Part one: the hamster wheel

The majority of Australians working extra hours or hours outside of normal work hours do so in order to meet the expectations of their job. Almost 60 per cent of respondents report this, with 45 per cent saying that this extra work is necessary often or sometimes. This represents 5.2 million Australian workers who are working extra hours to keep their workload under control and on target.

Prue Cameron and Richard Denniss, “Hard to Get a Break“, for the Australia Institute, November 2013

It’s the crazy time in Australian universities. Research grants are announced, thousands of student grades are being shovelled into student management systems, next year’s business plans are being drafted, graduation ceremony planning is at its fraughtest, and northern hemisphere visitors are showing up to give talks because they’re bundling the southern hemisphere conference season with side trips here and there to make it all more tax deductible.

Last week, the fifth annual Go Home On Time Day campaign pointed out quietly that if their survey extrapolates over the whole population, then half the Australian workforce are unhappy with the hours they work.  Both the overworked and the underemployed are becoming frantic in this economy of the hamster wheel.  2.8 million Australians may need more working hours than they can piece together from casual, seasonal employment, just to make ends meet; and both casual and permanent employees are now suffering from the culture of unpaid overtime:

More than half (54 per cent) of survey respondents report that working extra hours without pay is expected or not expected but not discouraged in their workplace. More than one in five (22 per cent) respondents say that it is expected and more than one in three respondents (32 per cent) say their workplace does not expect but does not discourage it. In other words, the practice and culture of the workplace make this the norm. This normative pressure is felt more by women .

Cameron and Denniss,  p 11

I’ve been thinking about this because on Go Home on Time Day this year, I was sitting in a surgeon’s office. It turns out that I have breast cancer, and I found out that very day.  And here’s the thing: I first thought about getting something checked out exactly 12 months ago. I found time at the end of 2012 to take a day off work, got a referral from my GP, and then the vague unease passed. So I didn’t chase it up.

Over a busy year being both a full-time worker and a parent to three school-age children, I noticed now and then that the unease came back, and I fought with it in the middle of the night, along with to-do lists and unsent emails and ideas for projects and the anxieties of my co-workers and all of my misgivings about working for an institution whose driving mission is to be in the top 1% of world universities, which seems to me as shallow and demoralising an idea as any I’ve heard since I started working in higher education.

And now here we are.

Part two: irreplaceable time

I have breast cancer. A week ago, I had breast cancer, and the week before that, and the week before that. Maybe five, eight, even ten years ago, the first bad cell split inside me, secretly. But I didn’t know. This is how I arrived at knowing.

Xeni Jardin, Diagnosis

It’s been just over a week since the Moment. A routine visit, friendly chit chat about Christmas shopping, and then suddenly a quiet chill in the room, professionals looking at each other but not at me, an emergency biopsy, a result. I’ve had a thyroid scan, a chest X-ray, a CT scan, and tomorrow I’m having a bone scan.

And through all of this I’ve been thinking back to a planning day that I recently sat through, that for all sorts of banal reasons left me feeling completely exasperated with the corporate culture of team-building that is so reckless with people’s time and trust. I followed the instructions, more or less, while thinking about how much I’d like to quit my job, and the thing that went round and round in my head as we were hustled through a series of exercises designed to show how perfectly team building is created from the will to win, was this:  you don’t have my consent to use my remaining time in this way.

Afterwards I puzzled about this a bit: why had it come to me so strongly that it was important to speak back to this kind of dispiriting and divisive activity, however well-intentioned it might be?

I’ve come to this conclusion: I really have a problem with the culture of work in higher education. Having this diagnosis doesn’t make me special, because it doesn’t make me differently mortal than anyone else.  We are neither vampires nor zombies, whatever the craze for playing with these ideas: we are humans, and we are all here together for a very short time, historically speaking. And so that being the case, the question facing us all is this: what do we do about work?

