on work, overwork, folly, and resistance

Last year I worked every weekend from mid-March to the end of September.

I shouldn’t have.

I shouldn’t have done that for so long.

I’ll never do that again. (Fingers crossed.)

It was a seriously bad mistake. It’s embarrassing. I regret it and am ashamed of it. I was foolish.

Those weekends were in addition to weekdays and including working during one month’s contractual annual leave. As unpaid overtime. Every week that was at least 20% and at most 100%, assuming a regular working week to be 40 hours.

At some point I’ll write up all the extra things that happened in teaching, because there’s lots of #innovation. I didn’t do it at the time or close to it because I was working too much, and in permanent emergency mode, to be able to write stuff up. And too tired. If you’ve worked 12 hours and only remembered to eat lunch 8 hours in, by the end of the day you struggle with competing ageing humanimal claims of needing to stretch, eat, exercise, breathe fresh air, rehydrate, go to the toilet, and sleep. Rinse and repeat for days and weeks and months. Maybe wash yourself and clothes in between. That’s something that’s taking more time now that we’re teaching in physical person again. And yes, I might indeed occasionally feel like punching shiny sleek well-groomed people in business suits and sharp shoes even more than I did in The Before Times. Or, what with being a reasonably peaceful kind of person who’s still sufficiently conditioned to feel that she ought to wish to seem nice: at least making flatulent noises in their vicinity.

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Now, you might be asking: why do we do this to ourselves?

In academia we can’t work to rule, as we don’t have fixed hours like in other kinds of work. This, and the idea of doing work that is a different kind of work because it is a vocation, has pros and cons. Right now, in Current Pandemic Times, we’re seeing these pros being twisted by non-academics to non-academic profit and profiteering. Which might, if we’re extra good and work even harder, be for unacademic and anti-academic benefit.

As in any work where you are doing what you love, provided that the whole workplace is doing that, you’re good. An artist collective. A small farming coop. An early self-sustaining béguinage. Some historical early universities. Some research groups. Performing and living and being good works of faith, hope, and the cardinal “caritas” of charity and care and love. The kind of occupation that current witless abusage calls a “passion”; unwittingly ironic seeing as how “the passionate” are bled dry, surveilled, silenced or threatened and publicly put to the question, ritually humiliated, and crucified. To be forgotten or, if they didn’t go quietly, their story twisted into régime-reinforcing propaganda of self-sacrifice and glorious martyrdom. Ideally, perversely reverse the roles, for the impassioned to be saved from themselves and instead live to enjoy a happy ending of conversion, embrace and integration into The One True Faith, and converting others.

The vocational small community is, alas, not our situation; nor, alas and alack and alarum, in most universities. Academics’ work and they themselves are no longer a group of collaborative peers. They, we, are in an ever-decreasing minority of university academic scholar-teacher-resercher-learner intellectual workers; and subject to an ever-increasing external non-academic non-peer hierarchy. Professional and executive administration, management, and leadership. (Blame Napoleon for reopening universities that had been closed or crumbling, and starting up new forms of higher education, into which he had infused military command structures.)

Many administrators are good, wise, brilliant people; in our department, for example, we have the luxury of working with colleagues (yes, staff colleagues can be colleagues and peers too) who act as go-betweens, diplomatic liaison, protectors. We’re lucky. I’m thankful. That’s not the case everywhere.

All of us have to deal with Upper Management and HR and a vigorously expanding proliferation of other parts of an organisational system that has become less and less actual knowledge work—learning, research, teaching—and as far as I can tell strives valiantly to be indistinguishable—in system analysis terms—from any (other) extractive industry or competitive exploitative consumerism; even if dealing with these horrors can to some extent be mitigated by setting up email spam filters triggered by certain NewSpeak keywords to send missives from on high and other corporatist confidence-building communiqués straight to a second inbox called something like “Havering Bawbags.” For hypothetical example.

Many of us academic workers—most of us, and indeed, much as I’d usually hate to generalise: I think all of us—do lots of extra work every day, all the time, to support knowledge and colleagues and students. Some of that might technically be in your contract, or at least a (neo-/necro-)liberal interpretation of its vaguer terms (here at UBC, our Collective Agreement). This is true of all faculty: from those whose work is pure research, to those whose work is pure teaching, and those varying extents of other kinds of work: service, support, TA training, advising, course coordination, “facilitating” and running various things with long capitalised names, department and faculty and university committees, representation on senates and boards of governors, etc.

