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Honestly, truthfully, totally, the part of my job that I find most gratifying is mentoring students who are in the first generation in their families to go to college.  Yes, I love my research, and yes, I love teaching innovative courses.  But the most important and gratifying work that I do involves helping students who have no ability to navigate academic bureaucracy and academic discourse.

This matters so much to me because I had little to no help with this as a first generation college student myself.  And it also matters to me because it produces such clear and measurable results.  The students whom I’ve helped with this stuff are clearly so much better off than they would have been had I not done anything, regardless of what careers they end up pursuing or the lives that they end up leading.  I actually like advising students, writing letters of reference, and vetting students’ application materials.  It is good work, and it feels good to do it.

So The Dude’s best friend since childhood has twin daughters who are in their senior year of high school.  Note: I love The Dude’s best friend, and he is, ultimately, a good person in his heart (though kind of shitty in the execution).  But WOW is he a shitty dad.  (Which, yes, makes me love him less, and also makes me sort of angry at him.)  So one of the daughters is trying to apply to colleges and her shitty father wouldn’t take her to visit one of the colleges, but because The Dude really is generous and loving and awesome, since he had taken the week off with vacation days from work, he was like, “of course I’ll take you to visit, niece-like person.”  And then after he asked me to look over her application essay – well, he told me he was sending it to me and then I gave him shit about not asking me, but whatever.  Of course I was going to help her.

1) From her essay, she is so smart and so amazing and her life has been Such. Shit.

2) I love The Dude for taking her to a campus visit, which, frankly, is like my worst nightmare of things to do.  I mean, campus visits suck.  Especially when the weather is hell and there is a campus tour component.

3) I love The Dude for enlisting me to help her.  The fact of the matter is that his BFF could have asked me to help, and it didn’t even occur to him. Or, at the VERY least, he could have asked The Dude to ask me.  But he DIDN’T EVEN CARE, even though his daughter is so motherfucking amazing and has no support.  Why isn’t he more proud?  Why doesn’t he take more responsibility?  Why is The Dude a better fill-in dad than the BFF is an ACTUAL dad?

4) I don’t even know this girl, but my god do I want her to succeed!

5) The Dude might suck for me, but WOW do I love him as a person and a friend.  He is one of the most good-hearted people I’ve ever met.

6) I’m sort of fraternizing with a young whippersnapper from the internet.  Because as much as I love The Dude, he can’t hang, and a lady in her late 30s must sow her oats while she has oats to sow.  But god, if he would just get his shit together…. Which he probably never will.  (We’re still trying, I am just entirely cynical about everything right now.)

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Let me preface this post with the fact that I am thoroughly enjoying teaching my MA students this semester, and our (theory) seminar is going exceptionally well.  They are bright and engaged, and sure, I keep having to reprimand one of them over and over again (let’s note: it’s week 7 and I’ve been doing this since week 2) for dismissing readings out of hand because zie doesn’t understand them or disagrees with them, but I think that the student actually appreciates getting challenged.  Or if not, I’m not going to tolerate anti-intellectual bullshit responses in a graduate seminar.  (Note: Not getting it isn’t the problem, because you can not get it and come in with questions, and that’s cool.  And disagreeing is also cool, if you point to what you disagree with and explain why or pose questions that indicate your disagreement.  What’s NOT cool is saying that the material – written by a renowned theorist – is garbage just because you don’t get it or you don’t agree.  Because you know, that is a garbage response.  And when I say you are being anti-intellectual in your engagement, and your counterargument is that I shouldn’t have had to pick apart a passage in class just to show how to read it… um, I’m modeling for you the kind of deep reading you yourself need to do.  Yes, I’m “an expert” and you aren’t.  But you don’t become an expert by dismissing stuff that hurts your feelings, says the lady prof who finds Derrida almost entirely confusing, except for in rare moments of nirvana-like understanding that immediately slip away from me.)

But the thing that I want to talk about is teaching at the graduate level with a 4/4 teaching load that primarily includes teaching undergrads including courses ranging from composition for first semester freshmen, gen ed courses, core courses in the major, and upper-level undergrad courses, AS WELL AS teaching graduate students that are typically pursuing the MA for reasons that do not involve a career in academia.

Before I get into that, let me note, I don’t actually object to us having an MA program.  I would thoroughly object to us ever having a PhD program.  Here’s the thing: I do think that grad school shouldn’t become a default option for all students, and I advise my undergrads that they shouldn’t just assume they have to do a graduate degree, and I encourage them to take time off between the BA and any grad option they might think that they will pursue.  And I strenuously argue that my strongest undergrads, who really want grad school, should NOT under any circumstances have our MA program on their list of places to apply, because frankly, they need to do better for themselves if they want to excel in a career with that graduate degree.  But for high school teachers who need the MA to get a rank change and to continue in their positions, or for people doing the degree for enrichment, or for people who are place-bound and need an MA to get a promotion at work… we offer a flexible MA that will help them get where they are trying to go.  Not all grad programs need to serve a population that wants to become professors.  (Some of our grad students have gone on to respectable PhD programs, primarily in rhet comp or creative PhDs, but in general for students interested in lit our program is a dead end in terms of anything beyond adjuncting, and yes, I make that very clear to my MA students.)

