“You have to be selfish”

I am currently working on my dissertation, and I want to give a shot at blogging about the research and writing process. Some posts will be about things I find or read about while researching. Other posts will be about the writing process and academia more generally. For my first post, I wanted to address “walling off” time for research and writing.

In introductory graduate seminars, graduate students are often told to prioritize our time. This need for prioritization is reinforced through the academic experience by faculty and older graduate students. Typically, this conversation involves discussing the three priorities of academic work: research, teaching, and service. All three are important for achieving success, although research and teaching rank first. There are certainly minutiae related to this. Graduate students and faculty who are more interested in teaching jobs will prioritize teaching, while those who want to work for primarily research institutions will prioritize research. This is not to say that there are not many academics who do both research and teaching well – there are – but this is the typical story that graduate students are told when they first arrive to their programs.

Further on their degree paths, graduate students are reminded of the importance of “walling off” time for writing and researching our dissertations. Faculty and older graduate students often advise “write every day,” regardless of what their actual writing process is like. For me, this advice is not that useful because I tend to read or research a lot and then write a lot. We are told to be protective of our time and limit our other activities. Social lives, teaching, even sleep, are secondary to researching and writing our dissertations.

Recently, I heard a new (to me) formulation of the perennial “walling off” advice. I was told: “You have to be selfish.” This advice has stuck with me differently than “walling off” or “writing everyday.” As I was asked by friends for help with certain tasks, I began to ask myself, “but shouldn’t I be selfish right now? I need to work on my dissertation.” I resolved that some things were more important than my self-interest in my dissertation, at least at the moment. However, I want to think more about this comment.

In many ways, I am a stereotypical woman in academia. I do a lot of service. I serve on departmental and campus committees. I volunteer with my union. I also do community activism with a variety of groups. In an attempt to prioritize my time for writing my dissertation, I have cut out a lot of these activities, and I plan to cut more as the semester ends. I know cognitively that this “selfishness” is good for my degree path. It is good for me to make sure that I have time to write and research. I haven’t put years toward my degree to fail now.

At the same time, it feels like I’m losing something of myself. I was raised in a devoutly Catholic family and attended a Catholic school oriented toward social justice. Community service has always been part of my life. My parents were and are deeply involved in many aspects of their community. My high school even required a “Social Justice” class in which community service was part of the course requirements. Bridging the gap between the public and academia has been one of the things that is most important to me as an academic. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I went to a group discussion on Going Public and enjoyed reflecting on the joys and complications of being a public intellectual. Thus, being “selfish” by compromising service feels like a shattering of my soul.

In addition to forsaking my Catholic service roots, I also feel as though I am fighting against the tide of what many women are taught in our culture. Women and girls often feel a desire to please other people, regardless of what they want. Perhaps this is why women perform more service in academia and why women are asked to perform more emotional labor in the classroom. Some academics advise doing minimal teaching labor to leave more time for research and writing. However, failing to perform emotional labor in teaching might be a detriment to my student evaluations. Although some academics might rank teaching as less than research, teaching evaluations are important, even at research institutions.

I initially rankled at the thought of being “selfish.” How could I just be “selfish” like that? I care about other people. I care about my friends. I realized that this task may be made particularly hard by the values that I’ve learned to prioritize; other women may face this same divided loyalty. Which self should I be loyal to? The academic who needs to do work? Or the self that wants to help others?

Yet, the dichotomy between the “selfish” and “selfless” academic also seems flawed. Academics often posit that they are doing good for the world. Whether we are acting “selfishly” by preserving time depends on the perspective one takes on research and writing. I still dream of being able to a public intellectual. I hope that one day my dissertation will benefit other people. The potential value of my dissertation research means that sacrificing my service now for long-term gains is a reasonable trade. My own “selfish” behavior now may not be selfish in the long-term.