Linguists and philosophers have found the concepts of “telic” and “atelic” useful. The adjective, “telic,” often describes an activity that has a clear endpoint, a task that reaches a stage of successful completion or, alternatively, of definitive failure. “Telos” in Greek means an end or fulfilment. In contrast, “atelic” events do not necessarily have an endpoint. Taking 10 minutes to finish reading this post is a telic activity. Enjoying time with your family tends to be atelic.
These terms seem to have some relevance to the life of an academic. In the early years of a tenure-track assistant professor, much attention is focused on the assembly of evidence of a cohesive research program. The institutional decision to grant tenure to the scholar is a weighty one, based on peer evaluation from those in the field and tenured colleagues within the institution. Hence, for the candidate, telic activities are the order of the day. For those in fields in which the article is the key evidentiary unit, research projects must be mounted and executed. Manuscripts of results must be prepared for submission. If initial reviews merit revision, the scholar must react to all the various critical inputs from reviewers. The faculty member then submits the revision. If the revision is accepted, final editing is often required before the long chain of telic activities end with the publication of the article.
For scholars in fields in which full-length books are the norm, research projects must be mounted. An outline of the book must be created. Then each chapter must be drafted. Readers provide input. New draft chapters are completed. A manuscript is submitted for publisher review. New criticisms are received. New drafts are developed. On and on, sequential sets of telic activities finally result in the published book.
Of course, scholars have lives outside their work. They participate in all the atelic activities that many others do. They have partners and families. They participate in the arts; they enjoy music; they have recreational passions; they have hobbies and side interests that they do purely for the pleasure and reward of the doing. Scholars can gain the same sustenance from these activities that others derive.
However, the process of graduate studies tends to yield people with intense interest in the key questions and lines of inquiry of their specialties. Only such deep engagement provides the resilience to the challenges of working at the cutting edge of human knowledge in a given field. Scholars find themselves thinking of these enduring questions at odd moments, even when they may be engaged in the atelic “nonwork” activities of daily life. A longstanding colleague once noted that she got many of her most productive scholarly ideas while she watched her son playing youth soccer. Creative writers often note that they can’t stop writing; the activity itself is its reward.
So too, many colleagues report on the sheer joy at certain moments during the work on a large project. Some talk about the experience of “flow,” when writing becomes so fluid that getting the words down can’t proceed fast enough, when each thought seems to have synergy with others, building into a cohesive and creative whole. But the pleasure is not that of nearing a completion of a project; it’s something else. It is the pleasure of doing the work, separate from its value of coming closer to completion. This seems to fit the core definition of “atelic.”
In short, telic and atelic need not to be mutually exclusive features of action for an academic. The truly fortunate among us are those whose telic success is the result of activities that are conducted fully for the pleasure of experiencing them.