Academic twitter has been in a bit of a tizzy in the last few days. Mary Beard, who has over 240,000 followers, tweeted “Can I ask academics of any level of seniority how many hours a week they reckon they work. My current estimate is over 100. I am a mug. But what is the norm in real life.?”
Mary and I go back a long way. When I was a student, she was in her first lecturing job, and I was relieved to see that younger women could hold such roles. I learned how to get a book review done on time from Mary’s example! I don’t follow her on Twitter, because my Twitter feed is already quite full enough thanks, but those I do follow commented on what she had written. In some cases, they didn’t name her, just referring to what ‘a senior academic’ had said: this is because there’s a real reluctance to encourage those 240,000 followers to pile in with their ‘Don’t you dare pick on Mary, she’s wonderful’ comments.
Coming as it did on the eve of the current UCU strike action, Mary’s tweet turned out to be inflammatory. Casualisation and workloads are two of the areas involved in the decision to take industrial action. While Mary can do what she likes (although that ‘I am a mug’ is interesting), as a senior academic she is in a position to say ‘no’, when those on precarious contracts are not.
To those asking how on earth anyone could do 14-hour days, seven days a week, Mary answered that she starts at 6 a.m., works through until 11 p.m., and doesn’t stop for lunch. Someone is hired to do her cleaning – a principle she established a long time ago – and her husband (retired) does “shopping and ‘maintenance'”. But not everyone can afford to pay for help, and not everyone has a family member to take up the slack. Some of those responding raised the question of whether tweeting and reading tweets counts as ‘work’ or not, highly relevant if you have thousands of followers and feel the need to respond. Others noted that, as academics, the ‘research’ part of their brain goes on working when they are not actively ‘working’ – so, what counts as ‘work’? While some people said they too were working in the 100 hrs pw area, more commented that the danger of claiming such a figure sets expectations that are very harmful for those at earlier career stages. Several responded that 100 hrs pw would make Mary ill, to which she responded “I am Ill!”
One of those who came into the debate was Helen Lovatt, Professor at Nottingham, who usefully offered her division into ‘work work’ – the day job at her university for which the university pays her salary – and ‘non-work work’, which includes “someone else pays me (externalling), voluntary citizenship (CUCD*), personal (some writing)”, and which could take up all her time if she let it. Helen is something of a hero for those of us concerned about workloads. She produced a superb piece on workload management in 2017 for the Women’s Classical Council UK blog, which you can read here. She included some questions to ask oneself before taking something on, among them:
Am I the only person who could do this? Is this really my job?
Am I the best person to do this? Could someone else do it better? Could someone else benefit from doing it?
Those questions may help Mary Beard. There was an earlier Twitter frenzy when she expressed her unwillingness to engage with Wikipedia editing by suggesting it was something junior colleagues should be doing. Finding someone else who could do it should not be about expecting one’s junior colleagues to take on even more unpaid work, but about helping those whose CVs need development in a particular area and – what a thought! – who know more about a particular subject than we oldies do.
Being asked to do something, and saying ‘no’, should be a skill all academics are taught. But it’s never too late to learn. Helen Lovatt’s blog post even included sample ways to say ‘no’. I’ve already written about one of the excellent training courses I’ve taken as an academic, where we were taught that it is fine to say to one’s head of department ‘I’m honoured to have been asked to take on Task X, but of course the only way I could do that is by giving up/being less effective at Task Y, which I’m sure isn’t what you want.’ If Mary is ill, the remedy is in her own hands, and I’m sure her followers will understand if she is less present online.
And for the record, the maximum number of hours I’ve worked in a week was 70; that was exceptional rather than my normal pattern, it took its toll on my health, and I learned from it that I am a better academic as well as a better person if I don’t support the culture of overwork. And if I eat lunch!
*CUCD = Council of University Classical Departments