What Is the Real Cost of Academe’s Fixation on Productivity?

A few months ago, I took part in a virtual conversation at my university about how to rebuild campus relationships fragmented by Covid. Faculty members and administrators asked the same sorts of late-pandemic questions vexing colleges across the country: What could we do to mitigate the isolation and disengagement that everyone — students, professors, staff members — seemed to be feeling? And how could we begin to rebuild the academic and intellectual fellowship lost since the pandemic?

In my role as a faculty coach at Duke University, I jumped in with some ideas, based on what I was seeing and hearing from academics during our coaching conversations. My recommendations — that small, incremental changes at the personal and local level could be more effective than top-down solutions — ended up as an advice post on our faculty-advancement website.

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with what I wrote. Writing (or giving) advice always risks oversimplifying the real problems people are facing — as if everything could be fixed in 1,500 words. In my post, I made a few suggestions that are, in themselves, quite sensible:

  • Get back into the habit of spending time on the campus and meeting people for coffee or lunch.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of email. A simple “How are you doing?” can brighten someone’s day.
  • When graduate students or junior colleagues come to you for advice, practice active listening rather than trying to solve their problems. Sometimes people just need to be heard.

But the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I was proposing a dam to hold back a tsunami — one that started well before Covid and has been eroding social relationships for years both in higher education and in many other sectors of American life. Long before the pandemic, academics were finding it difficult to foster “intellectual community.” To attribute all of the problems we now face to the pandemic risks covering up a much larger, long-term issue.
It’s been 22 years since Robert D. Putnam called attention to our shrinking social networks and civic divestment in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. You might assume that academics — bound by a shared set of values on intellectual inquiry and by the core activities of research, teaching, and service — would be somewhat protected from these currents.

During the pandemic we’ve all seen the articles about the “great faculty disengagement.” Yet plenty of previous articles — such as “Faculty Culture Is Fractured” (2013) and “Professors Want Intellectual Community. If They Only Had The Time.” (2018) — warn us against a false nostalgia of how wonderful things were before 2020.

Not that I need trend stories to tell me that. Over the years I’ve seen the conflicted faculty attitudes toward “community” in practice. The humanities center where I used to work (at another research university) funded prestigious fellowships that compelled cohorts of faculty members to work together intensively for a semester or more. These fellowships were highly sought after, and alums would get all misty-eyed over how amazing the experience had been (“Once a fellow, always a fellow,” was our motto).

At the same time, however, the faculty response was far less enthused when I piloted a few initiatives that didn’t include semester-long course buyouts or research stipends. I could not lure academics out of their offices just for “community.” A sequence of new faculty coffee hours was a flop. I found that I could build an audience for other events, so long as they promised something tangible — like structured writing time or career-advice panels.

I see the same conflicted thinking in faculty members that I coach. They seem interested in relationship-building but only when it is directly related to professional advancement. Their reluctance to participate in casual events to “build community” is, they say, a time problem. But what sort of time problem?

Research on “time poverty” — the idea that “material affluence has not translated into time affluence” — shows that people persistently feel “like they have too many things to do and not enough time to do them.” Yet we also know that our perceptions of our own busyness can be strangely misaligned with what’s actually on our plates.

This is not to suggest that the faculty members I work with aren’t busy. They are. Their plates are crammed with professional and caregiving obligations, not to mention their own personal issues. The most common reason people come to me for coaching is to find time to do everything they need to get done. (Keep in mind, as I wrote in a previous essay, that a “time-management problem” may end up being about something else entirely, such as a difficulty saying No.)

But maybe the real problem for a lot of faculty members isn’t so much a lack of time as that they are “addicted to optimization and efficiency.”

That’s what Brad Stulberg, an executive coach, posits in a recent, thought-provoking essay in The New York Times. He argues that “heroic individualism” — a mind-set “in which productivity is prioritized over people” — was on the rise well before Covid, and says the pandemic pushed that trend into overdrive. When Covid struck, we all streamlined our social lives more than ever to minimize contact and focus on our families, our work, and our closest friends. And we’re used to that now.

“Efficiency shouldn’t be the main goal when it comes to friendship,” he writes. Building relationships takes time, “and their benefits are not measurable, at least in immediate and quantifiable ways.”

