Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Living to work/working to live

The terms we use for people who are consumed by their work are usually negative: he's made his job his life; he has no life; it's a job, not your life; all she ever does is talk shop. This is true, I think, even for those in creative fields. Sure, we romanticize artists and may speak enviously of their seeming immersion in an alternate reality--but when it comes right down to it, we're likely still to opine that they Really Need To Get Out More.

And yes: Getting Out More is a good thing. As is Being Well Rounded, and Having a Life, and Knowing What Really Matters (hint: not your work).

But the truth is, I am largely defined by my work.

In saying this, I do not mean that my job is my life. I go days without doing anything for which I draw a paycheque or that moves me any closer to another line on my vita--and though I love my teaching and my research, I still grumble about and shirk them.

Neither are my interests all scholarly: hang out with me for a week, and you'll be forced to admire shoes and handbags and glassware, hear about owls and James Bond, and probably consume lots of vindaloo. But at the same time, I don't think I'm ever not an academic, or not drawing somehow upon aspects of that training or identity.

In my spare time, mostly, I read and watch movies and talk. Few of my thoughts are unexpressed. Little of the information I take in goes un-analyzed. On seeing a new t.v. show, I think: "ooh, I could teach that!" On receiving a baffling email, I think, "what's really going on here? What does that mean?"--and I forward it to two of my friends and spend four days analyzing it.

For the first time in my life, too, most of the people I hang out with are academics: they make up 90% of my friends in Cha-Cha City and more than half of my friends overall (and then, of course, there are the bloggers).

I roll my eyes at my friends who are lawyers and married to lawyers and whose friends are all lawyers. God, I think. Get a life.

But. . . I think I like this. I don't think I've ever been happier.

Maybe I need to get out more.


Sisyphus said...

Now, if you said your day was filled with talking to and dealing with lawyers all day, I'd say, yes, get a life ---- but what you've described now? What could possibly be wrong with that?

Anonymous said...

The University where I work just advertised a brown-bag discussion with this very title. Bullet points include whether technology is a help or a hindrance, and how to juggle research, meetings, kids, and the dry cleaning (i don't have kids or dry cleaning, so that question kind of escapes me. the first two are hard enough!) No mention of lawyers though...

And, ps, i think that if a sassy, young junior faculty feels like an academic all the time, even when watching tv or reading magazines, then it definitely should be in the "cheers" column. way to go flavia, with the happiness, confidence, and success!

medieval woman said...

I think that hanging out with fellow academics is also fun - I appreciate my non-academic friends so much, but I also love to just dig in and talk shop *gossip* with my pals. There's a different between talking about work and talking around work. By that I mean that there are fun, hilarious conversations that I have with fellow academics which aren't about research or teaching per se, but those are the backdrop on which our mutual understanding plays itself out. We just get each others' lives, ya know?

I'm happy you're happy! And hopefully one day we can go look at shoes and eat vindaloo. And then talk some shop...

squadratomagico said...

This is such a nice post. So nice to hear about fulfillment.

Flavia said...

MW: that's exactly what I mean. I'd never claim that being an academic makes one funny, or interesting, or cool, there being plenty enough examples to the contrary. . . but the fact of the matter is that (as Tenured Radical noted in a recent post) some of the funniest and coolest and most interesting people really are in the academy, and I love having them as friends just to gossip and drink and talk about pop culture with.

Prof. de Breeze said...

I agree that being an academic can take over your life in many ways, not all of them bad. Like you, I usually enjoy talking to academics more than talking to "regular people," many of whom seem unfathomably boring to me (I mean, really, you don't want to talk about the way some current political rhetoric can be traced to Wulfstan? Really??) But I think there's a limit, too, at least for me. I've always said that one of my very favorite things about my wife is that she is NOT an academic and could barely care less about the medieval period in general. To be fair, I suppose she does kinda think like an academic, which means that I don't find her at all boring, but she also provides me with much needed perspective (and the occasional social pointer, such as reminding me that our casual friends probably don't want to sit through a prolonged critique of the historical and literary inaccuracies of the Zemeckis Beowulf movie).

gwoertendyke said...

But at the same time, I don't think I'm ever not an academic, or not drawing somehow upon aspects of that training or identity.

yes, precisely, and one of the benefits of our work, though it comes through years of training, poverty, and insecurity, is that most of us love what we do. it is how we finish, on love and faith, even while knowing that it is difficult and long and scary.

i think most academics, serious ones anyway, are defined by their work. they (at least me) also love shoes, wine, and being silly/lazy.

Jack said...

1) is my work not about shoes?

2) re your last sentence: yes, like tomorrow.

priscian said...

