The Great Lie of Academic Writing

A colleague caught me writing the other day at a time when they felt, perhaps, I should be doing something else. Attending a child’s rehearsal or athletic practice, I guess, or making something from Pinterest for an upcoming holiday or polishing the baseboards.

“You are so productive,” they said tentatively, and it wasn’t a compliment. “Do your children get enough–”

“Role models?” I interrupted. “Inspiration?”

As a reminder, even more of Karl Marx’s children would have starved to death while he wrote Capital  if it hadn’t been for Engels. My benign neglect–let’s call it, opportunities for independence–is well within reason.

Which is one reason why this post circulating on social media the last week or so irked me:

Image may contain: 1 person, text that says 'Aileen McHarg @AileenMcHarg Proposal: any academics boasting on social media about how productive they've been in 2018 to be required to add a report on the state of their personal life. 1:05 AM 12/20/18 from London, England Twitter for Android'

It continues the lie that in order to be productive in academia, you have to sacrifice your personal life. We have to resist making that true by holding our institutions in check and preventing them from making ever increasing demands on our time. We have to ask, with each new demand, “What, specifically, would you like me to stop doing in order to do this?” We have to make it the norm that we don’t work round the clock.

We have to make sure that our personal lives are protected–whether that means resisting the pressure to go to every conference, giving up entire months of weekends each year, or resisting the pressure to allow our students to call us by our first names (unless we want them to).

It means resisting a culture of “wellness” and “self-care” that places responsibility for a culture of overwork on us an individual; instead, we must press for the unionization of labor in higher ed. It also means saying  no to healthcare plans that punish people with higher premiums if they don’t meet “wellness” requirements set by insurers.

And it means writing, unapologetically.

To be clear: there are times (years and sometimes more than one of them in a row) when “academic productivity” may not be the goal, when other things–adjusting to parenthood, caring for an ill child, spending time with a dying parent, seeking breast cancer treatment–are the priorities. Those aren’t always choices we would like to make; sometimes, life makes them for us. Sometimes we can turn use them as opportunities to develop our virtues, but there isn’t always a silver lining.

But to say, in a blanket way, that writing is at odds with a good personal life is just a lie. In my experience, they go hand-in-hand: when I’m writing, I like the other parts of my life even better. Indeed, I think it’s often academics who aren’t writing who are the miserable ones. Instead of writing (which is hard, I know!), they avoid it by generating little dramas, prolonging meetings unnecessarily, implying that writing takes away from teaching (another version of the lie above), or, perhaps worst of all, creating unnecessary paperwork for the rest of us. If they’d just write, they wouldn’t have time for such nonsense, but since they aren’t writing, they have to justify their non-writing by being judgmental cranks. (If it is helpful, feel free to print this post out using the department printer and “forget” to pick it up.)

If you saw the post above this week and it left you feeling defeated, don’t be. It’s possible to be a happy writer and to have a happy life. If you want to know how I do it, check out the AGT monthly writing challenge, which starts the first Sunday of each month. The best part about it is being with other writers who recognize that writing is hard and that we’re happier when we’re doing it.


[give_form id=”7614″]


3 thoughts on “The Great Lie of Academic Writing

Add yours

  1. I think setting these type of boundaries was one of the reasons that I was not successful in academia. Refusing to do All The Things (TM) in grad school apparently makes professors think you’re not committed to the program.

    Considering that I wasn’t committed to killing myself for the program, then if that’s what they expected, they were right.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: