My work-life imbalance
The day starts with my 6-year-old daughter coming into our room at some ungodly hour because she had a bad dream.
"It's OK, you're OK. What happened?" I sit up and pull her into a hug.
"I dreamed I was driving with Mama and fell out of the car and I tried to run and catch up but it was going too fast," she whimpers.
I get her back to bed and try to settle down myself. The battery on my ancient iPod has died and the liberal dose of sleep-aid has worn off. The chronic pain of my myriad injuries compounded by the stress of an uncertain year has decided to keep me company now too; so this is how we're starting the day. I doze through my wife getting up and ready for work and getting our daughters ready for the day, and I stumble to life, groaning, sputtering, Frankenstein's monster revived once again, ready to face the day.
In his book Revolutionary Change ( 1982) Chalmers Johnson argues that while the goal of the social sciences in a liberal arts university is ostensibly to empower students, in practice our work only serves to reinforce the status quo. The ways faculty have responded to the pandemic seem to confirm this belief throughout the social sciences: increased paranoia about plagiarism and academic dishonesty, strict adherence to punitive attendance policies, and general lack of empathy or sympathy for the myriad crises students are experiencing. Not only is Professor Nero teaching class while the world burns, you damn well better show up on time or else he'll take points off your final grade.
My children are playing Animal Crossing together and eating toast with Nutella for breakfast. I shamble to the kitchen table and open my daughter's schedule for the week to see which workbook pages she'll need today. In the morning, it's language arts, then special, then math in the afternoon. Today's special is the second consecutive day of gym class. The teacher, bless his heart, is hell-bent on teaching the first-graders about frequency and intensity of exercise, muscular growth, and cardiovascular fitness. The spelling words this week include "flip", "plan", and "pull", so I can only assume that by the end of the year they'll also be spelling "cardiovascular," "frequency," and "heteroskedasticity" in the morning and calculating their BMI in the afternoon.
I am teaching four courses this semester – my normal teaching load– all voluntarily online.
My 6-year-old's school moved online at the last possible second. I had already made the decision to move online by then, so it worked in our favor.
I'm unable to hold classes synchronously because I need to be present to eavesdrop on and provide technical support for my daughter’s first-grade classes, while also being lunch lady, hall monitor, principal, guidance counselor, and custodian. I'm very fortunate to be at an institution that has allowed us as faculty to make the decision to teach online, in person, or some combination thereof. I know many faculty who are not as fortunate.
What I find most interesting about the theoretical perspectives in the sociology of revolutions is that they largely agree on the causes of massive social upheaval, though don't tell them that. Johnson ( 1982) approaches revolutions from a functionalist perspective and argues that—
"Daddy, can we play with blocks?" My oldest asks as the old school Duplos are dumped onto the floor, her 2-year-old sister leaping and clapping with the kind of pure, uncut joy only experienced by children and gamblers. They immediately set to work, the 6-year-old constructing a house, the 2-year-old building a tower then knocking it down, laughing, and repeating. A cruel God. It's so loud in here, I need them to be quiet just for a few minutes so I can work on this piece. An ear-piercing scream as blocks are thrown, the windows of the house rattling from the resulting sonic boom.
Anyway, Johnson argues revolutions come on when the basic institutions of society, up to and including government, no longer deliver on the promises of their purpose. When this is coupled with major environmental concerns and economic frustration and leadership unable or unwilling to rise to these challenges, the likelihood of revolutions become much greater. From the conflict perspective…
My 2-year-old has arrived, demanding crackers. She's eaten half a sleeve of Ritz this morning, buzzsawing her way through them, because toddlers eat with the grace and predictability of a freshman year Godzilla. She leads me by the hand into the kitchen.
I should grade something. I should make an effort to do the job I'm paid for. I've reluctantly turned to using the Dropbox associated with my classes on our learning management system this year, because my email has been overrun with Zoom invites and desperate ActBlue pleas from starving politicians. I'm worried that having my students submit assignments directly to my email will be more trouble than it's worth this semester. I may as well get a jump start on grading these assignments because…
But I was writing about conflict theory in revolutions, wasn't I? And the punchline is, as I'm sure anyone reading this can predict, that revolutionary uprisings are caused entirely by economic conflict. Skocpol ( 2015) points to the role of historical materialism in the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions. In other words, economic development drives social order and both outpace political relations. The law is always going to be the last thing to catch up to the demands of society, and when the law lags too far behind, revolutionary fervor begins to spread and demands for change can become more angry, more aggressive, and more violent.
I should grade, though.
"More crackers!" my 2-year-old declares with the same frightening tenor of a woodchipper possessed by some ancient spirit, demanding more sacrifices.
