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Archive for the ‘Introspection’ Category

So I’ve been wicked busy, both personally and professionally, which accounts for my radio silence.  Inasmuch as it’s true that I would characterize myself as an extravert, even we people who get energy from other people reach a certain maximum after which we need to crawl into a cave and recharge.  This weekend was meant to be about that hermit-like recharging for me, and for the most part, it did work out that way.

Professional busy-ness is about what you’d expect for this time of the semester.  Meeting with students, responding carefully to student assignments, advising students, colleague-related interactions, meetings, and so forth.  I’m fairly caught up, or at least not drowning, so things are going ok.  But I need for the next couple of weeks to go quickly before I’ll truly be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, semester-wise.

Personal busy-ness in the past week to ten days has been… verging on the bizarre.  Where do I even begin?  Well, I guess I’ll say first that in terms of friend stuff everything is normal and fun and good, and all is well with my many, many friends, and that last weekend I’d gone away with my aunt and mom, so things are great on the family front, too.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, however, that when one’s general social life is in such good shape, when one is feeling content and fairly happy with what’s going on personally with family and friends, that GUYS swarm around one to throw everything into a nutso tailspin.  It’s like they get some sort of alert on their phones or something, “Hey, everything’s grand with Dr. Crazy, and she’s really busy but holding steady, so perhaps it’s time for you to make a dramatic appearance!”

To be fair, not all of the appearances have been that dramatic, but still.

Suffice it to say:

  • I heard from High School Crush, with whom I had one horrible pseudo-date in like 2010, and with whom I’ve not talked in a couple of years, though we do play Words with Friends, from totally out of the blue via a Facebook message. (I responded, and he didn’t reply, for he is a weirdo.)
  • First Love has been leaving phone messages worried that I’m “mad” at him (which, I have no reason to be mad at him!  I’m just busy!).
  • Fake Boyfriend has been calling me all the time, rocking it out like it’s 2007 when we actually were in a fake relationship.  (As I said to Medusa, it’s like when one door closes, another one opens, and what lies behind it is an ex who, phoenix-like, rises out of the ash of what you had believed was a totally dead relationship.)
  • A guy I went out with in August and then blew off with the start of the academic year reappeared, and while it was fine, it did remind me of why I blew him off.

And then, The Dude.

Because apparently all of the above needed some sort of Crescendo of Craziness.  Now, The Dude and I have been in contact over the three or four months that we’ve been broken up, but we’ve only hung out once, and he’s kind of been being a douche-nozzle for the past 6 weeks or so.  I’d kind of figured that he was seeing somebody else, but since he didn’t TELL me that, I was actually feeling hurt and like he didn’t want to be my friend.  Also I was feeling crazy for spending excessive analytical time thinking about whether he was seeing somebody, especially since I’ve gone on dates and fraternized with guys who aren’t him, so why did I care?

Well.  So the short version is as follows: He called me up last night, we talked for a couple of hours, he had been seeing somebody but thought it would “hurt” me to tell me, but now he wanted to tell me since it was over, and I was all, “you didn’t care about hurting me!  You just didn’t want to deal with how I’d react!  And I knew anyway, but you not being honest made me feel like crap, so you were hurting me anyway!” and then I stopped that line of conversation because honestly I don’t care that he went out with somebody else as he was totally within his rights to do so and I really don’t want to know any more about that than I now know, though I did lecture him about the particular category of lying that is the “Lie of Omission” about which he seemingly had never heard, being raised by wolves or something.

But so anyway, that was like only 10 minutes of the conversation, which when I stopped that topic, then took a VERY SHARP LEFT TURN in which 1) he asserted his continuous in-love feelings for me, which involve having dreams about me as well as thinking about me constantly, whether we talk or not, like every single day, which has apparently been a hardship for him, and 2) I said maybe it would be easier for him if we just stopped talking altogether, and 3) he replied that no, what really should happen is that we should be together for the rest of our lives, because he realizes all the things he did wrong and I am his One True Love and blah blah blah things about my perfectness for him and that he can’t live without me, whatever.  I was so caught off guard by all of the Passionate Emotions and Intimacy that I actually responded to his declarations as if they weren’t Totally. Fucking. Crazy.  Like, I entertained what he was suggesting.  We then got off the phone and I went to bed.

I then jolted awake at 6:30 AM in full-on panic mode, and I sent him a series of texts (they were numbered) in which the gist was, “we need a two-month trial period to figure our shit out if we are going to do this, and we don’t even know if we really want to be together because we haven’t even hung out, and I don’t trust you and I’m scared to death of trying with you again and you pulling the same commitmentphobic bullshit.”  Only (slightly) nicer than that.  Then, having articulated my panic feelings, I felt soothed, and I went back to sleep.  We talked this morning, and it was fine, and he said he’s going to get together with me this week (interesting, in that when we were going out he refused to come over during the week).

Here’s the thing.  We are in love.  Still.  Perhaps more now than we were 3 months ago.  That is true.  And yes, it is like a crazy once-in-a-lifetime sort of a deal.

I’m just not so sure that this matters, or matters enough.  And I’m not willing to just pick up where we left off (and, to be fair, nor is he, actually, which is the ONE reason I’m actually entertaining giving this a shot).  And I’m very suspicious about whether this is happening now 1) just because I really was feeling like I’d “moved on” and had given up hope and 2) because we’re coming up on what would have been the year-mark of our relationship, so maybe there is just some sort of calendar-mojo monkeying with our senses?

