‘Serious academics’ at play



As we get ready for the academic year to begin (or, in some cases, are already in the first week or two of the fall semester), folks have been posting or reposting some great advice for new faculty members and their mentors. For example, last week Tanya Golash-Boza published on Vitae a smart piece titled “10 Ways to Support New Faculty.” This past weekend a friend reposted on Facebook this terrific 2013 synthesis of websites called “Advice for New Assistant Professors.” In that piece, the 10th of 13 bullet points focuses on making a schedule with breaks and boundaries — and time for things “that help you relax and stay healthy.”

I want to emphasize the importance of this advice, not only for new assistant professors but also for all the faculty who mentor assistant professors or even just model what life in the academy is like. In part, I will be building on some of the inspiring wisdom in Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s “How to Be a Great Mentor: a Mentoring Manifesto,” which I would encourage every faculty member at every level, and probably every graduate student too, to read.

About 10 years ago, a second-year graduate student named Danielle (or that’s what we will call her) stopped by my office for a chat. Danielle was in my pedagogy course, and I knew her as a high-energy person who was passionate about medieval literature and was already enjoying good success as a teacher. Danielle had been a soccer player in college, and she had just been offered the opportunity to be a volunteer coach for a girls’ club soccer team in town. She really wanted to take the position and felt like she had time to do it, but she had heard whispers among her peers about how anyone who had time for anything other than research and teaching (i.e., graduate school) wasn’t a serious graduate student. She was anxious about having her commitment to academe questioned.

“Oh no!” I exclaimed — or at least I exclaimed something along those lines. I strongly encouraged Danielle to take the position: It seemed like a fun way to get away from academe and for her to continue to do something she loved. Of course she had time if this was something she wanted to do. We need to have time for the things we love that are not our jobs.

I got the idea to write this post while I was out on my run this morning. As my colleagues know, sports are something I am passionate about and have always made room for — as a participant and a fan. I try to catch myself in the summer when I say that I am going to “sneak out” for a noontime swim at the fabulous 50-meter outdoor pool in town. I’m not sneaking! I’m going for a swim because I love this pool and there are few things that make me feel happier and healthier than taking this chlorine-filled break in the middle of the day. I also deeply appreciate all the friends I have made outside the academy through sports over the years; they have been an important support system and often the reality check that helps me keep academe in perspective.

I believe I qualify as a serious academic. I love my work — and by “work” I am referring to my research, teaching, administrative service, and public outreach like writing for this blog. But I also love lots of things other than work. I went into academe in part because it promised a lifestyle where I would have the time and flexibility in my schedule to pursue other interests, have a family if I wanted to, take some vacation in the summer — to “have a life” as we sometimes say.

My passion for the field and for teaching can make the boundaries hard to draw, as “work” can give me real pleasure and bleed over into my recreational time. And then, of course, there’s email. I find I must always be vigilant to make sure that I create space for all the nonacademic things I love to do — and for sleep (which I suppose also counts as a nonacademic thing I love to do!). I don’t always succeed, but I sure do try. And when I don’t do as well as I should have today, I try again tomorrow. I am one of the folks Rockquemore is talking to when she smartly reminds us that there will always be more tasks on the list than we can possibly do in a given day. The list will still be there tomorrow, and we need to be comfortable with the idea that we will never cross everything off and say with relief, “I have everything finished!” It is not the way academe works.

It’s not that we don’t need to work hard. Of course we need to work hard. But we don’t need to work all the time.

If you are a post-tenure faculty member who has ever said to a graduate student or an assistant professor something along the lines of “If you’re doing anything other than working in the lab/writing for publication and sleeping, you’re not a serious academic,” please don’t say it again. It’s not true. And if you are a post-tenure faculty member who hears about a colleague who is saying that, please consider intervening and reminding your colleague about the importance of keeping academic jobs in check and making space for other passions, diversions, and sometimes just plain downtime.

Mentors and other post-tenure faculty should also remember to openly share our nonacademic pursuits (are you a world-class birder? a skilled gamer? an amateur flautist? a dedicated knitter?), our vacation stories, our plans to leave the office by 4 p.m. to coach a daughter’s volleyball team or feed the animals on our farm, and our less scholarly pleasures (I myself thoroughly enjoy what is sometimes dismissively called “chick lit”). If it looks like we work all the time, it can send the message that we value that behavior even if we never explicitly say so. It can mean that the Danielles of the world don’t feel comfortable talking about coaching a soccer team and may turn down great opportunities for recreational play.

Serious academics take their academic jobs seriously. A key part of that seriousness is keeping the job in perspective so that we can do it with passion, care, judiciousness, and energy, while giving ourselves the space and time to do the other things that energize us.