Burnout and vocation

How a brilliant new essay helped me make sense of my post-burnout career.

I have two things to share with you today. First is an article I wrote for The New Republic, “Imagining a Better Life After the Coronavirus,” which is based on the surprising answers I got to my question if anyone found that their life was better under quarantine. If you missed it when it came out last week, here it is. I was surprised to have gotten the response I did to that question, and I was equally surprised to see that people actually liked the essay! (I was afraid it would come across as whistling past a graveyard.) The most pleasant surprise came when a friend I hadn’t been in touch with in a few years called — called! — out of blue to say it gave her some hope. I invite you to read it and then call someone who matters to you.

The other thing is an essay in Aeon by Chad Wellmon, who teaches German and history at U.Va., about the sociologist Max Weber’s vision of the intellectual vocation. The essay made so much fall into place for me, not only as someone who thinks about Weber pretty much every day but, more important, as someone who is trying to pursue a vocation to “the life of the mind” outside the university.

Wellmon focuses on Weber’s 1917 lecture, “The Scholar’s Work,” more commonly known as “Science as a Vocation.” (Wellmon co-edited a new edition of this and Weber’s other “vocation lecture,” “Politics as a Vocation.”) In “The Scholar’s Work,” Weber surveys the sorry state of working conditions in German academia and tries to determine what a vocation to intellectual life, for both scholars and students, could possibly look like in those conditions.

As Wellmon writes, Weber

understood that disciplinary scholarship as practised in modern universities was one of many possible ways of leading an intellectual life. It was an all-too-common ‘vanity’, he told the audience, to imagine that the businessman or the artist didn’t also engage in their own forms of intellectual work….

The most urgent questions concerned the forms for conducting a life and the character, habits and virtues that might sustain them. Intellectual work was spiritual work. Anyone seeking to craft a meaningful life engages in it. It is a task for all those who live in a disenchanted world in which meaning is not something that inheres in the world itself or that a job can simply provide, but rather is something to be asserted and made (and contested) by and among humans themselves.

I have thought often of “Science as a Vocation” ever since I first read it more than a decade ago. I always found a strange kind of comfort in knowing that university hiring practices have been unfair and soul-destroying for more than a century:

When young students come to me to seek advice about qualifying as a lecturer, [I ask them:] Do you believe that you can bear to see one mediocrity after another being promoted over your head year after year, without your becoming embittered and warped? Needless to say, you always receive the same answer: of course, I live only for my ‘vocation’—but I, at least, have found only a handful of people who have survived this process without injury to their personality.

Despite miserable conditions, these scholars kept working for the sake of their vocation. When I first read “injury to their personality,” while I was still more or less happily teaching full-time, I just thought it meant the scholar might become eccentric or embittered, a crusty old professor. Now, of course, I read it in light of burnout. I pursued my vocation within the university until I realized just how much doing so had injured my personality.

The thing is, even though I don’t have a full-time, tenured academic job anymore, I do still have the vocation. Weber went through a similar crisis. Around 1900, he underwent a cycle of intense work followed by “nervous exhaustion,” followed by an extended period of rest (like, up to two years), a return to work, and another breakdown. He finally had to resign his position, but he did not stop doing research and writing. In fact, he wrote his best-known work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, soon after he quit full-time teaching.

When I was teaching full-time, I took inspiration from Weber’s claim in “Science as a Vocation” that a teacher’s task is to help his or her students to “render an account of the ultimate meaning of [their] own actions.” Every person needs to render such an account; that’s the human vocation. But none of us can do it without others’ help. We need parents and teachers and neighbors and scholars and writers to help us. As a teacher, and now as a writer, my task is to help other people give such an account. That’s why I do what I do. And I offer all thanks to Wellmon, and to Weber, for helping me finally put words to that.

(I also recently read this profile of Fred Moten, the radical poet and philosopher, which also engages with how the vocation to what Moten calls “study” is distinct from the life of the university.")

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