It’s exceptionally strange thinking about starting a relationship with a person with whom you’ve already been in a relationship.  I mean, I know it happens.  Hell, I have two different aunts – one on my dad’s side and one on my mom’s – who got divorced and then REMARRIED their ex-husbands.  But what’s strange about it is that I know exactly what’s wrong with him.  I’m not all hopped up on the anticipation and excitement and the feelings of newness.  I know what I’d be getting myself into.  That changes the dynamic considerably.  And, frankly, both of us have all our cards on the table now, in a way that you just don’t when you first get involved with somebody.  Breaking up puts the “warts and all” out front and center.  In other words, I don’t know if I actually want to be with him.  I might not.  I certainly don’t want to be with him if he’s not all in.  And I can’t be with him if I’m not all in, and I don’t know if I can be or want to be.  And, honestly, I don’t really know that he wants to be with the me that I am “warts and all,” though he claims having seen this side of me is what makes him confident that we could work.  Whatever.  In the words of Hamlet, “words, words, words.”

So, we’ll see what happens.  Regardless of all of his Declarations, what really matters is what he does.  And regardless of my declarations (for I did make some), what matters is what I do.

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Career:

  • After years of “negotiating” (which we also might call “fighting like an angry cat”) for a stable two-year rotation of courses that I teach, I seem to have achieved a two-year schedule that everybody respects and understands can’t just be “modified” at a whim.  While I did agree to be flexible about something in the Spring, 1) it does not introduce a new prep for me and 2) it in no way trumps the stable rotation for which I’ve fought.
  • This flexibility I’ve shown?  It means I won’t teach composition in the spring!!!!!  Huzzah!!!!  (Look, I get that teaching comp is part of my gig, and I have found a way to come to terms with it, and I even sometimes enjoy it.  But I did not go to graduate school to teach composition, and it is a pleasure to have a semester that will involve only teaching lit and theory.)
  • In the spring, I will, for the first time in like five years, not be teaching a night course.  I might actually be able to finish my book with a schedule where my afternoons are free for writing/revising.  And where I’m not constantly trying to catch up after feeling annihilated by teaching at night.  Will I have to teach at night again?  Yes, that’s just the reality.  But, after this semester, not until Fall 2015!  (This is also why having a stable rotation of courses is so essential to me.)
  • I’m continuing what I started last year with leaning back on heavy (and highly political) university service, and leaning into getting department assessment in shape.  Yes, this is a wonderful trade-off.  It allows me to use all of what I’ve learned through all of my institution-wide heavy-lifting to do service that nobody in my department gives a shit about, which means that I won’t have to fight with people.  HOORAY!
  • Research-wise, I really am going to be in a place to finish the book project, however much I haven’t met my own original deadlines for it, and I actually do think that the extra time is going to make it a better book.  And I feel good about that.  Also, I’m starting on some new research stuff in two areas.  One area has landed me on an MLA panel that is designated as one of the Presidential Theme Panels (which has me terrified but also excited), and another that is going to bring me back to DH Lawrence and, also, I hope, to Italy in June!
  • Grant applications, which, who knows, but maybe they will bear fruit?

Travel:

  • NYC in October.
  • Chicago for MLA.
  • Vacation in South Beach in January!!! For (a best friend from high school) Naomi’s 40th birthday!
  • Maybe Boston in Spring, or Maybe Chicago in June.  It all depends on what I decide is most awesome.
  • Italy in June, maybe followed by Paris!
  • Napa Valley in July or August!

Home:

  • My new sectional sofa!
  • A bunch of things I’ve been procrastinating about which are nowhere near as exciting as the new sofa, but which need to be done.  (Getting the outside of my house stained and the deck sealed, getting some concrete work done on my porch….blah)

Personal:

  • Fun times with friends, old and new.
  • Dating (sigh).
  • Golf lessons!
  • Returning to a fitness regimen, including both working out and eating in a more mindful way.
  • Continuing to try to figure out crap with The Dude (which, the “figuring out” sort of sucks, but I am hopeful that we will come to a mutually satisfactory conclusion, whether as friends or something more.)

 

I have to say, I’m really looking forward to being 39.  38 was filled with high highs and low lows, which was both excellent and horrible, and I’m looking forward to more stability.  Basically, in a lot of ways, 38 was, for me, about being at loose ends – professionally, personally, socially.

My aim for being 39 is to find my equilibrium again without losing the capacity for great joy that I found when I was 38.  I know, a tall order, right?  But I think my sense of professional optimism, which comes in large part from all of the professional battles I’ve fought and won in the past five years, will help with that.  I’ve done the work with the job, and I don’t need to worry about that right now.  I actually have the freedom to coast a bit.  And as far as the personal, well, while it is true that we can’t control our relationships, I do feel like I’ve reached a point where I am much clearer about what I’m willing to allow to happen in my personal life, and what I want in my personal life.  I think I just need to be mindful to keep what I’ve learned front and center.  And there is nothing to say about my planned travels other than that if I can make them all happen (and half of them are already done deals), they will be awesome!

So that is me, looking ahead to Thursday.  Let the games begin!

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So, of course everybody was linking to this Slate essay a few weeks back, and then Karen Kelsky responded, and I also read this response that I thought was really excellent, and now Karen Kelsky has another response up by a guest blogger.

This post isn’t so much about responding to any of the above, except for that I wouldn’t be writing it if this conversation weren’t happening through all of these pieces.  It just occurred to me, as I read the latest installment, that people who earn tenure don’t actually talk very much about what that’s like.  I know when I was on the tenure-track, I was all, “I must speak the truth of what this is like!”  and I was like that because I felt like Nobody Ever Talked About That To Me!!!  (In hindsight: people did talk about that to me, but I never saw people talking publicly about it, and it’s one thing to read something and it’s another to have one off-the-cuff conversation with a mentor.  So.)

I think something similar motivates the pieces that appear, with some regularity, about the horrors of the job market.  I don’t think it’s really that everybody was ignorant until it happened to them, but rather that there is something important about seeing such things discussed in a more formal way. (Aside: I think something similar motivates “Mommy” blogging.  It’s not that nobody talks about what it’s like to be a mother, or what it’s like to parent, but it can feel like one is alone because those things don’t make it into public discourse in a consistent and thoughtful way (consistently thoughtful way? maybe).)

