Thursday, February 12, 2009

How academia changed my life

I've been AWOL from my blog and the blogosphere for several reasons--the primary one being how exhausting I find this semester's teaching schedule, which in no way accommodates the actual rhythms of my actual body.

What is this terrible, terrible schedule? Approximately 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m., two days a week.

I know: you're crying me a river. But the past few weeks have also featured lots of morning meetings and job-candidate visits, which have meant that I'm getting up before 8 a.m. for multiple days in a row. Even without those meetings, it's never a great schedule: getting up early every morning sucks, but what sucks even more is whipsawing between getting up at 7.30 and getting up at 10; in the latter case my body never adjusts and I go to bed at 2 every night.

So okay: I'm a night owl, and have been more or less my entire life. But I wonder whether such tendencies don't get stronger to the degree that we let them get stronger. When I worked an office job, I got up at 7 or 8 every day except on the weekends, and though it wasn't my preference, I functioned just fine; even now, on those rare occasions when I'm up early on a day when I'm at home, I can get very good work done in the a.m. But I don't prefer to; I prefer to start working around 3 p.m., break for dinner, and keep working until midnight.

What academia allows me to do--at least as a childless woman who lives alone--is to indulge my circadian preferences, and I imagine that indulging them only makes them feel more stronger and more necessary.

Sometimes I wonder about the other ways academia has changed my habits in ways that amount to a change in personality. I'm convinced, for example, that it's made me more absent-minded: at some point in my second or third year of grad school, I was sitting on my bed, reading, when I became aware of a hissing noise getting louder and louder. I looked in alarm at my radiator: could that be it? That wasn't its normal sound! Then I lept up and went into the bathroom to see if something was wrong with the pipes--but it didn't seem to be coming from there, either. Finally I went into the kitchen, where I discovered that, right! I'd set the teakettle on the burner some 10 minutes earlier. . . and had promptly forgotten about it.

I'd also submit that academia has made me more casual about time. Those who knew me in college will remember that I was obsessively punctual and a fanatic for deadlines. At some point in grad school, though, I got frustrated with the fact that meetings never began on time and no one ever showed up as promised--and, perhaps more relevantly, I learned that my professors preferred a good paper that was two weeks overdue than a timely but uninspired one. These days I still start and end my classes exactly on time--but I make departmental meetings with only a minute or two to spare and I consider most deadlines not as the date by which I should actually have something done, but the time beyond which I should feel progressively more guilty for not having it done.

But hey: that's me. What has academia done to the rest of y'all?


Natori said...

Night owl salute of solidarity, Flavia. I can't stand getting up early more than 3 days in a row...I do it Mondays and Saturdays, go in at 11:30 a.m. T-W-Th, and have Fridays off (I'm an admissions advisor and online graduate student). Working 5 days in a row 8 to 5 is someone's evil plot. It's that 5th day in particular that puts me over the edge of crankiness. Woe be to anyone who must encounter me on a Friday after which I've already worked 4 days in a row. Which will be the case tomorrow, since we're closed for the holiday weekend and I won't be working Saturday (thank you Abe). I'll try to retract my fangs and be on good behavior.

Steven said...

I'm glad I'm not the only academic to find schedules like that exhausting and to be getting progressively vaguer as time goes on. I do think part of what makes a long day's teaching difficult is the amount of focus one needs to maintain constantly. Whether it's being in the classroom or meeting with students one-on-one, you've got to pay attention *and* be thinking about how to respond to what's being said. It tires me out much more than office jobs did. Of course, I'm older now too.

What Now? said...

I was never a night owl, but for years I had a personal rule that I shouldn't have to get up before 7:00 a.m. At St. Martyr's, I taught once and only once at 9:30 and promptly told my chair that this was simply too early and that I only wanted to teach at 10:00 or later, in which he obliged.

So it was with much fear and trepidation that I took a job in which I get up before 6:00 a.m. and am usually at school between 7:00 and 7:30. And you know what? It's been no big deal at all, much to my surprise. All of which is to say that I think you're right that these rhythms are necessary insofar as they are indulged.

