Dr. Virago has a great post up about feeling that she’s in a “mid-career rut,” and so much of what she writes about is so important, I think, and I think it’s important for those of us who’ve leaped over that hurdle that is “earning tenure” to keep writing about our experiences because, as Virago notes, most of us have another 30 or so years in this gig after we do that. “Mid-Career” – as I wrote in a post about teaching – is a really freaking long time for most of us, so there are going to be various iterations of what that looks like at different points in that LONG trajectory.
But before I get to some specific points that I want to engage with in Virago’s post, I want to begin with the metaphor of the “rut.” When we say we are “in a rut,” we are using a transportation metaphor. It’s all about furrows that develop along a track or road, and at a certain point, those furrows get deep enough that one can’t turn off the track or road. Things get a little boring, a little rote. And they also can feel a little bumpy, and you don’t have the luxury of dodging the bumps. I think it’s no mistake that those of us who’ve been on a “track” for years – the tenure-track, the Ph.D. track, the “accelerated track” in elementary and high school – might find that ruts have developed over the course of that time. But whereas being “on track” is a good thing – on track to finishing the dissertation, on track to getting a job, on track to earning tenure, on track for promotion – being “in a rut” is a bad thing.
Why? I mean, I’m really asking that. Because it seems to me that ruts aren’t necessarily more limiting than tracks. It’s just that we see being on track as being focused and motivated and making progress, whereas we see being in a rut as being stuck. Except, actually, both tracks and ruts can be limiting. Being on track means that you can’t make a random left turn without jumping the tracks. And both tracks and ruts can be productive, too. Being in a rut means that you don’t have to plow through obstacles in order to get where you’re going; you can use the rut to guide you and to let you move ahead without having to focus all of your energy on where you’re going. But the negative connotation of being “in a rut” makes us feel slow or stopped or not engaged, whereas the positive connotation of being “on track” makes us feel like we’re getting somewhere, even though we are no more “free” on a track than we are in a rut.
In some ways, part of what I’ve struggled with over the past two years is learning how to use some ruts I’m in to my advantage, as opposed to resisting them. And I’ve also been doing a little back-and-forth – reversing and going forward, reversing and going forward, with slight adjustments to the steering wheel, much like when you’re stuck in a snow mound and trying to get yourself out of the ruts in the snow that the wheels have made to get back on the road. I’m not saying that I’ve done everything “right” or that I’m totally out of the rut that I’ve perceived myself to be in for a bit of time…. but I am feeling a lot more satisfied right now than I have felt probably, well, ever.
So, the first thing that I want to respond to from Virago’s post is this:
So there’s a way in which I’m active in the area that got me the job, got me tenure, and so forth. But I haven’t really produced anything new in it in some time, and I’m frustrated by that. I have something in progress (an article), but I keep dithering about whether to do the relatively fast and easier version of it and get it *out* there in one of the subfield journals, or keep working on the more theoretically ambitious version of it, which involves me learning (or continuing to learn) all sorts of new stuff and would be sexier for the broader medieval and medieval-renaissance journals. The learning part is attractive, but it’s also slow. And I have been sitting on this thing for a long time now because it keeps getting shunted aside.
First of all, let me just note that Virago has accomplished so much since tenure that she isn’t giving herself enough credit for and that probably is propelling her forward in ways that she doesn’t realize yet. But I also recognize that feeling that I’ve said what I had to say about my last topic, and I have a new idea, but it just seems too gigantic and complicated to pursue it as it should be pursued, properly, and so then other stuff gets in the way of it.
What I’m about to say here is not some edict of How Things Must Be Done, but I’ve come to a perspective in the past couple of years that if I’m going to try to do new stuff, think new thoughts, post-book and post-tenure, then I have to do two things: 1) I have to make those new things my first priority, no matter how painful that is, and 2) I have to give myself permission not to worry about the final product fitting the “ideal” version in my head.
