I was waiting to pay for my second cup of tea at Aroma today when the super-friendly server guy asked, "Productive morning?" This is a guy who obviously knows his audience: professors like me escaping their busy campus offices for the oddly private public space of the cafe. Likely he'd seen me tapping away furiously at the laptop, not surfing the web or checking email but actually writing. Thanks in large part to a looming deadline and some great feedback from Debbie on my work-in-progress, I was really humming along. "Yeah," I offered happily, "It has been a productive morning." I liked that he not only knew what to ask but also the right way to ask it, so I tipped him heavily.
"Are you productive?" is a common question around these parts. Mostly, it's the academic's shorthand for, are you doing the work that you love, the work that pulled you into academia in the first place? Or are you stuck doing the drudgery that often accompanies this mostly cushy job? Sometimes my running partner Joan and I wish each other a "productive day" rather than a "good day," because we know they really mean the same thing. Sometimes productivity can be framed more negatively, though. The question about productivity can be a litmus test veteran scholars use with their junior counterparts: "Was your semester off productive (i.e., worth all the trouble we took to give it to you)?" At other times, it's a way for anxious colleagues to size up the competition: "So have you been productive (i.e., more productive than me)?"
For me, "producing" has a more positive valence. Producing is very different from "getting things done." When I am producing, I am creating, writing, thinking, reading, researching, in a wonderfully endless cycle. When I am getting things done, I am clearing the mess from my desk and checking items off of my to-do list. Both things have their rewards and can be quite satisfying (anyone who knows me knows I like a clean desk), but I'm really only a happy professor geek when I am producing.