Vocation & Vacation: Challenging the “Culture of Competitive Martyrdom”

How often have you heard this joke? “Question: What are the three best reasons to become a professor? Answer: June, July, and August.”

Anyone inside the profession, however, experiences a very different world and many academics find themselves in a paradoxical situation inherent in the very nature of their work. From the outside, viewed by, say truck drivers or dentists or factory workers, their jobs look embarrassingly easy. Just 4-12 hours/week of actual time in class, no requirement beyond a few office hours to “clock-in” to a particular place, no direct oversight of the classroom (“my class is my castle”), and unheard-of-in-other-fields job security (believe me, they have heard of tenure and don’t realize how tenuous it is). Oh yes, and three months of vacation. Every year.

Dame Winifred Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University

The famous English classicist Mary Beard, who writes a column in the Times Literary Supplement called “A Don’s Life,” has taken on the challenge of unmasking the myths and illustrating the real work of academic life, including those famous three months of “vacation.”  In the essay, she compiled a list of what she is obligated to do in the summers. The list, she recognizes, might be a contribution to a “culture of competitive martyrdom” which results, she implies, when hard-working, passionate people feel unrecognized and unappreciated.

Beard teaches at the world-renowned University of Cambridge. Perhaps the woes of working 8-10 hours a day 6-7 days a week only afflict those at the top of the academic totem pole?

Further down the pecking order of higher education, in teaching universities where most professors reside, the pressures are not less; they are just different. We too have to prepare to teach new courses, or refresh old ones. We too have institutional and community service requirements, some of which are best done in the summer. We too have publishing, reading, and speaking commitments in our fields of special interest.

No professor I know lounges around a beach all summer drinking mint juleps.

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Do you recognize yourself in this picture? Probably not.

In fact, many professors hardly know what a true vacation means – to vacate the usual routine, disconnect from distractions, and devote oneself to rest, reflection, or travel. How does it feel, one may ask enviously, to downshift from one’s usual mental activity and detach from goals except for the desire to be present to beauty, to nature, to self, and to loved ones?

Perhaps vacation and vocation sound so much alike because we can’t have one without the other. How do we get quiet enough to listen? We need to vacate the noise.

What is the best thing to listen for when we finally get away? The still small voice of our own calling, the thing that makes us who we are, the purpose with the staying power to last all our lives.

It’s not too late to take vacation! If you haven’t had an experience yet like the one above, you can design one for yourself before the first faculty meeting of the year. Can’t find a whole week? Then take a long weekend. Can’t travel anywhere? Then find a lovely place in your hometown or even in your own home. Go all the way “off-line” so that you can come back all the way on to those things most important to you.

And then what about the school year itself? Do you have to wait almost a year before you have another vacation? Here’s an idea to consider: remember the sabbath.

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“The Presence of the Day,” woodcut by Ilya Schor (1904-1961)

Every week can contain a vacation if you determine to make it so by conscious intent and by designing the rest of your week to support it. Choose one day. Saturday or Sunday are traditional religious Sabbaths. But you can make your own day, or at least part of the day, that fits your schedule best.

Last February at the NetVUE conference at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, I heard a beautiful meditation about the Sabbath from Chaplain Jonathan Huggins , a father of three young children who actually practices Sabbath with his family. He touched a nerve with everyone present and inspired us to think about the need for vacation in our vocation.

At the same time, I was reading a book called Soul Tending: Journey into the Heart of the Sabbath by my friend Anita Amstutz. One of the things I appreciate about her book is that it builds on the work of many scholars and writers, pulling insights from Walter Brueggemann, Richard Foster, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Wayne Muller, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Lauren Winner among others. It makes a good book to take on retreat either alone or with students.

Here is a challenge from Anita’s book I lay out for you, partly because I need to heed it myself:

Unplug. Yes, you heard that right. Unplug from your techno toys for twenty-four hours. Every week. . . Be with your own soul. Hang out with family and friends. Turn off the TV and be real with one another for a whole day. Play games. Take a long time making a meal together. Enjoy. Practice the art of conversation. Dance together. Spend time in the solace of the natural world. . . go into this timeless house of Sabbath, described by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel as ‘a palace in time’ and tend your soul. You will savor life more deeply. I guarantee it.

Shirley Showalter is the former president of Goshen College. You can find her essay,  “Called to Tell Our Stories: The Narrative Structure of Vocation” in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). For more of Shirley’s musings, please visit her website at www.shirleyshowalter.com. For more posts by Shirley, click here. For a link to the NetVUE podcast episode featuring Shirley Showalter, click here.

Author: Shirley Hershey Showalter

New book coming in 2022: The Mindful Grandparent: The Art of Loving Our Children's Children. Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.

2 thoughts on “Vocation & Vacation: Challenging the “Culture of Competitive Martyrdom””

  1. Professors I know never stop thinking. In fact, their brains work as they sleep. Sometimes they even wake up with an epiphany!
    Thank you for the valuable resources here, Shirley, and for the call to listen every day to the voice of one’s calling.

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