Time, Money, and the Academy

Last week, I was honored to give a talk at the University of Delaware as part of their Digital Humanities Workshop Series on the theme “Public Humanities in a Digital World.” For UDelaware, I talked for a bit about “Building and Sustaining a DH Research Agenda”, ran a workshop “Getting Your Research Done”, and did some individual consultations with projects hosted at UDelaware. You can check out the materials I created via their Interdisciplinary Humanities Research Center.

Doing these visits gives me a good opportunity to test out new materials, refine my thinking about major issues in the field in digital humanities, and learn from other institutions and projects about their ongoing work. At MITH, I spend a lot of time developing new and ongoing projects. It is super easy to get myopic in my approaches and processes for the sake of expediency or ease. Having an outside set of opinions about what I’m trying to do can shake up my thinking on how my projects are running or the contributions we can make to the field.

For the last few months, I’ve been struggling with how to communicate to people the issues around time, money, and the digital humanities. In late spring, I tried to explain this during a talk at Clemson. I was a little too micro….I tried to explain from a management standpoint how we theorize and plan time at MITH. But the explanation got too convoluted for the 5 minutes I had in that segment of the talk. I ended up losing the forest for the sake of the trees by overemphasizing the mechanics of time and money. And then in a talk at Bowling Green, I went too macro and didn’t do a good job of getting at how the external forces of time and money were constructing on the ground reality of project work. Last week, at Delaware, I finally hit the nail on the head:

“How many of you know how much your time is worth?” I asked. “Raise your hand if you know your hourly rate.” While one or two people in a room of thirty raised their hand, I went on to explain why knowing your personal rate was so important. Your time is worth money, to your employer, your institution, and to you. Every hour you spend is being paid for somehow. Your employer might be paying or your institution or grant sponsor might be paying. Frequently, though, in the academy, we stretch our work weeks beyond our paid forty hours and that time, too, must be paid for. Who pays for that “unpaid” or in-kind time? My argument to the audience is that each person is paying for that time we are using. We are, in effect, donating that time and lost wages to our employer, our institution, or our project. For some, this extra work translates into losing time with our friends and families; for others, we reduce our opportunities to pick up additional paid work because we don’t have enough brain cycles to do additional work.

And those issues are compounded by collaborative research projects, where there may be an ethos that encourages people to stretch their commitments. Commonly heard statements are “the work needed to get done, so I took my evening/weekend/vacation time” or “our team had a deadline and I was the only one able to complete the work.” Even more frequently, I hear “people were depending on me. I’ll just take my time elsewhere/later/when I get a chance.” But, the results are often that the ethos of “pitching in” or “taking one for the team” makes people feel like they are a “bad collaborator” if they enforce boundaries about 40 hour work weeks or don’t answer the call to pitch in nights, weekends, or extra time for the health of the project.

Sometimes, pitching in is about our own ego. We feel like our knowledge, experience, or perspective is essential to a project being done well or to our own personal standards. So we put ourselves in the center of as many things as possible so that we can ensure that the products uphold the scholarly, moral, or pedagogical standards we set for ourselves and those around us. In part, this ego makes us great collaborators because we obsess over feeling like everyone should perceive us not just as involved, but as essential to the success of a project. For women and people of color (as well as many others), the need to feel essential stems from lived experiences where our gender, race, sexuality, etc. continually are treated as a handicap to our scholarly or personal achievements. We start from a publicly perceived deficit that has real consequences in our professional lives. We have to overcome the systemic pressures that teach us that we are less than just because we are not white, male, etc.

A few months ago, a colleague I respect tremendously resigned her academic position. To those on the outside, she had it all: a tenure-track position, a book in press, a lab of her own, and growing notoriety in the profession. For some, her resignation came out of left field. Why would an academic walk away from something so promising? My colleague wrote a beautiful letter of resignation to her collaborators, colleagues, and the larger community. In it, she spoke of the balance that was missing from her professional life. She’d gotten away from her passions and become too enmeshed in the bureaucratic hoops of the multiple departments she was engaged with. She was leaving the academy to get back to being a scholar, an artist, and a more engaged, active human being. The letter was kind, forthright, and incredibly brave. She did something that many in the academy think about regularly: she put her well-being first. Embedded in her explanation was a implicit statement about the value of her time and energy: her time and energy were worth more than what the academy could offer her. And while she’d attempted to mold her academic position to suit her passions, the academy structures and strictures (as many of us know) does not bend.

