on embodied stress among academics…

Recently, I’ve been involved in a search for a department head in an academic unit with which I’m affiliated. In talking with other, more senior, faculty who have known and worked with the outgoing Head for a good number of years, it has become apparent that he will be impossible to replace. So much of the functioning of the unit depended on his volunteer labor, something we in academia are not unfamiliar with (in our promotion reviews, it’s called “service”, and, while spoken of as a reflection of one’s commitment to the university, it counts for very little in terms of achieving tenure, which is a decision – at my large, public university at least – based almost entirely on one’s research profile.)  What has been interesting for me to contemplate is the reason almost unanimously given among my colleagues for the outgoing Head’s success: “He sleeps only five hours a night”.  Indeed, I’ve had my own conversations with said Head (a senior male tenured Professor in his late 50s or early 60s) in which he boasts proudly of arriving to work at 7:00am and staying until 7:00pm every day. I’ve had a good share of my own twelve hour days in the past year and a half as an Assistant Professor (whether in the office, or with the work I take home and do late at night on my couch), and this may be part in parcel of the professional world of A) junior professorship and/or B) late neoliberal global capitalist order in which we find ourselves caught up at this moment in history. Not just in academia, but in so many (all?) professions at this historical moment, it seems to me we gain credibility through our suffering. To wit: “I’m so busy” is a ubiquitous greeting, so much so that it’s nearly lost it’s meaning. Who is not busy, I wonder, when faced with this claim uttered by everyone I run into on campus on a given day? “I’m so stressed”. “I’m over-committed”. “I have so much work to do”. Who doesn’t feel stressed to their limits most of their work week?  The thing is, in academia, it seems to me that these complaints are doing some additional work that seems like lending a veneer of credibility to our work, or should I say, a sheen of legitimacy to ourselves and our own stressed-out existences. Not sleeping and sacrificing one’s personal wellbeing are monikers of someone who is focused, dedicated to their career, ultimately worthy of the one-day-to be-granted title “Professor”.


As another example, I remember a faculty meeting (this time in a different academic unit from the one mentioned above) last year in which the Department Head missed a few agenda items in her facilitation of the meeting. When she realized this, she reflexively uttered the following as an excuse: “I’m sorry, it’s that I only slept five hours last night”. Immediately after this phrase was put out onto the table, another tenured female faculty member said, “Oh, that’s good; I only slept three hours last night”. What was this about? I thought. Some sort of race-to-the-most-stressed-out bottom?  A competition to see who had slept the least? This is crazy! It’s as if we don’t have legitimacy in academia unless we (and our minds and bodies) suffer. Just think what would happen if we walked around responding to the question, “How are you?” with something like: “Great! I had a solid eight-hour sleep, I made myself a healthy breakfast, had a good workout, got into the office at 9:30am and now I’m enjoying doing some writing before I teach this afternoon and then leave at 5:00pm [in my ideal work day, there is no lunch “break” because I’d rather get done and get out sooner – most of us eat at our desks through lunch anyway] to head home to spend the evening on a nature walk with a friend/sharing dinner with my family/doing community service at my child’s school/volunteering at the nursing home/animal shelter”. Can you imagine faculty talking to one another like that? That wouldn’t be an academic institution of repute at all, now, would it?!


My thought here is that we are all upholding the inequities- historically patterned by gender, class, color- in the university by engaging in this sort of self-sacrificial competition. Traditionally, academic labor was done by white men, who counted and depended on the reproductive labor of their wives/ female partners at home, (maybe also the sexual services of female graduate students, but that’s a rant for another time), the child rearing labor of paid servants/domestic workers (often immigrants and people of color), and low-wage service workers providing everything from lawn care, dry cleaning, laundry, restaurants, and car-washing services. The Department Head who spends 12-plus hours at the office and only 5 hours asleep certainly had some help at home raising his two children (now adults) all those years pre- and post-tenure, right? How could such schedules have been maintained without the unpaid reproductive labor of women and lower-status men? Who would have done his laundry, cooked his food, cleaned his house all those long hours while he was at the office?


If anything, I hope to reflect on the way we all, through our idioms of distress (“I’m so stressed/busy/sleepless”), support and uphold contemporary inequities in labor and power through our own exploitation. If we women who find ourselves occupying academic jobs now continue to perpetuate this race of self-sacrificial behavior, are we not just embodying our own exploitation (and that of our colleagues) with our constant refrains of “I’m so stressed… I haven’t slept all week… I don’t have time for exercise/meditation/yoga/dog walks/children/community work/sex/relationships/church/community/sports/writing groups/volunteer work/knitting/cooking”?!? I know that I may sound Pollyannaish in even putting this discussion out there, that I should be grateful for my tenure-track job in a social context of un- and under-employed PhDs, etc. But my argument might have implications for the job market as well: if we all did a little less self-sacrificial work, respecting our limits, the 8-hour work day, weekends, and holidays, would not institutions eventually need to hire more people to do the work that so many of us do essentially for “free” under the current regime of compete-to-see-who-works-the-hardest?


2 Responses to “on embodied stress among academics…”

  1. 1 Trish Kimper
    January 27, 2014 at 5:12 am

    Hi Kris,Love this comment on the stress of working and competition on who’s working the hardest, sacrificing the most. I think you’re so right on! Had to leave SDBC Banquet because Don has such a bad headache. I hope it doesn’t evolve into another viral meningitis. Brinca is doing a lot better now with walking due to the anti-inflammatory. I’ll know biopsy reportin AM Love you and Take Care, Mom

    Date: Sun, 26 Jan 2014 23:33:07 +0000 To: trishfish1@hotmail.com

  2. January 27, 2014 at 8:28 pm

    Kristin, very courageous. Has a certain “Jerry McGuire” quality that could go many ways. My observation while employed at OSU was that while eclectic and mostly interesting, higher education academicians often view themselves with such a separatingly high level of self importance that competition is probably unavoidable. It would take seismic activity (or enough self-aware younger academics such as yourself) to allow for significant or lasting change. There is a, dare I say ,
    cannibalistic quality to it in a way. Good luck!

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