But so what happens after you earn tenure?  (Assuming you got a tenure-track position in the first place, assuming that you didn’t get denied tenure, obviously.  This is not a post about denying the reality of the horrible job market, nor is it about denying the fact that getting the tenure-track job isn’t the end of the road.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about what having tenure is like, because some people do end up in that position.)

First, the necessary caveats: I am in a mid-sized metropolitan area in a geographical region that doesn’t suck for me (the majority of my family is within an afternoon’s drive, I actually like living here).  The cost of living is reasonable, and while I left graduate school with debt (around 20K in credit card debt, around 70K in student loan debt), I was able to eliminate the credit card debt while on the tenure track, and I have a VERY low interest rate on my loans, and I can afford to pay more than the minimum every month.  Oh, and also, I am one of the rare people who got my job offer ABD, so I don’t have years of job search  plus moving for postdocs or temporary positions expenses on top of the grad school debt.  In other words, my situation is unique, not bad at all, and ultimately, better than the situation of many people.  Even with my tenured job at a not-so-great institution with a 4-4 load.  Oh, and let’s not forget: I don’t have kids, or a spouse, to support.

But so what is my life like after I earned tenure?

  • During the academic year, I work about 40-60 hours a week, on average, when all is said and done.  In April?  Yeah, it’s like 60 hours a week.  But at the start of the semester it’s not that.  I’ve developed my assignments, I know how to manage my service commitments, and I am no longer (most semesters, though this one was an exception because I made some decisions about incorporating new texts) teaching material I’ve never taught before.  Yes, I did work those 70-80 hour weeks during the academic year before tenure, but that was because I was inventing everything from scratch.  Now, I’m not.  And I’m not a professor who phones it in and teaches from yellow notes.  But there is a difference in one’s workload when one has got some things down pat.  And there is a difference in the administrative parts of the job when one knows all the ins and outs versus when one is trying to figure everything out.
  • I am not worried about money.  This is not to say I’m out of debt.  I’m not.  I’ve got a mortgage, and I’ve got student loan payments.  But the bump that came with tenure and promotion meant that I don’t need to be as careful about money as I used to have to be.
  • While I no longer have pressure to perform individually that I felt prior to earning tenure, I now feel a lot more collective political pressure, in my department, college, and university as a whole.  On the one I feel pressure to contribute, and on the other hand I feel the pressure that comes from contributing and then getting blamed for the contributions that I make.  (If your dream of academic life is that you won’t need to work collaboratively with others, or that you won’t need to meet demands from some administrative higher power, then please do understand that academia does not afford you those things.)
  • The thing that initially drew me to a career as a professor was the research that I could do, the ideas that I could have and disseminate.  The further I get from graduate school and from my pre-tenure days, the more I have to fight to do those things that drew me to the profession, to carve out time for them in spite of other more pressing demands.  I used to judge people whom I perceived as “dead wood.”  Now I understand how they got there.
  • I feel a lot more pressure now to seek outside funding.  Even in a humanities field where that isn’t the norm, the reality in these budgetary times is that what money there for new ideas goes, and should go, to people pre-tenure.  In order not to become dead wood (see the last bullet point), I need to find a way to support my ideas that doesn’t depend on my institution or department.  That is very clear to me.  It’s challenging, exciting, and exhausting.
  • Whereas before I felt pressure to jump through hoops, now I feel pressure to sustain myself.  This sounds easy, but it’s hard to be motivated to keep on keeping on.  Now that there are very few hoops left, it’s hard to write, to think, to innovate as a teacher.  This is it.  Is this all it is?  Probably.  And it takes energy to make that new again for oneself, and to be excited.  And if you’re going to do your job well, you’ve got to find a way to do that.  If at first you don’t succeed, try, and try again.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

So, yeah, that’s my professional life these days.  And I am in a position of incredible and total privilege, and I get that.  I am not, actually, whining in this post.  I have a pretty ridiculously good life, in spite of the challenges.  But, for me, this is what tenure is like.  It’s not some nirvana wherein I don’t have to worry about doing a good job, and it has not granted me total freedom to pursue my bliss, and it doesn’t make me all that different from my colleagues who are grad students or pre-tenure or off the tenure track.  What’s good about it is that I don’t have to worry about paying my bills.  I don’t discount how good that is: that shit is good, and it’s a privilege.  But once you get tenure, well, maybe that is the brass ring, but it doesn’t mean you get some kind of get out of jail free card, or a get out of work card.  In fact, even though I work fewer hours now, I would say that I do more – and more different kinds – of work now.  I’m happy that I am in a position to do that work, because I’m a workaholic.  But it is still work.  And I don’t love a lot of it.  Short version: Tenure doesn’t make your life perfect.  No, none of us thinks it will.  Except for we all kind of do.

So should students go to grad school?  Maybe.  Should grad students seek academic employment?  Maybe.  But at the end of the day, all of these choices are about choosing a life, just like choosing any educational path is, just like choosing any career is.  What I advise my students is that they have to choose lives that they want.  And they have to know what they will give up depending on the choice.  And there are no free lunches.  Not even in academia.

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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.

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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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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2012 Is Dead, Long Live 2013

Ok, so first things first.  Madwoman has done an excellent public-style year-in-review, so I’m not going to deal with the public business, which, seriously, why would you guys think that I would?  I’m all about a narcissistic-style blog, so I’m sticking with writing what I know – ME!

So let this count as my looking backward at the past year, looking forward to the next year entry.  I know.  I usually do this on Dec. 31st, while eating Chinese food and drinking fizzy wine by myself, in between talking to my other single friends, who are also drinking fizzy wine by themselves, on the telephone. (Though apparently last year I didn’t even bother with this at all!  I had no idea!)  That’s been my single-lady Crazy tradition in most recent years, whatever the case.  But not this year!  Because this year I will NOT be spending New Year’s Eve alone!  But more on that in a bit.

