Vacation: Putting the Skholê back into Scholarship

Dio Chrysostom, On Retirement 3

“No, these guys are obviously running away and going AWOL. They have no excuse and could expect no pardon for this kind of vacation and desertion.”

ἀλλ᾿ οὗτοι μὲν δῆλον ὅτι φεύγουσί τε καὶ δραπετεύουσι, καὶ οὐκ ἂν εἴη πρόφασις αὐτοῖς οὐδὲ συγγνώμη τῆς τοιαύτης σχολῆς τε καὶ ἀποδράσεως.

As many people know, the word scholarship is somewhere in the past derived from the Ancient Greek skholê for “leisure” (since literary and linguistic studies were both the sorts of things people did in their leisure time and you had to be a person with leisure time to do them). This also happens to be the word that Woodhouse provides as the translation for English “vacation”.

(also, just ruminate on the Latin etymology of vacation for a minute, the implied emptiness…)

One of the popular—and politically expedient—myths about people who teach (both at the college level and lower) is that we are people of leisure—we have too much idle time to engage in (1) not doing ‘real’ work or (2) brainwashing those naïve children society entrusts to us. The truth—especially for college faculty on contract or in contingent positions, for those early in their career or looking for jobs, or for anyone who teaches elementary through high school—is that the past generation has seen the slow but steady erosion of the boundary between leisure and work.

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 7

“When will this year end?” One man gives games and even though he set a great worth on being able to do so, now says, “When will I flee them?” Another lawyer is praised over the whole forum and attracts a great crowd extending farther than they can hear, yet he complains, “When will I get a break?”

Everyone hurries life on and suffers a desire for the future and a weariness from the present. But the one who dedicates all his time to his own use, who orders every day as if it is the last one, neither desires nor fears tomorrow.”

“Quando hic annus praeteribit?” Facit ille ludos, quorum sortem sibi optingere magno aestimavit: “Quando,” inquit, “istos effugiam?” Diripitur ille toto foro patronus et magno concursu omnia ultra, quam audiri potest, complet: “Quando,” inquit, “res proferentur?” Praecipitat quisque vitam suam et futuri desiderio laborat, praesentium taedio. At ille qui nullum non tempus in usus suos confert, qui omnem diem tamquam ultimum1 ordinat, nec optat crastinum nec timet.

This boundary has moved not in our favor but in the direction of creating an environment in which teachers and academics never stop working. This is true for many fields where technology and the unholy god of efficiency has extended work hours and expected employees to take work home and to answer work communication at all hours. But it is especially damaging for mental health in higher ed and high school where we buy in to the idea of the life of the mind and willingly submit to the elision between our personal and professional selves.

This means that high school teachers grade until 9 or 10 at night (on an early night) because they are with students until almost dinner time. This means that professors teaching adjunct courses still feel compelled to answer emails at 1 AM because they don’t want lower teaching evaluations. This means that early career professors in the tenure track put off having children or being in relationships for decades because they don’t have the time. This means that life passes us by because we are trying so hard to make the most of out life.

On Facebook, Dr. S. Culpepper Stroup (a fantastic name of which I am very jealous) makes a great point about the difference between otium (leisure) and negotium (business) in Latin. The long-and-short of it is that the Roman lexicon reflects an inverse relationship between our work and vacation. But, here are her finer words (quoted with permission):

Speaking of *otium* (as I always do) and its centrality to the Roman intellectual sphere, consider its opposite: *negotium*. Latin instructors often team *otium* as “leisure” and *negotium* as “business,” both of which absolutely miss the train in terms of semantic designation.

(Leisure comes from the Latin *licet*, so it indicates a time when one is *allowed* to do a specific activity, which absolutely lacks the strong autonomous sense of *otium*.)

Anyway, *negotium* is—obviously—the privative of *otium* (early on we see it in Plautus as “nec otium mihi”). *Negotium* is the time when you are deprived of *otium*.

The English “vacation” completely reverses that, making work the “full” thing (full of work, that is), and vacation the privative.

I far prefer the Roman sense of *otium*, as a self-owned time that needed no apologies.

Euripides, Hippolytus 383-384

“Life has many pleasures
Long talks and leisure, a pleasant evil…”

… εἰσὶ δ’ ἡδοναὶ πολλαὶ βίου,
μακραὶ δὲ λέσχαι καὶ σχολὴ τερπνὸν κακόν.

