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Where did all those dreams go?

Finishing off the last of my marking for the semester, I found myself in that curious position of having become so used to having a long to-do list in front of me that I wasn’t sure what to do with myself when it was gone. I surely have things I can do—National Novel-Writing Month, for one, and system administration at for another—but I’d already allocated time to those and suddenly I have whole days free that I used to spend meeting students or (more recently) grading them, or otherwise squeezing in personal projects outside of my academic position.

Thinking about the “job relief” entries I wrote last month, and comparing how I feel now with how I felt a year ago, I sometimes feel strangely less productive working 2.5 days a week than I did working one day a week. Going to campus twice each week, for half a day each time, I could devote two whole days a week to whatever projects I felt worthy, and another to getting out and enjoying life. At 2.5 days, at least during semester, I feel like I spend most of time answering e-mail or in teleconferences, and it’s hard to point to what I’ve got to show for it.

Perhaps I don’t have all that much to show for the first six months that I spent working part-time, either. I didn’t pick up anywhere near as much non-academic work as I’d hoped; I don’t have any completed books (a couple of short stories and articles notwithstanding); and I didn’t write any significant software. Whereas working 2.5 days a week at least produced a mountain of e-mail, a few presentations, and hopefully scores or even hundreds of satisfied students. And of course all this was useful enough that someone was willing to pay for it.

The basic idea behind a market economy is that people express their preferences by their willingness to pay for them. So the economy (assuming it’s working as advertised) must have valued all that e-mail to the degree that it paid me for it. In Bullshit Jobs, Dave Graeber notes that one criticism of his theory is that the market would hardly pay for bullshit; but evidently being paid for it doesn’t convince his correspondents of the meaningfulness of what they are doing. In fact the expression “doing it for the money” implies more or less the opposite of satisfying and meaningful work. To be clear, I don’t regard my paid job as bullshit, it just has a far more mundane flavour than the kinds of things people dream of doing when breaking out of the corporate mold.

Of course what seems meaningful and satisfying to one person may not seem so meaningful and satisfying to someone else, such that the first needs to pay the second in order to get him or her to do it. In my case, responding to student enquiries may not have the same cachet as writing novels or computer software; but if the e-mails add up to hundreds of students successfully navigating their courses then maybe it’s worth paying for.

For now, my main non-paid projects are to finish off National Novel-Writing Month and oversee an upgrade of the server. Neither are particularly glamourous but at least I’ll be able to point to something at the end (even if no one will ever want to read such an awful novel and no one but the servers team sees most of the software). After that, it’s Christmas holidays, and hopefully time for some dreamier projects in the new year.

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