A confession about working weekends

I came back to academia after being in a professional role for over three years with a promise to myself: I will not work across weekends.

As I mentioned in a recent post, some people derided my promise. Many more laughed in disbelief, or were encouraging in their words but exuded an air of ‘that promise is doomed, doomed!’. Having been in a professional job where I found it extremely easy to maintain the boundaries between work and non-work time, I was very used to having weekends in my life. I assumed that transitioning (again) into an academic role while keeping weekends free would be relatively easy. It was the status quo for me at the time, after all.

Two and a half years after returning to academia, then, how is my promise of ‘not working on weekends’ going for me?

Terribly, I have to say.

And I acknowledge this with some shame.

I know a lot about academic overworkpeer pressure dictating how many hours we spend at our jobs (sometimes pushing scholars to quit careers), and the dominance of ‘administrivia’ in our working lives.

I’ve read heaps on work/life balance in academia (from many sources including Tenure, She Wrote, Raul Pacheco-Vega, and various scholarly studies [like this one by Osbaldiston and Cannizzo]), and how overwork is not necessary for success. I constantly advocate for self-care and regeneration time for researchers. I loved Dani Barrington’s post in RW and cheered her declaration that “although research will never ‘just’ be a job, it is, in fact, a job” (Escaping the ivory tower).

And yet…I have a confession to make.

You know those people who derided me about making that promise not to work across weekends?

One of those people was me.

I didn’t ever really believe that I would be able to sustain it. Even as I made the promise, and committed myself to the effort required to maintain that boundary, I knew I’d break it when I had to. It was just a question of when. That said, I break the weekend rule for only a few types of work things.

These are the things I will automatically turn down on weekends: book or journal launches and readings; seminars, lectures, and conferences; work-type meetings, even if they are with shiny beautiful people (this kills me at times – can you tell?); and research project meetings.

These are the kinds of work things that I will do on weekends: Research Whisperer blogging and management; my research network (AASRN) management; once-a-month, all-day Saturday Write Ups (on which I have become very dependent to keep research momentum going); and events organisation if I’m foolishly convening yet another conference or similar. Except for the focused day that is Write Up, my work on weekends consists of the kind of ‘pick up and drop’ types of tasks that lend themselves to a day while running around doing family stuff. For the most part, I feel like I spend good, fun, nourishing time with my family. It’s never perfect, but it feels like ‘enough’ (whatever that means, at different times).

I do have many work-free weekends, but they aren’t as sacrosanct a zone as I would  like. The working week gets eaten up with the everyday tasks and workshop/seminar schedules that must be fulfilled, the meetings that must be had (and, believe me, I’m a meeting minimalist), and getting regularly bogged down in research administration. Only occasionally do I find myself doing what are considered the gold-standard research activities like actually researching and writing.

The constant push of academic work into after-hours slots and weekends is notorious. I’m not going to re-hash all the reasons why this is so. The links I’ve included above tell this story in various forms already.

Why do I do it, then, given all I know and have empathised with?

Because I know too much about these issues,  and I don’t want my career to be a dead end. I feel that if I don’t push the boundaries of the week to get the research done, it doesn’t get done. If I push back on my working week schedule to fit in  some research, basic role responsibilities don’t get done. And don’t come at me with the ‘but isn’t doing research part of your basic role responsibilities as an academic?’ question – not unless you have about four hours, and an endless supply of hot chips and coffee handy.

Because I know how passion for our research work can be a pathway to exploitation and ‘free’ labour, and being able to do my research, support and enable others, and be part of a global conversation in my field is what keeps me here. It’s why I keep coming back to academia, and how I let it leak into my off-work time.

Because I know how important time out of work is for inner serenity and a richer life, and I’m really good at justifying tasks that take ‘less than an hour’.

Even as I’m typing all this, I’m on the verge of ‘Select All + Del’. Why share such a woeful tale of professional hypocrisy and cowardice? It’s because I think it’s important to be aware of the contradictions and contestations that endure within our academic lives. This is true even of those we may think ‘should know better’. I’m not of the traditional ambitious mould, but this does not mean I’m without ambition.

I believe passionately in the need to re-humanise the scholarly sector, and to make it an industry role-model for respectful and empowering workplaces. I admire deeply those who speak about, and enact, slow scholarship. I believe wholeheartedly that the metricisation of our working lives and institutions is wrong-headed and unsustainable; we need to find better ways to value the work that’s done in academia.

I believe all of this but don’t often feel that I’ve made determined moves in these directions. Is this a classic case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’? What’s to be made of it?

You tell me.

About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development based in Melbourne, Australia. She is often on Twitter (@tseenster), created/convenes the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN: aasrn.wordpress.com), and publishes on critical race studies, diasporic Asian cultures, and racialised academic identities.

12 Responses to A confession about working weekends

  1. Bless you. I could not work weekends!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Cecile says:

    Reblogged this on Cecile Badenhorst and commented:
    A thought provoking blog to add to our slow scholarship discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Emma Dyer says:

    How about protecting one day at the weekend without doing anything at all that resembles work and then giving yourself an additional half day during the working week to do at least one of the things that you would have done at the weekend but that is even nicer/easier/friendlier during the week. It works especially well if you live in a city and would have to queue to see gallery shows or pre-book films at the weekend but can saunter in on a whim on a Wednesday or Thursday afternoon. I know it’s a compromise and if you have young children then it’s a different story but there is something lovely about time to yourself during the week, even if you are borrowing it from a Saturday or Sunday.

    Like

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I love this idea. And have 2 youngish children. 😀

      But it’s a good way to think about being proactive with one’s time, and making it work on that individual level. Thanks!

      Like

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  5. Great post. The problem is all the administrative duties that are imposed on us academics (not to mention the daily torture of email). The only time we have to do our real work is Saturday and Sunday.

    Like

  6. I was a lecturer and I was forced to have lectures on Saturdays. And all other administrative and teaching works eat up the weekdays – that’s why I left academia and get a professional job instead.

    Like

  7. Dani Barringotn says:

    It was a bit of a (nice) shock to read my name in this blog; I did a double take!

    I love this piece of writing Tseen – there is this inherent constant struggle, and I think you sum it up so well with “being able to do my research, support and enable others, and be part of a global conversation in my field is what keeps me here. It’s why I keep coming back to academia, and how I let it leak into my off-work time.” We love our jobs, and sometimes we do have to make sacrifices for the chance to be in a role we truly enjoy (most of the time, at least) – I guess it’s all about us individually balancing that with the self-care all human beings need – after all, the skills that research requires couldn’t actually be performed by an unfeeling robot, so why do we seem to think that treating ourselves as 80-hour-work-week robots is ok?

    OK, I’m rambling now. Long day!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Feel free to ramble on as much as you want, Dani! Really appreciate your sharing of insights into the ECR-hood and the choices one is faced with when trying to gain a foothold in academia, or research world more generally. One of the biggest advantages of academia, for me, is the autonomy of the work. I know it can be double-edged, but having that is worth a lot (having been in other kinds of roles). If that was to ever change significantly, then I could easily see myself leaving the area…

      Like

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