Work: a Response for Every Time Someone Asked “Anything Else?”

It’s probably not news for a lot of people I know (specifically those from the academic community that I have been on the edges of) that academic researchers are expected to juggle a lot of balls. The main project (in the case of myself and contemporaries, the PhD), any side projects, conferences and conference papers, writing journal articles, editing journal articles, teaching, any other jobs we have to remain financially solvent, applications for more jobs or funding… the list goes on.

What might be more surprising is the extent to which we, as PhD students, whilst sometimes bemoaning about how we have no social life, are complicit is policing our contemporaries’s success or failure in meeting these expectations.

“What have you been working on?” is a fairly common and innocent opening line is a postgraduate researcher dialogue. I don’t see this question as a problem; the problem comes in the responses to answers given to this first question. Most obviously, it arises in a follow-up question: “What else?” or “Anything else” or something of that ilk. It is these questions which prop up expectations which one could argue are unreasonable of anyone, but could more specifically identify as ableist, as well as discriminatory against anyone with caring responsibilities: anyone who has a rival claim on their time which cannot be avoided. I – and others – simply do not have the energy (or time) to have an answer to the “Anything else?” question.
To add insult to injury, identifying these unavoidable claims of time and energy is identified by contemporaries as “having a life apart from academic work”, as a luxury which – woe is them – they can’t afford. Yes, my having to take time to rest due to chronic illness has been described as if it’s a luxury.
Even if this last step is not taken, this attitude from PhD students is worryingly reminiscent of the broader pressure e.g. from research assessment exercises to publish a larger quantity of “research outputs” regardless of circumstance.
By this reckoning, even if I’m not seen as luxuriating when I rest, I am seen as not working (hard enough). As someone who previously had the actual luxury of being relatively able to come somewhere close to academic expectations, the realisation of how I was appraised by colleagues (and myself, since it takes time to shed a years-learnt value) was troubling. I’ve come up with the following rebuttal.
If work, in the academic context, is measured by the production of “research outputs”, then anything which it is necessary for a person to do in order to produce an output can be considered work. In my case, this includes time to rest: taking time to rest helps me to continue production both short term – in aiding concentration – and long term – in maintaining better health and thereby the ability to produce more. Therefore rest is work.
Rest is also, you say, necessary for fun. But, in a capitalist society, in which fun must be paid for in some way or another, work is necessary for fun. So rest being necessary for fun need not mean it is not work.
Furthermore, my maintaining of better health is beneficial to society in saving on medical bills. There’s another way it could be thought of as work. Thus, people who are unable to get a job due to health reasons are in a sense working by doing what is best for their health. I guess this line of thought might be more useful in integrating the argument above with ones about caring responsibilities.

With these points in mind, I hope it’s clear that it’s unreasonable and, frankly, ableist to say or even imply that myself and others in comparable situations are “not working hard”.
I should make note that the very idea that for something to be of value it must me “work” is problematic in itself. What I’ve argued for above is by no means a picture of how I think the world should be; it is more an attempt to unpack the problems in a certain series of questions in the hopes that this unpacking helps those of us in (or kindof-in) the academic community to make that community a less ableist place.

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One thought on “Work: a Response for Every Time Someone Asked “Anything Else?”

  1. Someone once told me (when I was stressed about my limited capacity for work and my need for frequent rest) that my full time job as someone who’s chronically ill is to do whatever it takes to stay in the best possible health. I found that really helpful as, whenever I had to stop and rest or leave a task half finished I’d remind myself that if that was what it took to recover and allowed me to work more effectively later in the day then it was as productive and valid as the work itself. Sadly though, the society we live in is so work obsessed that healthy people are rarely able to understand or accept such an alternative philosophy.

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