Time in the Eyes of Our Professors

by Josephine Kim | 2/6/19 2:15am


As we get older, it seems we are ruled by alarm clocks, bell schedules and plans. Why do we submit to them? 

During my second year of high school, I scribbled this thought bubble on a slip of paper for a class exercise. Little did I know that my teacher would read it aloud to prompt the day’s discussion. Back then, I had not yet been introduced to the ideas of Karl Marx or capitalism. Nevertheless, the discussion quickly led to a class argument for “free time.” It seems, both now and then, these worries do not only reside within 16-year-olds; instead, they have always been threaded with one of early man’s most important obsessions — time. 

This past week, I had the opportunity to ask a few Dartmouth professors how they spend their “free time.” And as anticipated, I learned a great deal more. 

Professor Jennifer Sargent of the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric and women’s, gender and sexuality studies department has a philosophy of time that comes from many years of being a full time litigator, district court judge, law and Dartmouth professor and mother of two children. 

“I think of time as money,” she said. “I think of it as a commodity. And it has value.”

While we all carve out our schedules in a particular fashion, the extent to which we actually follow them is bound to vary. Sargent confirmed that upholding her scheduled personal time requires practice. However, she shares that when she does keep to her boundary-making strictly, she is rewarded with a number of positive developments.

“Boundaries have really helped me develop a better sense of my time and my freedom, and also my self-esteem,” she said. “It’s taught me that I have the right to care for myself in a way that no one else can interfere with. It’s empowering.” 

Notably, Sargent does not like to do household chores, like laundry, during her personal time. Her stake is being “in service” to everyone and everything — except her needs. Interestingly enough, sociology professor Henry Clark has another angle concerning such duties. 

“I think humans have an amazing capacity to turn work into play, and conversely, play into work,” he said.

Even when he is focused on a research project, Clark often goes out during the winter months to work the snow and ice on his property as part of his daily routine. 

“Most people I suppose would think of it as work,” he said. “ [But] it’s a refreshing break from the work I’m doing inside.”

Over time, the seasons change, snow melts and deadlines eventually expire at Dartmouth. What do professors tend to do then? When chemistry professor Jimmy Wu is not in Burke Laboratory researching or advising soon-to-be doctorate students, he enjoys competing in open water swimming meets. Last year, he swam both a three-mile and four-mile race. This summer, he hopes to complete longer distance competitions. 

Having many different hobbies and interests is important to Wu, especially because his work schedule is never fixed. The nature of his chemistry research and lab work requires him to be where his students are.

When he is unable to train for swim meets, he looks to his other interests, such as playing the mandolin, to clear his mind. 

“I played violin growing up as a kid, so the mandolin was a natural fit,” Wu said. “I just got into it after meeting [my wife].” 

Wu’s wife is a talented musician who sings and plays several instruments, such as the guitar, baritone, and banjo. After work, he enjoys coming home to musical bluegrass, Americana and folk “jam” sessions with her.

Sometimes, however, too much of a good thing — such as down time — can sometimes be a bad thing. Whenever Clark notices one of his passions losing its spontaneous character, he will purposefully take a break from it, or, at the very least, try to get a different perspective of it before returning to it. 

Similarly, during “chill time,” Sargent is careful not to engage her brain the same way she does when she is working. Otherwise, it becomes nearly impossible to maintain personal mental health and well-being. Because she is interested about crime, injustice, and disrespected societal groups, she finds certain genres of film and documentaries to be draining. 

“I get a certain level of compassion fatigue from that, so I tend to watch pretty vapid things,” she said. “Sometimes, I think I would be embarrassing to admit some of things that I watch, but I do.” 

Although technology is more convenient and useful than ever, mainstream media is often pitted as the negative influence that “eats away” at our brains and morals. But, in the context of Sargent’s 60-80 hour work week, watching Netflix in your pajamas and consuming as much coffee, toast and jam as humanly possible seems very called for. Or, taking a break from writing a research book by watching 1984 and listening to its musical score countless times over sounds brilliant. There are moments when it should be refreshing to be say, as per Sargent, “I love to just be a vegetable.” There are also moments when nurturing side projects outside of school work can be leisurely. 

Just note, though, that it is important to have strategies. They will vary per individual, but have a strategy all the same, for “free” time never simply just “comes” anymore. 

The alarm clock will prove it. Work will appear to reproduce itself exponentially. And our time constraints will feel increasingly tightened in the context of our busy schedules. But, consider how those around you are experiencing time. Are they intentionally blurring the line between work and play like Clark? Or are they keeping them distinct, more similar to Sargent’s strategy? Ultimately, the idea I picked up from listening to these professors is this: protect your time, so that you have the freedom to do something with it.