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Academic life

Academic hustle culture: why are we glorifying burnout and overwork?

A recent New York Times essay on young people and “hustle culture” explores how a “never stop hustlin'” attitude has been romanticized by a young generation of workers. While the vocabulary of #hustle and #ThankGodIt’sMonday hasn’t taken over academia (yet!) the glorification of endless hours of work is familiar to many grad students and faculty.

As Zoe Samudzi writes over at Broadly, graduate school in particular feels “like a kind of hazing.” The “obstacle course” is stacked especially high for women of colour and other marginalized folks. Samudzi writes: “It’s difficult not to convince yourself that fatigue is an unavoidable symptom of the kind of hard work you ought to be exerting in order to prove that you deserve to be there—that you are worthy.”

The work never ends

Academic work is never really finished. Every paper could use more edits. The literature review will never be exhaustive. You can never be too prepared for class. I’ve found that academic work will expand to fill every hour you’re willing to give it. And your institution, colleagues, supervisors, and students will be only too happy to take as much as you can give. And then they’ll come back for more.

A vicious cycle of overwork

The trouble is, each cohort of overworkers raises the bar. Then the next generation of grad students and junior faculty have to do even more to impress their supervisors, hiring committees, and funders. We know it’s a problem, but it’s like a hamster wheel we can’t get off of.

In grad school, I had amazing feminist teachers and mentors who had worked incredibly hard to make it in academia as women. They wanted younger generations of women scholars to not have to hustle so hard. But all around them, the expectations for young scholars were rising like the water in my leaky basement. They stood there in their rubber boots, unsure how to stop the flood. So they taught us to work even harder to stay afloat.

My PhD supervisor fought her way into a tenure track position in the 1960s. I can only imagine what she faced as a young woman trying to get her voice heard in male-dominated urban studies. She wanted me to succeed. At our very first meeting, she told me to work on getting my master’s thesis published in a peer reviewed journal. I hustled (with a baby under 1 at home). It got published. The bar was raised.

Photo by Finn Hackshaw on Unsplash

Competing to be the most exhausted

Academia might like to think it’s a unique kind of workplace, but it shares an obsession with “the grind” with the worlds of tech and business start-ups. “I have so much work to do.” “I’m so exhausted.” “I’m going to be up all night finishing this.” This is what I hear all day long, from colleagues, folks on Twitter, people I run into at conferences. Despite ourselves, it turns into a grim competition. A race to see who’s the busiest, the most burnt out, the sickest, the most sleep-deprived.

I’ve been reading letters of reference lately, and phrases like “inexhaustible,” “endless energy,” and “tireless” are sprinkled throughout as admirable qualities in the candidates. I can’t help but think: you’re inexhaustible until you’re not. And then you’re done for.

How did it get like this? The influence of corporate culture is one culprit, with the imposition of business models of efficiency and productivity onto academic life. Others point to the rise in academic “busy-work:” mind-numbing procedures to track of our time and productivity. The influence of neoliberal ideologies about marketplaces, commodities, and competition is also to blame. In other words, competition, fear, and speed are increasingly built into the structures we inhabit.

Enter slow scholarship?

There is resistance. Some academics encourage us to embrace the model of slow scholarship. Here, we reaffirm that good research and teaching take time to develop. More importantly, we push back against the machine that tries to suck us into more intense cycles of productivity. However, critics question whether this approach is too individualistic and perhaps out of reach for junior scholars. This is why it’s important to think about slowing down collectively. This approach is detailed by a group of feminist geographers who advocate for slow scholarship as part of feminist resistance to neoliberalism.

As a coach, I hate to hold “productivity” aloft as a goal in and of itself. This can only create more overwork, more burnout, more misery. And hell, it can’t make for good research and teaching. I’m trying instead to work with the idea of productivity as a placeholder term. It stands in for the method one uses to create things that are meaningful, high quality, and of deep value. So, “productivity” could actually mean getting more sleep. Taking more time off. Spending hours in quiet contemplation. Publishing one or two excellent papers over a couple of years.

Photo by Daniel Monteiro on Unsplash

The long haul

It might not be possible for all of us to slow right down, right now. But this is a marathon, not a sprint. Most of us are in this for the long haul – 30, 40, 50 years! A strong union is probably one of the best remedies to workload pressures. Day-to-day though, slowing down where we can – and modelling a little slowness to our junior colleagues – is one small way that many of us can combat the creep of “hustle culture.” Avoiding words that glorify our own overwork and the “inexhaustibility” of impressive colleagues is another. Valuing the “slow” but high quality publication cycles of colleagues on the job market and up for tenure and promotion can also help shift things.

I know these aren’t solutions to structural problems. Nonetheless, starting where we can is better than hustling our way to the finish line of a race that nobody wants to win.

If you’re interested in learning more about how coaching can help you stop the cycle of overwork in your life, check out my services or reach out for more information. We can even schedule a free call to explore your options.

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