What do we do about the way in which overwork is the price that is now demanded for participating at all? What do we do about the thousands of higher education workers consigned to underwork that prevents them from making their irreplaceably good contribution to the mission of universities or the communities that they care about? Do we really believe that our colleagues in the precarity are there because they deserve it? Do we really think sustainable and healthy workplaces will result from us giving up all of our evenings and weekends just to keep up with the standards set by the most driven, or those with the fewest external ties or interests?

If we have created a culture in which only those who are most single-minded about work are applauded, promoted and respected, we have made something whose capacity for harm is pervasive and long-term. A couple of weeks ago I listened to a senior executive colleague talk in public about how our children value and respect the things we women achieve at work. I don’t disagree that our children recognise that we pour their time into the institutions we work for, but my three daughters are telling me clearly that they experience this as harmful to them and harmful to me. And for those of us who work as educators, this is the at-all-costs behaviour we’re modelling to students who will graduate into an economy that is fuelled on the empty-tank fumes of unpaid labour.

I’ve been thinking for several weeks about a comment Richard Hall made on Twitter, about the need for courage in higher education, not hope. After debating this with him a bit, and taking a while to reflect on my own situation, I’ve come to think he’s right. Hope is the alibi for inaction: what we need is the courage to put work itself at risk.

So this is the choice I’m making, in this irreplaceable time.

These have been part of my thinking this week:

Thanks to Pat Lockley who is far more sentimental than you might think, this lovely video has been as good a metaphor as any for how things feel:


And finally, personal thanks to Agent Zed, a stranger I know only from Twitter, who answered all of my frantic questions about cancer diagnosis while I was sitting in the surgeon’s waiting room and then checked in afterwards to see how things went.
Note: This is a longer than usual post, that was once much shorter. For the first time since I began blogging two years ago, I published something entirely accidentally before it was written. So if you came by this through an email subscription, I’m so sorry — that was only half the story, and as a result it’s been rapidly edited since then.  I guess this is one of the odd symptoms of trying to process the whole situation.  It’s finished now.  KB

55 Responses

  • Thanks for writing this and I wish you all the best on the journey.

  • Thank you so much. It’s the most personal fact I’ve ever put in this public space, and I gave it some thought, but in the end, I think all this really is relevant to the way higher education operates.

    Obviously, it’s also relevant to me, but writing this has really helped me think through what’s so obviously wrong about how higher education actually manages its overheads, through millions of dollars in unpaid overtime and stockpiled or unclaimed leave. This really needs to change.

  • Firstly, I hope you’re as well as you can be and that you get well soon.
    Secondly, I am writing this from my work desk on a sunday (I will get TOIL, but I am the only nerd they have for technical things)
    Third – I often feel that Marxist approaches focus too much on wealth, and that Heidegger and time offers us a better approach (time is all we have, and we can’t really change that)
    Fourth – I’ve pretty much given up on working for a specific University anymore (I’ve sort of resigned), because I feel I can do more for the public good outside of them. I feel that agency is key really and that working late is usually a sign that you’ve lost a degree of it. I think when without managerial control, agency obviously returns to me. So this is, in a way, an explicit criticism of overly bureaucratic systems.

  • I think somewhere both Heidegger and Levinas have thoughts on time that I feel apply, but I tend to need others to explain them to me. But something that this has really challenged is my current haphazard reflections on Derrida’s writing on hospitality: let us say yes to who or what turns up. Well, this turns out to be a very bracing discipline given the things that turn up in bodies.

    But yes, the dilemma you’re suggesting — how to retrieve agency from institutional processes without asking for yet another managerial process to be developed to ensure workers stay healthy — that’s a tough one. We are always only one heartbeat away from our health being an institutional KPI, which is exactly what we see with the relentless churn of staff “wellbeing” surveys.

    • People lambast big data, while still tolerating awful low data (WTF even is wellbeing?)

      If we just talked more, I’m sure we’d need data less

  • epurser

    thanks for posting this Kate – very sorry you’ve encountered this particular uninvited guest… seem to know almost no one anymore who hasn’t.. wish you all the best and deep sorts of joy that come with letting a lot of quite unnecessary crap just ..go.
    so glad I chose a road trip with my daughter last week over poisonous team destroying exercise…
    here’s to moral courage in all circumstances being the ground we stand on

    • Words are gonna fail me. Here I try to explain how someone I do not (scare quotes warning) “know” writes something so moving, so important , so bittersweet … well “touches my heart” is too cliché. But zing that’s where it hits me. Hard.

      Words are gonna fail me. If I reach for anyone to quote or cite it’s more likely a character from Winnie the Pooh.

      Words are gonna fail me. I can’t see any end to the hamster wheel that is not more time on the wheel. I’ve not worked for an organization full time for coming on 3 years and the more I am away the more impossible it seems to climb back inside that machine. But I have a gift of liberty and a lack of dependencies.

      Words are gonna fail me. I am fairly sure that little girl did not stay with her head down on the ice. I can see her rearing up to try again (determination? resiliency?) or the parent with the camera rushing to comfort (caring? Love? Compassion?).

      Yeah to courage — that is beautiful in seeing how how much for active courage can be compared to the passivity of hope. May your courage be strong. May you get up and keep at the process of standing on that ice.

      All I wanted to say was thanks; everything else is blabbering.

      • This is a lovely, lovely thing to say. Words fail us all, I think, and I can personally attest that the first one to rush back in and crowd out other language for a while is: fuck. But to be really honest, this status change has already come with some pretty inestimable gifts.

        So I think all I can do here (because others are absolutely the experts with things to get on with, which is something to adjust to all by itself) is bring a capacity to stay calm.

        And while I’m doing that, I really might as well use the time to say that the hamster wheel of higher education is flying right off its plastic spindle and the only way we can sort this out is to get the hamsters off it for a while, and all think together about a better design for labour.

        Thanks back at you.

    • Hi Em — that’s the thing, there are so many of us. It’s a common experience. I don’t know if neglect-managed cancer is more common in one profession than another, but I have a hunch higher education would compete on this field, which is possibly how we’re all going to find ourselves in the top 1% of something.

      And as you say, it doesn’t take a diagnosis to wake up to the superior claim of the road trip. Go you good thing.

  • Oh Kate, we are thinking of you. There’s a reason I have chosen to write about labor for as long as I’ve got, and it’s not unrelated to cancer, as you know. Something liberating about the process of clarifying priorities. Stay brave. And vocal. xxx

  • Fuck. That was the first thing. And…. Fuck! That was the second thing. And that was before i read the comments. The fear and the ache in the night – argh, *shakes head* no words. Torch the hamster wheel, get well soon, please!

  • This is a beautiful reflection Kate.

    I’m sitting at my kitchen table on a Sunday afternoon in Edmonton. The sun is starting to set at 3:00 pm. I’ve always hated these early sunsets, even when they happen while a stunningly white layer of snow covers my backyard. As I’m typing, I feel the contrast of warmth from the sun gleaming through the windows and cold as I glance at the snow build up outside on the deck. It’s an odd mix of contrasts as joy and beauty mingle with a bit of sorrow as I spend (another) quiet afternoon reading, writing, and working. Reading your post – and thank you for giving us a glimpse into your thinking and feeling during an obviously challenging time – really brings to the surface how much of my life I live with awareness of tensions for doing more or better or nobler things, but still moving on the path, the habits, to which I’ve been habituated.

    Too often, I live my life in this type of auto-mode. Doing what I think I ought to do rather than doing what I will likely most value in the future if I did it today. Maybe part of what restricts me from doing important things is that the urgent things I can do as almost a distraction from life. Important things require that I have a degree of self-awareness and of being in-the-moment. And when I do those things, I get that bittersweet feeling where I am introduced to myself in a way that requires the courage that you reference in your post. It’s so much easier to do the work that by-passes awareness of my humanity than work that raises that awareness.

    Thank you Kate, for your courage. Alan says it well – everything else is blabbering. But by blabbering I’m trying to somehow reach out, connect, and express gratitude for people like you who raise my awareness about life.

