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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Thoughts on Work-Life ImBalance from Those Left Behind

Friends, I suspect many of you recall the world's light dimmed in the aftermath of Andrew "Taz" Taslitz's untimely death earlier this year. Andy made the world brighter through his ebullient spirit, infectious laughter, and tireless work on behalf of improving the criminal justice system and the lawyers thrust into its maw.

Since it's summer time and many readers of the blog are just beginning their teaching careers, I thought I'd share a post of Taz's widow, Patty Sun. This is reproduced with her permission from Facebook:

I'll post this on Andy's FB page because I'm not sure anyone reads mine anymore, and while this can apply to anyone, it's really addressed to law professors.  In the past 4 months I have kept seeing accolades to Andy's amazing productivity - the 100+ articles, the zillions of case books, etc., and I have always told people that yes, he led a normal life, yes, he got plenty of sleep and yes, he even took plenty of naps. 
But that's not really true. His life was not normal, at least not to me, and it certainly wasn't balanced. Yes, I know he genuinely loved his work and yes, I know he had a brilliant and unusual mind, and yes, I know he was cut down in his prime when he still had so much more to give.
But all of that came with a price. Not the teaching or the mentoring, but all that scholarship. A few years ago the chair of some symposium set an absolute deadline for everyone to get their drafts in, and by then, even I knew that academics never did that, so I told him to relax and finish it at a normal pace. So what did he do instead? He sacrificed an entire weekend and worked 12 hours both Saturday and Sunday, because damn it, HE was going to submit his draft in on time. So of course what happened? NO ONE else was even close to done by the deadline so the chair had to give everyone else a long extension. And did he mind? Not really, because it just freed up more time for him to do another encyclopedia entry or edit another friend's manuscript.
So what was the price in the end? In the entire time we were married we only took a two-week vacation once, and just about every vacation we did take was wrapped around one of his conferences or presentations. The furthest he went on each of his two sabbaticals was his front bedroom, because he spent every single day on his manuscripts. He turned down trips to China, to South Africa, to Japan, and most impressively to me, he twice turned down a chance to be an observer at Guantanamo. Of course he always had different reasons - S. Africa wasn't safe, the timing of the China trip was bad, etc., but I knew the real reason was he didn't want to take time away from work.
It was only the last vacation we took, to Vermont two years ago, that truly had no relation to his work, and then last year when we finally booked a 2 week cruise to Alaska we had to cancel it after they found his tumor a month before we were supposed to go.
So in the end how do I feel about his productivity? Yes, he enjoyed it, but he also killed himself trying not to disappoint people or to break deadlines. 
And as I sit here with the dogs on July 4th, I think was it really that important to add one more book review to his CV or to do one more tenure letter as a favor for someone he never met? I'm glad his peers all loved him for the reliable genius that he was, and I don't know how he feels wherever he is now, but I am very, very bitter. 
Yes, he was a great academic mentor and collaborator, but the price for all that frenzied output was me, and there's a part of me that will never forgive him for it, because he died right after he promised to slow down and enjoy life itself more.
So think about it, members of the "academy." All that talk about US News rankings and SSRN citations. Do you REALLY think stuff like that is life and death to your loved ones? I think most of them would sacrifice one more line on your  resume for one more day of quality time with you. I know I would. But it's a bargain I can't make any more. 


I know that pre-tenure and post-tenure are different worlds, but in Andy's case getting tenure didn't relax him a bit. It only spurred him on to work harder to prove, I think mostly to himself, that he really did deserve it. And it never stopped, because he could always find another reason to choose work over play, becoming active in the ABA, signing on to yet another new project where he could work with good friends or meet exciting new people, and of course lately, brainstorming ways to keep his law school competitive. 

I'm not saying Freud was wrong when he said you need both love and work to be happy; in fact, my own work is one of the factors in keeping me sane now, but I believe equally strongly in the Golden Mean. I know that Mean differs for everyone, but Andy always found a reason to keep the needle tilted very far to the work end. I know that kept him happy, but love always involves other people, and anyone who cares about that other part of the equation would do well to remember that if you always decide to choose the work side of the balance you run the risk of having no balance at all.

Posted by Administrators on July 8, 2014 at 12:03 PM in Blogging, Culture | Permalink


I ache knowing that this was one of your last Prawfs posts, Dan. I watched your decision to post this evolve on Taz's fb page and thought it was characteristically kind and sensitive of you to do so. Baruch dayan ha'emet.

Posted by: Eric Muller | Jul 20, 2014 3:14:33 PM

Thanks for sharing your difficult but very illuminating story. I am a young academician still trying to find a tenure position. I sacrificed a relationship for my work, at the time I thought it was a good idea to push for the enjoyable academic work at the cost of losing my loved ones. This is not gonna happen again. Thanks again for sharing your story.

Posted by: James | Jul 15, 2014 4:53:43 AM

As an Australian academic and cancer patient, I am so sorry for your heartbreaking loss, and really grateful that you have taken the time to write this out so clearly. We are a chronically unhealthy profession, at every level, and the worst impact that we have is on those who are closest to us. I think we are only just beginning to understand how institutional competition, status anxiety and simple addiction keep academics thinking that the most valuable contribution they can make is to the world of academic work. Thank you for calling this out.

To DanD: there is no reason at all that being properly focused or making a massive difference has to come at this terrible cost, other than that universities have not managed to keep up with and regulate the rapidly expanding nature of academic work. Truly it's time to stop and think about how to address this.

Posted by: Kate Bowles | Jul 14, 2014 7:39:30 PM

I think Andy took the right path. He really achieved something with his life. He made a massive difference to a very great number of people directly, and indirectly had a very positive effect on the world as a whole.

