Get Another Life

March 11, 2008

The academic life, at least according to popular culture, is one of leisure and banter interspersed with a few hours of off-the-cuff teaching. Remember the character named Gary on the late-1980's television show thirtysomething? He was an assistant professor of English literature with a large, beautiful office. Research, teaching, and service were invisible components of a lifestyle suffused with love-making and bicycling. (Reality did intrude a bit when he was denied tenure.)

I don't know any assistant professor in this era of increased expectations for promotion who spends her days and nights in ease and reflection. In fact, young scholars and teachers today face the opposite problem: They often feel they have little or no life outside of the office and classroom.

While the demands of promotion and tenure should not be minimized, career obsessiveness is both a psychological and a practical mistake. You need more than one life.

David Heenan, a management scholar, makes the intellectual case for having multiple lives -- career, personal, communal, spiritual, and even artistic -- in his 2002 book Double Lives. He documents how some of history's most successful (and busy) people found it both necessary and enriching to devote time to alternate forms and forums of creativity that seemed, on the surface, to have nothing to do with their more famous vocations.

Winston Churchill, for example, besides his roles as husband, father, historian, commentator, scholar, politician, warlord, and statesman, painted (mostly landscapes and still lifes) and laid bricks. His visual artistry and masonry have never been as well regarded as his political or literary accomplishments, but the time he spent spreading colors on canvas and mortar on brick gave him great satisfaction, clarity of mind, and inspiration.

Heenan argues that even those of us whose career ambitions are on a lower scale than saving the free world should find a similar "second life."

That philosophy is particularly relevant now, as a major demographic (and psychographic) revolution in academe over the past 30 years has incited a lifestyle crisis. Today, while the American professoriate is not as diverse as it could be, people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds (as well as sexual identities no longer in the closet) are entering the profession, often with distinct needs, wants, expectations, and mindsets. In some fields, women make up the majority of a faculty.

Concurrently, today's younger academics expect an employer to be much more accommodating of their personal lives. Fathers on the tenure track would like to see their kids beyond only evenings and weekends; tenure-track women are unwilling to surrender motherhood just to have an "associate" in their job title.

Whereas once a young male scholar would have been bluntly told, "Let your wife take care of everything at home; all your focus must be on research," nowadays junior professors, both male and female, seek a happy and fulfilled office, intellectual, and home life. While they do not (or should not) expect to "have it all," they do want, as one young assistant professor put it, "to be my daughter's Brownie troop leader, to go on vacations, and to get tenure."

So we find ourselves surrounded by contradictions: More is expected of junior faculty members today to secure tenure, yet they expect more in the way of institutional support for their research and their family needs. Professors experience real anxiety over balancing the demands of teaching a new course, finishing a book that is under contract, and attending the late-afternoon meeting of some campus committee versus, say, picking up the kids after school at 2:15 on Wednesdays, repainting the house, or spending a few weeks with the family at the beach each summer.

The university is the site of a perfect storm of 21st-century expectations and medieval bureaucracy, and the promotion-and-tenure process is the clashing point.

The stress of those conflicts -- over time, focus, and needs -- undermines both our careers and our personal lives. In trying to satisfy every demand for our attention, we are in danger of leaving them all unfulfilled. But reasonable alternatives do exist that can keep you from having no life outside of work, or from being denied tenure because you were overwhelmed by family obligations.

First, be candid about what you need to achieve your career goals, explain their importance, and negotiate, especially with your partner, an equitable division of labor.

Accept that you will not be there for everything for everyone. Certainly, a reasonable administrator will accommodate an assistant professor who, for example, cannot schedule classes on Tuesday afternoons because that's when he helps his elderly mother shop. But on the other side -- and trust me on this -- your kids will not grow up to hate you if you don't attend every soccer game and ballet recital.

Paradoxically, a constructive step is to take Heenan's advice and discover a "second life" -- i.e., a new creative outlet. It is counterintuitive but true that devoting time to pottery, quilting, or whatever can make you more productive in your work life.

The most published research professor I know is an accomplished cellist who writes novels. As he describes it, and as I have found in my own case, engaging in an activity that holds no connection to our professional labors is mentally refreshing.

My own hobby is documentary photography, which, earlier in my career, I justified as part of my visual research and led to a book on police work and its media images and imaginings. I take pictures now exclusively for personal enjoyment, and they will never contribute to scholarship or the arts. However, the act of creating still images does transport me away from the anxieties of the office.

Every academic I know with a second life (of the offline variety), from chemists to sociologists, tells me that the cognitive cleansing provided by a nonwork activity more than makes up for the time expended. And perhaps more important, as Heenan stresses, the other life heightens our creativity in the workplace.

In general, keep in mind the following:

  • Whatever you choose, be passionate about it. I met a social-science professor once who was a potter. He made clay urns, bowls, and dishes, then fired, painted, and sold them at art fairs. When he talked about his pottery, you could see the kiln that glowed in his eyes: He really loved it. Clay-craft relaxed and stimulated him.

  • Don't let your second life be all-consuming. You want something that makes you a better scholar and person, not something that leads you to abandon your family, hygiene, and interest in teaching class. That is not to say that some people can't switch lives and find greater rewards outside of academe -- as gardeners or poodle breeders, for example.

  • The joy of escaping into that second life can lull people into thinking that it can or should be their only vocation. Don't be like the assistant professor who spent so much time playing computer games and daydreaming about designing new ones that he failed in his tenure bid, and then didn't find a job in the video-game industry, either.

The tenure track may feel like the medieval torture of having each limb pulled in a different direction by whipped horses. In response you need to plan, to organize, to recognize your strengths and limits, and to negotiate honestly how you allocate your time.

Then find at least one alternate life that fosters your creativity and give you solace outside of your office. The quality of all of your lives depends on it.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor and associate dean for graduate studies and research in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas. For an archive of his previous columns, click here.