Smarter and more well-informed people than I can make the argument about the evils of neo-liberal capitalism and the commodification of everything. They can point out the insidious culture that insists us to see our online persona as our actual selves and to envision the ‘life’ we pursue there as a never ending process of branding and re-branding to ensure that we will never be less than fully commodifiable. I can merely confess that the anxiety, workload, and self-identification has shaped me in such a way that it is really, really hard to take any time off.

I was grading exams the days both of my children were born (and I got reprimanded by my chair for not entering grades soon enough after). When my daughter was learning to walk, I cheered her on as I furiously finished a book and a few articles to ensure I received tenure. I took one week off when my father died suddenly. I have brought sick kids to class repeatedly. I took one day off when my grandmother died this year. None of this is necessary; all of it is from guilt, pressure, and our toxic work culture. And I am sure I don’t have it particularly bad. I have tenure. I have a place in the world, job security, and safety.

But at this point, I am what I do and I do what I am. I take articles to read at the playground. I proof articles while my kids are at swimming lessons. I have dragged work to Italy, India, France, Germany. Somehow I have not totally ruined my relationship with my spouse by slinking out of bed every day at 5 am or answering emails after the children are asleep. I have lived through my work and despite my work. And I worry about the long-term consequences.

But I keep going because I love my material, because I love my students and my institution, and because of the fear and guilt: I know there are many others who are smarter, who have worked harder, but who have not had some of the dumb luck I have (or the privilege to which I was born) to end up where I am.

Cicero, Pro Murena 28

“No one can be famous for being wise if it is concerning the type of knowledge which is worthless anywhere beyond Rome and even at Rome too during a vacation. No one can be an expert on something which everyone knows because there can’t be any disagreement on the matter. A subject cannot be considered difficult just because it exists in a very few and rather obscure documents.”

Sapiens existimari nemo potest in ea prudentia quae neque extra Romam usquam neque Romae rebus prolatis quicquam valet. Peritus ideo haberi nemo potest quod in eo quod sciunt omnes nullo modo possunt inter se discrepare. Difficilis autem res ideo non putatur quod et perpaucis et minime obscuris litteris continetur.

At the end of the day (and a life!), I cannot be sure that work that I do is worth the emotion I have put into it. But, of course, this does not mean I can or will stop. I can, however, try to reset definitions a bit and remember to enjoy life a little more and take time off.

So, I am not going to go all memento mori and carpe diem today. (My students already think I have some sort of death-obsessed insanity.) And I won’t claim to be especially unlucky when I know the opposite is true. But I will say that we have a problem in education, especially: we spend a lot of time claiming that we can teach about the value of human life even as we fail so terribly at honoring the worth of our own.

So, the next week of posts will be repeats, cleverly repackaged. I am going to try not to do work for a week. Happy Holidays to all.

Ok, wait, Screw it.  We are ALL GOING TO DIE. Here’s some advice from Ashurbanipal:

“Know well that you are mortal: fill your heart
By delighting in the feasts: nothing is useful to you when you’re dead.
I am ash, though I ruled great Ninevah as king.
I keep whatever I ate, the insults I made, and the joy
I took from sex. My wealth and many blessings are gone.
[This is wise advice for life: I will never forget it.
Let anyone who wants to accumulate limitless gold.]

εὖ εἰδὼς ὅτι θνητὸς ἔφυς σὸν θυμὸν ἄεξε,
τερπόμενος θαλίῃσι· θανόντι σοι οὔτις ὄνησις.
καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ σποδός εἰμι, Νίνου μεγάλης βασιλεύσας·
κεῖν’ ἔχω ὅσσ’ ἔφαγον καὶ ἐφύβρισα καὶ σὺν ἔρωτι
τέρπν’ ἔπαθον· τὰ δὲ πολλὰ καὶ ὄλβια πάντα λέλυνται.
[ἥδε σοφὴ βιότοιο παραίνεσις, οὐδέ ποτ’ αὐτῆς
λήσομαι· ἐκτήσθω δ’ ὁ θέλων τὸν ἀπείρονα χρυσόν.]

Image result for Ancient Greek Leisure

It is a race, but we all know where it ends.

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: