Step 50: Deconstruct “Work-Life Balance”

Before I talk about how I negotiate my work-life balance, I should preface this by saying that I am coming from a position of relative privilege: I’m young, single, with no elderly parents or young children to care for, nor am I particularly concerned with starting a family. I’m lucky to have landed a tenure-track position in a very supportive department. Very few people are offered the choices I have, and many people face much tighter constraints than I do. I am writing this partially because I’ve never explored my own stance, and partially because I think more stories of work-life balance can’t hurt. I don’t think what I say here will work or apply to everyone, and sometimes I can’t decide if it’s even a good idea – but it is my current answer to work-life balance.

Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, I will start by saying that the standard narrative around work-life balance has never appealed to me. Some (maybe a lot, or even most) of it might be due to my life stage and life goals: not having a significant other means I only have to set time aside for myself. But I’m not sure that’s the whole story. I disagree with the portrayal that people work themselves to death as an escape. So much of the narrative is around making the most of your waking hours, or being protective of your research time and keeping work in the office. I am not saying these are bad ideas, but I’ve always felt like they’re addressing the wrong question, as though we’re trying to increase driver awareness by making stop signs redder. It could help, but it’s completely the wrong scope to be looking for a solution.

All the links in the previous paragraph were from the first page of search results for “academic work-life balance”. One of them hints at my view on the issue. After recording how his time is spent for a week, the author Chris Buddle notes that he

excluded time writing blog posts and other social media. This is… because I’m not certain how to classify this kind of outreach activity – it’s almost too fun to call work!

I think this is fundamental to my worldview: I find the distinction between work and play to be sufficiently blurred that “balance” doesn’t apply. A while back I read an article about “work-life integration”, which is better, but still implicit is the idea that work and life are separate. Even while in college I have had this debate with my dad, who is fond of “work hard, play hard” and “no pain, no gain”. I remember an email I sent to him in 2011, where I wrote that “work can be fun and play can be constructive”. To be fair, that was less true in the later parts of grad school, but I think the unwillingness to pigeonhole work and play has stayed with me to this day.

It’s easy to think of events that are neither purely academic nor purely pleasure. One of my colleagues ran a cognitive science film series this semester, and I went to a number of them. I can’t speak for my colleague, who had to order food and figure out what films to show, but I can’t say that I was working when I went to the screenings – even though there were students and we often talk about the (inaccurate) cognitive science in the film afterwards. Or, from the other side, for leisure reading I just finished Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber’s Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, which is clearly relevant for my job – so is it on the work side or the life side of the balance? Similarly, I check my news feed both at home and in the office. Some of my feeds are web serials I read for fun, while others are blogs on computer science education I read for work (and even then…), and of course some web comics are both.

I doubt it’s uncommon for academics to consume media about their discipline in their free time. I feel computer science takes this one step further, because programming is fundamental to the discipline but can also be a hobby on its own. I wrote my autograder over winter break, and while the motivation was definitely because of my job, I also found the problem solving tremendously rewarding. Or more recently, the final project for my class was to write a course catalog web app, so I joined in to make my own – and I would in fact say this was closer towards play than work. In both of these cases, my job provides constraints that actually make these projects interesting, and indeed, these projects would not exist if I wasn’t in this position. Conversely, code that I have written for fun (like my PEG parser) have been useful in creating pedagogical tools (like this Bayes net pseudo-language).

My last example where cleanly separating work and life doesn’t make sense is student interactions. There are certainly student meetings that are entirely work, when they are asking for an extension or for leniency on their grade. But more than a couple interactions are not. I don’t ask about my students’ post-graduation plans because my job requires me to, but because I am genuinely curious about their goals and where life will take them. The line blurs further if I am talking to a student about philosophy or design; some of it could be construed as the professorial role of encouraging intellectual interests, but these conversations are honestly not that different from those I have with friends outside of academia. (What can I say, I have intellectual friends.) I can have hours-long conversations about some of these shared passions, and while I hesitate to call classify that time as “work”, it is also clear that it impacts my “professional” relationship with my students.

I don’t want to overstate my views: there is definitely work that I do not enjoy doing, and which I only complete because it is part of my job. But I do find pleasure in a significant part of my duties, sometimes even in lecturing on particular topics (and, by extension, preparing for those lectures). All the examples I have given are activities that are both work-related and pleasant. At the core of all this is that talking about work-life balance is presenting a false dichotomy, the incorrect assumption that work and life are mutually exclusive and necessarily in conflict. I have always enjoyed teaching – some might say that it’s a calling – and I even wrote my teaching philosophy about how teaching has been a major part of my young-adulthood. You don’t “balance” that – you can only make sure that there are more enjoyable parts than unenjoyable parts.

Let me end with one more anecdote. A friend recently observed how much time I spend doing work-related things (“working”) and warned that I should take care not to burn myself out. They asked me what I do in my down time, when I brought up that I take the time to write in my journal. When my friend learned that my journal often contains thoughts about classes and students, however, they then suggested that journaling doesn’t count. This puzzled me, since I have kept a journal for over a decade, and I have always written about friends, feelings – and yes, classes and grad school and work. It struck me that perhaps one reason work-life balance is hard is because people try to draw hard boundaries between the two, that leads them to conclude even personally rewarding pursuits is work and should be reduced or abandoned.

EDIT 2016-05-13: It occurred to me that this post may be taken in the wrong way – that by saying that work can be fun, I am further perpetuating the culture of academic overwork. That is not my intention. Rather, I hope to broaden the conversation around work-life balance by pointing out that the distinction between work and play is not black and white. At the very least, I feel that this blending of work and life is under-represented in discussion, even though it may not be possible or desirable for everyone.

Step 50: Deconstruct “Work-Life Balance”

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