A few weeks ago I attended an event where a mirror was held up to me and I was concerned about the reflection that I saw. The event was filled with academics like me who were simply doing too much. Almost every participant had a prolific publication record in addition to being jointly appointed in multiple departments, chairing various committees, doing an overload of service, doing much of the institution building, doing much of the mentoring (especially of women and students of color), involved in activist work, the list goes on and on. And this does not account for home and familial responsibilities.
I was struck because I am someone who has prided myself on my ability to say no and to have work/life balance. But my signature lines on my professional email tell a different story. The signature lines include my role as interim head of African American Studies (2015-2016), the title of my book Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question, my role as founding director of Collegium of Black Women Philosophers, my role as director Cultivating Underrepresented Students in Philosophy, my role as co-editor of the journal Critical Philosophy of Race, my role as co-founder of the Anna Julia Cooper Society, PLUS solicitations for students interested in majoring, minoring, or pursuing graduate studies in Philosophy or African American Studies. (It does not include my personal responsibilities: being partnered and co-parenting four children all at different stages of development – pre-school, elementary school, middle school, and high school).
Looking at my own email signature lines, I was confronted by how ridiculous this really is. These lines that go out on every email I send. They communicate the fact that I am doing too much. These are all great, worthwhile, admirable roles and projects and I have done them well. But just because we can do a lot, does not mean that we have to or ought to do so much. It may be impressive to some, but impressing others is not going to help our long-term work satisfaction, our health, or our overall wellbeing.
Being in the presence of other people doing as much as me (or more) I noticed how tired, exhausted, stressed, sick, and overwhelmed so many of us looked and felt. I am someone who says "no" frequently (and without much guilt). But I am also someone who gets asked to do a lot. I have learned that as long as I am willing to volunteer and/or agree to take on more and more responsibilities – the people around me are more than happy to let me continue to do that. But I have also learned that when I establish and maintain boundaries, I do not have resentment for taking on too much and people respect the established boundaries. With this in mind, I took inventory of all the titles and services that I have taken on over the years and decided to cut back.
Keeping with my email signature lines theme, I am cutting back in several areas. My interim department head role ends June 30, 2016. (From the start, I opted to take on this role for one year so that I would not have to postpone my sabbatical. It was the best choice for me. I am very excited that the department hired an amazing new head and she starts on July 1, 2016). I told my home department head (philosophy) that I am stepping down from directing the Cultivation Underrepresented Students of Philosophy program and she was very supportive. Additionally, I informed the co-editor of the journal that I am stepping down from my editorial role at the journal. That leaves two items, Collegium of Black Women Philosophers and Anna Julia Cooper Society. I am committed to organizing the upcoming 10-year anniversary conference for Collegium of Black Women Philosophers in 2017 (and then considering transition plans for new conference organizers). The co-founder of the Anna Julia Cooper Society and I are working on filling officer positions for that organization.
I have learned that I am not defined solely by the roles that I have played and I am no less fabulous now than I was when I was doing all that stuff. I have learned to let go of other people’s perceptions of me and focus on what I actually want to do, what fulfills me, gives me pleasure, really sparks joy for me. I have more time and clarity to see what is most important to me. I feel lighter and freer. By choosing to do less, I am enjoying life more.
Kathryn T. Gines, Ph.D.