Deprogramming from the Productivity Cult

Thanksgiving Break came at a perfect time for me. After participating in what is always my favorite conference, the Modernist Studies Association Conference, I had to be on campus for just Monday and Tuesday before I could veg at home and recover from travel and tidy up the loose ends of hallway conversations, terrified chats with publishers, and business-card exchanges. But on that Monday and Tuesday, something funny happened: people kept stopping me in the hallway to ask why I looked so happy.

The truth is that the conference knocked many things loose for me. I was apprehensive about the number of commitments I’d made for the conference–the many different roles I’d chosen to fulfill in the program–and my ability to maintain the energy to perform all of these roles well. By the time I was ready to go to the airport and fly to the conference, I had worried myself into illness (sorry, Rachelle, for kicking you out of the office!) and felt weak, nauseous, achy.

At the conference, it cleared right up. Becoming genuinely compelled by others’ work, genuinely excited to share my work, and genuinely thrilled to talk shop made me realize that I’ve been internalizing some negative habits of mind–negative habits for me–from productivity discourses. This semester, my department generously paid for me to participate in an online productivity program, and even though it gave me many excellent ideas and will continue to influence my approach to tracking my work in positive ways, the problem was that I started performing the crisis.

Performing the crisis of not-enough-time.

Performing the crisis of faith in my project.

Performing the crisis of dramatic and uncertain writing sessions.

Performing the crisis of impending third-year review and then (terror!) putting together a tenure case.

These issues are all very real for many. And I fully appreciate that my statistically improbable landing a TT job at an institution without major budgetary issues is one reason why I was performing these crises instead of genuinely feeling them. So I’m privileged there, I know.

I was reminded of an incident during graduate school. All of us first-years were teaching assistants, and all were (of course) under the care of our composition director. When I felt that the fears of other students weren’t being addressed in certain ways, I gathered up my courage and expressed my opinion to the director. And he–this guy’s practically a mind-reader, by the way (he even guessed that A and I were engaged before we’d told anyone)–said, “But how are you doing in your classroom?” “Fine,” I answered. “It’s going well.” And he answered, “Then why the hell do you care?”

At MSA, I had the opportunity to channel the emotions and attitudes of people who approach their work with joy and enthusiasm. It twitched that strange curtain I had been pulling between me and my work habits. I like my work, I realized. I genuinely enjoy this stuff. By contrast, relying on people who claim that going to the bathroom before you write for 30 minutes could be characterized as avoidance behavior–well, I should have paused a bit there. And I should have paused again when the program made me feel that my semester writing plan, which I had dreamed over lovingly and had approved by my department head as sufficient progress to tenure, had to be rewritten or revised to their schema.

For me (again, not for everyone; for many people, discourses of productivity are of enormous use, especially if they, unlike me, live with more people than a very supportive spouse), the scarcity discourse of writing is wholly inappropriate. And so I’ve approached my writing in the past few days with a joy and a trust that I haven’t felt in a long time: joy in the ideas, trust in myself and my training.

Sure, the fact that it’s now feeling cooler back here in Texas is also playing a part. The fact that I’ve stayed home and written in front of my picture window overlooking the park across the street also played a part. But it also gets me back to Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, which, if you haven’t read it lately, is just as much about work as it is about the Van Whooevers of Edith Wharton’s fiction. In the chapter “Survivals of the Non-Invidious Interest,” Veblen writes that an internalized value of workmanship can circumvent the “irksomeness” that’s associated with labor. Think of Adam Smith here, whose Wealth of Nations is built on the foundational argument that people must be compelled to work. Forced, cajoled, and tricked to work.

You might think I’m duped by my own economic necessity, that it’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome. But here I turn to Karl Marx. In “Value, Price, and Profit,” Marx argues that “[a] man who has no free time to dispose of, whose whole lifetime apart from the mere physical interruption of sleep, meals and so forth, is absorbed by his labor for the capitalist, is less than a beast of burden. He is a mere machine for producing Foreign Wealth.” But he also makes allowances for the “the development of human energy which is an end in itself,” for he always places the right kind of labor at the heart of the dignity and happiness of each individual. I’ve managed to find the right kind of labor for myself, and it would be self-destructive and ungrateful not to feel that, powerfully, every day.

So thank you, everyone at MSA who twitched the productivity veil from my eyes and let me get back to my core feeling that this is right for me and I will get tenure if I just keep doing what I almost naturally want to do. Beyond the categories of mentors identified by the productivity program I was in (e.g., people who can read your manuscripts or advise you on tricky intra-institutional politics), there are some more kinds of people and support I need: gossipers with whom I can moan and groan before forgetting petty insults and problems; the generous Twitter users who put a heart next to my work updates because they are happy whenever anyone else succeeds; and the muses who motivate me simply by the feelings of admiration I have for them and their work.

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