There are so many interesting questions on revolutions. Why do they happen when they do? Johnson and Skocpol offer us plenty of insight on this question. Just as interesting: what drives people to lead these revolutionary lives? We've seen would-be aristocrats like Alexander Hamilton and Georges Danton dive headfirst into revolution, Francisco de Miranda traveled the world to drum up support for an independent Spanish America, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata came achingly close to the Presidency of Mexico, and heirs of Zapata's legacy still fight for their vision of independence today. Generations of Russians fought and died fighting Imperialism, and Haiti, man, if you think Americans somehow have exclusive claims to freedom, you should read the Haitian Declaration of Independence:
"If there could exist among us a lukewarm heart, let him distance himself and tremble to take the oath which must unite us. Let us vow to ourselves, to posterity, to the entire universe, to forever renounce France, and to die rather than live under its domination; to fight until our last breath for the independence of our country."
The pandemic, it seems, has brought renewed attention to the legitimacy of the tried and true methods of teaching. I can admit that I have been banging this drum, which I suppose matters very little. My own story here is not very interesting: after a long period of being dissatisfied with exams, I read Radical Hope by Kevin Gannon (2020), and then returned to Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire (1968), and picked up a few other gems here and there as my library of revolutionary theory and autobiographies of revolutionaries continued to grow. What Freire and later Gannon argue is that the traditional model of the neoliberal university does not value learning, but rather requires students to memorize information, retain it long enough to repeat as much of it as possible back to the instructor for purposes of assessment, and then forget it immediately. There is no true learning here, at least, not in any way that actually engenders empowerment or liberation or progress. This model of education continues the tradition of beating the joy of learning out of students, a tradition I see beginning at my kitchen table as my daughter develops test anxiety during placement tests in the third week of 1st grade. This is, as Johnson understood, education for the sake of replicating all of the mythology that upholds the status quo. Is our pedagogy liberatory? Or just replicating oppressive conditions? Did I go to school for all that time to be part of the problem?
By the time my wife comes home from work, my bones are vibrating at such a high frequency that it feels like the Universe is trying to strike just the right note to cause me to shatter into a million pieces. Thanks to my wife’s return, I earn a brief reprieve from parenting, but everyone is exhausted, and the odds of the violent mood swings of toddlerhood increase every minute as we get closer to bedtime. Though seconds turn into days and hours into eons, I'm only able to tag out for a little while, then I hear fights over dinner, over TV, over those goddamn blocks again. "How many more bites?" "Can I skip a shower?" and that old chestnut, "Daddy, are you going to cry?"
I naively tweet that I'm excited about this piece and hopeful to be able to work on it during the weekend.
I was so ignorant then, I'm so much wiser now, my children diving into boxes of Halloween decorations after their latest siege on my mental health. I don't know why I'm resisting this, because I've watched the entire Friday the 13th series in the past two weeks instead of writing and have plenty of thoughts on what Tommy Jarvis could have been. My two-year-old is now brandishing one of those flimsy pumpkin carving knives - and I want to say the word choice here, “brandishing,” is intentional. She is not merely carrying or holding this dollar store weapon. Her eyes glimmer with a terrible possibility.
There were projects due on Friday that I need to find time to grade this week, ideally when I can find quiet times during the day. I have to send out Zoom invites to my upper-level courses and upload the lectures I recorded in the dead of night for my introductory students, once I get a chance to steady myself long enough to organize my thoughts, and can record without threat of a sister fight breaking out in the background.
The prospect of teaching this week, the job that has been my calling, brings so much dread to me that I feel paralyzed. Part of it is the shift to online teaching, and knowing not everything I hoped would work is actually working, and that my students are drowning. But more than that, there are Neo-Nazis with college degrees working in government and in law enforcement, the planet is burning, the President is hospitalized and his doctor isn't being entirely transparent about what's going on, the planet is burning, my university is facing massive financial difficulties, and I'm staring down the barrel at another week of 1st grade online.
It's now time for lunch, a time when all I can do is hope they get more food in them than on them, and I come back to this sentence a few days later and have no idea what this idea was going to be. In truth, I thought today was Monday, but it's actually Tuesday, because 1st grade has library on Tuesday and their librarian is reading them a story now. Did we lose Monday? Isn't time socially constructed, anyway? In the calendar of the French Revolution, today is 15 Vendémiaire. Try putting that as a due date on a syllabus.
I'm trying to work on this piece and an IRB application simultaneously, while I'm able to steal some time away, and scramble between as many projects as possible like a contestant on Guy's Grocery Games, running madly through the store in search of something that costs $3.75. I almost put a joke in the IRB application about my two-year-old having bad diarrhea today and I wonder if I need to run this piece by them before I submit it. Do my children need to consent to being in an article, as much as one can consider this an article? Do I debrief them afterwards? Does this make me a bad researcher? Writer? Parent? These days, it feels like the answer is yes to all three.