The Year In Review:

Looking back on 2012, I think it was actually an excellent year, though it didn’t start off so hot.  As I entered 2012, I was totally buried with terrible service obligations for which I got little to no recognition (and, for my efforts, I actually was punished), my schedule was brutal (remember the Motherfucking Tuesdays?), and basically, I was in a sort of holding pattern personally.  Things did not appear to bode well.

HOWEVER.  I ultimately got through the semester of Motherfucking Tuesdays, the beating that I took for the horrible service stuff ultimately proved beneficial, in that it showed me that I should Just Say No and inspired me to Just Say No to doing shit that would get me beaten up (even though, of course, some people thought they should organize a secret committee over the summer to try to oust me from that service, even though I’d already quit), and it set the stage for what was one of the Most Excellent Summers Ever.  Because of the tribulations I spent at the beginning of the year, I found my way to freedom in April, in which I extricated myself from the burdensome service for which I was not appreciated, and I made a plan for a summer in which I would think and write and have the Summer of Visitors – 5 weekends in all, plus a weekend visiting BFF in the deep south, and leaving town for a week to visit Hometown and to attend my high school reunion.  It was both a fun summer and a productive summer – probably the most productive summer I’ve had in my entire time on the tenure track, honestly, even including the Sabbatical Summer.

And my social life was good this year.  I have great everyday friends, great in-between friends (one’s who are local that I don’t see all the time), and great long-distance friends.  I saw these people live in concert, and went to dinner parties, and out for drinks, and had basically an excellent social year.  And there was dating – most of it lame, but I didn’t just blow off the dating thing, nor did I regress into a fake relationship.  That was all good.

Teaching-wise, I wrote a grant proposal (PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE LET ME GET THAT GRANT!!!), recommitted myself to teaching the classes that I regularly teach, revamped some other classes, and basically was energized as a teacher.  That’s awesome.

And then, when I had written off the whole dating thing, as the year was winding down, I met The Dude, who continues to impress and inspire me, and who I seriously have more fun with than with any other guy I’ve ever dated (and more fun than with most other people I know).  It’s still early days (~6 weeks), and things could go horribly awry, but seriously?  I am in like with him as well as in love.  And he really is my favorite person, at least so far.  And so yes, I’ll be celebrating the New Year with him, and while it is true that we will be staying in (I refuse to go out on New Year’s because people are assholes and it never ends up being fun), I will be making him a fabulous dinner and I am really looking forward to it.  On the menu: Spinach salad with homemade vinaigrette, braised chicken, buttered noodles, kale cooked with bacon, apple pie from scratch (because, as I noted, I’m inspired, which is the only way dessert is something I make).

So there are two songs that really stick out for me as songs that characterize my 2012.  The first is a song that pre-dates The Dude, and which I superstitiously believe might have brought him to me, because I listened to it so obsessively, although that’s super ridiculous.

It’s the whole part about “Seek me out!/Look at! Look at! Look at! Look at me!/ I’m all the fishes in the sea!/ Wake me up!/ Give me! Give me! Give me !/ What you’ve got in your mind/ In the middle of the night!” thing.

And the other is the first song I ever played for him (within the first week), which, what the fuck was I thinking?  And yet I did.

So anyway.  A year that started out sort of stressful and lame has ended up pretty fucking stupendous.  And sure, I am knocking on wood and trying not to count chickens before they hatch, but still.

The Year Ahead

So I do have resolutions for this year.

  1. Revise and re-send-out the article that got rejected this fall.
  2. Apply for a summer thing and a conference that I really want to do.
  3. Finish the book manuscript to a state in which I can submit the completed manuscript to be considered for publication (I think this can be done by the end of February).
  4. Begin in earnest on my application for full professor (I’ve already begun putting the wheels in motion, just not in earnest).
  5. Recommit to Weight Watchers (I’ve gained some weight in the past year, though I’m still ok… but it turns out that dating involves a lot of eating and drinking and not working out, and I need to focus in order to keep things where I want to keep them, and maybe even to lose a bit more weight.  What’s nice about The Dude is that he thinks I’m amazing, and he’s amazing, and yet both of us have the fitness goal in the new year.)
  6. Be an amazing teacher.  Don’t let myself fuck teaching over in favor of service.
  7. Stay in love.  Be in love.  Don’t be crazy and fuck up the love (which is what I typically do).

2013 is going to be an amazing year, y’all.  I can just feel it.

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Energy

I suppose I should note that I’m writing this post at a moment at which I am entirely drained of energy, having just returned home (after driving four hours yesterday, and then driving back 4 hours today) from The Wedding of the Year in Hometown – A’s older sister (who is also my good friend) married a guy to whom she was introduced by my friend J. at a biker bar – and I am in no way exaggerating or describing this place unfairly in naming it as such. A) It lives in a state with a smoking ban and yet it is widely known that it is fine to smoke in there, B) 90% of the clientele is bikers (male) – the parking in front of the place is all motorcycle parking slots – and C) The clientele tends to be old and/or tattooed and/or military veterans, many of whom have missing teeth.  Quote of the night via a toast that J. made: “Dreams do come true at [Biker Bar's Name].”  If there was ever a place less likely to make dreams come true, I can’t think of one other than this establishment.  DUDE.  But the good news is that I will not go out of town again until Christmas, and I have never felt so happy to be home as I feel right now.  Oof.

But anyway, the post that I intend to write is not about the festivities of last night.  Instead, I want to talk a bit about “energy” as it relates to work.  People tend, I think, to characterize me as an “energetic” professor.  I get this impression in part because of student comments on evaluations (my highest scores tend to come on the question about enthusiasm and energy, regardless of contradictory comments on other questions – they might hate me, but they cannot deny my enthusiasm! and energy!).  I think students respond this way at least partially because I’m fairly extroverted, just in terms of personality.  But it also has to do with rigor of assignments, and the amount of feedback I give on assignments.  For what it’s worth, I don’t see myself as especially energetic or enthusiastic, and it’s not something I try to be in any conscious way.  To me, that level of energy and enthusiasm is “normal.”  I also get this impression in part because of comments that colleagues make to me about how much I accomplish – in teaching, but in service and research, too – or about how I manage certain things in my schedule – like doing 15 student conferences in a single day (as I did last week).  But, as with the way my students regard me, I never especially think that I’m doing anything odd or above and beyond, and so the comments strike me as weird.

