A Review of Building a Life in the Humanities: Meditations on the Academic Work-Life Balance
Review by Mathew Oakes
The collection of “Meditations on the Academic Work-Life Balance,” edited by Greg Colón Semenza and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr., is relevant for Rock Valley College faculty, particularly in the midst of a turbulent fall semester. While the title pivots to those of us in the humanities, the essays are applicable to all of us.
Covering a range of topics—from Michael Berube’s “Life with Children,” to a whole section of essays on class, religion, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, and gender; from Rob Jenkin’s essay on “Life in a Community College,” to Semenza’s essay, “Depression”—the collection offers a respite for academics, a space where colleagues can offer up support to one another or at least that sense that others also tread the path we walk.
Christine M. Fitzgerald’s contribution, “Downtime,” is a must-read for all of us. I certainly recognize myself in her description of the difficulty of actually achieving what she calls “that ‘third thing’”:
. . . it is likely that all of us can distinguish between something we can identify as “home life” and its obligations and something we call “work life.” However, as academics who often work partly at home and well beyond the conventional workweek, and who strongly identify with our professions and disciplines, we sometimes let the lines blur and categories overlap so much that there is no room left for that something else—that “third thing” of true rest and relaxation. We put off doing the dishes because we simply must grade another paper. Time passes, and all we have done is what is necessary, what must get done. (102)
Sound like anyone else? Fitzgerald’s essay is welcomed reminder that that “third thing” is “not a luxury, but a necessity” (103).
For those of us at different places in our careers, the collection offers reflections on life as an adjunct, a graduate student, or as a retiree, and, for some, life after academe. Also worthwhile to note are the contributions that address those particular aspects of academic life that haunt all of us at one time or another: the “Imposter Phenomenon” by Natalie H. Houston and “Academic Guilt” by Giuseppina Iacono Lobo. I know academic guilt too well; as Lobo describes it, “Academic guilt plagues me whenever I am not working” and inevitably “foster[s] feelings of isolation and vulnerability” (83-84). Lobo gives words to a sentiment so often experienced, but not shared.
The point I’m making is that Semenza and Sullivan gather a set of voices from across the academic spectrum that speak to the multiple ways in which we live our lives. They offer us support in simple camaraderie, the fact that others have lived these scholarly lives too. Sometimes we do it well and, at other times, not so well. I appreciate how Eric Lorentzen ends his essay, “Aging,” by referencing Yeats, and I offer it as a here charge to all of us to take the long view of our successes:
Certainly, one of the invaluable benefits of a life in academe, in addition to our work being also what we love, is the better-than-average chance we all have of achieving a ‘finish worthy of the start.’” (140)
If Lorentzen is right and we in fact do have a better-than-average chance of reaching Yeats benchmark, I’m glad for the reminder of the end-game this collection offers.
How to Build a Life in the Humanities is available to be borrowed from the Academy of Teaching and Learning Excellent (ATLE) library, housed in Instructional Resource Commons, Rm. 2402 of the ERC.
Semenza, Greg Colón and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. Eds. How to Build a Life in the Humanities: Meditations on the Academic Work-Life Balance. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015. Print.