But with all of THAT being said, let me talk about the thing that frustrates me about teaching grad students in the sort of institution (regional comprehensive) at which I work.

I truly and fundamentally believe that it is irresponsible for people who are not themselves actively engaged in producing research in their fields to educate students at the graduate level.  Yes, I also prefer that people who teach advanced undergrads be actively engaged in producing research in their fields, but I’m more flexible with my ideas about people teaching undergrads because, ultimately, just by virtue of having completed a PhD, one is capable of giving students a foundation for future work, however stale one’s own original scholarship has become.  A PhD teaches you, or should teach you, enough that you can prepare adequately, by keeping up with other people’s original research, to teach an undergraduate course in your field of specialization, and while it might be preferable for one to maintain a consistent research agenda of one’s own, I do think it’s possible to do an adequate – and in some cases even a superior – job with undergrads even if one isn’t publishing new stuff of one’s own.

But teaching grad students is – and should be! – another kettle of fish.  Because what you are teaching them to do is to do original research of their own, and if you don’t do it yourself, you don’t have a clear state of what is happening in academic publishing, nor do you have a clear sense of what actually is original within your field.  How can one possibly pretend to give grad students what they are paying for – and yes, most of our grad students paying customers who don’t get assistantships or any support other than student loans – if you aren’t actually a consistent researcher in your field yourself?  For those rare students who want to go on beyond the MA, how can you possibly write an effective letter of recommendation that will get the student into a decent program?

But since the history of my institution – which only came into being as a university in the 1970s and which until a few years ago was playing the role of both community college and 4-year institution – is one that was all about undergraduate education, and because grad programs came into being as a “cash cow” sort of a scheme, there is little to no support for the work that goes into doing the faculty work that really should be a prerequisite of teaching graduate students.

Now, some programs (ones that we might label “applied”) fare better across campus than others, mainly because they worked some deals related to teaching load.  (So they have 3/3 loads and the option to apply for course releases beyond that, whereas within my college we are on a 4/4 and we have basically no option to apply for course releases unless we’re working in certain administrative positions or if we are getting “paid back” for directing grad students, after the fact – which I would argue encourages people to do a shitty job of advising just so they can accrue enough “credits” to be eligible for course releases.  So there are no options for course releases related to curricular development, and none that are related to research – without grant support, and even with grant support it’s not guaranteed in the humanities.)

Basically, if you’re teaching grad students and you’re in my position, you have two options: either you phone it in with your grad courses, thus doing a disservice to those students, or you phone it in with your undergrads, giving yourself the time and space to do what you should ethically do as a teacher of grad students, which is to keep active as a researcher in your field.  Oh, I guess there is a third option, which is to eliminate any self-care and any personal life that you might hope to have.  Basically, you can “reassign” your own time by shortchanging students or by shortchanging yourself.  There is still a “cost,” but it surely ain’t to the institution’s bottom line.

I suppose one might argue that I’ve split the difference between the three: my grad students are in some ways getting a phoned-in course, in that I am not teaching the most cutting-edge syllabus I could be teaching, because it’s necessary for me to repeat what I teach in that course in order not to have the additional prep.  And yet, it’s true that I have a reputation of being more rigorous than many other teachers in my program, in terms of the way that I respond to writing and in terms of the amount of work I assign and guide them through.  And then I phone it in with my undergrads in that I’ve basically had to stop developing undergrad curriculum, and I teach the same texts over and over, in order to make room in my life for the grad class.  And then finally I phone it in with my personal life in that I can’t actually focus on it, and the only personal life I have depends on the people in it accepting that I’m kind of an asshole.  All of this leads to me doing lots of things adequately and to doing nothing really exceptionally well.  Which then leads to shitty morale, and weight gain, and me writing internal grant applications that are filled with bitchy venom (because that really encourages people to give you money).

Sure, I suppose I could “refuse” to teach in the grad program (as some of my colleagues have done) though that would not help our program, and though that wouldn’t solve any of these problems.  (Let’s note: these are not the reasons my colleagues have refused to teach in the grad program.  There reasons have tended to be about refusing to teach night courses.)  I’ve tried to refuse teaching some of my service courses and I’ve been told NO.  I could agree not to teach upper-level courses in my specialization to undergrads, but, fuck you, you will not take away the thing that I am best at and that I enjoy the most and that really serves the greatest number of our students the best.  Basically, right now, I have no power to change my situation.  The most I’ve been able to achieve is to get myself a consistent two-year rotation of courses that includes ELEVEN different courses over that two years.  And my lack of power has to do with lack of institutional support.

