#alt-ac · #post-ac · academic work · parenting · transition

The Damage Done by DWYL

Did you read Miya Tokumitsu’s “In the Name of Love” this week? I bet you did. It seems like everyone in the circles I run in (probably the same circles you run in, if you’re reading this) read her meditation on the damage done by the creed of “do what you love, love what you do.” The article hit me where it hurts (as the best writing does) in making me realize that even after I publicly admitted the damage DWYL did to my psyche, it’s an idea I still cling to. And why?

In the abbreviated version of the story of my leaving the tenure track, two important people with interesting takes on DWYL got left out. The first person was my dad. I grew up in a house where DWYL was not, at least for my parents, an idea that had a lot of credence. For one, my parents started working and parenting before they were in their twenties, and DWYL wasn’t a luxury that two newly-marrieds trying to raise a baby (and then two) on a single income could afford. For another, my dad knew what it was to be forced to turn what he loved into a career (souping up cars stops being so fun when you work with cars all day), and see that love transformed into the plain old slog of work. I had a friend when I was a teenager who also loved cars, and I vividly remember my dad telling him to do anything but work with cars. Keep it a hobby and keep the love, he said. If I got the same advice from my dad, I don’t remember. Or I wasn’t listening. But whatever he did or didn’t say to me, I’ll tell you this. I did an English PhD because language is what I love, and while my parents didn’t have the luxury of choosing to DWYL, they made sure that I did. Speaking of love, I can finally use the present tense again, because for a long time, language was not what I loved. It was what made me feel anxious and scared and like a big ol’ failure. Now that reading and writing about books is not what I do for a living, I’m far more attuned to that love than I was when I was supposedly doing what I loved as a job. Dad was totally right.

Nowadays, I share my life with someone is totally anti-DWYL, although for different reasons, and his perspective was incredibly important in my journey to quitting the path to the tenure track. My partner reasons that if what you want to do is make the world a better place, and you don’t believe that work is the best place to do that (and/or you recognize that a job with world-changing potential is a luxury most people aren’t afforded), here’s what you do: get a job that pays the bills, and do what you love, and your world-shaping work, in your off time. As Tokumitsu so devastatingly argues,

If we believe that working as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur or a museum publicist or a think-tank acolyte is essential to being true to ourselves, what do we believe about the inner lives and hopes of those who clean hotel rooms and stock shelves at big-box stores? The answer is: nothing.

Ouch, and I hate to admit it, kinda’ true. My partner’s firm “my job is not who I am” stance is pretty much the opposite of the DWYL “non-love labour is meaningless” ethos, and that unhooking of identity and employment was, at first, a bit of a shock. “What do you mean, you don’t believe in DWYL?,” I remember thinking. Why wouldn’t you want to pursue what you’re passionate about full-time? I’ve definitely had to ask him to explain his stance to me more than once. Once I understood where he was coming from, it forced me to rethink what I was doing in academia, what Tokumitsu calls the ultimate land of DWYL:

Nowhere has the DWYL mantra been more devastating to its adherents than in academia … There are many factors that keep Ph.D.s providing such high-skilled labor for such low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a Ph.D., but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL doctrine is embedded in academia. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

I’m not actually sure that academia is the place that DWYL has done the most damage. I’d argue that it’s far more pernicious in current “mommy” culture (the one that expects motherhood to be sunshine and roses and a labour of love without exception) and that DWYL is one of the major factors behind the failure to recognize parenting as legitimate labour worthy of significant recompense. But unquestionably, the doctrine of “do what you love” has done a lot of harm in academe, particularly with regards to issues of labour conditions and fair compensation. In my case, as is true for many academics, the harm was done when the doctrine of DWYL reinforced, over and over, the total alignment of self and occupation under the guise of self-actualization. And when I started realizing that the professoriate was maybe not for me, and falling into the consequent “If I’m not an academic, who am I?” trap, my partner’s critical distance was a balm. There was another way to think about who I am, one that didn’t depend on what I did. And that alternative perspective was in large part what let me finally let go of academe, unhook my identity from my job, and move on.

But still. I find myself in my current role, one I genuinely do like a lot and find fulfilling, falling into the trap of DWYL. “Do I love this?,” I ask myself as I try to wrangle a gaggle of senior faculty into setting up a scholarship adjudication meeting. “Am I living up to my full potential?,” I wonder as I place a catering order for a student event. “Why did I relinquish control over my workday?” I question as I sit in a meeting and watch other people add item upon item to my to-do list. But then I remember: what I do isn’t who I am. Research Officer is my title, not my identity. Unlike when I was a full-time PhD student, work ends at 4:30 and the rest of my time is my own. I am fairly compensated, I have job security, and I belong to a good union that ensures its members are treated fairly. And for the first time in a very long time, I have the luxury to  actually do what I love–read, write, think, cook, craft, spend time with the people and felines I love, do absolutely nothing–on my own terms.

What about you, dear readers? Do you also fall into the DWYL trap? What’s your philosophy about the relationship between work and love?

4 thoughts on “The Damage Done by DWYL

  1. Yup, I read it. Powerful. As is your post, Melissa. DWYL hits us extra hard in the academy in two ways. First, we're all pretty well versed in Marxist theories and since we never leave school, we can enjoy a good shudder for all those poor shucks suffering from the maladies of “alienated labour”–which is the inverse of DWYL, right? I want to sit in my English cottage and weave baskets in a community of basket weavers and feel the sun on my face and know that my labour is right and good and unabstracted into use-value and surplus-value and exchange value (this, incidentally, is one reason many humanities academics are so loath to admit that their work has value of any other than a purely esoteric kind: blame Marx.)