    • George, this comment came in while I was sitting in the waiting room of the bone scan clinic and it really was beautifully timed. Thank you.

      So I typed a reply on my phone, and somehow the general environment of radiological intensity swallowed it. I’m so sorry, but what I really wanted to say to you is that I think it’s entirely in the nature (and interests) of complex public institutions that don’t have big enough budgets to get us onto these habituated paths. They’re becoming painfully adept at holding out just enough reward (for those who want reward) and just enough aspirational talk (for those who want intrinsic satisfaction) to keep us all trudging along, volunteering time and labour they don’t pay for. The “academia is a drug gang” really does make some of the behavioural economics of this clear.

      The madness of participation is on our part, not theirs. That’s the thing to think through.

  • M-H

    Thank you Kate. I’m sad we haven’t met yet, but I hope we will soon. I will bookmark this lovely post for future re-reading, but for now I just want to say good luck and hope with you that things are not as dire as they seem at present.

    • Dr M-H (because I never took the time to say how much I was cheering when that went through), your comment was the other one that arrived while I was sitting waiting for tests, and my reply there also vanished. So I really wanted you to know how much I appreciated it. Stuff isn’t dire or not dire yet, so much as perplexingly underway. The funny thing I’ve started to realise is that some people think I objected to the use of my remaining time in awful team-bonding exercises because I knew about the cancer. Actually, I had no idea at that moment. But for some reason, that was really the basis of my objection: we all have limited time, please don’t fuck with mine.

      When this is done we’ll take the time to meet, because we can. I so appreciate your counsel on Twitter.

  • First things first. A hug and a wish that all goes well for you.

    Second, I always felt that the pressures to take ridiculous things seriously was like a pair of hands that kind of reached out from the walls of the university and dragged me into to its web.
    Personally, and I think you know this, I feel so much better for not taking it so seriously, not being too concerned anymore about my career (as I once was) and spending more time doing things outside of the university that matter to me more. It feel like am an escaping a cult.

    You have always worked hard and diligently and with integrity without getting the recognition from our dear leaders.

    Best wishes. C

    • Yes, but I’ve always been supported and sustained by the nicest refusers and troublemakers, so it evens out. A club that wouldn’t have me for a member isn’t necessarily a club I’m trying to join. Best, K.

  • this is courageous and it is powerful…because you’re right.

    you’re right…we all live there, in the broader country of ‘live to work.’ the land of ‘work to live’ is a place i read about…once in a lullaby. it appears i lost the map there many years ago, before i got on this hamster wheel.

    you’re right: you are no differently mortal. we are all human, our time is finite. and you’re right, this current culture isn’t humane or sustainable as an ethos.

    for all you’re right, it still takes courage to stick up your head in the midst of change and fear and speak from that space, contextualize it for the rest of us. thank you.

    (i take Pat’s point above about agency vs. institutional, bureaucratic systems…but i wonder too about agency and networks and new hamster wheels and the exhortation to make our own.)

    love to you.

    • I think about the lifestyle dreaming hamsters might design for themselves, and I think they wouldn’t choose wheels of any design. That is, the incredible stress of constantly running and getting nowhere isn’t something even hamsters (fairly dimwitted in my experience) would impose on themselves. But we do, because very complex processes of recruitment and retention of our commitment are in place, even among those to whom no actual commitment has been made in return. Jesse Stommel nailed it for me: it does look very much as though we are all contingently volunteering time to our institutions, who have themselves in many instances forgotten what the point of it all is.

      What I don’t mind at all about this situation is that it has given me free rein to say that what I actually think about competitive reward as the underpinning cruelty of the whole enterprise.

      Love to you too, kitchen to kitchen.

  • sophylou

    Thanks for this post, and please know that I am wishing you all the best. I’ve so enjoyed your voice on this blog, and hope to have the opportunity to meet you someday.

