I wrote a couple of posts about how you keep going while the world descends into fascism in the wake of the 2016 US election, and then again after I can’t even remember which horrific white supremacist incident in the US in 2017. I stand by what I said then and recommend you read those posts, Juggling in Dystopian Times Part 1 and Part 2. Part 1 is about making time for activism when planning. Part 2 is about the value of your academic work.
This past weekend, in the aftermath of the 2019 UK election, I watched the livestream of Amanda Palmer’s final show in her European tour “There Will Be No Intermission”. It was inspiring. She began the show by talking about her own doubts about the job of being an artist. How it often feels like it’s not a real job making real things that make a difference in the world. And then she went on to perform her art, a mix of storytelling and music, about sexual violence, abortion, motherhood, and so on. Art that powerfully demonstrated the importance of art. She concluded by telling the audience to do their jobs, to keep doing their jobs, especially (but not only) the artists in the audience. She reminded us what the point of those jobs was.
Go out into the dark and make light.
(Amanda Palmer, There will be no intermission, Union Chapel, London, 14 December 2019)
The previous day I had tweeted
And now I have to get off here. too depressing. The one thing I CAN do today is help a handful of academics plan next semester so they can maybe get some rest over the hols and not work themselves to death by March.
— Jo VanEvery, PhD (@JoVanEvery) December 13, 2019
I’m doing my job. My job includes reminding you to do your job and reminding you that your job is valuable. My job is reminding you that you do your job better if you also rest, if you set limits on how much you work and how well you do the work. My job is helping you identify your priorities, set those limits, and have confidence in yourself, your ability to do this work, and the value of the work.
This morning, my job involved rereading what I said a couple of years ago. I want to copy some of that here.
Yes, you research and teach the particular subjects you do because of a personal interest. You are a big geek, interested in stuff that you can’t discuss at the dinner table unless you’ve invited your fellow geeks (i.e. your colleagues) over for dinner. You are kind of lucky that someone is paying you a salary to teach and research this stuff, especially when people are starving. (I hope it is clear that I do not see the term “geek” as an insult. It merely describes someone with a very deep interest in a very specific topic.)
And yet, your research and your teaching are important, in ways it may be difficult to specify. You are contributing to the advancement of knowledge. You are training a new generation. Trust this. You are not “weird” or “out of touch”. Your work is not “irrelevant” or “useless”.
There will be occasions when you need to defend your research, your discipline, or your programme in clear ways to specific audiences. But try not to make defensiveness your standard posture. Defensiveness gives power to those who dismiss your work. (Calling something “irrelevant” or “useless” is not criticism.) Doing your research and teaching confidently and being the particular kind of scholar you are confidently is a political act.
(Juggling in dystopian times Part 2, 14 August 2017)
Do your job
Rest. Recharge. You can’t do your job if you are exhausted. I wish I had a magic wand that will mean these posts will be irrelevant in 2 years time but I know I do not. (Update: I knew it. And now the threats are closer to home.) Things are likely going to get worse before they get better. Rest will be even more important. You can’t wait until things are better to rest. Your first act of resistance is to live.
Double down on the work that is meaningful to you. What makes your teaching meaningful to you? What makes your research meaningful to you? What makes your writing and publishing meaningful to you? How can you prioritise the meaningful work? What can you not do to make room for the meaningful work?
Your work may be important but it is not your whole life. Put a boundary around your work. Give yourself permission to rest, to relax, to have fun, and to engage in community and political activities outside of your work. It’s not all or nothing.
Connect with others. Surround yourself with people you do not have to defend yourself to. Not so you can slack off, but so that you can expend your collective energies enabling each other to do the meaningful work and remind each other that collectively, over time, this work has real value even if, in the moment, it can seem irrelevant or not enough. Use this support to help you have the confidence to be more ruthless about bureaucratic demands, focusing on the essential and saving your “best” work for the meaningful, valuable, work that only you can do. You don’t have to do this alone.
No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear by Toni Morrison in The Nation (April 6, 2015)