If you were to ask me to describe myself, I would not describe myself as a “high-energy” person.  I am naturally a gregarious person, and an extroverted person.  But that, to me, doesn’t necessarily make a person “energetic.”  When I think about people whom I would describe as energetic, I think about A’s sister K, who has a husband and four kids and who managed the day after her sister’s wedding to wake up at 4 AM, to pile three of her four kids into the car, and to drive to Pittsburgh so her daughter could participate in a dance competition.  Or I think about J, who has the discipline to wake up at 5 AM every day to go to the gym, all the while working at a job that requires her to travel something nuts like 200 days out of every year.  Or even about my friends who teach high school or my colleagues who cull together a living out of part-time teaching gigs.  Or about my mom who never seems to sit down in the evening after work – not until it’s time to go to sleep – and sure, she goes to sleep at like 9 PM, but from the moment that she gets up until the moment that she goes to bed, she’s moving.  Or A’s dad, who is retired, and who has 7 kids total, with the sister who got married at 40 the oldest and with his youngest only 15 years old – and yet still somehow is working a 60-hour work-week.

If I were to describe myself, I’d certainly note my gregariousness and my extroversion, but I’d also say that my default “energy-level” is laziness.  I am a person who regularly (like, 5 days of the week) takes an afternoon/evening nap – a nap that lasts anywhere from 1-3 hours.  I am a person who, sure, will wake up at 6 AM, but that’s only so that I have three or so hours to “ease into the day,” which involves watching television and drinking coffee and maybe reading things on the internet – I accomplish nothing during that time.  I am a person who, if her house is messy and her kitchen a filthy mess (in particular) will prefer to live in her filth rather than to forgo her naps or her easing into the day, or even talking on the phone or watching tv.  I am a person who enjoys “taking to her bed” for a day of intermittent sleeping and reading, as opposed to doing anything that has any sort of merit or utility.  I am a person who, at the end of the day, resents meetings and appointments and is exhausted by them, and who will do anything she can do to get out of things that she perceives as “work.”

And yet, apparently, other folks perceive me as having energy.  Indeed, as being highly energetic and accomplished through that energy.

Now, to be kind to myself, I’m going to say it’s probably true that I have energy for things in my job in part because I’m so slack in my non-job life.  It’s easy to have “energy” in some ways if you don’t have kids, or a partner, or an aging parent to care for, or anything to take care of beyond two (fairly demanding, as these things go) kittehs.  I fully recognize that a lot of my energy is due to the fact that I’m a single lady with a totally fine income for one person and two cats.  And who never has to negotiate with other human beings in her personal life regarding the clutter on the dining room table or the fact that laundry hasn’t been done in a couple of weeks.  My life would surely change with the addition of more human beings, which wouldn’t be a bad thing – and is maybe even something I wish I had – but it would cut into my Time of Rest and Laziness, which would be an unfortunate and much-mourned consequence of the addition of more human beings, as great as those human beings might be.

But it occurred to me this past week, as I was forced to reflect on my activities through the summer to report on a fellowship I’d received, that maybe it’s true: maybe I am a person with energy.  Because I did more in the past 3-4 months than I’d ever imagine anybody doing ever in that length of time, and certainly more than I’ve ever done in my academic career.  Weirdly, this was also the most socially busy summer I’ve ever had, so it may be the case that doing lovely non-work socializing (4 weekends of visitors in the 5 weeks before the academic year began, plus additional socializing, plus another weekend of visitors early in the summer and a week in hometown) actually makes me work MORE and with more positive results  – rather than tiring me out.  (See: Definition of Extrovert.)  And I’ve accomplished more this semester, and have been a better teacher, precisely because I’ve been out of town the past three weekends.  (Again: it may be true that I am a textbook extrovert.)

I think it might be true that while I think of myself as lazy, I actually am energetic, when compared with other people.

Or, rather, my modification of that judgment.  I’m energetic when I’m doing crap that I really, really love and believe in.  When I’m doing stuff that matters to me, it takes a lot less of my energy.  Which I should have understood from the time I was a teenager, because, frankly, I was the sort of student who only excelled and invested in stuff she “liked” and let all the rest of it go to hell, even while that stressed her out.  This, right now, is the first time in my life I have been able ONLY to invest in stuff that matters to me, that I “like.”  And, it turns out, I get TONS done under those conditions, and I don’t feel beaten down by the work that those accomplishments entail.

And I also think it’s true that I accomplish more when I give myself permission for fun, as opposed to trying to (or thinking I should) work non-stop.  I was talking to my mom today about all the things (productive) I’ve done since Spring semester ended, and she was surprised: “I feel like you didn’t do any work for half of that time!” she said.  I replied, “No, I didn’t.  I think that might have been the trick of accomplishing that much, actually.”  Because, in giving myself permission not to work – and to totally shut down and not even to think about work – I didn’t procrastinate.  Instead, I worked when I had time to work, and in the meantime, I gave myself over to fun!  I didn’t worry about work, or think I should be working when I wasn’t.  Maybe that was the lesson I’ve needed for the past, oh, 30 years.

So do I have energy? More than most people?  Actually, maybe I do, now.  But only because I’m only expecting myself to have energy for work in about 50% of my waking hours.

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Seeing this post over at Notorious’s place, as well as this article that a friend of mine shared on Facebook, has inspired me to post something that I’ve been thinking a lot lately because of the book project, and I think that it connects (maybe) to the way that (many) humanities and arts disciplines are devalued in a culture that has come more and more to emphasize “results” or “discoveries.”

