‘I’ve done nothing productive today.’
‘Staying up until 2AM will make me more productive.’
‘See you later, I’m going to go and be productive.’
These are all sentences I hear regularly from my housemates at university. Constantly, it seems that we are surrounded by the pressure to ‘be productive.’ But what are the implications of this burden of academic productivity?
Productivity is fundamentally a capitalist notion. Economic growth is measured in terms of production, and the most rewarded workers are those who produce the largest output. In his essay We Work, Marc Bousquet proposes that corporate managers strive to imitate the conditions of academic work to achieve the same level of commitment from their workers as seen in students towards their studies:
“How to emulate the academic workplace and get people to work at a high level of intellectual and emotional intensity for fifty or sixty hours a week for bartenders’ wages or less? Is there any way we can get our employees to swoon over their desks, murmuring ‘I love what I do’ in response to greater workloads and smaller paychecks?”
The university system moulds us into workers: we are taught to work to deadlines, to answer to authority, and to submit our sanity to the pursuit of productivity. ‘All-nighters’ and caffeine dependence is almost fetishized in the campus setting (by staff and students alike).
But surely we chose to be here? The idea that our motivation to work at university is driven by our love for the subjects we study plays into the problematic discourse of ‘do what you love’: in this mode of thinking, our labour is not something that one does for compensation but as an act of love. The underpinning of this ideology is that workers believe that their labour serves the self and not the marketplace. However, as Bousquet notes, the teaching of dedication feeds back into the production of a new workforce.
A too common result of this productive pressure is that of ‘imposter syndrome’: a uniquely capitalist product, ‘imposter syndrome’ is the feeling by those who work competently that they are frauds who may be found out at any moment. This anxiety is underpinned by the idea that professional and academic performance is intrinsic to self-worth, and disproportionately impacts women, people of colour and disabled people. Workers and students are forced to produce within effective normative means, causing those with invisible disabilities to be written off as lazy.
With one in four university students suffering from mental health problems and the number of university drop-outs continuing to rise, it’s time to rewrite outdated concepts of productivity and individual worth. We need to stop encouraging unhealthy relationships towards work and labour. Our time at university should be spent furthering our knowledge and developing our interests – not hiding in bed riddled with stress and anxiety or crying in the library toilets (I can’t be the only one). It’s time to kick the capital out of our education.