Furthermore, it may be the case that Andy could either be properly, fully focused and highly achieving or, well, average, like most academics.

I know this makes life tough on those close to Andy - particularly Patty. And life is tough for all those close to a brilliant man. But that may be just one of those things. It may be right and best that Andy took the path he did; and in supporting him in the path he took, Patty achieved something great with her life too...

Posted by: DanD | Jul 12, 2014 10:07:46 PM

Wow, what a powerful, significant, and sobering story. I made the transition from private practice to full-time teaching almost exactly 2 years ago. Despite the fact that I made the change in large part for "lifestyle" reasons (in addition to having discovered teaching to be a better fit for my personality and particular skill set), I have also had to be honest that I have never understood or struggled with workaholism nearly so much as I have in the last two years. I absolutely love teaching, and have a wonderfully supportive and down to earth set of colleagues, and I hope never to have to return to private practice (Lord willing and the creek don't rise). But the academic life is also a very fertile environment for workaholism, as it presents an excellent combination of doing what one loves, doing work that one feels is meaningful and important, and having a tremendous amount of flexibility as to when and where one does it. The freedom that we enjoy to prepare for class off-campus or during odd hours can be very dangerous, because it can also be hard to track exactly how many hours we have worked in a given week--especially given the wide variety of tasks that we do. It is especially tricky when the work is so enjoyable that it doesn't "feel like work." And then if we are feeling any particular pressure to publish and accomplish, the mix is even more conducive to neglecting or missing out on our families, friends, etc. Thanks so much for this hard-to-read but well-timed reminder to pay attention to what the people around us might be saying about how we are choosing to allocate our finite amounts of time, energy and focus.

Posted by: Chris Osborn | Jul 10, 2014 9:31:45 AM

I learned this lesson from my father who was a prolific law professor at Illinois in the 1950s. Every family trip started with a stop at his office to "pick up a few papers." The vacations I remember usually involved AALS meetings, ABA meetings, or visits to other law schools. He died of cancer at the age of 31, just weeks after grading the exams of the last class he taught and finishing another manuscript. I have been a law professor now for 30 years and have tried my best to live by the lessons I learned from his example. I'm not the star that he was, but I am alive, I'm a good enough teacher and scholar, and my husband and kids get the better share of my time and attention. I sometimes think I should be "more productive," but then I remember. . .

Posted by: Susan Looper-Friedman | Jul 9, 2014 6:24:39 PM

To Patty Sun: Thanks for sharing your story. I'm sorry for your losses, both recent and longstanding.

To academics: There is, of course, a personal lesson in this story. But this kind of work schedule is not just something that we do to ourselves - it's something we impose on one another. Why think, after training yourself to be the sort of person who can work and publish at a sufficient pace to get a job and to get tenure, you can suddenly turn that off and know how to step back and take time to spend with those you love? Are the benefits (to ourselves and to our societies) of the current system of academic competition for status and employment worth these (and other) costs?

Posted by: Derek Bowman | Jul 9, 2014 9:26:32 AM

A great reality check on an issue that is especially challenging for us pre-tenure folk. [Most people are shocked when I tell them that I work more as a law prof than I did as a Senior Associate in BigLaw].

While I recognize the irony of the following -- given that it is at a law prof conference that many of use to piggyback family vacations -- there will be a discussion group at SEALS on this topic from 3:00 to 6:00 pm on Monday, August 4, 2014:

Discussion Group: Strategies for Balancing Our Love for Work and Our Love for Life Beyond the Academy

As professors we are very fortunate in that most of us love our work. Indeed, there is always more that we want to do and could do for our work. Yet, we also have people, goals and interests outside of work that we love and that remain important priorities for us whether they are aging parents, spouses, significant others, children, sports or hobbies. At a time of decreasing enrollments and tight budgets, supporting work-life balance for professors can become a low priority. Yet, if this remains an important goal for professors, we must find ways to balance our competing priorities. This panel will discuss strategies and ideas that panelists have developed to balance these competing demands on our time.

Moderator: Prof.Kimberly Robinson (Richmond)

Discussants: Prof. Mary Sue Backus (Oklahoma); Prof. Derek Black (South Carolina); Prof. Kimberly Codgell Boies (NC Central); Prof. Rose Cuison Villazor (UC-Davis); Prof. Cecelia Klingele (Wisconsin); Prof. Katerina Lewinbuk (South Texas); Prof. Lauren Sudeall Lucas (Georgia State); Prof. Natasha Martin (Seattle); Prof. Marleen O'Connor (Stetson); Prof. Eloise Pasachoff (Georgetown); Prof. Carla D. Pratt (Penn State/Dickinson); Prof. Andrea Schneider (Marquette); Prof. Marcia Zug (South Carolina).

Posted by: Brian Clarke | Jul 9, 2014 9:25:41 AM

Great post. Thank you to both Dan and Andy's wife for sharing this.

Posted by: Sheila Scheuerman | Jul 9, 2014 9:21:22 AM

One of the most valuable things I have read in a long time. I am proud to have met and respected Andy and know from this post that Patty is a wonderful, selfless person. Hugs through Dan to Patty . . . .

Posted by: Joan Heminway | Jul 8, 2014 11:42:42 PM

Dan as a relatively new professor, this really resonates. My family members and friends tell me to relax and note that I put in as many hours as I did when I was a Deputy GC. Thanks for the perspective, and I will try to remember it even as a pre-tenured prof.

Posted by: Marcia Narine | Jul 8, 2014 8:45:19 PM

Patty - So sorry for your loss, thank you for your moving words. -Miriam

Posted by: Miriam Cherry | Jul 8, 2014 7:59:38 PM

Powerful. Thanks for sharing, Dan.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Jul 8, 2014 1:18:46 PM

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