The Distracted Academic Self

What is your passion?

By Donald E. Hall (Lehigh)

When I published The Academic Self: An Owner’s Manual (Ohio State University Press) 10 years ago, there was one point I hoped to make above all others: I wanted academic readers to understand the absolute necessity of continuously working to sort out what we can change or influence in our own lives and selves, and what we cannot.

Much has changed since then, but I believe that point is just as valid today.

Back in 2002, my work life was so hectic that I had to microschedule everything just to keep my sanity intact. I was working at California State University at Northridge, a teaching-intensive institution, holding two administrative appointments, and commuting two or sometimes three hours a day on Los Angeles freeways.

The context of my work has changed significantly in the past decade. I have made two career moves, first to an endowed chair at West Virginia University, where I devoted myself almost solely to research in my fields of gender studies and higher-education studies, and then (after getting back into administration at WVU) to a position as dean of arts and sciences at Lehigh University, where I am often at work from 7 a.m. until evening. In both positions, however, the same planning skills that I learned in my first job have helped me balance an intensely busy professional life with a home life and a 13-year relationship that I am committed to protecting.

I wrote The Academic Self because I saw too many talented colleagues collapse professionally under the weight of heavy teaching loads, endless service expectations, and rising demands for research in the tenure-and-promotion process. I had found ways of sorting through and balancing the many demands on our time, and wanted to share my strategies.

It hasn’t always been easy, and while the “day planner” I extolled in my book as key to staying on schedule has metamorphosed seamlessly from print to electronic, technology is adding some new complications. I didn’t even possess a cellphone in 2002, much less the iPhone I have today, with its constantly downloaded text messages and e-mail. YouTube (created in 2005—my, how time flies!) certainly didn’t exist to entice one with instant access to engrossing interviews with Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Lady Gaga. Skype (2003) didn’t offer opportunities to chat daily and free with friends, collaborators, and students across the globe. Indeed, Facebook (2004) was still a nonsense word, and tweets (before 2006) came only from the beaks of cartoon birds. Over the past decade, our technological environment has become far more intrusive and distracting than I could have imagined.

Yet that din of information and of 24-hour access to entertainment and interesting conversation with colleagues from Hong Kong to Ga-borone underscores my reaffirmation of the core principles I articulated in my book. More than ever, we must manage our time adroitly and assess honestly our ability to exercise self-directed agency (what I termed “self-reflexivity”) in our professional lives, especially as they intersect with our personal lives. Technology and new media are value-neutral, but what we choose to do with them is, of course, value-laden and highly consequential.

None of this is to imagine some utopia of perfect self-actualization. There are myriad forces and environmental factors that are well outside our control and that affect our lives profoundly. I have had beloved colleagues struggle with addiction and other demons that no amount of self-help twaddle will begin to ameliorate. Similarly, project-scheduling and life-planning are thrown into chaos when illness strikes a partner or an aging parent. I understand better now, at age 51, than I did 10 years ago how knowing what is best for oneself can still be a long way from doing what is best for oneself.

However, that constricted and often murky ability to exercise some degree of self-directed power in our lives does not lessen our responsibility to do the best we can in living with self-awareness, honesty, and care. To ignore that duty is to risk a life of victimization by others and of others. While life crises will confront us all, and new sources of entertainment and information will continue to distract us from our sometimes less-than-riveting work, that hardly leaves us blameless if we habitually miss professional deadlines, neglect our families, or otherwise act irresponsibly.

We have active choices to make in our work and home lives. The most rewarding aspect of participating in administration is the opportunity it affords for mentoring—of junior colleagues working toward tenure and of senior colleagues who are themselves thinking of taking on administrative responsibilities. To both groups, I give the same advice: Find and live your passion. If you choose to devote yourself to research or other projects that you are not passionate about, you will always look for excuses not to finish your work. That is when the distractions of YouTube, Web surfing, and Facebook lure you into a morass of procrastination and self-denial.

Yes, there are mundane and tedious tasks that must be performed, about which few people could ever feel much passion: compilations of data demanded from above that will be filed away without a glance, expense reports that are necessary but dull to assemble, third and fourth explanations of the same sets of rules to those who forget or neglect to read previous explanations. But those sometimes nearly unbearable tasks have to be minor subsets of the larger project of our careers, or we have simply chosen the wrong path for ourselves.

This brings me to my final point, one directed at those readers who are tenured or on the tenure track: you are extraordinarily privileged and lucky. Yes, our pay is often less than what we would wish. Yes, our students are sometimes unprepared. Yes, our professional lives are often affected by state budget crises or the whims of incompetent administrators. However, if you have lifetime job security, or a decent shot at it, with health benefits, a retirement plan, and a daily schedule over which you have some influence, you should be ashamed of yourself if you squander it. To those colleagues who waste endless amounts of their own time and that of their colleagues by procrastinating on aspects of their jobs that they were hired to do (conduct and publish research, grade papers, engage judiciously in committee work), I say, “Make a choice: Do your work or turn in your resignation and let someone else have your job.”

That sounds harsh, and perhaps it is, but over the 21 years I have spent in this profession, I have seen too many people who, against all good advice, have frittered away their careers, complaining all the while and taking up faculty slots that I know 100 eager and ambitious new Ph.D.’s are desperate to fill.

Ten years after the publication of The Academic Self, the balance in the academy has tipped even more sharply toward poorly paid contract labor without benefits and job security. The precious nature of our positions among the tenured and tenure-track should be forefront in our minds and an ever-present counterweight to any potential distraction that threatens to pull us away from the work we have chosen. No one employed in the professoriate today was forced into the career, and anyone who plays victim while holding a tenured or tenure-track position should be ashamed.

We are distracted only when we allow ourselves to be so. We can turn off the phone, tune out the distractions, and get on with our work—our passion—whenever we choose. That is a first step toward owning up to the responsibilities that attend the rare privilege of an academic life.

Donald E. Hall is dean of arts and sciences at Lehigh University and co-editor of The Routledge Queer Studies Reader, recently published.

It was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 10, 2012 (August 5 for online publication).

Author: Brooke Allen

A social entrepreneur and retired Wall Street executive.

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