guilty for complaining about my current academic schedule...)

Cats & Dogma said...

A lot of the flexibility depends on the department/program. When OUr kids were born, smack in the middle of the semester, my colleagues arranged to cover three full weeks of my classes so I could take some family leave, and over the next three semesters, I covered some of those classes in return, when I could.

Of course, this was a writing program, and so lesson plans could be deployed by several others in the program, and I had weeks to plan for it, unlike the unexpected family tragedy.

In short, I'm glad the timing seems to have in part worked out, and I hope should you need it, that your department will step up and help you work around your needs and not only theirs.

Dr. Virago said...

Lecturess -- "Crazy-making," yes! Exactly! I think that's what I was trying to get at.

C&D - Yes, I think if I really needed to take the time off, I could and the deparment would make do. And now that we have WebCT with our courses, I could even do some discussion online while away. So yes, it could be worked out. But it just seems so much harder, with so many more people having to be consulted and so many more schedules juggled, than in other professions. When my sister -- a business exec -- asked her boss for a few extra days so she could be there to help Mom get settled into the nursing home, her boss told her to do what was needed and things would be covered until she got back. Sigh. If only it were that easy in most of our cases. (Of course, my sister can't get out of her upcoming business trip to Asia and Europe, so other professions can be just as inflexible as academia in some ways.)

And I also think a lot of my anxiety about all this is that so much of the burden of our work is carried alone and so when you're not there to do it, it doesn't get done, even if someone is covering your classes for you. It's that constant, seemingly inexorable, solitary burden weighing on me that's so crazy-making as well.

~profgrrrrl~ said...

Oh yes, having been in both worlds I know the differences so well. I recall the corporate years when I had no vacation days left and had to stay and work the holidays -- even though there was nothing to be done. Now I can go whenever I want, but there's always something to be done. It's all a trade-off.

timna said...

with academic scheduling at its quirkiest, I haven't ever been able to go on spring break with my kids. there's a month between when they're out and when my college is off. we've gotten used to it, I suppose, but just once it would be nice to go as a family.

Dr. Virago said...

Hey, hi Profgrrrrl! I'm honored! :)

And yes, it's definitely a trade off. I remember being burnt out on school and always having something to be done, even as an undergrad, but then I hated the day-to-day grind of the corporate world, even though I got to go home and be free of it at the end of the day.

And yeah, you *do* seem to go whenever you want! :) I envy you! But I also like the pictures of your travels on your blog.

Dr. Virago said...

Timna - your comment squeezed in while I was responding to Profgrrrrl. I hope it didn't seem like I was ignoring you!

Not having kids myself, I can only imagine the extra burdens of juggling multiple academic calendars! Yikes! But here's an idea/question: can you schedule some sort of independent or group work for your students the week your kids are out of school?

And Hi and welcome! So many new commenters in this thread! I guess I struck a nerve?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Well, you certainly hit mine. My grandfather died at Christmas, and I've been trying to figure out, not knowing if I'm going to have any more interviews, when I can get to hometown for an ashes-scattering thing. Spring break was suggested, but I had an interview last spring break -- and grades are due the Tuesday, and classes start up the following Monday -- when do I prep?

Fortunately, my family is beginning to get it ...

Dr. Virago said...

Oh, ADM, I'm so sorry! At the very least I'm glad your family gets it or is starting to.