I realize that in writing this, there may be some who think I'm trying to garner sympathy for myself, or that I am hoping for admiration that I, a straight upper-middle-class man, am doing the heroic thing of parenting his children. I promise I am not. I know that what feels like a complete shock to my routine and to my career trajectory now will feel normal eventually, and I know I am not sacrificing nearly as much as others, especially women, throughout academia, whose entire careers have been jeopardized by the event of the past several months, and faculty of color, who have been expected to keep working during the resurgence of White supremacist policies ranging from police violence to eugenics, while several White people have been caught pretending to be Black in the academy, taking up space that wasn't rightfully theirs and shouting down actual Black scholarship.
The last thing I want this piece to do is to somehow minimize the experiences of others. Beyond that, it is also important to say that outside of the bubble of academia, I am extraordinarily privileged to be able to work from home with my children in relative safety. That doesn't mean that the experience of anomie is any less anomic.
Rather, I am writing for everyone struggling to keep their head above water while some of our colleagues - in the vaguest sense that we are all colleagues - revel in the number of manuscripts they've been able to send out since the pandemic began, applaud their administrations for bravely returning to in-person classes during a pandemic, blithely celebrating the liberal arts and the lifeboat of the status quo. I worry the pandemic is ripping academia to shreds, accelerating the austerity movement and ramping up the adjunctification crises, wringing and rending students for every dime possible, corralling faculty like cattle, and some of us happily line up, thankful for the opportunity to make real change inside the slaughterhouse.
This time over the past seven months with my children has been a blessing, and I write this as much as an apology to them for not being able to be a better father to them as a screed against the academy.
It doesn't have to be this way, and it shouldn't be this way.
Hannah Arendt (1963) argues revolutions exist because humans are capable of surveying their surroundings and asking each other if this is the best it can get. Looking around at academia in some variable stage of the pandemic, I pose that same question: is this the best it can get? Haven't our institutions failed us? Haven't our professional organizations wilted from responsibility? We're dying for our careers, we're seeing a generation of scholars shut out from academia as institutions simultaneously stop admitting new cohorts of students and cancel job searches. We spent the summer working on multiple course modalities for free (or, in my case, knowing a reduction in pay was coming as part of a university-wide cost-cutting measure), and the response from our top administrators has been a pat on the head, a hearty congratulations on a job...done, and whispers that we should be thankful for the opportunity to refine and redefine our pedagogy. Won't it be easier to move more classes online now? And forget about snow days! We can provide 24/7/365 educational programming now without needing physical space, all at the cost of turning a few thousand professors into a slurry of caffeine and tears, and with all your lectures recorded, even if you die from pandemic or hypertension or whatever, you can still keep teaching because we've got all of your lectures recorded. Congratulations on your legacy!
If nothing else, I can die knowing that students in the future won't get any of my references either.
At what point do we as academics say enough is enough, burn down the silos, and build something new? If not now, when? If Neo-Nazis marching in the streets, forced sterilization of immigrants at the border, a raging pandemic, and a planet on fire are not enough to get us to rethink our approach to our work and start building a more collaborative, supportive, worthwhile academy, then what will?
After class today my daughter made the remark that her mother and I will love her forever, no matter if she's smart. It's early October, or the middle of Vendémiaire if you're on the French Revolutionary calendar, and she's already internalizing the fear of education. No Child Left Behind really means Leave Every Child Behind, and it feels like we're all so powerless to push back against another system we created. I worry so much about her becoming cynical about education in the way that we've come to expect of most every student. I worry about her future, of being fed into a university system that does not care about her because sympathy and empathy aren't considered profitable by the board of trustees. I worry about what this is doing to all of us, making us mad, making us frail, creating a deep well of anger and sadness, fueled by exhaustion, burning out our will to work and care and love, scarring and traumatizing us in ways that will completely transform us.
My two year-old is asleep now, and first grade is about to work on their math assignments for the day. As the house settles, I can feel my ears ringing and my bones vibrating. The IRB is going to have to wait another day. Right now, my spirit and flesh are both weak, I have to help with math homework, and I really should be grading.
Works referred to in this account
- Arendt, Hannah.  1991. On Revolution. Penguin Books.
- Dubois, Laurent, and John Garrigus. Slave Revolution in the Caribbean 1789 - 1804: A Brief History with Documents. In: Duke Office of News and Communication, https://today.duke.edu/showcase/haitideclaration/declarationstext.html, accessed 10/6/20.
- Freire, Paulo.  1993. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Bloomsbury.
- Johnson, Chalmers.  1982. Revolutionary Change. Stanford University Press.
- Gannon, Kevin. 2020. Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. West Virginia University Press.
- Skocpol, Theda.  2015. States and Social Revolutions. Cambridge University Press.
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