Where does the Academic Work End? or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Burnout

20 December 2021, 1532 EST

It’s the end of 2021 and, like most academics and sentient working professionals, I’m burnt out. In fact, I’m so burnt out that I actually conceived of the idea for this post last week but was only able to force myself to write it today by promising myself a variety of self-care rewards like naps and whiskey.

Fortuitously, this burnout is coupled with a mandate from my union that I take ‘Action Short of Strike’ (ASoS) for the foreseeable future and thus am justified not putting in extra work over the break. This year, I didn’t need the excuse, but it’s nice to feel that my burnout is contributing to solidarity with my colleagues.  

The original idea for the post came while I was on a plane returning from the UK to the US for the holidays reading a funny Chuck Klosterman essay comparing Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, Werner Herzog, and Ralph Nader’s preternatural lack of irony. The three, Klosterman argues, approach songwriting, filmmaking, and political activism respectively as entirely literal endeavours—the process of transposing truths from one medium to another. The essay itself is fun and thought-provoking and I got an extra kick out of reading the Herzog quotes aloud under my breath in his hilarious accent after two mini plastic bottles of British Airway’s red wine.

“I am someone who takes everything very literally,” Herzog has said. “I simply do not understand irony, a defect I have had since I was able to think independently.” That defect, however, is more an issue for his audiences than it is for the director himself. Most of us have the opposite defect: We only understand irony, even when it is not there to be understood.

-Chuck Klosterman, Eating the Dinosaur, pg. 384

From the perspective of IR, I found myself drawn to Klosterman’s idea that cultural (and, I would add, political) commentary fixates on finding irony and metaphor in modern life, even when it may not be there. I’ve long been interested in the way that our discipline transforms political metaphors into literal ‘facts on the ground’—for example, by insisting plebiscites can reveal primordial national identities or that the state is a self-evident collective entity worth killing and dying for. Simultaneously, other wings of the discipline seem fixated on separating the wheat of ‘real phenomena’ from the chaff of the ‘merely epiphenomenal’, neglecting how the two’s deep entanglement can make a mockery of the distinction. How are we, as IR scholars, supposed to keep it real? (More to come on this in a forthcoming Duck symposium).

My natural tendency in such situations would be to water these seedlings by texting one of approximately 3-5 academic friends/confidants with whom I have long, inchoate, semi-scholarly back-and-forths. They’ll either tell me my idea is unoriginal and ill-conceived, or they’ll push back in precisely the right way, affording us both a laugh or an interesting discussion. On occasion, this process will result in something meaningful—an idea that can be transformed into a paper, a new course lecture, or another form of scholarly *output*.

(A brief intermission, as I have reached 500 words, at which point I have earned an afternoon nap.)

But this time I second-guessed myself. Would engaging in such work-adjacent activity compromise my weekend, my holiday break, or the ASoS instructed by my union? In other words, at what point does the activity of thinking and debating interesting political thoughts become work? And, for that matter, where does writing this very blog post fall?

Normally, my inclination would be to disregard these sorts of distinctions. Academia, after all, is a vocation and I entered it because I love debating and analysing politics. I always thought a blurring of the work-life distinction was the price we paid both for selecting an engaging line of work and for the level of personal and professional freedom it affords us. Previously, I was happy to forego any sharp divide and ‘work’ my tail off, so long as the work remained interesting and I could do it in my own way.

But recent trends have changed the calculation and I’m finding this bargain is increasingly made on unfavorable terms. Last year, employers colonized personal spaces with work from home mandates, while governments enacted draconian restrictions that circumscribed leisure activities on the ‘life’ side of the ledger. In the meantime, real wages have fallen precipitously due to inflation and budget cuts (especially brutal for academics in the UK), while workloads have increased. If the upside of academia was once that you could snort coke with your Satanic cult on Tuesday, so long as you showed up for lecture on Wednesday morning, it’s now becoming increasingly difficult to thread that needle (or, I would guess, afford the cocaine).

All of this is not to say that yearend burnout is new, but rather that it feels bleaker this year—somehow more deeply integrated into festering global crises. In the immortal words of Rivers Cuomo, “Something is bubbling/ Behind my back/ The bottle is ready to blow.”

Now would typically be the point in a post where I pivot to potential solutions, or at least a silver lining to take us into the holidays. But to be honest, I’m still feeling a bit too overwhelmed by this new variant of burnout. Rather than coming up with a cogent strategy to combat it, perhaps I can just give it a new Greek letter?