Sunday, July 1, 2012

How to Thrive in the Academy … With or without saving the world first

This blog is about thriving, not just surviving in academia. There is an inherent contradiction to that, though. I believe that it is important to be happy, yet I am also well aware that the world (including the academy) is unjust. How can one be happy amidst widespread injustice?


As you may or may not have been able to tell from my posts, I am deeply committed to social justice. I think that the world needs fundamental changes and favor such things as open borders, universal health care, the elimination of private property, and other drastic measures that I am unlikely to see happen in my lifetime. Although I know the world needs to be changed, I still try to be happy in the world I live in. The reason: my being sad and depressed will not do a single thing to change the things I believe should be changed.

Being mad (as opposed to sad) can sometimes lead to change, but that happens only when there are specific actions anger can inspire you to take, and when change is possible. For example, I just got a call from my husband letting me know he got a speeding ticket. I am doing my best not to be angry because being mad about the ticket is not going to change anything. We already will have to pay the fine. Why also waste precious emotional energy on things I can’t change? You see, I just need to let it go. (This isn't always easy, but it's better than being mad all day!)

I don’t like feeling sad or mad, especially when those feelings are associated with a sense of helplessness. I can’t change the fact that my husband got a ticket. I can’t make universal healthcare happen right now. What, then, can I do? What is within my control? Being happy, it turns out, is usually within reach. And, I like being happy.

I separate out my day-to-day happiness from my long-term vision for how the world should be. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, for example, once told me that one criticism she gets from her book “How to Win Tenure without Losing Your Soul” is that the book doesn’t advocate for structural changes in the academy, or even for fighting racism and sexism in the academy. Well, that is not what the book is about. It is about how to do well in the academy, despite racism and sexism. We have to survive the academy in order to change it.

Similarly, this blog is about how to be happy on a daily basis, despite all of the structural problems with the academy and widespread injustice in the world. It also seems to me that, once we have our own lives together, we can do a better job of saving the world.

No matter what situation you find yourself in, you deserve to be as happy as you can be. This is another reason I have this blog – academics often seem to think that suffering and being insanely busy are job requirements. I am here to say that, from my perspective, this is not true. I am here to provide a model for academics who want to have a life, who want to be happy, and who don’t want to feel guilty for that.

Instead, we should own our happiness. In a recent blog conversation with Jonathan and Thomas, I came to the conclusion that happy academics are actually better writers. We need time to think, to muse, to ponder, and to spend with our creative spirit to do the best we can.

So, next time you heart leads you to spend the afternoon at the Art Museum, or to go for a long run in the park, or to laugh with your kids, or go to the opera – do it! We all deserve to be happy and to live life to its fullest. Although these actions won’t fix human suffering, they may do a bit to alleviate it – one person at a time.


  1. Great post, Tanya.

    I recognize myself in what you describe - dreaming of big changes in our world, but trying to make the most of it on a day-to-day basis.

  2. Dear Tanya,

    I come to your blog regularly to wrap my mind around academic life and to re-instill the belief that there can be a healthy work-life balance where one can pursue hobbies and a personal life and yet still be successful in academe. Your r&r post helped me achieve my first forthcoming.I am a political scientist-the closest field to yours from my perspective. I am hoping that you will write a blog on 'how to network' as that is one big challenge I'm facing. Thank you for this blog and congrats on your new job!

  3. Tanya - your post affected me so deeply that I had a dream about it last night! I am going to adopt your declaration "I like being happy" as my new life mantra. I'm an advanced PhD, writing my dissertation, teaching, working on various side projects etc. etc. etc. Your blog has helped me tackle a lot of my writing issues, but there was a piece missing - balance. Now when I schedule my writing time, I'll also be thinking about making time to just be, and to just be happy.

    Again, thank you one million times for this post.

  4. I am happy to see the positive reaction to this post and glad to learn these thoughts resonate with others.

  5. Recently I was thinking about this issue, so I especially liked this post, thank you.

    I'm only an MA student, yet, but it's my plan to continue to this journey. The attitude towards academicians, that they always have to be serious, whenever they talk, they have to talk about serious/world issues always make me worried. I use my blog to relax, but somehow I feel guilty that I'm not responsible, or serious enough on my blog posts. Your post is like an answer to my concerns. Thank you again.

  6. I echo all of the above. Thank you so much for writing this post, and writing it so well! I am new to the blog, and this is the first post I'm reading. And I am a KU alum (graduated in 1998 with B.A. degrees in Spanish and Humanities, in which my three areas were English, American Studies, and Religious Studies). My Ph.D. is in American Studies & Ethnicity from USC, with a concentration in Sociology. And I am now an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Brandman University. You and I probably know some of the same folks. :)

  7. Tanya, I very much enjoy your blog which is helping me find the right attitude as a working PhD student. However, I am not sure I agree with your proposition that "this blog is about how to be happy on a daily basis, despite all of the structural problems with the academy and widespread injustice in the world." While I support your effort to help academics thrive without becoming slaves to the institution in terms of work hours and the like, I believe that freedom should take over happiness since it brings a deeper sense of fulfilment. I am thinking also of Paulo Freire's idea that one must fight one's own oppression in order to address injustice. This would mean opposing the academic institution (as perhaps you do by working 8 hour-days and refusing to give up your personal and family life) rather than separating one's role within it from a sense of responsibility towards injustice in the wold.

    I recently wrote a blog post on the subject:

    1. thanks for your comment, danne. something to ponder about the labels we put on our feelings and states of mind - freedom, happiness, non-attachment, etc. Whatever you call your state of bliss, it's something worth striving for as opposed to living in a morass of anger and bitterness.

  8. I love your perspective on life. It's similar to my perspective, but as I'm writing up my phd at the moment I needed the reminder. So thank you. Also, unfortunately I know of no good role model for me in academia, all the professors I know seem to think that the more you work, the more you miss out on all the fun things in life the more your proving yourself as a "serious" acaedemic. But I like planning my day, been organised and working in bursts and then doing other nice things that make me happy.Instead I see people not eat lunch, have meetings straight through all day then finish with a three hour meeting that should have only been an hour long but because they're brain switched off hours ago they couldn't focus, complain about how busy they are. And I don't wish to choose that for myself. So thank you for demonstrating that it is possible to be a sensible, fun, happy academic. R.

  9. My question is: Did you write up in a shared house?

    If so, how did you manage to be happy? Did you have a cleaner?