I’ve long been interested in American overwork — something that sociologist Juliet Shor has been working on for decades, and which has been embraced by popular organizations like Take Back Your Time. What has gotten me thinking about it more recently is the structure of academic, tenure-track contracts, which often don’t say how many hours per week you’re expected to work. They’re often nine-month contracts, which means that we have summers off. And they specify that people should be splitting their labor over research, writing, teaching and service in some rough way (e.g. 25% for each of those). So while they may implicitly be suggesting that you should be working a 40 hour week, there’s really no oversight on how you spend your work time. That is, you can spend as much time working as you want — or as little — as long as you meet certain objectives (especially in terms of tenure promotion).
Since tenure anxiety is usually pretty palpable for junior faculty, they’re the most likely to overwork to try and meet tenure expectations (it doesn’t help that tenure requirements are often fairly vague, allowing for institutional interpretation). Add to this that a lot of academic labor has become ‘invisible,’ e.g. answering student or colleague emails, and work can fill every waking hour of the day.
And then there’s all the visible labor: teaching, course prep & grading, faculty meetings and meetings with students, grant writing, article & book writing, peer reviewing, campus & departmental service — am I forgetting something?
The irony is that academics have long been aware of how flextime and alternative work schedules actually extract more labor from workers. Which is all to say: I’ve become interested in cataloging how I spend my work time, and I’m hoping other people might be up for similar self-research. If you’re up for it, let me know and we’ll do a little interview to talk about what the expectations about your labor are and what your actual work week looks like…