Of course, those two things are also the things that one needs to do in order to finish a dissertation. At least for me, though, I had to relearn those lessons post-tenure, because the stakes for my “reputation” (ha! such that it is) feel higher. “I’m supposed to know how to do this now! I can’t embarrass myself! What if all of the stuff I accomplished pre-tenure was just residual effects of my dissertation work, and thus really about my adviser and committee, and what if I really, in spite of those accomplishments, am still a fraud?” That’s often been my inner voice post-tenure. And I’ve had to learn to turn off that fucked up inner voice, because, as I tell my students, new ideas and new projects are supposed to make us uncomfortable! It’s such an easy thing to say to students! Why is it so hard to remember that for ourselves? But, for me, it has been hard to remember.
Virago then goes on to talk about two (I think) related issues in her current “rut” – first, that she feels like her field has “passed her by” in certain ways, so ideas she has had aren’t “current” or “interesting” given where the field is now, and second, that while she started on what was to be her Next Book during her 2010-2011 sabbatical, she still doesn’t see the whole project in her head, and she feels like she’s having to learn a whole new body of knowledge, which is slow work, in the interstices of regular professional commitments, like teaching.
If I can talk about the difference between my work in graduate school, which led to my first book, and the work that I’m doing now, I would say that I’ve been forced to learn that I need to be much more efficient – that I can’t expect that I’m going to be able to focus exclusively on the New Idea until it is fully formed, but rather that I need to produce as much as I can when I can and then later hope it will all fit together, and so far that’s working-ish – and also that I need to be much more opportunistic – in the sense that I need to pursue every idea and every opportunity (research-wise) without worrying about whether it’s hip or new or awesome or whatever. I teach a 4/4 load and I’ve done some major heavy-lifting with service. The fact of the matter is, I don’t have the luxury to pick and choose between my ideas, nor do I have the luxury of uninterrupted time. (Though I’m going to say something very different in a bit about taking “every opportunity” – I’m only talking about research here.) I suppose my point here is, I have taken a sort of relaxed approach to my research in some ways: I figure that if I produce (and produce and produce), I’ll figure out what is “new” or what is “appropriately framed” whether through readers’ reports or editorial feedback or whatever. I no longer have the luxury of trying to consult with my crystal ball, not while working a full-time job as a tenured professor. In some ways, frankly, that is liberating.
Then Virago writes:
Half the time I just want to throw my hands up and say, “Fuck it, I’d rather be teaching. Maybe I should move to a 4/4 load and give up research.” Except that wouldn’t make me happy, either. In fact, part of the problem is that I’m isolated in my work and don’t have the stimulation of other people in my field or advanced students working on dissertations to teach me new things and keep me current. Giving up on research entirely would exacerbate that feeling and make my rut deeper (even if I keep reinventing my courses, which I always do). And it wouldn’t be good for the students, because one of things that keeps my teaching from being in a rut is bringing in new ideas from my research and others’ (that often includes new-to-me primary texts — there’s a lot of stuff out there that I don’t know and research of various kinds introduces me to it).
As I noted, I teach a 4/4. And I do research. So. But so how do I do that? Yes, I do it from updating my courses, and yes, I do it through my own independent research. But, in part, I keep up with the research in my field through the work that my undergrads (and my rare MA students) do. I assign annotated bibliographies in every course I teach now. And I make guidelines that require students to include at least a certain number of sources that were published within the past three years. Those annotated bibliographies have been my savior, frankly, because I don’t have the time to just read journals in my field for enrichment. I also design presentation assignments and book review assignments and literature review assignments for my students that contribute immeasurably to me keeping up with what’s going on in my field. (And, frankly, even more generally in my teaching field, because with four courses, 2 of which are typically general education, not all of those students are focused on what I’m writing about right now, but they sure are engaged with my teaching areas.) Teaching and research, I believe, must be reciprocal. That means that not only does my independent research inform my teaching, but also that my teaching must inform my research.