Because here’s the thing: unless my scholarship takes a dramatic left turn, I am never going to discover anything.*  I’m never going to produce “findings” that change the world. And if that’s how we define “producing new knowledge,” and if we define research as producing new knowledge, then the work that I do doesn’t actually count as research, even though it involves many of the same activities that people who DO discover things and produce findings do.

For me, my research depends less on making some discovery, or in producing some sort of “findings,” than it is about arriving at new interpretations on the basis of how I’ve evolved as a scholar, through reading, through thinking, and through reading some more, and finally through writing.  I know: it sounds wildly exciting, right?  But so a result of that is that “scholarly work” for me feels more like meditating than like being on a treasure hunt or doing an experiment.  And it also means that everything that’s old is new again.

What do I mean by that?  Well, I had this very strange moment yesterday as I was working on what will become the first body chapter of my book.  I was reading, and thinking, and writing – you know all the things – and I thought to myself, “somebody wrote about this thing that I’m thinking… I feel like what I’m saying is something slightly different, but I need to use that article…”  And then it hit me: I was thinking of the first article I ever published.  I have reached the point where I’m in scholarly conversation with the me I used to be.  And while I’m still interested in the same broad themes, my perspective has changed and deepened dramatically since 1998.  But I’m not actually discovering anything.  Nor am I finding anything.

So what is the value, then, in the work that I do?  That really is the question that every scholar who does the sort of scholarship that I do asks consistently from graduate school onward.  For some people, the answer about politics: by changing interpretations, we make a radical intervention in the possibilities for the ways that people will think about things.  For some people, the answer is about preservation: our purpose is to ensure that literature continues to be valued within our culture.  For some people, the answer is about the idealistic belief that literature makes us better people, or that it makes us better thinkers or more sensitive human beings.

While I do at various times answer that question in all of the above ways, I think that my answer most of the time is much more self-centered.  I think that the value in the kind of scholarship that I do, in its everyday and most frequent manifestation, is that I like how it feels to push myself intellectually and to see what new stuff I can think and argue.  That process is amazing for me, and it’s the part of doing research that I like the most.  And no, I don’t think that is a terribly compelling argument for my discipline or for the humanities generally, when it applies just to me, but if we broaden the scope of what I’m discussing, then what I’m saying is that contemplation is valuable; deep thought is valuable; engaging with other people who are doing similar contemplating and deep thinking is valuable; adding to the potential interpretations of cultural texts and opening our minds to different ways of seeing cultural texts is valuable.  Even if we’re not discovering anything and even if we’re not finding anything.  Or, rather, even if the only thing that we’re discovering or finding is our own intellectual potential, our own way of seeing.

*Let me note that this isn’t the case for all scholars in my discipline.  Depending on one’s approach, one might be doing a lot of archival research, or one might be doing research with human subjects, which fits better within a “discoveries” or “findings” model.

 

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Dame Eleanor has a great post up about perceptions of teaching and research and how they are valued – considering how things like personality and institution type determine the ways in which the balance between these two things is perceived .  I know I’ve written about the relationship between teaching and research before, but hell if I know where to find it, being such an erratic tagger of posts that I write here and also having all those other posts at my old location.  At any rate, suffice it to say that I think I’ve written that the two really are inseparable, at least in my experience both as a student and a teacher.

But so anyway, a lot of great discussion is going on in the comment thread of Dame Eleanor’s post, and I was going to leave a comment over there, except for that I knew it would be way too long because her post got me thinking about some things that are tangential to the question that drives her post. So Dame Eleanor’s big question is this:

Then there were the people I had dinner with, people who work at Ivies or prestigious SLACs, people with distinguished research to their names, who all insisted to each other that teaching is the most important work they do.  Do they truly believe this, or is it a sort of defense mechanism with which they protect themselves from doubts about the significance of their research, precisely because their institutions place so much emphasis on it?

As background to the question, she talks a bit about how she sees herself as a scholar first – not an intellectual – and she indicates that while she does invest herself in her teaching, that she does not think that it is the most important or most pleasurable work that she does. But then she goes on to ask:

Again, though, is my present attitude toward both teaching and research a defense mechanism?  LRU is an R1, but it is also teaching-intensive, and recent developments are focusing ever more on teaching (in a way that makes me a little nervous).  So perhaps I deny that teaching is the most important thing I do for precisely the same reason that my dinner companions affirm it, because of insecurities.  They, having fewer students and more writing, hope that human connections matter more than producing books.  I, facing large classes in which it is hard to nurture individual connections, take refuge in writing, through which I can address those individuals who share my interests.  If I had spent my career at a SLAC, Ivy or near-Ivy, no matter my temperament, would I sound more like my dinner companions?

So since I first read the post, I’ve been thinking about these questions, about whether we value teaching, if we value it, out of insecurity about the value of the research that we do, as well as the inverse.  I think that my answer to those questions is no.  I don’t think that the discourse surrounding teaching and research is really about compensation or even about self-defense, most of the time.  I think that it’s actually about something different and much less psychologically interesting.  We talk about teaching and research as an “either/or” – as if one is either “research oriented” or “teaching oriented” – because of the radical differences between these two activities.  The problem is that teaching and research, while they have everything to do with one another and while they have the potential to influence each other in productive ways, are not identical, and when we try to talk about them as if they are, then we are forced to choose one as the thing with which we “really” identify.

What I think, though, is that this is stupid.  It’s like this: a juicy pork chop has absolutely nothing in common with an apple.  One is an animal, and one is a fruit.  You don’t prepare them in the same way.  Indeed, if you eat one of them raw it can give you horrible food poisoning, whereas if you eat the other, it, according to my mother, keeps the doctor away.  One is savory and the other is sweet (well, or tart, but you get what I’m saying).  But so with all of those differences, one could say that one is “either” a pork person “or” an apple person, assuming that they stand in binary opposition to one another.  Except for that if you do that then what about pork chops with apple sauce?