That was already an abusive situation, where goodwill was exploited, especially in performing extra service for students out of the kindness of our hearts. Always giving the benefit of the doubt. Even where it was clear that a correspondent was being entitled, lazy, didn’t read, ignorant and insulting, expected individual extra stuff, was treating you as a personal assistant or customer service drone or servant; where they were in a position of power and exploiting it and you; this happens a lot between students—worse, some seeing themselves as customers and encouraged to do so by non-academic sales and marketing staff—and precarious sessional faculty colleagues and with graduate student teaching assistants. Consumers, consumption, consumed.

Or where someone might be doing that, but you weren’t 100% sure. Ever giving the benefit of the doubt, ever doing so as an expert reader, as a PhD in a literary fields tends to mean that you already had some talent in reading and then your specialist training and practise brought reading skills to subtle sophisticated super-advanced levels. I’m getting too old and have too much accumulated baggage of expertise and experience for dealing with shite. An email will go to the bottom of the pile if it would take 20-60 minutes and deep thought and soul-searching to compose a careful diplomatic response; a compromise, talk in open-door hours.

And no, I’m not replying at the weekend; and yes, that means that right now I could be replying to your email but I’m not. Or, worse, to a message sent by Canvas Message/Conversation, for which you cannot set automatic “out of office / working hours” replies. I’ve asked about this, as have others: screenshots below from the Canvas reply and “solution” and this Canvas Community thread https://community.canvaslms.com/t5/Idea-Conversations/Auto-reply-for-Canvas-messages/idi-p/334329. Spoiler: no solution, then or two years later.

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Time and energy are not limitless. I am not limitless. Maybe I thought that I was more limitless before the pandemic, and in its early stages. Arrogance. I feel less arrogant now, and more limited, albeit tired from anger at others’ arrogance; authoritatively declaring Back To Normal, Business As Usual, Because We Said So, and so on.

But also. Before, and through last year, and now: feeling that extra care was worthwhile even if it only helped one person. Yes, even though weekend out of office email is set, I still check email just in case because I’ve had students in the past who were suicidal or otherwise in crisis. We faculty would do this, and more, because of feeling responsible; and through what I’ve called elsewhere “radical professionalism” as contrasted with the other, and often creeping and creepy, kinds of professionalism. But. There’s the feminist humanist ethical good of over-sharing, and then there’s the folly of over-giving in a culture and ethos of over-taking and competitive overtaking.

Plus all the other extras, and collaboration (in the negative, complicit, Quisling sense) with para-/anti-academic makework and administrative bodies around the university.

All to score points and hope to add extra bonus points, sucking-up brownie-points, to be A Good Girl, to Look Competitive And Dynamic. To add to your CV in the hope that it would help for promotion, perhaps for applying to other jobs at the next rank, and in any event to Accumulate Extra Stuff You Did for annual review and applying for Merit. To Look Successful.

This is all of course part of being an institutionalised cog in the capitalist machine, of feeding vicious cycles, of supporting and sustaining an organisational system that exploits you. Living in hope of future elevation. Aspiring to being valuable and virtuous. In so doing, you are contributing to upholding and reinforcing that system, and systemic social injustice. And doing so for free. A dynamic champion performer, performing performative performance. Dutifully. Duly. Dully. Dulled. Well done you. A dulcified and in turn dulcifying dullard. And so the wheel turns and the cycle continues.

One of my big lessons last year was: what we academics do might be a different special kind of job in many ways; but this is a job, and work, like any other; and I am a worker. As are you (for most of you reading this). Work is not life. While our kind of work is special in that it spills over—like any work that is essentially thinking and perceiving, for any thinkers and writers and artists and makers, of course it does, in every conscious moment—and while any but the most rigidly compartmentalised privileged misogynist types accept that existence is messy and complicated and tangled up: that notwhithstanding, work can’t and mustn’t take over and become every waking moment of every day for all of life. It’s inhuman and impossible, destructive and self-destructive.

However it is that you individually balance these things. I sleep a lot. I can’t turn off my brain. I tried and failed in this year’s annual leave, while also being too tired to do what I actually needed and wanted to do, which was to write.

All of us did all this—the usual—and more over this last year and half.