I know that isn’t possible in all fields, but I think it’s often possible to find a way to make that happen in some fashion if one is creative about what that means. (Note: I have colleagues who design assignments that are a lot more “creative” and “fun” than what my students do, but I’ll also say that mine are no less student-centered, in that my assignments tend to be the ones that teach my students those valuable skills that get them into graduate and professional school and into full-time jobs upon graduation. Do I wish my students found my assignments more “fun?” Sometimes. But most of the time I’m happy that they are well integrated into my own intellectual projects and that they teach them skills they need to embark on serious intellectual projects of their own.)
And then Virago talks about isolation. She writes:
Remember when we used to think romantically how digital communications would solve the problem of the isolation of the single scholar who’s the only one in her field at her institution? Yeah. Right. Frankly, social media and other digital outlets just make me feel *more* isolated. All I see are the cool collaborations and energetic conversations of colleagues who get to talk face-to-face as well as online, and I feel shut out.
What I say here is going to sound strange, maybe, but this is why I totally don’t do social media in my field or blogs in my field. And I’ve never even toyed with the idea. I am Fb friends with some people in my field, which is grand, but that’s because they are my friends. Just like it’s not good to watch the news 24/7, it’s not good to be tapped into all of the conversations in one’s field 24/7.
What I’ve done instead is to cultivate relationships within my department with people outside of my field about research and writing. No, they don’t know “all the things” in my field, and I don’t know those things in theirs, but they are my… intellectual reservoir… if that makes sense. Now, it’s worth noting that I was the only person in my (tiny) grad program working in my area while I was in residence, so I’m used to doing this. And it would be a hell of a lot harder if all my grad school friends who were local had been in my field: I would have felt a much greater sense of loss upon arriving in my current locale, I know.
I guess what I think, about the whole “I don’t have local people who do what I do!” thing, is that this is ok for me. But it’s only ok because I have lovely friends elsewhere who talk about stuff in my field with me, and I have lovely friends here who might not be in my field but whom are my intellectual soul-mates: we can talk about theory and the discipline and teaching and service – no, they can’t talk about my specific authors with me in more than a cursory way, but all those other things are so important to me, too! And also: I am (and always have been) weirdly isolationist in my ideas about scholarship. I like the idea that I might come up with an idea that isn’t informed by (or indebted to) the current conversation. Sure, I’ll need to inform myself about that before writing up my wacko idea, and I’ll be excited to do that, but if I waited for being regularly involved in the “current field-specific conversation” to have an idea, well, I’d never have one.
Finally, Virago asks:
What say you, oh wise people of the internet? How do I shake off the doldrums? Do you ever feel like this? What do you do to shake off the Blahs and get out of the rut?
I’ve already responded in some ways to these questions. But here’s where I turn to the metaphorical rut/track stuff at the beginning of the post. In some ways, I’ve embraced my rut. It’s great that people know who I am, how I think, and what I have done, and that I get opportunities because of that. Am I sometimes bored by being the go-to person about x way of approaching y author? Sure. But it doesn’t mean that this approach is boring, and, frankly, isn’t that why we all write a first book? So those things will fall into our laps? And it’s nice, sometimes, to write an invited article that is right in one’s wheelhouse and that doesn’t push us into new territory – and doing so can even help to generate a new idea in spite of the fact that it’s just going along inside the rut.
But the way that I’ve approached getting out of the rut has been through pursuing things like grants and workshop opportunities outside of my university. It has been through being much more selective about service – basically after having been a slave to it for four years, I’ve now realized that it’s not my turn anymore, and I have more important things to do with my energy. It has been through developing new courses (as much work as that is) as opposed to just redesigning ones in my wheelhouse.
But really, emotionally? It has been through realizing that tenure means never having to say you’re sorry. I’m no longer on a track, and that is liberating. I can pursue an idea that turns out to be nothing, and that is totally ok. I can try something out and have it fail disastrously, and not only won’t I lose my job for that, but also it might lead me to the next amazing thing that I will do. I no longer have to be “on track.” I have earned the right to go off the track. And sometimes that will land you in a rut, but sometimes it will land you on the open road.