    Second, the joke of it is that most of our labour is DEEPLY alienated: as all grad students and 70% of professional academics are contingent, at-whim, piece-workers, it is really nothing but this glamour of DWYL that keeps us accepting these deplorable, inhumane, unfair working conditions. I think Lauren Berlant's work gets at this very well, in trying to understand the affective elements of ideology and culture, and what stories we tell ourselves to get to keep feeling the feelings we want to feel about the identity-roles we want to occupy.

    This is why I'm always trying to hammer it in for my own students: you can love what you do here, but remember it's a job. Treat it like a job, not like a love affair. Do not sacrifice your health or your wealth to keep its attention drawn to you. Work real hours; be clear-eyed. Remember not to drop all your other friends and interests for your infatuation. S/he's just not that into you. <-And I count myself there, and I have tenure. It's a job and it does me a world of good to remember that.


  2. My feelings are most in line with your partner's, Melissa. And now that I have read his/your articulation of those feelings, I feel more confident that I can explain myself to others.

    But what most concerns me is the concept of “wasting” your potential. You brought this nagging feeling into the last paragraph, and I find it is often a criticism that is raised by others about someone's (my friends', my sister's, my partner's) employment choices. As if you can't live up to your potential outside work time. As if everyone who serves us and supports us in less-than-ideal jobs is wasting themselves. As if we don't need intelligent, passionate, enthusiastic people in every single job in the world. I wonder how much the DWYL mantra is as much about other people's standards as our own.

    I was reminded of this yesterday evening when I rode the lrt home. The driver used the intercom to entertain his passengers for the entire ride. It made the busy/stuffy train a happy, comfortable place and it was a wonderful start to the evening. Maybe that driver wasn't living up to his potential or doing what he loved, but he was excelling at his job, making it fun, and having an impact.


  3. Hmm … I think there's something right about Tokomitsu's sort of attack on DWYL, but it's also missing something important. Two colleagues in my department can joke that they went into academia to improve their job prospects … entirely true because they were trying to be rock stars. Many readers of this blog are probably as tired as I am of novels about the emotional traumas of authors who sell their souls by teaching in creative writing programs to make ends meet instead of DWTL, viz writing novels.We're the careerist sell-outs to some, and it's easy to lose track of where we fit into the ranks of decent jobs in society at large. There's still lots of work to be done improving working conditions even for tenured faculty, but as someone posted in the comments a couple of days ago, some people will regard our battles as “first world problems,” and not without some justification. And even for people trapped on the contingent merry-go-round, it's not so clear that DWYL does them more harm than the people who go into Early Childhood Education because they imagine they'll love the work and recognize its importance, only to find themselves with childcare jobs involving long, hard hours and dismal pay.

    But I also think that the decision to go into academe is often idealistic in ways that DWYL makes look more narcissistic than it really is. Some look for careers that “do no harm”, and so think the academy is preferable to devoting their lives to Apple, which will implicate them in the sorts of exploitation described in Tokomitsu's original article, or going out to Fort Mac to work in the tar sands. And some think that they make a difference for others in the work they choose—that teaching is noble, loved or not. There may be a lot of self-regard involved in hanging onto jobs in spite of bad pay for this sort of reason, even sanctimony if people start judging others for not following a similar path. But I don't think it's just narcissism.


  4. It's fascinating to read this as middle-aged male, 3-time university “drop-out,” who oddly more or less makes a living in the constellation of “activities I love.” I enjoyed the prose and understand the dilemma. However (slowly as if breathing our tobacco smoke into a diaphanous ring), I pause and will to suggest there is complexity here and an insurgent Manichaeism that threatens to take the argument off course. I run a small public relations and government relations consultancy that more or less stays solvent. I am, as befits a late bloomer, soon to celebrate the publication of my first full length collection of poetry with a reasonably respectable literary press. In my spare time I have a couple community and lit-world volunteer roles. In each and every part of my activities there is a range of activities I do not care for, that are boring, that try my patience. That piss me off. These though have nothing to do with “love” or failure to “love what I do.” These things, such as invoicing, or dealing with an editor's annoying revisions, or changing diapers, are the things one does within the larger project. Most of the tasks I engage in are consistent with the DWYL mantra others are simply necessary. Some can be delegated. Some simply endured. I would never argue that it must be only the “project” that one loves. Indeed one must also love the doing of the work. That there are always ancillary tasks or essential tasks (diapers, sorting receipts, writing briefing notes for think-headed clients, enduring asinine comments at workshops) seems to me to be inescapable. One presumes it depends somewhat on the economy of what on loves to do but to me it seems that if you truly love what you do (allowing for the boring bits) then you would want to do it for real: go through what one must to be published; get paid for enacting the work you “love” that someone wants done. I am lucky because I have no desire or expectation to make a living from poetry (teaching ungrateful undergraduates was never on my list). I am doubly lucky that my equally held passion for politics (in the broadest sense) permits more ways to make a living in our culture. Perhaps, if poetry were it and nothing more, then I'd run a Tim Hortons or would have bitten down on something and become a teacher. Though likely not. I have many friends who have insisted on making a living music or in theatre but have been willing to do anything within those domains from taking out the garbage, composing musicals, wedding gigs, and etc. They like me are mostly happy, middle aged, with happy children, and have pretty much done it there way. Like me they know that many forms of privilege attach to our lives. My experience and theirs do nothing to address (in except in how we may enact or create or inspire action and dialogue) the woman cleaning hotel rooms who dreams of other things she cannot or has not the time to do (etc. et al). So perhaps we do then address that to the extent that we make art, engage in politics and love most of what we do.


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