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Humblebrags, Guilt, and Professional Insecurities

Thank you, @AcademicsSay for this oh-so-timely nugget of truth. I’ve never felt so seen or so read. I’ve been trying to measure the success of a sabbatical that’s more than half over in terms of the hours I’ve spent at my kitchen table reading, writing, analyzing, and typing. It’s been strange to not be rushing to meeting after class after class after meeting. I can’t say I’m sooooooo busy or things are soooooooo crazy right now in the same way my working colleagues can right now, and it’s been making me feel sooooooo guilty.

Where does that guilt come from? Why am I being so hard on myself for not spending more hours working when I have some decent sabbatical accomplishments already in the bag, my partner’s been through (and continues to go through) a major health crisis, and I have a young son? A lot of this self-imposed pressure is just, unfortunately, a part of my personality. I always want to do more, better, faster, GO! Over the past year I’ve learned that I’m more ambitious than I originally thought I could be.

But a large part of these professional insecurities come from a culture of academia that constantly forces us to ask ourselves: Am I doing enough? The answer to this question is almost always a resounding YES, and yet…AND YET, we can always point to someone who is doing more, better, faster, GO! Our emails to our colleagues always start with, “This week is CRAZY busy,” or “I have so much to do,” or “I have meeting after meeting; class after class.” I recognize that some of these statements might be genuine venting. People are tired and they sometimes need to share their woes. But when this is the constant tenor of conversation in academia, something is wrong.

We are, as @AcademicsSay so aptly stated, valorizing overwork. In our culture of tenure, continuing appointment, or promotion (whatever it may look like in your library), NOT being overworked and overwhelmed means you’re not working enough. I’m sure we’ve all been on the receiving end of shady comments from colleagues–“Wow, I wish I had time to have lunch! OMG your desk is so clean. Mine’s covered in papers to grade. When do you find time to work out? I have 2 papers to revise and resubmit.” And how do we respond? Do we say, “Regular meals and workouts are important to my mental and physical health?” Probably not. The response is more like, “Oh, that’s just today. Last week I was at work from 7am-7pm and reading well past midnight!” It’s almost as if self-care is an alien concept, and to engage in any measure of separation between work life and personal life means you aren’t “doing academia” correctly.

I love being an academic librarian. I love being faculty at a higher education institution. What I don’t love is the humblebrag olympics we engage in on a daily basis. I don’t love to poor modelling we are demonstrating to our students, who seem to think that working more is better than working efficiently. I don’t love the ways in which we uphold overwork to the point where we are setting up a culture that in turn exploits adjuncts, post-docs, and visiting professors who are told that if they “just stick with it” they’ll eventually earn the privilege of also being too stressed to function. I don’t love that we are told to wait until after tenure to start a family, focus on our health, and, well, have a life, as though before that we were some human-shaped dough only focused on promotion.

I’ve thought about work-life balance, work-life separation, and vocational bleed (no separation between work and life) a lot these past few months as I attempt to live through a sabbatical I can be proud to call my own. I am proud. I am proud that I signed a book contract. I am proud that I can finally chaturanga in yoga class without bending my knees. I am proud that I made a kick-ass dinner last night for my family. I’m proud I read a few chapters yesterday. I am proud that I put moisturizer on my face (with SPF!) this morning. I’m proud I’ll be presenting at LOEX. There is so much for all of us to be proud of on a daily basis.

There is also so much for us to examine. What kind of examples are we setting for our junior colleagues? In promoting our overwork as some kind of martyrdom are we contributing to their own overwork and ultimate burnout? Are we contributing to an academic culture that leaves folks ripe for exploitation? What are some changes we can make to the way we move through our day to create the work culture we want?

8 Comments

  1. Thank you! On my campus, faculty have described the culture as a “cult of busy-ness.” But, a good friend reminded me that “my productivity is not my value.” These are hard to reconcile on a daily, weekly, monthly, lifetime basis. Maybe if we talked more of the invisible work that we do when we aren’t rushing between classes and meetings we would value it more? Things like reading news, blogs, and journal articles, emails with students and faculty, coordinating projects – these are important professional habits that don’t go on a CV but, perhaps, if I shared my personal value of them I would change the way colleagues value their own work? Great food for thought.

  2. So much this. I recently read the book Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness, which really made me think and helped break down and contextualize things I’ve been thinking but hadn’t fully formed yet. I highly recommend it – short and well-researched and containing a whole section on the “do what you love” rhetoric and the adjunctification of higher ed.

    I work to actively separate myself from my job, and it isn’t always easy. I take a lunch break SOMEWHERE OTHER THAN MY DESK most days a week. I do not check email on nights or weekends. I do my darnedest to get outside for a walk on any day when it is not actively precipitating. I can justify some of this by saying that walking helps me think through problems (thereby insinuating that I’m not just WALKING, I’m WORKING), which is true, but it is also true that I feel a lot better as a human when I get outside. What’s hard is the feeling that I am somehow slacking off by not making “productive” use of every available second of my work day and the feeling that others perceive be to be less productive even though I know I’m doing all my work plus some. There’s also some great research in that book about how working more hours demonstrably decreases productivity.

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