I dispensed with proper lunch breaks about six months into my first permanent full-time academic job. With lessons to prepare, essays to mark, admin to do, and – heaven forbid – research somewhere on my list, it seemed frivolous to set aside an hour or even thirty minutes each day just to eat a sandwich and have a chat with my colleagues in the staff common room.
Besides, with my colleagues around, most lunchtime conversations would be work related – discussing student problems, documents to be submitted or lesson prep – only reminding me of all the things on my to-do list, which seemed to be growing with every bite off the sandwich. So I decided to eat lunch at my desk instead.
Available for work
Alas, being at your desk implies that you are available for work. More often than not when I’m chewing away while going through my emails someone, either a student or a colleague, will knock on my door and demand that I drop my lunch to attend to whatever problem they are presenting me with.
You could argue that I should just not let them in. But our office doors have little windows we are not allowed to cover, in case there’s a fire and the fire warden needs to check if we are in. (I suspect the window is also there to monitor more sinister goings on, but let’s stick with the fire story for now.)
This little window means everyone can see me in my office, except if I open my cupboard door, which then covers the little window. But still people know I’m inside because I couldn’t open the cupboard door if I was not.
Some people, staff and students alike, also don’t wait for you to shout ‘come in!’, they just do. So I’m frequently chewing as someone barges into my office at lunch time, giving myself indigestion by trying to get rid of the evidence as quickly as possible.
I have also actually locked my door from the inside with the cupboard door open to prevent this from happening and to protect my few minutes of quiet over ‘lunch’. But I know I run the risk of looking like a misanthropic sociopath, so I’ve given that up now.
Do not disturb
The ‘Do not disturb’ sign should actually be called the ‘Please come in’ sign, as the only message the people in my building seem to draw from it is: ‘she’s in’. So I’ve given up on that as well.
If you really want to get some quiet time during your working day without leaving the building, the best way probably is to lock yourself into the disabled toilet (only one cubicle!) for a little while. But since this is not the most pleasant place to spend any time I quickly dispensed with that idea too.
The only real quiet place on campus is probably the gym or, even better, the swimming pool. Academics in gym gear are usually too embarrassed to acknowledge you, while academics in swimwear often don’t wear their glasses and wouldn’t know you if you were swimming right past them.
The best way by far though is to leave campus for lunch, which a) means you can get a better quality of sandwich, and b) means you are less likely to be approached about work matters. If you do run into anyone in town, they are usually as busy as you are and trying to avoid work-related company.
Evenings are a different matter. I did have a student once approach me at a house party about her essay mark. But I’m getting to an age now when I’m starting to go to different parties from my students.
I do run into students in pubs occasionally, but only the brightest or the most foolhardy attempt to approach me about their marks in the company of their friends. So that means I’m usually safe from any work-related conversations in the evenings, unless of course I’m at a social event with other academics, which is not an unusual occurrence in a university city, and then the whole chatter begins again. For, of course, academics have no life, so there is nothing else to talk about.
Having spent more than 700 words proving that I am a misanthropic sociopath, I want to finish by suggesting that we all need a better work-life balance. For me, the best way of achieving this is by working from home. If I want to get some proper work done, I just don’t go into work. At home, I can work at my own pace, uninterrupted by the demands of the wider world, and at lunchtime I certainly won’t find any colleagues or students in my kitchen.