 

Just because two things seemingly have nothing in common, it doesn’t mean that they don’t taste delicious together or that they are diametrically opposed.  And, frankly, choosing between the two, as if one can’t be committed to both and enjoy both equally – if in different ways – just doesn’t make sense to me.  It’s unlikely that one would ever sit down to a meal of pork chops and apple sauce and force everybody around the table to talk about which one was the more fulfilling to them.  Nor would they say, “what made you choose that item on the menu – the apple sauce or the pork chop?”  So why do we do that with our jobs?

What I would answer, for myself, in response to Dame Eleanor’s post is this:

Teaching is the most immediately fulfilling part of my job.  Teaching provides instant, or at least reasonably prompt, gratification.  When I teach a class that goes very well, I know it pretty much while it’s happening.  When I transform a student’s way of thinking about something, they do things like send me emails or give me presents at the end of the semester, or they keep in touch and tell me what an impact I made on their lives as they go on to bigger and better things.  The great thing about designing a new course syllabus is that you can do so in a very short period of time, and you feel like you accomplished something.  There is something immediately satisfying about tweaking the assignments that you give to students, and when you get their papers back from those assignments, you see the results of your labor.  Additionally, after a day of teaching I feel physically tired, because I have been up and moving around and interacting with so many other people.  That feels like work, and things that feel like work also do feel important when we do them – because if they weren’t, why would we do them?

With all of that being said, I do find a great deal of long-term fulfillment in the research that I do, but it isn’t as immediately gratifying.  “Thinking” doesn’t feel like work to me.  Nor does reading, or even really writing.  Solving particular problems in a scholarly piece does feel like work, as does revising, as does compiling a bibliography.  But because those activities don’t have an immediate impact on anyone, including me, they don’t seem terribly significant.  I guess what I would say is that what feels like work about research doesn’t seem important to me, because really it’s just a means to an end.  In contrast, what is meaningful and important about research for me is the ideas - the thinking, the reading, the writing, and then ultimately, way far down the road, when I feel like my work has an impact on my field.  But all of that has a very, very long-timeline, and it can all feel very abstract.  So this isn’t to say that it’s less important than teaching – I don’t think that it is – but I do think that it is differently important.

I guess to torture my pork chops and applesauce analogy even further, I’d say that research for me is like a six-hour pork roast.  It takes forever, and it’s kind of a pain to make, and if you’re starving it is not the thing that you’re going to bother preparing.  But once you’ve done it, you taste the delicious goodness and you see how all of the time and effort you put into it was valuable.  In contrast, teaching for me is like an apple.  If you need a snack, you just take a bite.  If you want to get a little more creative, maybe you make apple sauce or a pie or strudel or something.  But at the end of the day, pretty much nothing you’re going to do with an apple is going to take six hours, and at the end of the day, the possibilities of an apple are pretty immediate.

So my question is why do we set it up that we’re supposed to identify with either teaching or research?  Why do we set it up that we have to reject a major part of what our jobs entail, if not in practice than in spirit?  Why don’t the words “professor” or “scholar” encompass both teaching and research?  Why do we limit ourselves in these ways – I’d say unnecessarily?

 

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So the crazy storms with their stupid high winds swept through this afternoon, and I was without power for about six hours.  Now, I wasn’t entirely disconnected from the universe – my phone was fully charged so I was able to whine on Facebook and to read about Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise splitting up on the internet, but I didn’t want to go overboard with phone-related connectivity since who knew how long the power would be out?  So I did go out and get some dinner, and I spent some quality time reading – first on my porch and then pathetically with a flashlight in my bed once darkness fell.  (I hate reading with a flashlight.  What seemed awesome and transgressive when I was 10 now seems… well, like a pain in the ass.)  And since I was actually doing work-related reading, I was also trying to annotate in the margins, which is not fun when also trying balance a flashlight.  But so whatever, that was good, but it also left me with some time for reflection.  (Because yes, I often think about other shit while I read.  No, I’m not sure how I do that, but I do tend to do it.)

At any rate, the thing that I seemed to be inclined to think about was about where I am in my career.  See, I discovered his week (pleasantly) that my calculations about when I can go up for full professor are actually correct.  Now at first you might be thinking, “Um, why was that something that you didn’t just know? That’s written down somewhere?”  Well.  Here’s the thing.  The language in the faculty handbook is not entirely clear, and since the culture of my institution is such that most faculty don’t go up for full as soon as possible (if ever), I didn’t actually know if what I thought was right.  But yes, it’s true, I can go up five years from when I went up for associate.  Which means that I can go up for full in Fall 2013.  In one year’s time.

I’ve written about this before, but I’m too lazy to look for actual posts so I’m not linking, but I am exceptionally motivated to go up for full, first because we don’t have a single full professor who is a woman in my department and second because I want that salary bump added to my base as soon as freaking possible.  And also, why not?  It’s not like there is a limit on the number of times that I can go try for this promotion, nor will it make me lose my job if I try and fail – my feeling is that at the very least I go up as soon as possible and if it doesn’t have a positive result then I will have feedback about why it didn’t which I can use for my second try.  Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I do have my own additional benchmarks for what I need to have accomplished in order to go up for full, which have nothing really to do with the time that has passed between when I went up for tenure/associate.  The timeline is one thing, but the achievements are another.  Since I’ve gotten (frankly) crappy advice about what is required to go up for full (you’ll have a special feeling, I was told, by more than one of my full professor colleagues), I’ve decided what I’d be comfortable with, for my institution, about what I should have done.  Basically, I do feel like I need to have a contract for this book that I’m writing before I’d go up, so if that isn’t secured before the deadline next year, I will wait.  Frankly, I want for it to be easy for my department committee, chair, and dean to recommend my promotion.  I’m not interested in giving them a reason to doubt me or to say no.