We know, intellectually, that the benefits are usually worth the time. But I worry that too many people don’t see their diminished social capital as a problem — at least not one they would “waste” time trying to fix. I get only a few requests from faculty members seeking help expanding their professional or academic circles. Far more often, I hear faculty goals related to managing or optimizing their time. Yet they might do more to strengthen their careers by working to accrue more social capital.

In Bowling Alone, social capital is described as the thing that enables people both to “get by” (intimate and familiar relationships) and “get ahead” (generally, weaker ties). A lack of social capital comes up frequently when I coach graduate students and faculty members who are writing a book or involved in a major research project. Here’s how it often plays out:

  • Say you are a newly tenured faculty member who can’t seem to get traction on writing your second book. In reaching out to me for help, your initial coaching goal may be to “find the time to write.” But after some discussion, it’s evident that you do make time to write. It’s just that you don’t get much written during those blocks of writing time.
  • It turns out that what you feel most uncertain about is not the writing itself but the trajectory of your research. It draws upon a body of work that is entirely new to you. A good way to feel more confident about it: Get the guidance of others more established in the field. You might also realize you could use writing partners, as well as a friend or neighbor willing to help out with child care.
  • No doubt that sounds fairly straightforward. Except, more often than not, the people you need help from aren’t in your immediate network yet because you haven’t made time to cultivate them. It is a vicious circle.

I’m not looking to shame people for turning down social engagements or networking opportunities, especially when they are genuinely stretched thin, and health and wellness are at stake. Likewise, healthy personal and professional boundaries are important, especially for female and Bipoc — Black, indigenous, and people of color — faculty members, who tend to get a disproportionately high number of service requests that interfere with the time they need to focus on their own work.
Rather, my goal here is to draw attention to the complex, often invisible “people problem” that may be undermining your career. By recognizing this tendency to avoid building social capital, you take the first step toward resolving it.

You might try noticing your thought process every time that you decline an invitation to coffee, postpone yet again calling a favorite mentor, or don’t send a birthday or condolence card to a colleague. It could be that there isn’t much of a thought process there at all. “I don’t have time,” may have become your mantra by now — a triggered reflex.

The next time you are mulling whether to go to a campus social event, try approaching the decision in a different way: Push beyond the thought of what giving up your work time will cost you, and instead ask yourself, “What’s the cost of not doing this?”

And in some cases, the cost is small enough to absorb. But feeling more confident about why you choose to do (or not do) things is a type of agency, and helping people find that agency is an important part of coaching. Within the past year, I had the privilege to work with a senior scholar who is widely respected in her field. She came to our first coaching session worn out by the many hours she was spending mentoring and advocating for junior female colleagues who were navigating toxic work situations. The tension she felt between guarding her personal research time and her advocacy work remained unresolved over a couple of sessions. Through coaching, she might have decided to set more boundaries around her mentoring, but that isn’t how things turned out.

One morning, at the top of a new session, she announced, “I’m not going to stop helping out. It’s just that when I do it, I’ll do it — and not spend the time worrying that I should be doing my research instead.”

This decision appeared to liberate her from something — perhaps the gnawing sense that every hour not devoted to research was somehow misallocated. The mind-set shift she described to me was subtle but powerful. “I have important research to do, but my colleagues need me,” turned into “I have important research to do, and my colleagues need me.”

In other words, if her available hours had been mapped out on a budget spreadsheet, “mentoring and advocacy” was now its own line item. I hope this shift has allowed her to be more fully present for her colleagues, although it’s a little early to tell.

By now, readers may have discerned some irony in my focus on individual solutions. Faculty members are struggling on their own to resolve a lack of social capital that is caused, in part, by cultural and institutional pressures to produce as much as possible, as fast as possible, and at any cost. Clearly, institutions have a stake and a responsibility here, too.

Since Covid disrupted our world, many colleges and universities chose to relax expectations for faculty productivity, in part to protect people’s wellness and to sustain morale. Before we revert back to the “good old days,” it may be time to ask some probing questions, at the institutional level, about the true costs of an academic culture of productivity and overwork.