Thursday, March 20, 2008

Shamus Khan is Human, and He Rocks

Shakha at Scatterplot writes an open letter to academics:

In short, what lots of folks tell me is they are happy when we seem like actual humans, and not simply people who are huddled up in an academic monastery. Therefore, let me publicly affirm what I have been privately conveying to others.

1.) I watch television. I make no apologies about this. It does not make me a worse academic or a worse person.

2.) I sometimes think about quitting. More than sometimes really. Often it is daily. This does not mean that I hate sociology, or my work (although at times I do). For all its rewards, our job is taxing. Particularly taxing is the sense that I am never done. This makes me want to quit. And I entertain the idea.

3.) I take days off. Sometimes I take multiple consecutive days off. I am not necessarily doing anything productive on these days (I am not bettering myself by going to art museums or traveling around Europe). Sometimes I choose not to leave my apartment on these days. I order in food and watch movies or catch up on watching TV (see #1).

4.) I feel anxious about my work almost all the time. That it’s not good enough. That I’m a fraud. That I should be doing more of it. That it will never be done (see #2).

So if you feel the same way, I’m just here to say, you’re not alone. Wow. That was cathartic. It may not be smart to reveal these things on such a public forum. But I think that by collectively denying them we make it worse for all of us. You may not be in completely the same boat as I, but I suspect there are some similarities for all of us. Now I’m nervous that I wrote this (see #4). Anyone else in my club?

I'm as human as Shakha, just not as accomplished. But I am all for admitting our humanity, insecurities, and failings, even as we try to bravely put on the face and tweed elbow-patch of academics. Anyone notice how gendered this all is? This is why I love Shamus' post all the more. I blog pseudonymously for a reason--I feel awful nervous when I admit that I am behind work, avoiding my advisor because I am so behind, struggling with elementary statistics, so sick with allergies or anemia that I can't work for days, and for the first time in six years, having a personal life that gives me great happiness and support (and the career benefit of making me organize my time better so as to have work/life balance). I admit all sorts of personal stuff on this blog. I've posted pictures of myself passed out with the flu. People often question me for this. But I imagine, also, that my actual regular readers are glad to read the human side, and sympathetic to everything that is going on with me as I try to become an academic.

This is why I really enjoy my research on work/life balance. While I am not always in favor of first-person narrative as a methodological tool for my actual research, I do like reading alternate stories about work and working--it is not always so easy. The narrative of work in academia, especially at R1 or TT or T14 schools, is "work first, life later"--this is a very limited view with great disparate impact on women, who, as gendered expectations of family work will show you, are less able to give 70 hour work weeks. But female faculty are good workers too. It's all in how you define a good worker or a good academic. One can still be productive and useful when constrained by other life choices. One can be a good academic even if one is human and full of insecurity and failure. Even now, without the burdens of family, I am struggling, and I'll be the first to admit this.

Shamus' admission of humanity is valuable because it's an alternate story of work and self. It's great. I am in his club. Are you?