So, in a textversation today, The Dude ultimately responded to my offerings with the following:
“I didn’t realize that being an English professor could be so stressful.”
First of all, let me note, he didn’t write that in an assholish way. He honestly was NOT like, “wow, that’s surprising since you people eat bonbons all day long, and you are a whiny baby because lots of people have it worse than you!” No, he was genuine in his wonder, and he was genuine in his compassion for me, even though I did feel like I was being a whiny baby. And, frankly, before I became a professor I probably would have responded exactly the same way. I didn’t get into this profession for the stress. Not at all. Indeed, I’d really imagined that this was the nonstressful option of the others I’d considered (law, journalism, working a “regular job,” becoming a novelist, whatever). And yet, here I am. A stressed out English professor.
Why am I stressed?
- Department politics. I have a really hard time with pretending that people who don’t pull their weight deserve an equal say in decisions. I also have a really hard time with letting people have a discussion about something abstract idea that is fucking stupid when there is a real item on the agenda that would address a real concrete issue that is why the abstract thing is upsetting people. I like identifying a problem, coming up with a solution, and then strategizing for how to make the solution happen. As much as I like theorizing about literature, I’m a pragmatist in my working life as a professor. People who don’t intend to make a real thing happen, and who aren’t willing to work for real, concrete things, drive me fucking crazy.
- Students at nearly midterm. They take a lot of energy. Mainly because they are freaking out. And them freaking out causes me to freak out. Freaking out engenders and inspires freaking out. It’s not easy to be the person who is supposed to calm people’s fucking nerves.
- I have my own shit right now. Now is the time to submit abstracts for MLA panels, now is the time to submit applications for certain kinds of prestigious seminar things, and now is the moment when I should hear about certain grant applications that I submitted in September. Also, I’m supposed to be polishing my book manuscript (which is not getting done because of items 1 and 2).
None of the above would be stressful, I realize, if I weren’t ambitious and if I weren’t competitive. If I didn’t have those qualities, I could just come in every day, teach my classes and take pleasure in teaching them, and then come home and be fine. But I realize that I am both ambitious (within my university and within my discipline) and competitive (within my university and within my discipline). I really have a drive to excel, which is maybe ok, and also to beat people, which makes me kind of an asshole, even if it’s what is required to excel in academia.
I am ambitious. And I don’t even know what I’m ambitious for, really. And I am competitive, mainly with an eye toward beating other people, even with something as stupid as “my” students getting into better grad or professional programs or getting better funding packages for those programs, which is great for them, but it really has little to do with me, and it shouldn’t. I hate being a person who claims those accomplishments that I know aren’t mine, even though I do. So.
The point of this post is, I am super ambitious and I am ridiculously competitive. Even though I resist those things in myself. I’m embarrassed to be these things. But also? This is who I am. And I’d rather be those things than be the opposite, even though I think that my impulse to be ambitious and competitive in this particular way is wrong.