Put Work at Risk

Kate Bowles offered a moving reflection on work and family. Her critique is grounded in her experience as a faculty member in higher-education, a career path generally lauded for its flexible work schedule.[1]

Flexibility is the latest panacea for the perennial work-family balance problem.[2] Like the panaceas before it, however, flexibility seems to have further burdened the very people it was advertised to help. Ruth Schwartz Cowan offers a brilliant critique of technologies that were supposed to address work-life balance in the home: More Work For Mother: The Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave. Ian Bogost’s Hyperemployment, or the Exhausting Work of the Technology User over at The Atlantic makes similar points about technology. If academia, the traditional home of “flexibility,” doesn’t foster a better work-life balance (and it doesn’t: How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang or Academic scattering), there seems little reason to expect for-profit businesses to encourage such a balance. Far from easing the work-life tensions, flexibility in the academy seems to exacerbate them, encouraging faculty to work all the time.

Flexibility, technology, or panacea-of-choice cannot solve the problem because it is question of values. We live in a culture that values and rewards most those who work most—clearly those who do not have extra-work commitments or choose to ignore those commitments enjoy accolades and promotions. Choosing not to work as single-mindedly as the unencumbered, therefore, is difficult. It means not being valued.[3]

Rather than looking for a simple solution like flexibility that will cure all our ills, we need to decide how we will spend our finite and ever-diminishing lives. To reduce work to just one of the things we do, and perhaps not the most important thing, requires courage. But we need to do something.

As Kate Bowles puts it:

Hope is the alibi for inaction: what we need is the courage to put work itself at risk.


  1. The post is more specifically about the nature of labor in the university and the culture that demands ever more from faculty without compensating them for their time and effort. Two further contributions to the discussion are: god bless us, everyone and On courage that is in-and-against work. The three are well worth the read.  ↩

  2. The latest post to argue for flexibility comes from Professor Scott Behson: An Interview on Fatherhood, Work-Family Balance, and What Makes a Good Dad  ↩

  3. You might even be accused of squandering your education, i.e., your expensive college degree. Despite all the Hallmark-y expressions about education for education‘s sake, a college degree, at least in the U.S., is intended to help you “get ahead in life,” e.g, get a better job, make more money, buy a faster car, buy a bigger house, improve your standard of living.  ↩

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