Retrospective: On working and having a life (4.5.2006)

Editorial: This is the fourth installment in the retrospective week series. I’m having a lot of fun putting these together, by the way.

This article garnered zero comments when it was posted, but it’s one of my favorites because it addresses the issue of balancing work and life — an issue that higher education is often miserably bad at addressing — and exposes some of the arrogance and sheer nincompoop-titude that can only come in these quantities from university faculty. Honestly, put a sock in it people. Don’t some of these people have families? 

On working and having a life

Originally posted: April 5, 2006


I could definitely get used to this Spring Break business; all week I’ve done nothing but spend quality time with the wife and the kid. Today we took advantage of the brilliant spring weather, going to the zoo around lunchtime; and after the kid’s nap we made banana bread and watched Wiggles videos and read books until bedtime. Quality time with family: A good thing indeed.

It was appropriate, then, that the first article I read off my RSS feeds this morning was this one, which summarized a study at Harvard that examines the attitudes of professors from Generation X (defined as having been born between 1965 and 1980, so it includes me) toward the institutional culture of higher education — tenure, workloads, how research should be conducted, and so on. Here’s one bit that I ended up thinking about all day:

Still there is the question of how much work should be required for tenure. Embedded faculty members [= faculty from older generations] believe that “serious scholars chose work over all else,” while emergent professors [e.g. Gen-X-ers] believe there is more to life than work. In some cases, this belief is because these scholars are more likely to be women, or to have young children.

To me, the concept that there is more to life than work is so self-evident that I doubted that the author was serious about the “embedded faculty members’” belief to the contrary. But then came the comments, like:

“Having a life” may be fine for humanities faculty. It would be dangerous for our country if that culture became the norm in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering faculties. In those fields we have to compete against a world where that culture does not exist. We cannot afford to fall behind. We are already in trouble, barely keeping up while working to the max. An “embedded professor”.


These children, the Gen Xer’s, are now seeking the same lack of discipline in their chosen fields and want the “job” to be given to them without the effort expended.

A very interesting discussion ensues; go read the whole article and the comments. (Mine’s the third one down.) I just want to make a few points related to working and having a life — now that I’ve gotten tenure and also had a kid.

  1. First of all, would all “embedded professors” please put a sock in the self-righteous condescension toward your younger colleagues? “Children”, indeed. With arrogance like that, is it any wonder our culture is so anti-intellectual?
  2. The main point from my comment at the original article is still one I believe in strongly: The main source of our culture’s problem with illiteracy in math and science has nothing to do with whether our STEM professors are getting out and having a life too much. Rather, it has everything to do with whether the kids coming up through the K-12 ranks now have active and involved parents who instill a love of learning and a strong work ethic in them. Ironically, asking professors not to “have lives” robs their kids of exactly this.
  3. The culture of higher ed would be a lot saner if it would stop projecting tenure-like criteria for success onto the rest of the world as a whole, particularly when it comes to the personal values of individuals. Academia needs to learn the valuable lesson that it does not closely resemble the outside world.
  4. I can tell you quite categorically that my #1 priority in my life — the one life I have been given — is definitely NOT to prove a theorem a week or publish a paper a year: it’s being a good husband to my wife and a good father to my daughter. Period.
  5. And any job, academic or otherwise, that asks me to transpose that priority with something job-related can stuff it.
  6. Which is another reason why I like working where I work. Example: When I had to miss four weeks out of Fall 2004 semester to travel to China for our first adoption, the members of my department immediately divided up my teaching responsibilities among themselves and covered all four of my classes, for four weeks, for free. And my dean was immediately cool with that. My college gets the idea that professors are human beings with outside lives. If you are a professor in a college that doesn’t get it, stop torturing yourself and get out. There are other places out there that will treat you like a person.
  7. Where do some people get off that raising a family is something you do as opposed to hard work? Do these folks not have kids? Did they not raise them? It ain’t a picnic, buddy. You spend an entire semester getting < = 3 hours a night of sleep because your kid has chronic bronchitis, and having to go in the next morning to teach two calculus classes and an upper-division class, and tell me then that I’m avoiding hard work. For that matter, tell me that I have a life.
  8. In your obituary or at your funeral, which would you rather hear: “He was a productive scholar”, or “He was a great dad”? “He was respected in his field”, or “His children loved him”? “He produced over 100 papers and monographs”, or “He produced children who were compassionate, intelligent, and loving people”?

There are times in your life when you really do have to sacrifice much to accomplish a task and during which “having a life” is a luxury that you must save up to afford. I think one’s college years are such a time; it’s during this time that you are (or should be) devoting yourself full-time to learning. Graduate school is the same thing on a larger scale. But when you have gotten into a stable, permanent life situation, like having a family, a different set of priorities takes precedence. Why is this such a hard idea to grasp? And when will higher ed as a whole finally figure this out?


1 Comment

Filed under Education, Family, Life in academia, Personal

One response to “Retrospective: On working and having a life (4.5.2006)

  1. Eric

    It’s funny, the first line of the “Personal” tab on my academic website says:

    “There is more to life than work.”

    And is immediately followed by pictures of me with my family. I guess I definitely fit the Gen X profile in academia.

    As a side note, I made a decision early on in graduate school to not use weekends for work, or to work past 7:00 pm in the evening. Instead, those times are for family. And you know what? I’m just as productive, if not more so, than many of my classmates who adopt a constant work schedule. By setting reasonable boundaries like these in order to safeguard my humanity, I am a better husband, father, and researcher. I have to give credit to my thesis committee chair, because he is the person who first really modeled this for me (he has 4 kids).