Recently there has been a spate of strikes in the universities. Lecturers and support staff are demanding that their salaries keep pace with inflation. I’m not going to discuss the strikes here and if you know who I am you will probably know already my attitude to the current dispute. That conversation is for elsewhere and probably in private.
But I would like to discuss the nature of academics’ work which is not widely understood by those not in the academy.
No clocking in and out
We do not have a nine-to-five job. It makes taking strike action and even leave slightly ludicrous.
I know, for instance, that many academics who took part in a two-hour strike last week would actually have far rather stayed in their office, fielding student e-mail, preparing lectures and marking. Being on strike involved a fifty-minute round trudge through the rain and the wind to meet other union members at a secret venue. Academics hate having to cancel classes. At the end of the two hours they were all back at their desks and many stayed late that evening to catch up with work.
No, our work certainly doesn’t fit a nine-to-five day. Nobody does our work whilst we’re on leave: it all waits until we come back. It’s not unusual to:
· Not take all of your leave in a given year
· Look at emails whilst on leave and answer the urgent ones (because of a staffing crisis one senior colleague was spending four to five hours a day on university business whilst on leave last summer)
· Carry out research whilst on leave
· Take leave in order to do research
· Hand small children over to the partner at the weekend so that you have a free run on marking
· Work into the small hours to meet marking deadlines
· Pay for the books we need for our courses
· Whilst “relaxing” come across a snippet that would be useful to our students and log into our VLE to make sure we didn’t forget to tell them
· Supplement the cost of travel to conferences
We do this gladly, because we love our work and our students.
A week in the life
Last week was the first of our second semester. So, some teaching to prepare for and as I have a partly managerial role, some last-minute organisation and trouble-shooting. I’ve finished my own marking but did fit some late moderation on Friday p.m.
Incredible timing meant that a book that will come out March / April this year came back with quite a few final edits the Friday before. It needed to be with the publisher last Friday. So, once all essential tasks were finished I was into the editing.
I tend to work an hour or so from home unless I need to be in early. This way I beat the traffic and so manage to fit much more work into the day. I also set off home either before the evening rush has started or after it has finished. On Friday I worked from home all day – thus fitting in two more hours’ work.
I work until 9.00 or 9.30 p.m. most days and also fit in between five and eight hours at the weekend. Lunch is more often than not taken at my desk or occasionally as a meeting with colleagues. I do try to fit a couple of hours’ writing in each day but don’t always manage it.
A really pleasant task this week was talking to two students whose work may be about to be published.
It’s a vocation
Yes, in fact, even sleep, eating, holidays and visits to the gym are there to support the work. We live to work, we don’t work to live. Nevertheless we need to be paid so that we can live. Many of my leisure activities actually enhance my work: reading, going to the theatre, watching films. So, I’m not actually complaining.
Recently a colleague and I discussed how hard it would be to work out what to do if we went on strike.
“Go for a walk?” she suggested.
“I bet you’d end up thinking of some new poems,” I replied.
We decided that ironing or digging the garden would be just as problematic. We’d rather be working, actually.
It’s a real privilege having what we would do as a hobby recognised as work. But it really can’t be nine-to-five.