Academic Productivity


In a column for Inside Higher Ed this week, Philip Nel of Kansas State University creates a list of the reasons so many academics work so much. It’s an essay worth reading, not only because it flies in the face of the myth that professors lead lives of ease but because of its conclusion:

we need to encourage people to become less productive. Make time to not work. Make time to think. Make time simply to be.

He’s right, but that is not, by itself, going to change our professional ethos so increasingly based on flattering ourselves for overwork. It’s an ethos I, for one, have bought into and, right now, see no way to change—for myself or anyone else.

Nel divides his answer about academic work into six reasons for our overwork: habit, economics, the academic structure, perception of the work as fun instead of onerous, the development of technological aids that have opened so many new possibilities, and the very nature of a profession that is also a passion. I might add a seventh, success: The next rung always seems just out of reach; if we work just a little harder, stretch that tiniest bit more, we can reach it—and then relax. Of course, there’s a rung after that one, and beyond, keeping us striving forever.

Richard Farina, in “Mainline Prosperity Blues,” wrote:

They say I could be productive
But I think I’ll just recline right here instead.

Perhaps we in academia should listen.

The irony, of course, is that Farina got up, wrote the song and recorded it.

One thought on “Academic Productivity

  1. I believe there is more than a fine line between productivity and gobbledygook. And there is more than one phenotype in academia. Cases in point: a) Publishing every iota of research before the cohesive story is told just to inflate ones CV; b) Imposing excessive assignments on students- which increases a professor’s workload; c) Taking on a boatload of grad students to facilitate even more publications- while each student does not get quality mentoring; d) Loading up on extracurricular activities; e) overloading with committee assignments (i.e., can’t say no); Applying for grants which have little chance of award; Overbooking conference appearances; etc.

    I’ve witnessed many an academician become woefully unproductive by striving to be productive. Every last minute is consumed by an academic activity and eventually creativity and productivity fall victim to burnout. It is a vicious cycle. For myself, I wax & wane. I will throw myself into something for several months- working day and night and enjoying it. But when the burn sets in, I back off for a few weeks for a breather.

    So I would say we do not necessarily need to offload large amounts of work to remain productive and creative. Rather, we need to say no to things we can say no to that do not float our boat. We need to immerse ourselves in what we love. And we need to focus quality, not quantity when it comes to teaching and mentoring.

    Just my 2 cents worth…

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