A Critique of Dark Academia: The Romanticization of Overwork

As soon as October comes around and my workload ramps up, I turn to the dark academia tag on Tumblr and get lost in the maze of literary quotes taken out of context and carefully curated desk photos meant to inspire other students. Despite the procrastination, it allows me to feel productive while taking a break. 

I’m the first to admit that the dark academia tag has its perks: I’ve stumbled across plenty of helpful study tips and have been inspired to buckle down on that paper that I can’t be bothered to write just yet. I’ve also dedicated whole weeks to twelve-hour days spent in the library fanatically revising essays and over-studying for exams. This is based on the notion that being a good student means that I have to go above and beyond, even when it’s completely impractical and/or irrational. “Above and beyond” often leads to burn out, isolation, and a variety of nutritional deficiencies. Dark academia, indeed. 

If you’re completely lost, check out my first article of three on the dark academia aesthetic here, in which I explain what dark academia is and its obsession with beauty to the exclusion of less pretty things, like politics. In this article, though, I’ll be discussing how dark academia encourages and contributes to society’s emphasis on overwork. 

Dark academia falls under the larger umbrella of the studyblr (Tumblr blogs dedicated to academics and, more broadly, productivity) community. These online spaces allow students to commiserate about their workloads, share photos of their workspaces and connect with others while going through school. 

However, they also foster competition and unhealthy habits disguised as encouragement and hard work. For example, students will share how they studied for twelve, thirteen, fourteen hours, sometimes longer during holidays and weekends. 

The problem is that dark academia is an aesthetic that gets mistaken for a lifestyle. For some students, myself included, these and other similar posts solidify the internalized connection between overwork and self-esteem, the idea being that work is what makes you worthy. Wearing tweed and wandering old bookshops is fine. Denying yourself sleep over an essay that isn’t due for days is not. 

Say it with me: school should not take priority over your mental health. School should not take priority over your physical health. School should not take priority over your relationships. We live in a society that glorifies workaholics; to succeed, you have to work harder and longer than everyone else. Don’t let late-stage capitalism fool you. Breaks are a necessity, not a luxury. 

Keep in mind, too, that the writers and characters idolized by the dark academia community are often a product of their privilege. Milton’s daughters transcribed for him when he went blind; Wordsworth’s wife and sister ran the house for him; and Henry from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is incredibly wealthy and doesn’t have to worry about spending time on things as frivolous as getting a job

Reality is less simple than dark academia and other aesthetic trends would have us believe. Read poetry, enjoy your studies, fall in love with the past. But don’t assume that daily life can or should resemble an aesthetic all the time or that you’re any less worthy if you take an afternoon to watch a few episodes of New Girl. Get coffee with your roommates, make some soup, and, for goodness’ sake, go for a walk. If Einstein could take a nap, so can you. 


Part one of this series: "A Critique of Dark Academia: The Hunt for Beauty."

Part three of this series: "A Critique of Dark Academia: The Cultivation of Relentless Focus."