A second, but parallel, illustration furthers how I’ve been thinking about time. This summer, I took an extended research leave to complete my first monograph. As part of my position at MITH, I receive 20% research leave. The custom at MITH is to take it one day per week; but, in my first two years, my position and duties often interfered in my ability to take that time for my own research. Grant deadlines, project deadlines, even administrative matters seemed more important than policing my boundaries around my research leave. Some of my hesitancy was the “essential” issue. If I wasn’t there to do the things that needed to be done, then I could be perceived as less committed than my colleagues. But some of my accumulation was my own sense of ego that the things that needed to be done, needed to be done by me. I work with really smart people; yet, my professional training in the academy encourages me to feel that the best work is always going to be the work I did myself, without help from anyone else.  As a result, I accumulated a staggering 43 days of unused research leave. Critics might say “You’re a professional and you’re paid to work as much time as it takes to get the job done”. Yet, what the job is for academics changes and expands without real systems of control. Being competent and efficient in the academy often leads to additional assignments because people know you can deliver. So you start by adding just one new thing and before you know it, your job is an ever-expanding set of assignments and responsibilities. Forty hours becomes 50, then 60, until the per hour rate for your work gets dramatically reduced.

So, after signing my book contract, I began planning out how to use my accumulated research leave. Each week, I spent two working days at MITH doing my job duties with another four days per week book-writing. One day per week, I spent with friends, watching t.v., or just sleeping to recharge. To accommodate the change in my work patterns, I needed to reduce my weekly responsibilities by 50% so that I could put my book #1 on my scholarly agenda. I sat down in the 6 weeks prior to summer and prioritized my duties and work lists.

I asked a series of questions: Which things had to be done because they would negatively affect my colleagues’ abilities to do their jobs? Which tasks that I had been customarily doing to make things easier for myself or others might be reassigned or completed prior to my reduction? Which tasks could be delayed until I returned to full time status? Once I’d gotten the lists together, I then discussed them with my colleagues and frequent collaborators. I was upfront about what they could expect from me and what I needed them to do.

The first week of my research leave was super anxiety ridden. I had to physically separate myself from my phone and other electronic devices because I was constantly checking to make sure I wasn’t needed. Even though I was reading and writing on the book, it wasn’t quality work because I was completely distracted by what was going on at work. By the end of the first week, I recognized my pathological behavior and (through some great counseling by friends) was able to admit to myself that the world would not stop spinning just because I was taking time to work on my book. Week two was a little better. I realized to alleviate my anxiety that I needed to check email in the morning and again during my afternoon lunch break. Those thirty minutes allowed me to control my anxiety and be more focused on what I needed to do. By week four, I wasn’t worried at all about what was going on at work. By week six, I hit what I think of as a writer’s high. The words were flowing and I was able to cruise through an eight hour day of book work and be eager to write more. In getting back to my original research project, that I started way back in 1999, I realized that I’d forgotten the simple principal that my time is worth money. To myself, to my employer, to the academy, etc.

After running through my questions with the audience in Delaware, a number of attendees asked me the next day about the time/money relationship. One of the questions, posed by a graduate student, was about how to enforce boundaries when potential collaborators are faculty, advisors, and employers. My response was pretty simple: if each of us doesn’t value our time and enforce our boundaries with regard to paid time versus extra time, then we never really admit how much work we are putting into our scholarship, our research projects, and our jobs. So, the next time we start a new project, we often underestimate the amount of time we spent. We know we spent more than what we thought, but we don’t actually realize how much additional in-kind time we put in.

Closing the circle, that underestimation then leads to us continuing the cycle of undervaluing the amount of time and money being a scholar takes. And when we undervalue, our friends, our families, our colleagues, our personal health, our happiness, and even our wallets suffer. So my question to you is: do you know how much you cost per hour? And is what you are working on worth all that money?

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