(The downside of this new schedule is that I find it difficult to get up the energy to work after about 6:00 p.m., when I used to find the early evenings a great time to work. There is apparently only so much energy that the body has.)

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I get up at 5 every morning (bow down before me, mortals!), which I hate, but I do it because it means I beat the rush-hour traffic to school (first class is at 9; if I try to make it for 9, it will probably take me 1-1 1/4 hours, whereas if I leave the house at 6:30, it takes me 45 mins. tops). So I get to school by about 7:15 and do work before class instead.

Which I have to do, because as What Now points out, because of this schedule my brain shuts down much earlier in the day than it normally does.

By nature, I'm a moderate night owl; my preferred schedule is to stay up till midnight-1 am, and get up around 8-9 am. Even now, if I manage to stay up till past 9 pm, I often get a second wind at that point and can work productively for a couple of hours (though I try not to because I still have to get up at 5 and I hate driving on little sleep).

And I can do the 5 am thing. But I HATE it. I seriously hate it. It's not as bad as my first semester at Former College, when I taught at 8 and got up at 5 to be prepared, and seriously wanted to shoot myself (probably because I knew that my colleagues didn't have to do that schedule if they didn't want to!). But it still sucks rocks. I HATE getting up when it's still dark out. No matter how early I go to sleep, I don't feel awake when the alarm goes off at 5 am.

The only upside is that the mountains are really pretty when the sun is rising, and when I walk into my 9 am class I can feel smug and virtuous that I have already done ~1.5 hours work. Although I'd feel more virtuous if that work wasn't invariably reading for that day's classes, rather than reading ahead.

I cannot WAIT till next year, when I can choose my own schedule, and don't *have* to be on campus by 9 5x a week.

Dr. Rural said...

Like New Kid, I get up at 5 in the morning -- to head to the gym and work out. Then I can work happily and productively all day long. (I also wake up cheerful. I've always been a total morning person.)

That said, don't ask to me to ANYTHING that requires thinking after about 5 p.m. I can't write in the evening, and I seldom even read anything serious at night. I had to teach an evening class last year, and it just about killed me.

Anonymous said...

well, academia has nothing to do with what time I get up, seeing as how I'm not childless.

actually, even though I'm not up at 7am every day by my own choice, I do feel like the day is half gone by 10am and it sort of annoys me that I can't really get anything started before then. that really irritated me about realtors, actually.

but I'm not signing up for classes so it doesn't really affect me if people don't want to teach that early. in fact, if I do want to teach at 8:30 or 9, I can usually work that out because no one else wants those hours.

squadratomagico said...

My trouble with sleep rhythms is that I have 1 1/2 jobs: one professing at OPU and one performing with my circus. While OPU has a partly predictable schedule (though with lots of extra meetings thrown in), the circus, by contrast, has a highly irregular schedule of meetings in the evenings that end up altering my bedtime wildly from day to day. But my body wakes me up at 6:30 every single morning, no matter how late I go to sleep.

I hear you, also, on the dates (for book reviews, etc.) as initiation-of-guilt dates. I, too, used to be quite scrupulous about deadlines... until I realized that I was then only one taking them seriously!

life_of_a_fool said...

I, like New Kid, am a moderate night owl. This semester, I've been teaching at 9:30, which I think is the earliest I've ever taught. But, I'm enjoying it. I'm exhausted and don't get enough sleep for 3 days (and have been doing little to nothing on Fridays), but still. . .I could NEVER do what New Kid or Dr. Rural are doing -- get up super early when not ABSOLUTELY and unavoidably necessary. I might try, but there's no way I'd sustain it (which also means I must be ready for my first class the day before - no way I can count on getting anything done that morning).

The problem with being too much of a night person is that it doesn't correspond with most other people, so to have any kind of social life at all means having exceedingly short work days.

