Thursday, July 11, 2013

Guilt Is The Key

People wonder why tenured professors with job security in hand might keep on keeping on.  Why do they say yes to projects, to reviewing articles for journals, to serve as external referees for tenure/promotion cases, and so on?  I was feeling bad about the time I was wasting this morning standing in line at the grocery story because I did not blog at all yesterday.  Whuck?

Jeez, my blog is purely a voluntary activity, that I write mostly for myself, that I never expected to get much traffic, and only goes viral when I attack certain academics.  Yet I feel guilty if I don't keep it going.  I used to try to have several entries a day (kept that up for a few years), and now I just try to keep it going.  Most days, it is not that hard, but sometimes I lack inspiration.

But this speaks to a larger issue: that which divides academics is not really about ambition but about guilt.  In any department, there is a mix of people who are reliable and those who are not.  The unreliable people are unreliable either because they are somehow broken--that they screw up when asked to do stuff--or are rational.  That is, if you develop a reputation for being unreliable, then people ask you less often to do stuff.  The unreliable seem not to feel the guilt or perhaps are not motivated by guilt.  I felt guilty even as I embraced being partially unreliable in my last years at my previous job.

If you are reliable, well, you get asked to do more stuff.  So, why do more stuff?  Why do folks publish after tenure?  Partly there are pay increases and potential desires to remain mobile, but for most folks, they are not moving.  Why agree to do service for which there is little reward?

My answer: I think that the professing profession socializes us into feeling guilty if we do not keep at it, that we need to be constantly thinking about our research, that we need to keep writing even after we make full professor, that we need to keep on keeping on.

Our profession requires a great deal of self-motivation because we have many tasks to perform and no one telling us what to do at any given moment or how to do it.  The immense freedom we have to use our time as we see fit is the big advantage of being a professor.  But this freedom can be problematic if we do not have something pushing us to do what we are supposed to do.  Chairs/deans have limited abilities to get people to contribute.  Ambition can play a role to a certain degree, but I do believe that this profession mostly operates via guilt--a sense that one is letting others and oneself down if not doing what one is supposed to do.

Sometimes I see somebody doing a 9-5 job and I get a short pang of jealousy as I know that they can leave the job when they leave the job at the end of the day--that they are not thinking about work afterhours besides bitching about bosses and such.  Of course, I quickly realize I would be miserable under those conditions.  I spent a year being in a tight hierarchy, was told what to do, had my work re-written multiple times, and had to send up papers and slides with arguments that I didn't buy but were the ones the organization was pushing.  I tolerated that part of the job because the rest of the experience was so very cool, but there is no way I would want to do that forever.

The guilt goes with the territory, and it is a small price to pay for having a cool job.  But it does not go away.  Not even in summer when we are "off", not even when there are no more promotions to be had.  So, I accept the guilt that writing my blog means not writing stuff that "counts" and that writing the stuff that counts means I am not doing other stuff.  And yes, when I am on vacation, that is time I am not spending on my work.

I probably have not articulated this well, and it may sound whiny or entitled that guilt is my motivator, so I guess I should feel guilty for this post, right?

[Update: check out this supplemental post as I am feeling guilty about what I wrote here]


R. William Ayres said...

Actually, I think this is pretty good - I think you're on to something here. But then, my guilt has shifted somewhat (not a lot, but some) since moving to administration.

Roderick said...

"Jeez, my blog is purely a voluntary activity, that I write mostly for myself, that I never expected to get much traffic, and only goes viral when I attack certain academics. Yet I feel guilty if I don't keep it going."

Oh really. Well be careful what you wish might get more (un)wanted attention in time..