    I read this just as I was thinking about the anger I feel at working in an institution which values PR, appearances, and numbers more than it values education or effort or, more basically, people, and throws money at facilities rather than investing in their human resources (we have not had raises of any kind for 7+ years). I don’t know how to work towards goals that aren’t achievable because they aren’t based in any kind of reality or on any kind of human scale. I’ve been working on not letting the institution (or the title) define me and to spend my time focusing on things that are more meaningful to me. Because you’re right: the time is finite, and it’s too short to be filled with trying to live up to impossible expectations, or letting myself be defined by my failure to live up to them.

    I had to have major surgery last year (not for cancer, thank God) and just that had a major impact on me in terms of thinking about what was important to me. It’s easy to lose sight of that. Wake-up calls come along. I am sending you all good thoughts and love.

    • This is such a powerful reply for me Your anger is exactly how I feel, not at the cancer — not at all — but at the massive disrespect for human scale that is currently driving higher education. We have not had a language for this, because so many things came at once: MOOCs, marketing, casualisation, debt, fear. But the thing that connects it all is this simple fact of finite time. Once you see that, you have all the permission to step back and say: wait, this is my time, and that’s the foundation of my agency as a person.

  • Thank you for writing an amazing personal and powerful post with such honesty and courage. @cogdog is right, everything else is indeed blabbering, but maybe at a time like this words that express sentiment – however imperfect- are more important than those unspoken. Much love, light and healing sent your way.

  • Thank you, and really all and nothing is blabbering at this point. I’ve worked with colleagues and close friends diagnosed with cancer and I know how tongue-tied and inexperienced and clumsy I felt, but there’s no voodoo to it. We’re all in this together and all the language we’re using, all the efforts we’re making to comfort complete strangers, is really a sign that we have all we need to achieve change. Welcome to the deckchairs.

  • What an appalling way to get a sense of perspective on all this, not that you didn’t already have one… Obviously what all your fans (and we are fans) are experiencing is the gap between being articulate and being able to articulate this kind of emotion. All I can say is that you are inspirational as an educator and now in the way you’re dealing with your diagnosis. Hope your family are coping as well as you are.

    • PV, I’m so interested that so many people write about feeling wordless when faced with this. I’ve been exactly the same myself when faced with other people’s similar news. But really, this is such a good time for thinking and using the power tool of our trade: language itself. Even if the language is about feeling speechless, it’s a kind of act—a decision to write and say one thing and not another—and what we all need in the situation higher education is facing is the recognition of our capacity to act, including to refuse.

      As for the situation I’m facing, I have the best, funniest, fiercest family company anyone could hope for. A diagnosis of this kind hits everyone, and everyone rises up.

  • I read this today and thought of you, of all of us:

    ‘Forever – Is Composed of Nows –’

    By Emily Dickinson

    Forever – is composed of Nows –
    ‘Tis not a different time –
    Except for Infiniteness –
    And Latitude of Home –

    From this – experienced Here –
    Remove the Dates – to These –
    Let Months dissolve in further Months –
    And Years – exhale in Years –

    Without Debate – or Pause –
    Or Celebrated Days –
    No different Our Years would be
    From Anno Dominies –

  • Thank you, Kate, not just for this post but for all those before. You’ve reminded me here, that I still do have some choice in how I spend my (thinking, reading, meeting, writing, working, living, loving, be-ing) time. And I’m slowly withdrawing my consent too, with whatever power I have, to having ‘uncaring others’ (individuals, institutions, industries, systems) spend it for me.

    Wishing you well in all ways.

