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Professor reflects on Tuesday Group polar vortex email

Answer to the question: “how the polar vortex is affecting your commute and/or anything pertaining to work-life balance?”

There are certain personal sacrifices one may be making for one’s job. What those sacrifices might be are, all too often, invisible to the student body, and so this provides an opportunity to pull back the curtain and see a little bit what life is like as an employee in higher education.

The immediate situation we find ourselves in has done little to upset my work/life balance. This is to say that the frigid temperatures are part and parcel of the sorts of everyday trials that one finds oneself facing in adulthood. Extreme weather is just one of those things that you have to contend with, and so, annoying as it is, it’s something that one learns to take in stride, just as one learns to cope with one’s fridge conking out. You find a way to be resilient with each additional challenge. And you also learn to leave those challenges at home while you work (to the extent possible), and to try and leave work aside when you have to attend to that life crisis.

But on the other hand, the polar vortex situation does indeed affect my work/life balance in other ways. I think that the administration’s response to the extreme weather is, in fact, symptomatic of a remarkably unhealthy attitude toward work, both the work that our students do, as well as the work that our staff and faculty put in to guide and support our students. Carleton is a place in which one is expected, through subtle and unsaid means, to perform one’s stress and anxiety. There is a sense that one is not doing “real” work unless one is somehow extremely anxious about it. We chalk much of this up to the intensity of a ten-week term, during which we are expected to cram 16 weeks of material from a normal semester-long class, into an abbreviated amount of time.

But beyond that, there are implicit expectations that faculty innovate constantly in every possible manner to produce a learning experience for students that is unparalleled in its effectiveness and sheer pedagogical brilliance. We are expected to be at our students’ beck and call, offering extended office hours, dropping everything to answer questions, emailing them back at all hours of the day and night, in short to always be “on” and available.

And this has carried over to the student body as well, of course, where the ethos of campus life seems to be focused on the intensity and rigor with which one takes on any number of herculean tasks in a given term. I could go on with a lengthy description here, but students know these patterns well already, and besides your question was about our own work/life balance.

My point is this: the tacit, unwritten expectation here at Carleton is for faculty to have an unhealthy work/life balance. It is indeed expected that during the school year we will give up an incredible amount of our personal time outside of normal working hours for faculty meetings, department events, guest speakers, job searches (and their related talks), working dinners, and so forth. And of course, we need to find time to grade, prep classes, write letters of recommendation, advise students, plan OCS programs, and myriad other tasks as well, all of which eat in to our nights and weekends during the school year.

And then there is the matter of our research, which takes place largely during our breaks, but seeps into our time during the school year as well. But here’s the thing about academic work: as cliched as it sounds, what we indeed do involves “the life of the mind.” We got into this business because we are all oddly, unnaturally obsessed with our fields of study. But that also means that we find ourselves thinking about our research, our classes, the material we are supposed to *work on* in all hours. It’s work that happens in the gray matter between our ears, and we cannot turn that gray matter off. In brief, the profession we have gone into means that we are almost always working. It can be thrilling and satisfying, and usually is. But it can also be exhausting.

This brings me, then, to the administration’s response to the polar vortex. When I say the response to the extreme weather is symptomatic of broader patterns at Carleton, I can point to several aspects of the president’s missive:

1. It was sent out late in the day on Tuesday, when temperatures had already plummeted and when other schools had already called off classes and closed up shop (including Macalester, Grinnell, the University of Minnesota, and many others). So this says to me that Carleton had not even considered even possibly cancelling classes or closing down in preparation for the weather. This means that the default situation at Carleton is always: show up to work; get the job done; suck it up.

2. The president, in his statement, alluded to the ways in which now is not the time to simply fall back on tradition, that we have to make decisions using our current values, in effect. This was disingenuous, to say the least, because the ultimate decision was indeed conservative in the literal meaning of the word—this reinforced rather than bucked tradition. And the tradition is simply to get to work.

3. The president offered no positive reasons for keeping the College open. He simply said that something along the lines of (I’m paraphrasing): “the best way we can support our students is if we are here and open.” But what is meant by “support”? My job is not to support students, it’s to educate them. Again, the default position is that I am to drop everything, risk my wellbeing and even safety, and go to work, and to support who? Not my family, my friends, my neighbors? No, my students—who I am indeed privileged to teach, but again this is my job, not my whole life.

4. The argument is made that we should remain open because we are a residential college and students can therefore easily go from dorm to dining hall to class, etc. without having to stay outside for harmful lengths of time. But what of faculty and staff, who do not live on campus? What is being required of us in order to come to work and “serve” or “support” our students? This is to say that the statement was truly, shockingly, blindingly oblivious to the wellbeing of the employees at Carleton. And this says to me, once again, that the default expectation is indeed that we will do simply anything for what? For our jobs.

The end result of all of this is to perpetuate the feeling that we must get the job done at all costs, literally. This is unhealthy in the extreme. And more importantly, it models horrible behavior for our students in terms of a healthy way to balance our work with our lives, not to mention our health and safety.

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