In “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” (1967), E. P. Thompson argued that capital came to dictate what work got done when and at what rate, helping to wrest control of labor from workers. The bourgeoisie destroyed traditions that affected production, most famously the craft laborers’ custom of working less or not at all on “Saint Monday.” But some populations, Thompson thought, persisted in “work patterns” consisting of “alternate bouts of intense labour and of idleness,” especially the self-employed—“and perhaps also . . . students.”
Faculty work rhythms mirror students’ in some ways, most obviously in the fall-to-spring academic calendar, which features times of breakneck intensity followed by extended fallow periods. Nobody gets summers off—students and faculty alike must work—but the anticipation of “break” is palpable at this time of year.
Professors’ work-discipline, however, seems to include an emotional component: guilt about not producing enough. Social media posts about productivity abound, and not only during business hours. Whatever the performative aspect of always being busy, academics care deeply about the quality and quantity of their output, which is often complicated by the demands of personal life. This is true of teaching, research, and service.
Those who have academic jobs often cite “setting my own hours” as a perk. But I’m struck by the negative feelings that can accompany “not getting anything done today.” Academics, as a class, work for low pay and long hours, under the expectation that their writing, teaching, and service be of the highest caliber—tenure may be denied, contracts may not be renewed. Saint Monday is little observed among faculty today (posts about drinking wine while grading notwithstanding).Personally, I can’t not care about the quality of what I do; I love doing it. But I’ve found that one benefit of nonacademic labor is that I’m not emotionally invested in filling every spare hour with work. I cram all the work I can into a certain amount of time rather than all the time I have into a certain amount of work. That doesn’t appeal to everyone, and indeed, middle-class professions often require serious time commitments. But as many of us look toward the break that’s not really a break, perhaps we can think about separating time, work-discipline, and self-judgment.
—Allison Miller, editor
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.