    • Hello, and wishing you well in return. The decision to withdraw consent in higher education, even surreptitiously, even in the smallest measure, isn’t one taken lightly at all, and it’s really hard to back yourself. Personally I think the hamster wheel conditions the hamster to scampering, and that habit takes a while to unwind. So to me it seems that slow is good. K

  • coming out of lurk to say thank you for this post. i just…im a bit speechless. i do know you, and i know how much you care about your work, and ive always admired that about you, well before recent events. which makes me realise how important it is to tell our colleagues that ALL the time. and as a rat on the wheel in the same institution, that goal is so meaningless as to be insulting because it takes all the heart and soul, all the meaning, out of what we do. i just want you to know that your work is appreciated, as is your honesty, and i hope in all this you find the path that means something to you, more than anyone xx

    • Hello, and welcome to the deckchairs—so nice to see you here. Yes, the goal is depleting of the actual value of higher education, especially in this political and local context, and we can’t say this loudly enough. Education has the capacity to make a real difference in terms of hope and justice, just not via elite branding. See you around, K

  • Laura

    Thank you for this brave, honest and incredibly moving post, Kate. It is the plus side of digitally- mediated globalisation that people from all over the world feel they know you, and wish you all good hearty wishes on your road ahead, and it is the down side of globalisation and the nature of universities everywhere that so many of us everywhere identify so closely with what you are saying. As we say around here “sterkte”! Laura

    • Hi Laura, lovely to see you here. I had to Google the word! What a complex term, especially coming from where you are. Yes, I think that’s what’s needed.

      • Laura

        I just had a look at what Google told you, and like this version-
        What a time, what confluences of challenges, and musings, and loving support, all at the same time. And you have made so many of us reflect too. Good thoughts to your daughters too.

        • That’s the one I saw — yes, what a full set of ideas there. This reflection has led into a larger set of thoughts about courage, hope and agency that I’m fairly ill-equipped to pursue but I’ve found many other people drawn to the same ideas. I think we are all really looking for ways to dislodge ourselves from productivity’s brambles, without just setting fire to the institutions on which many depend — and from which, ideally at least, we should also be able to hope for social justice.

  • Dear Kate: thank you for your bravery, honesty, and authenticity. I am thinking of you on your journey in life, love, and literature.

    Tiffany Timperman

    • You know, it’s a weird thing about cancer: the things that seem remarkable (and I think probably things I thought were amazing in anyone else I knew who was handling this) turn out to be just the words that tumble out of your mouth when a diagnosis like this removes a whole lot of social prohibition on saying what you think or fear. My sense is that most people try to function with some degree of candour about their lives, and one of the most corrosive things about work is the effort to make this not the case.

      Thanks for leaving this message. Your blog is terrific.

  • I was also an overworked academic, and I was diagnosed with breast cancer in July last year (having postponed a scheduled mammogram for some months, heyho). I had surgery, chemo, radiotherapy. I finished treatment (other than physio) last April, and I made it to Europe for a planned holiday in July, only slightly the worse for wear.

    The treatments come to an end, Kate. It’s awful, but it’s finite, and they know so much more about it than 20 years ago. I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone, but if you have to have one, breast cancer is a good one to choose, because the survival rates are so good.

    Please get in touch if you think I can offer any advice – though I’m sure you have your own support network. My experience was that the health professionals were overwhelmingly kind.

    PS When you are ready for a laugh again, and you will be, go back and look at the YouTube footage of Julia gillard’s misogyny speech – all those gobsmacked men are wearing a twist of ribbon marking Breast Cancer Awareness week.

    • Thank you so much for this message, and also the reminder about the misogyny speech.

      Like you, I’m finding the world to be in general a very kind and good place, especially in Australia’s astonishing public health system, where I’ve been meeting so many other overworked professionals. The casualisation of nursing is entrenched; the radical and long-term overwork culture of doctors is really well known. And so our hospitals are also filled with people who also want to talk about this — about having no time to care for themselves or be present with their families. I was really interested to hear from doctors in particular that email is a huge part of the problem for them; from nurses I heard a lot about the impacts of casualisation and shift-work.

      On the cancer itself, it does feel as though this is one of the better ones to get, I agree. The best advice I’ve been given is to get used to not knowing. Initially I found that the most confronting aspect — as academics we are so trained to plan, and you can’t plan for any of this. But I’m learning to operate quite calmly in the here and now, and already discovering that this is a healthy way to think.

      So grateful to hear from people who are up ahead on this road.

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