Working hard or hardly working

People regularly praise my work ethic. My academic peers in particular are stunned by my productivity. Recently I met with a colleague who was stunned that I had written a monograph on Agamben since publishing Neoliberalism’s Demons and declared, “I don’t know how you do it!” My response was: “I don’t think I can anymore!”

I keep pushing myself to the limit, and in the second half of this year, I discovered it. I had a shortened summer vacation due to an academic calendar change at my institution, and I produced a whole book manuscript even with four fewer weeks off. I committed to do a translation during the term, which I normally never do. Meanwhile, I taught a grading-intensive course that was not only a new prep for me, but a newly developed class for the institution as whole, which was being introduced as part of an overhaul of the gen ed program. The result was that I felt overwhelmed and on edge nearly the entire term.

This is not the first time I have felt such exhaustion. The last time I regularly declared that I was running on fumes was after I completed Neoliberalism’s Demons. In the year or so that followed, I consciously gave myself a break from fresh research, in part so that my mind would still be “in” the project when the time came to promote it, but in part simply to give my brain a chance to heal up a little. When I started the research for my book on Agamben (by undertaking a chronological read-through of his entire body of work), I convinced myself that it was only for my own edification — and to give me something to read on the train! Had I admitted that it would be a book early on, I’m sure I would have felt overwhelmed, but allowing myself the delusion that it was an open-ended exploration made it a joy.

And writing the book was a joy, too. My Esteemed Partner would often come home to find me excited by the new connection I had discovered in the course of my writing. The problem was that it was also overwhelming. I was writing all day almost every day, in clear contradiction of my writing routine, and I felt real pressure to complete the manuscript by the end of the summer due to my heavy teaching load and translation work. In the event, I sent a complete manuscript to a colleague who had volunteered to review it (my signal for being officially “done” with a draft) literally the Friday before classes started. I’m proud of what I accomplished in the book and don’t think that taking more time would have materially improved the content — in fact, I think that taking a few months off and then returning to it likely would have hurt the end result. But if I’d been able to spread the work out over a normal summer vacation, my mental health surely would have benefited.

I am shocked by how much better I feel even just a week after submitting the manuscript (having taken the week after classes ended to do some revision). The status anxiety that had burdened me the past several months has dissipated, and I now realize that a lot of it was coming from the sense that I was all but killing myself through academic labor, with little added recognition or status to show for it. That anxiety was compounded by my paranoia surrounding my employment situation. I mention in the above-linked post that I don’t enjoy the formal protections of tenure, but I am reasonably certain that the status quo will continue for the foreseeable future. Yet this academic year is the final year of the Shimer program’s initial three-year probationary period — a timeframe that I had seared so deeply into my own brain that I still regarded it as somehow “the end,” even when I was consciously aware that it wasn’t.

Hence why I pushed myself so hard to finally write my monograph on Agamben, which would feel like a major loose end if my academic career abruptly ended. The positive side of this stance, though, is that it was a pure labor of love. I did not do it to improve my scholarly reputation, because my expertise in Agamben’s work is widely recognized. Nor did I do it to enhance my chances of getting an academic job — not only does it not contribute evidence of new expertise, but it also became clear to me early on that sheer quantity of production does not directly correlate to job prospects.

Nor, indeed, did I do it to enhance my “personal brand,” much less to make money — both of which would call for very different, much more constricted approaches to writing and self-marketing, which I had begun to explore over the course of the past year or so (with mixed results at best so far). I wasn’t writing a textbook or an introduction, nor was I “applying” Agamben’s thought to some urgent contemporary problem. I was writing about Agamben because I had something to say about Agamben that I thought was relatively unique, and I was writing it for an audience of people who know and care about Agamben. The ability to do a project like that, with at least some relative freedom from market forces, is the utopian moment in academic writing. I wanted to participate in that utopian moment one more time while I knew I had the chance. Even though it was stressful and difficult, I look back on the experience as a happy one overall.

What I have done with my free time — studied Arabic, read Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon — doubtless looks suspiciously like work, and certainly both pursuits have had their difficult and tedious moments. But it doesn’t feel like work. I am studying Arabic because I love languages, and I am reading Pynchon because I have always found his novels to be a profound aesthetic experience. I am not checking anything off a list (though learning Arabic and eventually studying the Qur’an in the original is a long-term goal, as is reading Pynchon’s complete body of work), nor am I under any time constraint (though I’d like to finish Mason & Dixon before break is over, because I’m not sure if I’d finish it otherwise). It is non-alienated labor of the kind that the academic lifestyle leaves room for in a way that few other professions do. My hope as I continue down this path is that I can continue to do the work that sustains me without falling into the trap of converting it into alienated labor — to remember that I am an academic so that I can do this work, rather than doing this work to somehow “earn” or guarantee my academic status.

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