Life of the Mind

The upside of academia is that it’s brain work and not brawn work. Having spent some summers shoveling horse manure and school semesters running an industrial dishwasher, I appreciate not being up to my forearms in a messy stream of food and water or up to another body part in steaming muck.

The downside of the professorial career is juggling all of my various activities in one mind that doesn’t have any way to turn off the lights on the other parts of the job. Unlike my old food service gig, I’m not clearly ‘done’ when the last of the pans are washed and racked, I hang up my apron and take off my hairnet. This is the time of year when I acutely feel the round-the-clock pressures of a job that never ends even if I know that I’m more than fortunate to have this job! People enviously congratulate me on term being over. I suppose they envision some sort of slothful repose where I pop the occasional bonbon into my mouth and languidly turn the pages of some esoteric academic tome. No way!

This term I’ve taught topics that ranged from 3500 BCE to 1600 CE and stretch from Bactria to Britain – my brain is still busily processing new readings and discussions on those subjects. I’ve written a grant application that will eat up much of the summer and fall if its funded and mentored a number of students in preparing proposals for all sorts of projects that will require some further support and attention along the way if they’re successful. I’ve co-edited a book that will be in print this fall: so exciting! I’m researching and writing on several only lightly related topics, editing on yet another and occasionally having to pull my head up out of the sand to do a few time-sensitive tasks to prepare for the fall term (book orders coming soon!). My brain feels as if its being tugged in too many directions at once.

Keeping track of what’s on the go for what project is almost as much of a challenge as actually teaching, writing or marking. Without my to-do list that helps me track which assignments are marked and which have yet to be assessed, which inter-library loans I have out and which I’m awaiting, what professional society memberships are to be renewed and what research tasks are next in line for which project, I really might fall apart. I’m certain that the stereotype of the absent-minded academic had its roots in our occupation’s enforced multi-tasking. How can I be expected to remember where I parked my car if I’m trying to remember whether or not I got today’s research tasks accomplished?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another whackload of assignments to mark and I need to prepare for tomorrow’s final grad student seminar. Thank goodness my to-do list and calendar alerts are there to keep me on track!

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Life of the Mind

  1. profgrrrrl

    Those lists are so necessary!
    You know, sometimes I miss the non-academic life. Much like taking off the hairnet, I’d hop in my car, blast some Hole (mid-90s) and point in the homeward direction. 20 minutes later, work was all gone, not to reappear for at least 12-14 hours. Drive time was transition time, home time was home time, and I did like it that way. Sigh. But last night I found myself rolling trucks outside with B and thinking “Don’t forget to put X and Y on the Monday to do list!”

    • J Liedl

      Profgrrrrl, you’re absolutely right that trying to remember what has to be added to the to-do list is a job in and of itself! And I know I feel guilty when I’m helping Youngest with her homework or chatting with Eldest and then all of a sudden my mind leaps to something else I need to do for work.

  2. Mike

    Get that lazy, no-good, unemployed husband of yours to pick up some of the slack! Don’t be afraid to haul his fat ass out of his man-cave and get him to do some work around the place!

  3. Turning brain off was never a part of my other work lives – only now, I’m juggling things I generally like vs things that I don’t. I have learned, aged crone that I am, to redirect into creative channels. So instead of being haunted by assignments and grading and paper pushing, I now tend to create stained glass designs or paintings or whatever when my mind wants to nudge. Takes practice and discipline, but minds can be trained….:-D

    • J Liedl

      Rewarding yourself for getting through some of the “ugh” work (like recording/checking marks, grading technical but not expressive assignments) is the only way to stay sane. I do admire your taking up the stained glass work – that sounds wonderful!

  4. cyn

    I cannot function without a to-do list. Seriously.

    • J Liedl

      Yup, I actually keep a to-do list for each of my major areas at work (teaching, research/writing, editing, service). It helps so much!