Below is the text of my talk from yesterday’s ProfHacker roundtable session at MLA 2011, Hacking the Profession: Academic Self-Help in an Age of Crisis.
In The Academic Self: An Owner’s Manual (2002), Donald Hall argues that reflecting on our self-construction as academics contributes to a more effective communal politics. I agree, and I’m going to suggest that “hacking the profession” needs to start with the self – with what we might call Happiness Hacking.
Hall suggests that:
Academics love to critique institutions because there is a certain tangible textuality to them, with their documents, written rules, and administrative structures. Yet we are not so comfortable contemplating our own textuality, our own motivations, priorities, fears, and ambitions. (xx)
We know how to read structures of power, ideological discourses, and ratios of inequality. Yet our own embeddedness in the ideology of academe is not always available to us for our own critique, as we lack a suitable standing-point.
It is certainly true that in the near-decade since Hall published The Academic Self, there are many more texts available to us for analyzing academic selfhood: in the salad days of the academic blogosphere, some of us in this room even participated in an online discussion of his book. Personal blogs, facebook profiles, chat streams, and twitter feeds offer us plenty of our own “textuality” as Hall terms it.
At a most basic level, this proliferation of personal academic discourse can work to counter the isolation felt by many in our profession not only by providing sources for advice and support but simply by offering descriptions of academic life in other fields, institutions and locations. Learning about other people’s experience can help us re-evaluate our own. But if the benefit of the online academic community is that it greatly expands one’s experience of collegiality beyond the boundaries of your own department or college, it also tends to repeat and reinforce tropes and values from the existing professional and local academic communities.
Hall calls for us to “recognize and embrace the fact that we choose our professional values, behaviors, and definitions of success in response to and negotiation with those provided by the professional community in which we exist” (9). Recognizing what choices we do have as individuals opens up space for new and different academic values.
Over the last few years I’ve become interested in the conventional scripts of academic selfhood that get performed not only online but in face-to-face settings as well. These scripts are one of the means by which dominant academic values get interpolated. They are also thus a site for intervention, or hacking.
Imagine next week, or the week after. You’ve returned to your department, to the daily and weekly routines of the new semester. You meet a colleague in the hallway, and he asks “So, how was your break?”
How do you answer him?
There are two common versions of this conversation I’ve observed, participated in, and heard about. The first version goes something like this:
How was your break?
Oh, it was fine. But I didn’t get enough done.
Depending on the relationship between the speakers, the academic culture of their department, as well as their age, gender, and other factors, there’s a good chance that Speaker One will then reply with “I didn’t either” – joining Speaker Two in commiserating about work overload, family obligations, or the speed with which time flies.
Although this can feel like solidarity, the psychological effect of this conversation – especially if it’s repeated throughout the first weeks of the semester – is almost entirely negative. It is hard to leave such a conversation feeling uplifted and hopeful about one’s productivity, about the semester ahead, or about one’s academic career.
Depending on the culture of your department, as well as status, age, and gender, it may well be that you overhear the boasting version of the conversation, which goes something like this:
How was your break?
It was great: I got an article accepted and finished two chapters of my book.
In this version, Speaker Two feels the need to impress or compete with Speaker One, who then basically has to reply “ah, yes, I wrote a lot as well.” If you’ve just been told of someone else’s tremendous success and achievement, the script offers you the choice of praising them or listing your own achievements in response.
(Of course, in some departments, there’s also the later, shadow script to this one, which occurs between Speaker One and a third person: Can you believe how much he gets done? Or, Can you believe how he boasts about his work?)
What I want to suggest today is that these conversations and their variants are scripts created by an academic culture in which the standards for achievement are assumed to be external to the self and in which the self is assumed to always be in competition with others.
For most people, this is not the path to greater productivity or happiness.
The problem with both scripts is that they conflate quality (of time spent) with quantity (of pages written or courses prepared). If your only measure for success is through quantitative outputs, then you will never, ever do enough, since the bar can always be raised a notch higher.
The happiness hack I want to suggest here is to focus on the quality of your time. Only you can decide what matters the most to you right now and how you want to spend your remaining days, weeks, and years. Two steps are key:
- Decide for yourself what you most value and how you can allocate your energy for your greatest happiness. That is your definition of enough. State it clearly, in measurable actions, so you’ll know when you’ve done enough.
- Don’t fall into playing the “not enough” script. This is really hard, since we’ve all been acculturated to it. It’s part of the social glue that holds departments together.
So when someone asks you “how was your break,” try answering with a remark about the quality of your time, not the quantity of time, effort, or outputs you achieved. For instance:
- I enjoyed spending time with old friends at MLA.
- I’ve been reading some new work on Topic X and I’m looking forward to pursuing these ideas further.
- It was a nice change of pace.
It might be worth practicing your remark so that you’ll be prepared to hack the script when it arises.
If we can, each of us, become a bit more aware of the processes by which quantitative values get inscribed in place of qualitative ones – and start changing the social scripts that do some of that hegemonic work, whether face to face or online, we can begin to truly hack the profession. Imagine how it might be if we were all a little more satisfied, if we were happier with ourselves and with each other. Imagine what we could accomplish, individually and collectively.