Thursday, April 1, 2010

Time is a Limited Resource

(Scan from Justin Green's Binky Brown meets The Holy Virgin Mary)

In the afterword to Binky Brown meets The Holy Virgin Mary, Justin Green writes of his early career choices:  "I didn't want to be a dilettante and was beginning to notice the half-life that so many artists in the academic system were living.  Teaching provided security, but rarely inspiration" (53).

It's a bracing confession to come across at this time of the year when academic schedules become insanely packed and all other interests must take a back seat....a WAY back seat at the back of a very large and overcrowded bus.  I feel the truth of this observation, even as I want to challenge its details.

That is, it is not that the academic career lacks in inspiration for the artist.  Rather, the work of the academic leaves little time to explore inspiration.  I am regularly inspired by my colleagues and students.  And I am occasionally provided venues to pursue that inspiration if I choose to take them up.  The resource that is in regularly diminishing supply, though, is time.

In the anti-intellectual populism of the current political climate, academics often come under fire for their open schedules.  My state (to say nothing of some of my relatives) thinks that my time in the classroom constitutes my only work hours, or that I am only involved in my work during the few months when semesters are in session.  Would that that were true!  From graduate advising to the demand to have an active research agenda, from committee work to the ins and outs of service to my department, college, and university, this is work that knows no convenient boundaries.  Sometimes that is a good thing, as when work cuts across disciplinary boundaries and allows dialogues with unexpected colleagues.  But sometimes it is frustrating, as the work oozes and explodes out of the easy confines of a 9-5 schedule.  I like a job that allows a certain amount of porousness between vocation and avocation, but it is not without its unreasonable demands.  And as funds continue to dry up, the university life asks of its faculty that we do more and more with less and less.

Green is right, though.  My fellow academic artists are compromised in their "half lives."  We have pursued that golden grail of academics, the security and academic freedom associated with tenure.  But soon after receiving that award, I found myself confronted with depression.  Here was the security I had sought, but it is a kind of prison.  Or maybe the better metaphor is that tenure is a drug -- once you have it, it is very hard to give it up.

As I enter April, the "cruelest month" of the academic calendar (in my opinion), I find myself contemplating an intervention.  How to be an academic in the humanities in an environment that increasingly disrespects the work?  In culture that increasingly thinks of academics as disposable -- as pampered elites?  How to be an academic when the demoralizing tediousness of the job grows with each month, pushing out that which inspired me to be one in the first place?  

It is in this light that I amend Green's observation.  The half-life is not the result of a lack of inspiration -- I've got that in spades.  The half-life is about not having time to follow the inspiration, and I think that might be worse.  To be inspired but not be able to follow through?  What kind of sadistic trap is that?  

Green's inspiration led to one of the first autobiographical comics, replete with neurosis and penis rays.  An underground, experimental comix, to be sure -- but art nonetheless.  The desire of the artist to not "be a dilettante" is not necessarily about fame and acceptance (though both are nice), but about the time and resources to pursue inspiration fully, to be "true" to your art.  Unless your art is paying the bills, all artists create those resources with a second job.  And therein lies the rub.  It isn't easy to make a full-time academic position a "second" job.  The best one can do is make one's art part of that job.  But few are the academics afforded the time and space -- the resources -- to focus sufficiently on that work.  

Let me be clear:  It is not that I want time away from the business of education to do my work.  Education, in the classroom or on the page or on the stage, is my work.  But the amount of my day that is devoted to actual pedagogy is woefully small.  And this is a truth about the academic career that is rarely acknowledged -- by anti-intellectual politicians, by non-academic family, or even by many of the students on my campus.  It is certainly an aspect of being an academic that was under-represented in my graduate training for this profession.

And so, my inspirations are often breathless, not with hyperventilating excitement, but with the suffocation of endless administrivia and obligation.   Is that half-life or just halfway to death?


  1. I found your thoughts to be interesting and honest. When I was in art school I felt the opposite problem. A few of my professors, especially my main professor, were so into their own work and interests that the students and their goals were mostly ignored. I often felt ripped off and sorry for other students in my classes. Any personalized help or encouragement was replaced with vague absolutes about what it takes to succeed in the art world. The teacher did what you say teachers do and chose a path that allowed them to work on their work and have security. For many of them it seemed to end there. They saw themselves as artists and not teachers even though teaching is what kept food on their plate.

  2. I've never known a creative person without the same lament - no matter what the day job.

  3. Thank, Rappel. I needed to hear that. When I have fantasies of quitting my academic day-job (and Green spurred them anew), I try to remind myself that I would just be trading one day job for another.

    Although, Aaron's point is also well taken. I do have colleagues who negotiate this dilemma by treating teaching like a tedious obligation, best gotten through quickly and painlessly so you can get back to your "real" work (be that in the studio, the lab, or wherever). I have a hard time teaching that way. And again, it's not the teaching I object to so much. It's all the other administrivia that weighs down the day. And, in our case, a ridiculously high graduate advising load.

    Mostly, I can't wait for April (and the first of May) to be over so I can get past all this whining and back more interesting work. April always makes me whine. And then I look at the pretty flowers.


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