untangled thoughts

The Set-Up

I don’t know what it is about Veronica’s posts*, but they always include a thought, or a line, or even a snippet of something that either unlocks a new thought, or clarifies something I’ve been thinking and couldn’t articulate.

In this one today, it was this line
Our emails to our colleagues always start with, “This week is CRAZY busy,” or “I have so much to do,” or “I have meeting after meeting; class after class.” I recognize that some of these statements might be genuine venting. People are tired and they sometimes need to share their woes.

Now, I’m sure some of you are thinking — um, yeah, what’s surprising about that?  And I get that.  I am kind of saying it too.  See, this is about me. This line hit me right where I needed to be hit in the moment.  I’ve read and thought a lot about these issues and questions, and about related issues and questions as these conversations have emerged and re-emerged over the years (in many fields and professions).  I have a lot of thoughts, is what I am saying.

In this moment, something about this line and the way it was expressed made me step back and think about all of those thoughts and conversations together.  Thoughts about the cultural issues that valorize overwork, and the ways that the messages we send, implicitly and explicitly, shape those cultures.  Thoughts about performative or competitive busyness, and the ways that we reinforce that without (and with) intent to do so.  Thoughts about structural and resource issues, about doing more with less. Thoughts about rigor and gatekeeping and mission and values, and about hegemonicassumptions and vocational awe (though that last not as usefully before Fobazi named it as after).

In all of the years that I’ve been thinking about these interlocking questions, I have focused on the parts, not the whole. I’ve been struggling with the parts a lot (where “a lot” means both frequently and  intensely) this past year as a relatively new administrator and especially as someone doing that work in a constantly under-resourced and over-performing place. I mean, it’s a true fact that these questions are many of the reasons that I decided to continue in administration after my stint as a (rotating) department head was done — not because I had answers, but because I thought the questions needed answering and I wanted to be in a position to act on answers, that at least in some small ways pushed beyond the individual solutions we often end up with. 

In the reality of management, though, all of these intersecting issues and questions create a tangled mess.  I pull one thread, and the tangle unravels for a few yards and then reemerges and intensifies in another spot.  And when I read Veronica’s post, it unsnarled some of those thoughts and that’s what I really want to talk about here. This is going to be interesting (to me at least).  I’m talking about looking at a big issue more broadly, but about looking more broadly at my narrow experience.  These issues matter for lots of reasons, they’re big and they’re snarly and they extend beyond libraries and beyond academia.  They intersect with other big issues. And I’m going to be ignoring most of that for something that is specific, and grounded, and situated and about me and my relationship to these questions in this moment. 

Finally, The Point

I realized recently, though I didn’t have the words, that one of the things I’ve been struggling with is seeing and feeling the difference between these different forms and drivers of busy.  I’m experiencing these things in a space where trying to survive busy coexists with enthusiastic busy and switches off with overwhelmed and unhealthy busy and those all sit next to performative busy, and social busy and competitive busy. See – and this is important — the point is not that there is some busy that is real and some that is not.  

All of these types of busy are real. They are. And all of them matter to the organization and all of them matter to me. But some of these issues are cultural and some are structural and there’s also a healthy intersect between cultural and structural, and as a manager I can have power and ability and positioning to change things but only if I understand what it is that I am changing. Because changing structures isn’t the same as changing culture and its unlikely that anything is wholly one or the other. 

The types of busy that we might think of as performative or competitive, that are driven by a desire to meet expectations or align with norms — tacit, overt, assumed, experienced — get tangled together with the resource issues, the unexamined inequalities, the problematic reward structures.  I’ve written here before about how helpful I find this idea: culture is what people do. When busy is what we do, when it’s the de facto answer to “how are you?” then it can be really hard to untangle those pieces that make the solutions way more complicated than “so do something else.”  

I wouldn’t have thought this to be true, and maybe its down to being a beginner manager, but the issue is this — when the culture pushes us to busy and overwork, we can’t effect real change unless we deal with the underlying structures that shape the culture.  But when the culture is like that, it makes it super hard to see those structures to change them — to see what they’re doing, what they do, to tease out and draw those connections in a useful way.  It does. It really, really does.  And here’s the other thing.  I’m part of the problem, and I’m more of the problem as a manager and part of it because I am a manager. 

I understand feeling the need to match the busy I see around me — to keep up with the accomplishment and productivity and — really — with the busy. Weirdly — or maybe not so weirdly — this feeling has only gotten stronger as I’ve moved into positions with more privilege and more power within the organization. Surrounded by people who do so much and succeed so hard and shine so bright, well, if I have a named professorship, or become department head or AUL, shouldn’t I be the busiest one of all? And I feel that and it comes out in the answers I give when people ask how I am. I emphasize the busy, the deadlines, the meetings and all of the tangible output of the work I do. 

