Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A few more thoughts . . .

A friend told me he heard a rumor that I was "boycotting" the Flow conference, a rumor surely inspired by my last post. I told him that I wouldn't call it a boycott, rather that I thought it impossible for me to attend a conference held on Yom Kippur, given my personal situation.

I don't know who labeled my situation a boycott, but it seems to me representative of a certain view of the work and life of academics, or at least of the academia I know, in that it assumes that I must have made a choice against the conference rather than having to grapple with a tension between my identity as a media scholar and my other, more personal, roles. Rather than a choice against the conference this was a situation shaped by choices I have made in my personal life that are not readily accommodated within academia. These choices are not about religion, but rather about sustaining certain kinds of personal relationships (in this particular case, to my immediate and extended family) for which there is no clear place in academia. These relationships include those with my partner (in that it would be inequitable for only one of us to attend a conference in which we are both interested), with my child (for whose care I am responsible), and with my extended family (whose babysitting generosity and religious observance I respect). Perhaps I should include my relationship to the Jewish community here, but my particular dilemma in this case was more about the Jews in my family than a community at large.

These thoughts are really not specific to the Flow conference, rather they are about the academic culture in which I take part. The academic culture in which I have been socialized (primarily through graduate school and the world of my "field," with which I engage most regularly through conferences) is one that seems to assume a 24/7 living and breathing of the work. In part, this may be because we study media, and thus cannot escape our object of study even when in our "down time." I imagine this may be different for the chemist or perhaps even the literature scholar, though other fields surely feel the same 24/7 work mentality in their own respects, as well as some shared ones.

Now, please understand that I love this aspect of being a media scholar--that the work, the ideas, suffuse all of my life, not just some segmented "work time." I would love to be able to live in a world in which I am always surrounded by others as interested in and passionate about media, especially TV, as I am, and who want to talk about it in the ways I do. This is in large part what I loved about graduate school, that immersion in a world of people and ideas focused on similar interests and passions. When I came to graduate school, I couldn't believe my good fortune in finding such a community of like-minded people. And in many ways, I still reap the benefits of that, as I live with a like-minded media scholar and so get to experience that 24/7 world moreso than might someone who is single or partnered with a non-academic or even an academic in another field.

And yet. The real world is not graduate school. And the harsh truth that I think many of us must encounter when we move into jobs (hopefully) and other responsibilities is that a 24/7 life of the mind, of scholarly passion and commitment, is kind of impossible. Even if one chooses to keep one's personal ties limited and to focus on the work as a result, it can be difficult in the world post-grad school to find the like-minded souls you once knew. Many of us work in places where we are not surrounded by people engaged in the same ideas and interests as we are and thus we make other kinds of friends. So my real life, day to day friends are not necessarily fellow media scholars, but psychologists, and doctors, and stay at home parents, people with whom I've found other ways of connecting than our intellectual passions. And I have family members, both older and younger than me, who need my attention and time, or to whom I owe certain considerations (as in the case of not being able to ask anyone to babysit over Yom Kippur).

My point is that the ideal of 24/7 intellectual immersion that academia demands/promises/threatens is not a practical one for most of us. It is a patriarchal ideal, as well, in that it assumes an academic who can be readily freed from real world obligations and commitments in pursuit of the scholarship. This person has of course traditionally been male. Male academics have always had connections and obligations outside of their work (to partners, children, etc.) but have also lived in a culture in which it is assumed that their work can and must supersede those private links and that someone else (typically a wife) will be there to take care of them. The picture of an academic, male or female, who cannot or will not subsume those links fits less well into an academic culture that sees all else as secondary to the intellectual (and social) pursuits of the professorial life.

Dr. Crazy wrote about similar issues a while back, talking about the ways that academia is inhospitable to a personal life and I really liked what she said but couldn't figure out how to articulate my take at the time. So this is my awkward attempt to do so, not to complain about any one problematic policy in academia, but instead to reflect on what I see as the patriarchal roots of academic culture, roots that assume an ease of separation between academic life and personal life that is not always possible, and that has consequences that we are not all willing to accept.

UPDATE: Just saw this column at the Chronicle of Higher Ed that reports on the impact of such matters for women in the sciences.


Derek said...

Excellent take on this issue, Elana. You could add as well the less appealing but often necessary parts of an academic career that also challenge one's life balance: grading, committees, letter-writing, attending functions, etc. And, of course, the marathon of tenure itself.

Much of this is a function of maturity, of basically realizing your limits and responsibilities, even while challenging your potential. In grad school, most of us can focus squarely on the potential part (a few years of near-poverty notwithstanding), fueled by the energies of our 20s. The decision to take on non-academic responsibilities (especially having children) is part of "growing up," but is almost never acknowledged in any significant way by our work life. I was at dinner with several PhD students (from a different school) at a conference a while back, and they were all surprised that any academic could even have children. As long as kids, elderly parents, extended family, and non-academic friends are treated with disdain or avoidance by academe, these attitudes will persist. We should model a non-academic life for our students, as well as an academic one, if at all possible.

Anyway, much more to say. Appropriately, my kids are waking up, and it's time for breakfast!

Sam Ford said...

Hey Elana, I had someone comment to me that long ago that the best way to prove one's self to a boss in any job is to prove that you can prioritize correctly, that you realize that going on business trips when the company needs you to doesn't mean you are a bad spouse/parent but that you are doing what you have to.

I understand what he meant and the spirit in which he meant it, but that likewise assumes that employers should believe that their job should take priority over everything else in your life and that you as a human being, in consequence, are much less important than your professional title.

This is a view we've long expected from the salaried corporate world, where the narrative of a home life that suffers due to the "importance" of a day job has played out, but I think this piece speaks really strongly to the fact that academia shares the same problem.

To outsiders, academia is a place where people don't have to work. In reality, for many academics, I've seen it as a place where people can't stop working, perhaps even heightened in the academic areas I'm most interested in: fan/audience studies, media studies, etc. While working at MIT, I had people from the corporate world asking me if I enjoyed having the summer off, for instance.

The most enlightened employers, or industries, understand that a balance between work life and home life is crucial and that a salary doesn't mean ownership of a person's soul, in which people should be privileged if and when they have a life outside work. I think that it's especially important in academia, where the work generated is intellectual, that better work comes from people who have a balanced life, are energized by family and friends and activities that have little or nothing to do with their work.

In short, I think this reaction to your post and these struggles speak to a question we've been asking in our country for more than a century about the relationship of work and leisure. Are we defined first by our trade, or are we so and so, who among many other things, works in a particular industry or for a certain organization? Do we work to fund our life, or do we build our lives around a profession?

Of course, the answer falls somewhere in between that, because in many cases our choice of career speaks volumes about who we are, but I think we have to draw a line in which being passionate about your job doesn't require you to sell your soul to it.