Paul L. Caron

Monday, May 16, 2022

The Cost Of Academe’s Fixation On Productivity

Chronicle of Higher Education Op-Ed:  What Is the Real Cost of Academe’s Fixation on Productivity?, by Maria LaMonaca Wisdom (Duke):

A few months ago, I took part in a virtual conversation at my university about how to rebuild campus relationships fragmented by Covid. Faculty members and administrators asked the same sorts of late-pandemic questions vexing colleges across the country: What could we do to mitigate the isolation and disengagement that everyone — students, professors, staff members — seemed to be feeling? And how could we begin to rebuild the academic and intellectual fellowship lost since the pandemic?

In my role as a faculty coach at Duke University, I jumped in with some ideas, based on what I was seeing and hearing from academics during our coaching conversations. My recommendations — that small, incremental changes at the personal and local level could be more effective than top-down solutions — ended up as an advice post on our faculty-advancement website. ...

But the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I was proposing a dam to hold back a tsunami — one that started well before Covid and has been eroding social relationships for years both in higher education and in many other sectors of American life. Long before the pandemic, academics were finding it difficult to foster “intellectual community.” To attribute all of the problems we now face to the pandemic risks covering up a much larger, long-term issue. ...

I see ... conflicted thinking in faculty members that I coach. They seem interested in relationship-building but only when it is directly related to professional advancement.  Their reluctance to participate in casual events to “build community” is, they say, a time problem. But what sort of time problem?

Research on “time poverty” — the idea that “material affluence has not translated into time affluence” — shows that people persistently feel “like they have too many things to do and not enough time to do them.” Yet we also know that our perceptions of our own busyness can be strangely misaligned with what’s actually on our plates. ...

[T]he real problem for a lot of faculty members isn’t so much a lack of time as that they are “addicted to optimization and efficiency.”

That’s what Brad Stulberg, an executive coach, posits in a recent, thought-provoking essay in The New York Times. He argues that “heroic individualism” — a mind-set “in which productivity is prioritized over people” — was on the rise well before Covid, and says the pandemic pushed that trend into overdrive. When Covid struck, we all streamlined our social lives more than ever to minimize contact and focus on our families, our work, and our closest friends. And we’re used to that now.

“Efficiency shouldn’t be the main goal when it comes to friendship,” he writes. Building relationships takes time, “and their benefits are not measurable, at least in immediate and quantifiable ways.” ...

[M]y goal here is to draw attention to the complex, often invisible “people problem” that may be undermining your career. By recognizing this tendency to avoid building social capital, you take the first step toward resolving it.

You might try noticing your thought process every time that you decline an invitation to coffee, postpone yet again calling a favorite mentor, or don’t send a birthday or condolence card to a colleague. It could be that there isn’t much of a thought process there at all. “I don’t have time,” may have become your mantra by now — a triggered reflex.

The next time you are mulling whether to go to a campus social event, try approaching the decision in a different way: Push beyond the thought of what giving up your work time will cost you, and instead ask yourself, “What’s the cost of not doing this?” ...

Faculty members are struggling on their own to resolve a lack of social capital that is caused, in part, by cultural and institutional pressures to produce as much as possible, as fast as possible, and at any cost. Clearly, institutions have a stake and a responsibility here, too.

Since Covid disrupted our world, many colleges and universities chose to relax expectations for faculty productivity, in part to protect people’s wellness and to sustain morale. Before we revert back to the “good old days,” it may be time to ask some probing questions, at the institutional level, about the true costs of an academic culture of productivity and overwork.

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