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Archive for the ‘Introspection’ Category

So I realized today that it is somewhere near my TENTH blogiversary. That’s right, readers, Dr. Crazy has been at this whole blogging thing for ten years just about now. I don’t recall the actual date (for I’ve changed locations 2 times since the first version, and I can’t be bothered to figure out the actual date), just that I started at some point in July (during the Republican Convention I think?  I know there was convention blogging, in part about a bizarre fixation I had on Tucker Carlson at that time, and I surely was seeing a fellow whom I named “Stupid Freud”) of 2004, assuming that I would quit almost immediately.  But I didn’t quit.  I still haven’t quit.  Weird, huh?

Lots of people from when I started are now gone, or mostly gone.  Indeed, a lot of those people from the very early days are now my facebook friends and that is how I keep in touch with them. But along the way new people have found their way here, too.  I don’t look at stats at all anymore, because I guess I don’t need to know that people are reading?  And/or I’m not paranoid about who is reading? And I am totally open now about claiming the blog as something that I write, in a way that I surely wasn’t in early days.  How I figure it now is that most everybody in the world knows who I “really” am, and that is really ok.

Although, to be fair, I did learn from BFF that she met a person at a conference who was talking about my blog and who didn’t know who I was, so I suppose there are still some people out there for whom Dr. Crazy is a mystery.  Why have I never gone public for real?  Well, a couple of things.  First, I think people like a Dr. Crazy being out there, and I think it would change things for them if I explicitly outed myself.  As Dr. Crazy, I can be an “everywoman” of sorts. Second, I do think that it would change the way that I write and the kinds of things that I write about if this site were the first thing that came up with googling my real-life name. I’m not saying I’ll never reveal my real-life identity in an explicit way, but I suppose I’m not sure what the value of that would be for this space, at least not right now. I have never seen my blogging as a professional vehicle – in fact, what I loved about it was that it WASN’T a line on the cv – and I really am not interested in seeing it as that. So who knows what the future holds, but this is it, for the time being.  If you’re dying to know who I am in real life I’ll tell you, and if you find out who I am I don’t actually care.  But I think there is value in the “character” of Dr. Crazy, as it were.

But so once upon a time, Michael Berube (and I can’t be bothered to do the accent marks properly, because I am lazy, but he is delightful and generous so I know he won’t judge me) wrote a blog post about my very first Dr. Crazy incarnation, in which he described my blog as “raw.”  And, well, looking back, that blog WAS raw.  I was a newly minted Ph.D. and I was only a year into a tenure-track gig (and I only defended my dissertation a week before my contract started for that job).  And blogging was this new and uncharted territory way back in 2004, and lotsa people were writing “raw” blogs, and I ended up blogging on a whim and the whole point, or so I saw it at the time, was to confess the TRUTHS of what it was to be an assistant professor, and the TRUTHS of feeling alienated and at sea in a new place, and oh, who the fuck knows, but that was what I was doing.  And then somebody threatened to out me, and I decided that I should acknowledge that threat and yet not acquiesce to it but yet move to a different space to signal that I would be slightly less raw.  And then I earned tenure and was on sabbatical and thought that I needed to move to yet another space to acknowledge that transition.  And so here I am now.

And what I realize is this: I no longer write a “raw” blog.  That said, I don’t think it’s fully cooked either.  I think that I give a par-boiled representation of things these days.  I still care about personal writing, about authentic and not-for-publication, not-for-reputation writing, but the reality is that since I’ve earned tenure I know a lot more, and I have a lot more to say, but I also feel much more limited in what I can say authentically on a blog.  Tenure does not give you license to say anything anywhere anytime. It gives you the privilege to fight certain battles, and it gives you the authority to do certain things at your institution.  But, frankly, it also gave me a lot more information than I had before, and a lot of that information is stuff I can’t just bitch about on a blog.  In some ways, I am much more careful about what I say on-blog post-tenure.  And in some ways, I actually think that this is the right thing.  I’m not sure that I believe anymore in the whole CONFESSING THE TRUTHS thing.  I realize now that what I think is true is a fuck of a lot more contingent and that there are things I certainly don’t know.

That said, I still try, in this space, to TELL the truth, if not to confess it or to preach it.  If that makes sense.

So yeah, I am considering this my blogiversary post, even though it might be early or late from the actual date. And I hope that this blog is still entertaining for people, or helpful to people, or whatever, even though I recognize that I am kind of a shitty blogger these days, in terms of frequency and even in terms of the interest-level of my posts.  And also that I recognize that only Comrade Physioproffe is interested in my golf-blogging :) (By the way: we finally used the drivers today, and while it is not my best skill, as long as I manage not to have anybody watching me and I don’t actually allow myself to think I do ok.)

Ten fucking years, people.  How is that even possible?!?!

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If I look at the ball, I cannot hit the ball. I must look at a spot approximately 3 inches in front of where the ball is, but also I can’t look at where I am aiming the ball. Which makes no sense, but nevertheless it is true.

Well, except for with putting.  With putting, I must only look at the ball, and I must not look at the hole. (I am much better at putting than I am at everything else, incidentally. Miles the Golf Teacher seems quite surprised by my savant-like skill at putting, “one of the hardest things in what is a hard game”.  What Miles doesn’t know is that as a child I was so in love with miniature golf that my dad actually dug a hole for me in the backyard and stuck a soup can or something into it so it would serve my purposes, and I spent hours putting golf balls into it in non-putting-green conditions.  Since, as Miles tells us, 43% of all shots made on the golf course are putting, I feel that putting will be the “ace in the hole” of my otherwise crappy golf game -and yes, I am embarrassed to have written “ace in the hole” there.)

But so anyway, both of these things – not looking at the ball, not looking at the hole – do seem to send the same broader message: what matters in the moment is not the end goal (to hit the ball, to get the ball in the hole) but rather the process that gets you there.  I spend a lot of time telling my students this very thing about the writing process or about life as a student in general, but it’s an easy lesson to forget (over and over again).

And it is also a lesson that knitting teaches me (over and over again), because if the point is a scarf, the easiest (and less expensive, and less time-consuming) path to a scarf is to go to a store and buy one. The reason to knit is not that you need or want a scarf.  It is the knitting itself, and the end result is just a happy and inessential consequence of the knitting.  If what you want to do is to knit a scarf, you’ll never finish that scarf.  But if what you want to do is to knit, then you will end up with an awesome scarf.  (Note: this is why knitting under pressure – like knitting my High School BFF’s wrap for her wedding, or the blanket for her new baby – GEMMA! I am an auntie! As of Sunday! And no, that motherfucking blanket is not finished, dammit! – is such a problem for me.)

It’s not that you don’t have a goal.  But if you are overly focused on the end result, you can’t actually do what it takes to get there, apparently. Or I can’t, apparently.

I guess this is what people who are all new-age-y are really talking about when they say things like they are “practicing mindfulness.”  I also think that it probably is what discussions about internal vs. external motivation are really about, although I’ve never actually understood those since apparently my natural tendency is that internal motivation gets me to external rewards.  I don’t just spend my life living every moment like it’s my last (which, gross), but at the same time it is definitely true that I only ultimately end up achieving long-term things when I am focused on the moment and the steps of the process toward the long-term things, if that makes sense.

So I am going to do my best in the coming weeks to try to apply these mystical life  lessons to all of the many things that need to happen between now and September 30.  Because I haven’t been able to accomplish a thing for like 4 days, and I think it’s because I’m looking at the ball, looking at the hole.  I think I’m too focused on the scarf and not on the knitting. Golf +Knitting = Self-Actualization.  Apparently.

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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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