But with learning that I’m actually in a position to go up this year or next, I’ve been reflecting a bit about how I’ve managed (or failed to manage) my career post-tenure.  In inserting that parenthetical I don’t intend to be falsely modest or to beat myself up.  I’ve had “full” on my radar since I earned tenure, and I haven’t been entirely thoughtless and carefree about my activities since then.  However, it’s also the case that, in my experience, there is a seismic shift in one’s job once one earns tenure, and as that ground shifts beneath one… well, things get a hell of a lot more complicated than what they were pre-tenure.

I think that’s probably true for all faculty at all institution types, but I think it’s probably more true if one is not at a research university.  My sense, though y’all should correct me if I’m wrong, is that the expectations for faculty at research universities remain relatively consistent between the assistant and associate ranks.  Just as you were expected to write a book (or publish x number of articles, if you’re not in a book discipline) as an assistant professor to earn tenure, you are expected to write a book (or the equivalent, depending on the discipline) as an associate professor.  Basically, my sense is that the “percentages” of how you should spend your time pre-tenure in terms of research, teaching, and service remain relatively consistent once you hit associate, and while service might go up when you hit full (especially), there isn’t a radical shifting of your job description.

At my regional state university, with a 4/4 teaching load, I’ve experienced a radical shift in my job description post-tenure.  While I didn’t feel like I was especially protected from service pre-tenure, I realize now that I was very protected from exceptionally time-consuming and politically dangerous service pre-tenure.  That’s been the biggest difference in my life over the past four years.  While teaching was supposed to be 50 percent of my workload pre-tenure, I feel as if post-tenure there has been an expectation that I will on the one hand teach up to that 50 percent standard while at the same time devoting maybe 20 percent of my time.  While research was maybe supposed to take up 30 percent of my time pre-tenure, I think that the expectation now is that research will take up zero percent of my time during the academic year – that research is a hobby that I should take care of in summer and on weekends.

But let’s note: going up for full means that your supposed to perform in all of those areas, and you’re supposed to be producing  at a higher level, or at a more important level, than you did pre-tenure in order to make it to full.  Is it a mystery why most people at my institution never even bother trying to go up for full?

Now, before I go further, I really and truly have loved having tenure, in spite of the challenges that it has presented, both in terms of the work and in terms of how I relate to colleagues.  I’m sure I could have handled some of those challenges with more finesse, but at the end of the day, tenure is a privilege, and it’s one that I’ve enjoyed.  Like, seriously, it is a pleasure.  And I’m very lucky to have it, even at the institution at which I have it.  My feeling is that tenure is the best thing since sliced bread, and it sucks that people in every career don’t get to have it.  I never experienced a post-tenure slump, in terms of the whole existential crisis about “what does it all mean?” and I have never regretted pursuing a career in academia.

But.

I do feel as if I’ve let things overtake me that haven’t necessarily been the most positive for me, professionally or personally.  I do feel that I have experienced a certain amount of pressure, particularly in terms of service, but also in terms of teaching, that has not been good for me.  I do feel that I haven’t handled that pressure terribly well.

So reflecting on the past four years, what do I wish I would NOT have done?

Aw, fuck.  I suck with this sort of thing, because I’m the sort of person who is all about, “all of the things have brought me to this point, so it’s all good….”

What do I wish people would have advised me not to do?

This is an easier question.

  • I wish that people would have advised me not to serve on a dean’s office position search committee where I was the one newly tenured person, and where I was the one woman on the tenure-track. But when the dean asks for you, how do you say no?
  • I wish that I would have been much less of a team player about my teaching schedule, because in being that, I taught 11 different preps over the course of three semesters, which was terrible for me, sure, but which was really terrible for the students whom I taught.
  • I wish that I had not been lured into super-political university-wide service, which would make people in my department hate me and which would me make me hate my university as well as myself (at least sometimes).
  • I wish that people wouldn’t have advised me to “relax” about research.  Let’s note that I didn’t follow that advice, but getting advised in that way made me kind of hate the people who advised me in that way, as well as others who followed that advice, because I love doing research.  Research has never been my problem.  But wow, it is my problem when the people who are supposed to be my colleagues don’t value it.
  • I wish that people would have cared more about my well-being than their own comfort (or lack of discomfort).

But none of that was what happened.  And now, I’m looking at my life over the past four years, and I’m really pissed off that I didn’t have the support that I needed, and I’m really pissed off that I didn’t do stuff that I enjoyed or that had meaning to me in the spirit of community when really all that it resulted in was a target on my back and people treating me like shit.

I’m still idealistic enough that I’m not totally checking out.  I’ve just changed my direction, and I’m on to other things.  But I now understand why people do check out, which I didn’t understand at all pre-tenure.  That’s bad, people.  Because I now look forward to checking out.  I now feel like, you know, who the fuck cares?  I don’t want to check out now, mainly because I’m only 37 years old (nearly 38 years old).  But I look forward to the day that I will stop caring, and I never felt that before.

I hate that one of the reasons that I want full professor rank is so that I can tell people to fuck off.  I hate that one of the reasons that I want full professor is because I am so angry that I’ve been doing all this work for four years while other people have been sitting idly by and letting me do it and then criticizing me for what I’ve accomplished.  And what I wish, most of all, is that I hadn’t let this happen.  I wish that I’d stood up for myself, and I wish that I’d taken care of myself rather than putting my career and my life in my institution’s hands.  I wish that I had been supported in doing those things that I really am best and most suited to doing, like teaching and designing rigorous classes, doing strong service in the community and in the profession, and doing research that might not be setting the world on fire but that is making a really important contribution.  Here’s the thing: nobody prohibited me from doing those things after tenure, but it’s also true that nobody – NOBODY – supported them.

The good news is that I’ve discovered all of the above now, and so now I’m advocating for myself to do the work that I’m best at doing and that I want to do.  But I sure wish that it hadn’t taken 4 years for me to figure out that I needed to do that.

 

 

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