Some institutions, like mine, gave some salary bonuses. That’s nice and appreciated, but symbolic; in my case, translated to my salary and to hours worked, it covered about 2 weeks’ work. In terms of hours worked, and not adding factors like counting emergency work as 1.5 or double time, my salary in March-September 2020 worked out at about local minimum wage. The TAs who worked with me earned more per hour of work. There is no way that a university could actually pay their workers for the overtime worked, or for the higher rate in other workplaces for extra intensive emergency work. It would bankrupt a university. The vicious (or rather, the most deeply and loftily human) part of me would like to see our bloviating grandstanding leaders take that sort of pay-cut and redistribute it. And I’m not one of the lowest-paid faculty. The disparity in salary between our lowest-paid faculty and the highest-paid executive leadership is, was, and remains a scandal. And meanwhile the numbers of the latter increase, as does the workload of front-line academic workers.

We knew before the pandemic started that this sort of time and energy is humanly unsustainable: the more horrifically inhumanly exploitative consultancy and vulture capitalocene and “high” finance firms offer good data on profitability here, mapping a high salary for an expected maximum of 3 years in inhuman conditions, 5 for the “toughest, hardiest, strongest, best,” before employees are used up and crack up and break.

Last year I was sufficiently aware to realise, after six months, that this was unsustainable. That I was in danger of breaking. (I might already have been breaking, I don’t know, I’m still alive which is the main thing.) The nearest that I can do to what in other kinds of work would be working to rule is saying NO and stopping after 10 hours in a day, and saying NO to weekends. And saying, yes, I’ll be behind. Yes, I’ll start Monday morning at break of dawn, and some of that wil be catching up work left unfinished at the end of the week before. That’s how you gauge what is feasible work, distinguish it from excess and overwork, and determine and limit workload. And yes, you communicate these limits and that big NO to others, starting with those directly concerned with your work: that’s part of what our university calls a “respectful workplace,” and part of health and safety at work of course. It can be how we all learn to work manageably and to manage work. It could be how we might by the bye etymologically and philologically reclaim the words “management” and “administration” from academia’s occupier overlords, and return these ideas and the rest of the “university” to our knowledge-worker collective.

Even if, at a weekend, I might end up thinking and writing about work … it should, as in this case, only be at this other level and remove.

And in the interests of a greater good: encouraging others to think and resist. To stop. To say no. To say things out loud. To complain. To sing lyric bittersweet complaints. Even if if feels pointless. Even if you’re tired. Especially if you’re tired: that’s when you’re at most danger of adding insult to injury, to play into being used up and broken and silenced, no energy or mental resources left beyond what you have dutifully given to work. Having something extra left, even if it’s just to grumble incoherently or to scream wordlessly or wordily into the void, that’s valuable and vital.

Because the longer you take it, or worse embrace it and show off about it—be that The Suffering Olympics or in #pride in #resilience and attibuting individual #success in #wellbeing and #thriving—the more this will be expected. It won’t just be heroic saintly exceptionalism, putting you on a pedestal for veneration as a superhuman paradigm to which mere mortals might #aspire. This will be exploited and normalised, in the rhetoric of a New Normal that’s like the old normativity of The Before Times but worse. Collapsing the time between epochs, the better to erase Pandemic Times and any changes and lessons from them. A pandemic that already lasted more than long enough, as it affected more than one quarterly shareholder report. It has been Officially Formally Authoritatively Declared Over. Any who consider themselves and a world to be other than New Normal will therefore be gaslit, declared of unsound mind, marginalised; ideally quietly smoothly harmoniously ignored and silenced and erased, more noisily and disruptively publicly cast out and accused of heresy.

That might have sounded unthinkably absurd two years ago. Not now.

No more resilience and rhetoric of bravery and strength and endurance.

Resist.

Resist by using your beautiful precious fluffy unicorn minds in any way that you please, and that they please, and that pleases them, outside regular human working hours. Yes, that may include “content” of a kind that’s to do with work: with knowledge, learning, teaching, research, ideas, reading, and other literary/literate humanities stuff.

Or not. Or not obviously. Or not immediately, but growing and becoming comfortable with letting your mind wander and wonder as it pleases.

Next up from me: some long-delayed writing about “glow.” Which will contain make-up and therefore be frivolous.

This week’s reading:

  • Stromae is so very good: while writing today, was this song in the back of my mind after listening to it yesterday? On a related pandemic #HR #wellbeing #surviving #thriving #excellence note (⸮), “Santé” is a timely seasonal reminder of #grateful #courteous #civil #SocialJustice #complaint #thanksgiving for (other, more) essential things and people …

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