I also like your "initiation of guilt" description of deadlines. That's very true -- it's not that they don't matter, just not quite the way they are supposed to. And, I've become much more absent minded, I think.

scr said...

Your brother is reading this at 12:30pm, in his pajamas. He just turned the espresso machine on a few minutes ago.

Whenever I'm going to be working from home, I start by turning off my alarm, so I wake up at 9 or 10 instead of 7:30ish, and somehow productivity never comes.

I may head out and do about an hour of work at one of our remote facilities down the street, then come home and do the rest of my work. However, I'll be checked out by the time 5pm -- or indeed, probably 4pm -- rolls around. I guess that's what happens when you don't have that much to do, and a 3 day weekend looms.

I feel your pain on the schedule, though. Somehow big swings in wake-up times are never accompanied by the logical going-to-bed-earlier bit.

Sisyphus said...

Tying this conversation to Dr. Crazy's post, for me academia has instilled a "never turn it off" attitude toward my work and particularly my class prep, so that time all blurs together according to the grading or the reading, and and no matter what I'm doing I'm always constantly half-avoiding, half thinking about class prep. This is exacerbated when you're teaching something that can easily be found everywhere in culture (say, gender formation) even if it isn't your time period.

miltonista said...


ink said...

Great post, and I'm also glad to hear that I'm not the only one feeling more absent-minded! But it seems to manifest in strange ways, like I am completely ready to talk about Baudrillardan simulacra at a moment's notice but I regularly can't pull out quotidian words like "chair"-- plus, I keep losing my keys!

Flavia said...

Miltonista: right! I'd forgotten that one.

Sisyphus: yes, that's absolutely true, too--the inability not to be thinking about (read: feeling guilty about) one's work at all times.

phd me said...

A bit late but wanted to add my thumbs up to your post. I suppose I can't blame academia for all my idiosyncrasies but it sure doesn't help.

I've always preferred late hours to early ones but I am an absolute night owl now. I rarely get to bed before 1am and I refuse to schedule meetings before 10:30. I cannot believe I used to teach a 6:45am class when I was a high school teacher!

I have no concept of "work day" and "free day" anymore. Things happen when they happen, with very little regard to the calendar.

I'm so used to talking to other academics, much less thinking about academia, that I'm almost bewildered in situations that don't feature another academic. Definitely losing my fun-loving edge at parties!

Doctor Cleveland said...

It's certainly helped keep me a night owl, and as Sisyphus says it's broken down my boundaries between work time and leisure time.

Probably most importantly it's made me less rooted in any specific place. If I hadn't been an academic I would likely have settled in one city or another before I turned thirty and basically stayed there. Getting an academic job, and the degree that qualified me for the job, demanded the usual semi-nomadic arrangement. And if I hadn't been an academic, the bulk of my close friendships (not all, but the lion's share) would have been with people who lived fairly close to me. I would have had a certain number of old friends, family members, and so on who lived far away from me, but local relationships would probably have occupied, say, 70% or more of my affective life. As an academic, I've had to embrace the 21st-century distributed-social-network model much more thoroughly, and while the friends I've made locally are dear to me, at least half of my emotional energies are directed elsewhere. (As a quick-and-dirty experiement, I just checked my list of Facebook friends by geographical region, and the place where I live comes in *fifth* behind two places where I have never lived.)

I don't know how I would have made it as an academic twenty years ago, before cell phones and e-mail and various internet communications tools were available to help sustain routine connections over distances.

Flavia said...

Dr. C: oh yes--absolutely. As the saying goes, academia is like the priesthood or the military in the way it simultaneously uproots one and provides (or necessitates) a community that is at least partly distinct from place.

I mean, historically, most of my friends have been non-academics. But in Cha-Cha City, almost my entire social circle is made up of academics (from different fields and at different universities, but almost all of us plunked down here by the job market with no prior connections to this place). And is it coincidental that I and my three closest friends here have all spent time in long-distance relationships? Surely not.