Image: Model balancing on a champagne bottle, 1904 (Library of Congress)
The beginning of the academic year always feels like I am being launched out of a cannon, but never more so than returning after a sabbatical. This year I returned from Europe just six days before the fall semester began, trying to eke out every last minute of leave to finish a book. As a seasoned teacher and departmental chair, I assumed the transition would be relatively smooth. I was returning to the same job at the same institution. How could I be so wrong?
The problem wasn’t returning to my college. The problem was returning to the United States, and the insane “work first” culture that permeates all professional interactions with colleagues and administrators. Having escaped the relentless pace of American workaholism for the better part of two years, I suffered reverse culture shock upon my re-entry.
I spent most of my sabbatical as a residential fellow based at three European universities — my first extended experience of being an academic outside of the United States. I brought my teenage daughter with me and she experienced complete immersion in secondary schools in two different German cities. Although I wasn’t teaching, I still worked full time, writing three books and giving 19 lectures in 13 countries. I also had obligations to the research institutes where I worked, as well as responsibilities to professional associations back home. And yet I somehow created a saner balance between work and family than I’d ever managed on my home campus.
I took long walks and shared slow meals with my daughter. I spent rainy weekends with her binge-watching entire TV series — like Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of Cosmos, the Japanese anime series Attack on Titan, and Netflix’s Jessica Jones. When I returned to work on Mondays, my German or Finnish colleagues reveled in sharing the nonwork-related things they had done over the weekend, so I felt no guilt in admitting that I blew an entire Saturday poking around the Leipzig book fair or visiting friends in Berlin.
My German peers treated their evenings and weekends as sacrosanct. Their offices were deserted by 5 p.m. when the Feierabend (literally: party evening) began. At the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies, the director would sometimes see me in the office after 5, and feel compelled to inquire if I had an impending deadline. No one responded to email after work or over the weekend — something I initially found frustrating, but later found liberating. No one expected me to respond either.
A professor of North American studies once invited us to his home on a Saturday afternoon. The plan was a bit vague and we had not exchanged phone numbers. I looked up his campus email address and sent him a quick message saying we might be late. I didn’t hear back and later, when we did talk, he seemed positively disturbed that I thought he would be checking his work email on a Saturday afternoon when he was with his family. His bafflement shamed me.
Fast forward to my first few weeks back on campus in the United States. I serve on a faculty committee that reviews internal grant applications, and my colleagues thought nothing of scheduling two four-hour meetings in the evening, or of proposing a half-day meeting on a national holiday. As director of my academic program, not a week goes by without some invitation for a campus event or work-related dinner that will get me home after my daughter has gone to bed. At all hours of the night, I receive emails from administrators, students, and colleagues who expect immediate replies. I feel tethered to my iPhone here.
Weekends are meaningless. The workload of full-time teaching, administration, and an active research career spills over to fill every available crevice of time. It’s a Sunday morning over fall break, and I am still receiving work-related emails that demand my attention. Right now, my daughter is begging me to listen to Hamilton with her, but I will have to scrape together the necessary 140 minutes to give my full attention to the libretto.
If I do manage sit with her and savor the musical from start to finish, I certainly won’t be bragging about it to my colleagues. When I ask them about their weekends, most of them produce a list of the work they did, and only briefly mention their less-productive exploits. I’ve only been back a month and I feel like I am slipping into the crazy mindset that keeps telling me I have be working all of the time, or at least present myself that way to my colleagues. I wouldn’t want them to think I’m shirking my duties.
The American culture of overwork is rather unique in the industrialized world, save for perhaps Japan where they have a word for death by overwork — karoshi. It’s defined by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare as “sudden death of any employee who works an average of 65 hours per week or more for more than four weeks or, on average, 60 hours or more per week for more than eight weeks.” Germany has a healthy and competitive, capitalist economy — the largest in Europe — yet Germans share nothing of the American obsession with work as the most important part of their personal identity.
I have been a long-time advocate of balancing work and life. But until I had the chance to get away from the United States, I never realized how deeply ingrained workaholism is in the American psyche. It’s a specific mindset, a need to be (or seem) productive 24 hours a day. In academe, the stress and never-ending guilt of being a Professor Parent is probably universal, but it is exacerbated by an American cultural milieu that must be challenged and changed for everyone.
Want to talk more about balancing work and family life in academia? I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions, and hope that all of the Professor Parents among you will find a few moments to share your own experiences with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.