The Productivity of Exhaustion; or, Doing Good Work

We are always tired, here at Princeton. Whether I run into a professor in the street or a friend in the dining hall, and ask “How’s it going?” the answer is inevitably “Tired.” I have some friends who are so unremittingly tired that I can complete their complaints of exhaustion for them. Even the Dining Services employee who swipes my ID card when I enter the dining hall tells me every day that she’s tired. And I always respond in kind: I am downing cup after cup of coffee, taking off my glasses and rubbing my eyes in precept, writing this blog post, even, because after a succession of long days I am still trying to find the energy to engage with this essay I have to write about the Arabs and Turks in the early modern period. It’s a punishing world, this place, full of overscheduled 20-year-olds with bags under their eyes, all trying frantically to turn out the pages and pages of work that we’re expected to produce. I was talking to a friend last week about how little time two years is in which to turn out three pieces of original scholarship in our disciplines, and how difficult it is to write original scholarship under the constant pressure of exhaustion. At times, it seems as if Princeton is setting us up for failure: particularly as I look down the two years ahead of me and worry that even getting a year’s head start on my thesis will not permit me to turn in work of which I can be proud. It is difficult to enjoy college, or to enjoy being young, under these circumstances. Every day I find myself more becoming the monastic scholar whom I thought I wouldn’t resemble until I had a couple more degrees behind me—because here I am, reading and writing as best as I’m able under the circumstances, and always putting that first. You can’t have fun until your work is done—but at Princeton, your work is never done.

I write this not to complain, per se (yes, I am full aware of how overprivileged my life is), but in order to encourage myself to sublimate the constant pressure and constant rushing from place to place and constant high expectations into something intellectually useful. Were it, I think, not for the problem that you can’t think when you haven’t slept, I’d be fine: I have long sworn, if someone sardonically, by the intellectual benefits of a sort of masochistic impulse towards guilt and self-loathing, and this has been my route to self-satisfying output for nearly two years now. And yet I’m realizing that this can’t continue to be enough: the work is getting harder and the stakes are getting higher, and I wonder if I can continue to do good work when doing good work is such a balancing act. Like so many other students, all of us at our desks or in our carrels thinking the same thing, I feel as if I work so much harder than anyone else I know, and that it will never be enough to earn the professors’ accolades or my own self-respect, or—increasingly urgently—the professional success I crave. Because now, when I last-minute a paper, I have begun to tell myself that doing this won’t fly in graduate school, and now I have begun to sweat with terror. (Though mind you, graduate students of my acquaintance tend for whatever reason to be some of the least exhausted people I know.)

I am sure this conversation has been had many times on this campus in the intervening years since 1746, but I’d welcome a dialogue about the degree to which Princeton sets its students up, if not for failure, then for mediocrity. We all know that no one who turns in a thesis receives a failing grade, and that in fact 55% of seniors receive As on their independent work, but are we also providing circumstances in which students can healthily do good work? Or are we as a community rather asking them to sacrifice their friends and their free time for the sake of the original research we so touted as a reason these self-same students should study here instead of Harvard? As I hear about seniors turning in their theses these next couple weeks, I wonder about the degree to which an 80-page paper is a formality, and what the point is of requiring an 80-page paper as a formality. It seems a little ridiculous for writers and readers alike, and indeed the same logic can be applied to junior independent work, or to the shorter essays I write without the time for care and attention every week, or even down to the Blackboard posts we all last-minute or the reading we don’t do for precept. Is this the cruelty of our academic institution, the cherry on top of our own high standard? Or is there just something I’m missing? Is there a way to do it all and well, and still find time and energy and verve to embrace time languidly wasted in the onset of spring?

I know this is all on some level training for the rest of my life, when—if I hope to succeed in my profession—I must write many more pieces of scholarship and read many more pages and keep myself to a more punishing schedule of output than the one to which I am held now. But my mind still comes back to the same question, the question which I ask myself several times a day: in what time-bending universe is it possible to do well in six classes and write 80 good pages of original research in a single year?

Time for another cup of coffee. I haven’t prepped for class tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “The Productivity of Exhaustion; or, Doing Good Work

  1. My thoughts rendered more eloquently than I ever could have imagined. Excellent stuff.

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