The State of the Profession

Via George (and, as he points out, a host of sources before him), the Guardian’s article, Cracks in the Ivory Towers, on problems in the academy. As George points out, though the study being reported on is focused on the UK, it bears significant comparison with problems in the profession here in the US. Among the more interesting, and more sadly familiar parts of the article:

Kinman and Jones polled 1,100 academics and academic-related staff at 99 universities. Nearly half say they are constantly under strain, over two-thirds (69%) say that they find their work stressful and 78% believe that the status of their profession is in decline. Seventy-two per cent of academics find that their first thought every morning is about work.

The list goes on and gets worse. Half show borderline levels of psychological distress. Eight out of 10 say that as the result of that stress they are tired even when they’ve slept; over half say they experience headaches and 41% have trouble sleeping. One in five report dizziness, heart pounding or skin rashes, which they put down to stress.

The study’s authors do point out a bright side: “University workers do feel they have a choice in what they do at work and how they do it. Some 81% agreed with a statement that said they had the possibility to ‘learn new things’ in their jobs.” And I’ll back up the idea that the kinds of autonomy we in colleges and universities have are crucial; the freedom to do my job the way I want to do it is part of what drove me into academia in the first place. But I’d like to re-examine that “possibility to ‘learn new things'” that we ostensibly have in our jobs — what percentage of that 81% might say that the requirement that we never cease learning new things adds to the stress that seems to be causing us so much physical and psychic pain?

Me, I sleep like a rock (thank you, Sleepytime Extra, now with Valerian!), and I try to burn off as much tension as I can by running. But I spend my days hovering somewhere between a little tired and bone-crushingly exhausted, I feel I’m always fending off the potential for sliding into depression, I’ve got frequent palpitations from my stupid floppy valve, and I’m still being treated for an increasingly bad case of acne at thirty-fucking-seven years of age. And while I don’t have a desire for the marriage-and-children scenario, the profession has demanded things of me that has made such a scenario, had I desired it, difficult if not wholly untenable.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my job. I love my students. Life here is more good than not. But there are aspects of this profession that are much more problematic than many realize, aspects that seem to be causing many of us serious pain.

And now back to my regularly scheduled grading.

8 thoughts on “The State of the Profession

  1. I wonder if part of the problem is that academics tend to compare their own energy levels to their students’ energy levels, since students are the people with whom many professors work most closely. I’m not talking so much about commitment to learning, but about the ability to get huge amounts of work done very quickly when necessary–which is often for most undergrads. Unfortunately, that kind of clutch productivity tends to eat away at the hours available for things like sleep, and aging makes it increasingly difficult to abuse the body in the name of work.

    By the way, I seem to know a huge number of women in their early to late thirties who have found themselves breaking out with distressing frequency. I can think of at least a dozen women who have talked about it in the last year or so. There must be some sort of hormonal change that kicks in at some point in the thirties; I know I’ve had to completely overhaul my skincare routine, and I still break out way more than I broke out in my twenties.

  2. Okay, so let’s talk acne: it’s much on my mind of late, as I’m horrified by what I’m finding every time I look in the mirror. I keep making jokes about how I’m hoping to maybe eke out a year or so between being treated for acne and needing a face lift, but I really just don’t find it all that damned funny.

    Mine, I know, is totally driven by a hormone imbalance — and this undoubtedly falls into the category of major oversharing, but the imbalance had required my being rather permanently on the pill, but then there was that whole little blood-clot-in-the-leg thing when I was just short of 35, and there went my precious estrogen. And there went my skin. The one thing that I know might actually help, getting those bloody hormones back under control, is now verboten. So perhaps, Shasta, you and I should get together and talk skin care, because I feel like I’ve tried EVERYTHING. And my dermatologist absolutely could not give a shit. And I am beside myself about it.

    And of course the stress produced by being upset about it makes things that much better.

  3. I didn’t experience a big zit attack in my late 30s; if anything, it FINALLY eased off — no zit-that-ate-Cinncinnati right before my period every month. I did wake up with Aetna on my chin saturday morning before my conf paper, but that was short-term freaked-out stress.

    You’re gonna laugh, but the big secret to getting my face to stop breaking out constantly — it took me 30 years to discover this — turned out to be STOP WASHING IT. Seriously. It gets wet in the shower, and I wash it every month or so. And we’re all much happier.

    I don’t feel very stressed, but I’m still in the honeymoon phase of “Omigod, I got a real job!” You want stress, try your sweetie saying “If you don’t get a job *this* year….”

  4. Makeup party!!! (I could take makeup lessons from y’all, for sure. The only makeup I’ve ever had on in my entire life is lipstick and eyebrow pencil.)

  5. This conversation has taken a turn that I’d never have predicted. 🙂

    I do remember that honeymoon phase, Meg — it lasted a fair while, in various degrees. I remember very clearly, during my first year here, thinking to myself over and over again, as I stood in front of some class, “good god, they’re paying me to do this!” And I still feel quite certain, many days, that I’m getting away with something pretty amazing. And then there are days that I spend (as I expect to spend today) in non-stop committee meetings, grading, letter-of-rec writing, and “other duties as called upon by the President,” and those days just make me want to pull my hair out. (Except that my hair covers some of the sins of my skin.)

    So what I’m thinking of late is that I need to work much harder on making myself completely impossible to deal with and a disastrous administrator. Or I need to get me one of those named chair thingies, where I can say, in fact, no, I won’t do that.

    With the raise, I could get lots of facials.

  6. “So what I’m thinking of late is that I need to work much harder on making myself completely impossible to deal with and a disastrous administrator.”

    Ohhhhhhh… so that’s why so many profs I know are soooo difficult to work with. They’re trying to maintain sanity and regain control of their time. That makes soooo much sense. God, am I going to have to consider altering my own easygoing personality in the same way?

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