>[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.