Might a non-professor chime in here, or is there a shibboleth I have to know? Looking in from outside, I greatly admire you academics for your persistence; you've endured submission, poverty, and sleepless nights to earn your livelihood, sometimes with only meager-ish remuneration; but what a reward it seems to be once you get there, much greater than that of the corporate world, so sez I. Flavia talked of the "life of the mind" in one of her previous posts; the aspects of that life, as she suggests above, inform not only her work but also her play, and you all seem to agree that that's a good thing. I myself work for a local branch of a Large Communications Company (LCC, LLC); my work itself, a solitary enterprise, is often interesting and challenging, but my colleagues mostly are not. Marketing is just over the wall in another cube-farm, and I've been treated to the following noises from that department over the past week: a fifty-year-old man talks baby-talk to his dog on the phone; a visiting network engineer discusses her online fantasy videogaming at length; the we-hate-satellite-TV promotional mascot (mine is a cable-TV company) gets christened "Seymour Cable"; Thomas Aquinas is identified by majority vote as a local Catholic priest. I'm sure I've missed a lot more after slapping my headphones on in a pique to take in the local NPR station. These people, I have to say, are mostly nice folks, but they're not academics. There is a difference.

Prof dB: I'm actually really surprised by the fealty of Zemeckis's Beowulf; I think he and Gaiman have managed to stick close to the text, unlike that hack Heaney, say. For example, isn't this, about Grendel's dam,

Heo him eft hraĆ¾e andlean / forgeald grimman grapum ond him togeanes feng

best translated as

"Swiftly she paid him back / with tender clutch and much strutting upon high heels"?

That part really came to life in the movie!

squadratomagico said...

While I'm happy for anyone who feels that they've found a community of friends, I'm a little disturbed by the stereotypes here. I know lots of spectacularly boring academics -- smart people who are crashing bores. People with whom I can have the same conversations over and over again for years on end. (I used to hang out with a couple like this a lot, until I couldn't take the tape-loop any longer.) Likewise, I have many colleagues who mainly want to talk about sports and their favorite TV series -- two subjects I find crushingly uninteresting and uncreative.

Conversely, I know lots of really bright, interesting non-academics. True, they think a little differently than I do -- they tend to be a little new agey. But most of them are thinkers and readers, all are astoundingly creative, and none of them ever want to talk about mass-entertainment, brain-deadening stuff they've seen on TV.

If you don't know any interesting non-academics, then maybe you're not talking to the interesting people. Fun people, AND crashing bores exist in all walks of life.

Flavia said...

Squadrato: I have a large group of friends from college, whom I'm very close to, and whom I think among the smartest and coolest people in the world--exactly none of whom is an academic. And I basically had no close friends in graduate school; I left Grad School City in my 4th year, in fact, because I hated being around those people all the time, and wanted to be in a less claustrophobic environment.

So I am by no means saying that academics are uniquely or necessarily cool, or putting down those who aren't.

This post should be understood, rather, as an expression of pleasure (and, to a degree, surprise) at having found here--and by "here" I mean in my particular city, but also through the blogosphere--a group of academics who are everything that academics can be--which is to say, all so much more than their jobs. None of my academic friends is defined by his or her job in the usual way; they all have a ton of quirky, interesting interests and extracurricular activities.

At its best, I think academia fosters people like that, and gives us the freedom to be people like that. At it's worst--well, it can be really bad. I blog about the bad, too. But right now I'm celebrating the good.

squadratomagico said...

Flavia, I actually did not read your post in that way at all. If you look above, you'll see that I made a brief positive comment on your post earlier, precisely because I was pleased to read something so positive. Rather, my second, more recent comment was responding to the attitudes I see being expressed by some other commenters.

Anonymous said...

There's a big difference between loving what you do (and being interested in the field even when you're not at work), and just being married to your job and working all of the time.

I always say, you spend far too much time at work to not really love what you do. Granted, I definitely do lots of work in the evenings at home, but it makes up for the lazy days of sleeping in and going home early.

When I'm at home and NOT working, I certainly don't do work-like stuff as a hobby, but many of my interests are at least tangentially related to my field.

Then again, I'm also blessed to have really interesting coworkers at my tech company. They all have diverse backgrounds of being born/raised in different countries, weird past employment histories, and totally differing world views that make every lunch hour a comedy hour.

I guess this is why I tolerate going in to the office, rather than working from home every day.

Flavia said...

Ah, well, then--my apologies! I misunderstood. I did see your earlier comment, and was puzzled by the second.

(And if you're speaking to Priscian: he knows that I think he romanticizes academics and the academic life out of all proportion. And if he ever again in my presence advises someone that hey! they should totally go to grad school!--he will get hit.)