For sure, I do have those times when I am up against it. Sometimes it’s self-imposed and the result of too much yes. Sometimes it’s drop everything all hands on deck because the university says we have a fortnight to do three months’ worth of work. But a lot of the time, I’m not the busiest one in the room. I usually have a solid to-do list, but I also schedule time to read, to write, and to think. I don’t usually miss lunch. I go home and I have hours where I can knit, cook, eat, do laundry, and watch the Olympics. And I see almost fifty movies a year. In the theater. With my phone turned off.

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That’s me, reading, knitting and hanging with my dog.

So I became a manager in to have the power to effect change, but having that power has pushed me to behave in ways that entrench the culture that needs to be changed while it also obscures those structures that need to be changed to change the culture.

That’s a fun conundrum.

And it makes me wonder, when I talk to people about not trying to do more with less, or when the university talks about work-life balance, while at the same time we all answer every “how’s it going?” with “I have so much to do,” are we just giving people something else to feel inadequate about, or creating some other set of expectations that they have to perform to? I’ve noticed, as these issues have been raised by more and more people in more and more contexts (both in my library and out) that people are starting to put qualifiers on their statements of busy: “I know we’re all overworked,” “I don’t have more to do than _______, she’s REALLY busy,” or “I have four deadlines tomorrow, but it’s self-imposed, so that’s okay.”

(That last one is me. I said that.)

Of course, I am not saying we shouldn’t have those conversations, or that there’s no way to have those conversations without just swinging that pendulum wildly from one side to the other. I guess I am just musing on the challenges of moving these types of cultural conversations (conversations I value) in the workplace to where they need to be if the result is going to be meaningful, to dig into the structures, and to create the kind of change that requires trust.

Which brings me back to those feelings. I can start with myself, right? I can start when I’m not under the gun, under the wire, and needing to vent. I can start talking about the things that Veronica talks about when people ask me how things are going. I can be honest about not being the busiest person in the room. I can talk about reading and writing, even when I feel guilty that I have time for those things. I can talk about meeting deadlines and projects I enjoy and saying no and saying yes. And then, when the busy times inevitably come, I can talk about being busy in a way that maybe doesn’t send the implicit message that everyone else had better be busy too.

*So, obviously, I can’t wait to hear more about Veronica’s book deal.

2 thoughts on “untangled thoughts

  1. Thank you so much for this, Anne-Marie! I struggle with the tension between individual action, work culture expectations, and structural problems. I want to say that we need to change the structure and the overall culture before people will change, but like you, I know that changes in my own relationship to busyness are important. The act of being honest, of saying, “Yeah, I took a walk around campus in the afternoon to clear my head” can start to dismantle the expectations that we all be overworked and always talk about it.

    Oh, and we’ll definitely talk about the book and upcoming cfp in the next few months :)

  2. This is a great post, Anne-Marie, and something I’ve thought a lot about having worked at three libraries with very different cultures around busyness. I have long wondered how to create environments in which performative and competitive busyness does not feel necessary. I do think it starts with managers and administrators modeling healthy work-life balance and not rewarding or deifying overwork. My boss in my first library job worked right across the hall from me and frequently stayed very late at work. Of course, that made me feel like I had to do the same. I remember coming to work once with pink-eye and once with a stomach bug because I had classes to teach and it was expected that unless you were dying you come in and teach. There, I never saw much performative busyness or competitive busyness — it was more about following the boss’ lead and demonstrating that quiet protestant work ethic rather than talking about how busy we were. My next job was all about competitive busyness. We get subtle and not-so-subtle messages from our bosses and colleagues about what dedication looks like and then we either work to meet those “standards” or make it look like we are. Now, after 3 1/2 years of working in a place that really doesn’t deify overwork, I’m finally starting to break myself of these unhealthy inclinations towards overwork. And it’s been my colleagues who have really made me feel safe to not take on too much, to let go of commitments, and who yell at me when I try to come in sick. I think a supportive peer culture, like the one I’m in now, is critical. We have each other’s backs, which makes us feel safe being whole people in the workplace. I think in cultures that feel competitive or where people feel their status is tenuous, performative and competitive busyness becomes the norm, which often leads to newer librarians (those on the tenure track especially) to end up grossly overworked and resentful. But I have no idea how to move from a culture like that to one where people don’t feel like they have to show or talk about how busy they are. And, clearly, separate from organizational culture, impostor syndrome also plays a role in “busyness” with so many people. (Guilty as charged.) But I still think that making people feel like they are supported in being whole people (with lives beyond their work) can help even those who are internally pushed — it certainly has for me.

    I love the term “performative busyness” — it’s a phenomenon we all know so well, but I never had a name for it until now. Thanks!

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