What Counts

There has been a series of conversations of late, both here and elsewhere, about the nature of academic work, whether sparked by anxieties about the impending end of the summer, or by the perception that we in the academy have the luxury of having summers “off”, or by the conviction that many, both inside and outside the academy, neither understand what a scholar does or how an English department works.

To a certain extent, I think these posts and conversations have been driven by something inculcated into all of us in grad school, something I first noticed while working on my dissertation. For a group of people who are constantly besieged by the mistaken perception that we work very little (“you’re in the classroom for what, like six hours a week? Sounds cushy”), we have a damned hard time stopping work when we need to. And, even more insidiously, we have a very circumscribed set of notions about what counts as “work.”

There are things that I know count: teaching, preparing to teach, administrative duties, and research.

But that last is more specific, at least as we unconsciously understand it, than it would seem. “Research,” when we want it to count, really refers to the act of writing, producing ideas that are at least semi-original and turning them into pages of new, original text.

There’s a whole cluster of things that don’t seem to count, for whatever reason, at least not to my academic superego. For instance: I’m working on an anthology project this summer, and have been madly editing texts and writing headnotes and annotations. Despite the production of new, original text, this doesn’t count, to some part of me, because the ideas aren’t really my own.

But there are more extreme cases. I came to this whole realization about the ridiculousness of our “counting” mechanisms when I was writing my dissertation, because the only days I felt like I’d accomplished something were the days I’d produced pages of text. The interminable weeks of reading and thinking required to gather the ideas to produce those pages somehow didn’t count, as though I’d spent those weeks sitting in my underwear watching the all-Law-and-Order, all-the-time channel. Even now, reading doesn’t seem to me to count as work, and particularly not the reading of novels, and particularly not the reading of new novels, which is as wrong-headed as it can be, given that my appointment is specifically in the field of Contemporary American Fiction.

(Actually, I’m jointly appointed in Media Studies, and don’t get me started on the anxieties involved in thinking about my film and television watching as work.)

My goal this summer, and continuing on into this first year of my post-tenure life, is to liberate myself from this utterly repressive academic superego, to say — reading the new Neal Stephenson novel COUNTS. My bloody anthology COUNTS. And, most importantly to me, yes, dammit, writing this blog entry COUNTS. And reading other blogs COUNTS. All of these things are necessary to stimulate the thinking that can produce the ideas that might someday result in new original text in peer-reviewed journal article or book form by yours truly. The latter cannot happen without the former, and thus the former must be made to count.


  1. Wow. It would never have occurred to me that working on an anthology isn’t work, but maybe that’s because I’m at a community college and don’t have the research burden on me (i.e. since I’m not required to produce “original” scholarship).

    But you’re right. We need to break these cycles. After all, don’t we believe that the reading we assign to our students is part of the *work* of the course? We sure aren’t happy if they don’t do it. And who’s to say watching L&O in your underwear isn’t in some way part of the process? (I know, you are going to give me shit about *my* inconsistencies ;-))

  2. We could start the healing by encouraging — or at least not discouraging — grad students to get involved with other academic activities in addition to dissertating. My adviser gave me shit about every undergraduate I advised, every committee I was on, and every class I taught once I’d completed my teaching obligation.

    Yet here I am: advising, committeeing, and teaching my little heart out, a job I would not have gotten if I hadn’t established my ability to do all of them simultaneously and still write.

    Of course, this was the sort of job I always wanted, rather than the sort that only cares about research and to hell with the rest. But even my adviser admits (with some regret) that more and more departments are looking for an all-rounder rather than just a place-kicker.

  3. I have no problem with making committee work, advising, etc., count, thank goodness. Anything where my body is required to be in a certain place at a certain time is work to me. But (and I wonder if it’s my working-class background) I have a lot of time counting the intangibles, like reading (yet I can’t write the review, or anything else, without it), thinking, even revising class notes and lectures. It doesn’t help that I’m not married to an academic, either, so that when spouse comes home and askes what I’ve done with my day, I feel I have to justify my existence. I also want to be the serious all-rounder (rather than fast bowler) (place-kicker? do they HAVE all-rounders in American Football?)(ok, MAYBE Deion), but it’s way easier to justify weeding or cleaning when no one lese around seems to understand what I’m SUPPOSED to do for a living.

    (hoping this isn’t posting twice)

  4. Yeah, there’s the spousal factor. My own spousal equivalent, despite being a faculty brat, has trouble seeing reading and answering professional email as work; “lounging around eating bonbons” is his description of what I do. And I’ll die without having convinced him that having coffee to talk about mariolatry, wikis, or the emergent-literatures billet counts as work.

  5. for what it’s worth, I can tell you the daily workings of an artist must follow the same patterns as researchers in academia. I can make myself feel very unproductive and useless if I spend the day in the studio without producing x chef d’oeuvres. Never mind that I’ve spent the day circling around ideas and paintings, reading, absorbing, letting stuff simmer through. No, no, no it must be actual brush touching canvas to count, says the internal critic (the same voice that in exhibits always points out the relative ages of artists–as in “look, Picasso was only 25 when he painted les demoiselles d’avignon, and what do you have to show ?”)

  6. I wonder if some of it also has to do with the mechanisms of tenure, which focus so much energy on things “counting.” I also struggle with figuring out what is Work and not just “work” — which is part of I think a “romantic ideology” of the academy — the idea that if we all just had X number of free hours we too could be geniuses. Reading does count — especially if I take notes. But if I’m reading without a pen in my hand, that’s iffy… But I really like your idea of counting anything that stimulates creative thinking.

  7. I think, Mel, that the mindset Kathleen describes is indeed often reinforced by having internalized tenure considerations. At least, it is in me . . . whenever I think of embarking upon another anthology-editing project, I’m haunted by the remarks of a prominent scholar at the M/MLA who advised junior faculty that tenure committees don’t regard editing as Research.

  8. You know, this sounds so dumb that it can only be the product of denial, but I honestly hadn’t made the connection between the rhetoric of “counting” used by my academic superego and the tenure process, in no small part because the standards held by my institution are comparatively so rational and humane. Here, editing does “count,” though only additively, as research; in other words, it won’t take the place of appropriate peer-reviewed publications, such as the first book, but as a second book, it suffices.

    I think it’s not just tenure standards, though, but job market standards, because what I’ve managed to internalize are to some extent the R1 standards, which is part of what makes me peg the whole thing back to grad school, and the moment at which my pal CSA and I attended a meeting held by the jobs placement officer of our department and a couple of junior faculty, who gave us specific numerical targets to aim for in various c.v. categories (2 articles, 5 conferences, etc). Since then, the sense that some things count and others don’t has apparently taken root in my unconscious, and spread throughout my work life.

    Wow, this is like being in analysis. I can’t believe I’d never made that connection.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.