I’ve been investing a lot of extra effort in applying for available money, both from external agencies and from within, in order to support not teaching in the summer and in order to support doing the kind of work that I should be doing as a scholar who teaches at the graduate level, and who teaches undergraduates who aim to be scholars themselves.  And I’ve cut way back on service, because service might make me a “good girl” in the institution, but that shit won’t get me fully promoted and ultimately, I’ve discovered that being a “good girl” with service just gets more service loaded onto me.  And I’ve cut back on the self-shaming about all of what I should be doing better because, honestly, if I had the institutional support I needed, I would be doing a much better job, so if I’m not doing “good better best, never let it rest, until your good is better, and your better is best” that is because my institution doesn’t actually give a shit if I’m doing the best that I can do, and it’s not about me doing a bad job.

But, at least from my perspective, it’s important to acknowledge that shitty grad programs, and shitty professing, have everything to do with institutional directives and structures.  You can’t get something for nothing.  You can’t expect excellence if you don’t fund excellence.  And, sure, that’s the fault of the voting citizenry, and the state legislature, and it’s the fault of institutional culture, and it’s the fault of a lot of different things.  But honestly?  It’s not my fucking fault.

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Strange, But Nice

So we are in the middle of week 4 of our 16-week semester, and it’s at about this point that I finally feel like I’m starting to get to know my students and like we’re finally getting done with the “opening of the semester” stuff  in my courses and are now really able to start digging into the nitty gritty of the course content.  First major assignments are coming up, and in most of my courses we’re moving into reading material that was set up by the first weeks of “background” stuff.  This is all good.

But for me, I generally still feel like it’s early days.  I haven’t assigned real grades for anything yet.  I still don’t know some of my students’ names (though I am feeling like I have a pretty good handle on their personalities and the names will all stick by the time I hand back their first papers).

So what’s weird is that I’ve had a handful of students, independently of one another, volunteer to me how much they are enjoying my classes and how awesome I am as a teacher.  And it’s strange.

Students at my institution aren’t generally ass-kissers.  So I don’t actually think that they are intentionally sucking up, though maybe I have gotten the few suck-ups in our student population, just all in one semester?  But that does seem unlikely.  But it does seem odd that they are judging me favorably before I’ve even given them a grade.  Am I doing something different this semester?

Not really.  Not at all.  I will say that I like the “energy” of all of my classes this semester a great deal.  I know that sounds very hippie-dippy, but it’s the only way I know how to describe it.  Sometimes the “mix” is just good – whereas in other semesters, you have those classes where something is just “off.”  And there’s no rhyme or reason to it, as far as I can tell.  I mean, you can do your best to construct a good course, and to be high energy yourself as an instructor, but if the “vibe” in the class is lame, it’s going to be lame, no matter what the professor has planned.

But to give myself some credit (for I do think I deserve some) I think I am finally bearing the fruit of insisting a couple of years ago that I must under all circumstances have a consistent rotation of courses.  I’m not scrambling to do the reading, to prep assignments or to figure out what I’m going to do each day in class.  I am deeply familiar with the texts that I’m teaching, and I have an arsenal of activities and assignments that I can just pull out of the file for each course, and that means I can spend my time on engaging with my students as people, and on improvising based on their needs.  It’s a hell of a lot easier to deviate from one’s plan in a tactical and effective way when you know the plan inside and out.  It is so much easier to be energetic and happy when you’re not exhausted by reinventing the wheel each and every class period, each and every semester.  Yes, I teach four different preps each semester.  And no, that doesn’t work if I’m not repeating courses regularly.  That kind of schedule can really make you a bad teacher.

[Aside: that makes me think of the report that came out about how students do better if they had their first course in a field with an adjunct.  I think it’s a dumb study, generally, for lots of reasons, but on the other hand, I am totally willing to accept that if I were teaching 4 sections of the same class, semester-in and semester-out, even if I had a shitty office and even if I had to do it at 4 different campuses, that might be better, for students, than what I was doing when I taught something nuts like 16 different courses (some online and some face to face) over a three year period.  It’s difficult to be an effective teacher and to be on top of things with your actual students when you’re just trying to keep your head above water with course design, reading, and assignment design.  Yes, under those conditions, you start to phone it in, if you’ve got tenure.  Because something’s got to give.]

But really, who the hell knows what’s going on this semester and why I keep getting these positive reviews (from grad students, majors, and gen ed students alike).  Whatever.  It seems like I’m doing something right.  I’ll take it.

***

Oh!  And in other strange but good news, I agreed to participate in a pilot program with our library where I have a librarian imbedded in one of my courses, who is familiar with the research assignments that I’ve designed and who is going to proactively initiate contact with the students about things that might be helpful, blah blah blah.  This hasn’t entirely gotten off the ground yet (as I said, it’s early days), but I’ve explained what is going on to the students, and in one course I just returned their “topic proposal worksheets” (where they had a selection of 10 broad topics related to the course, and students actually went for 8 of the 10 topics, so that was shocking and amazing too!) for their annotated bibliography/lit review assignments.  I suggested to a few of them directly in comments that they could contact our imbedded librarian for help, and I also announced to the class when I returned the worksheets who our librarian is and that they can feel free to contact him.  This was this morning.  BY THIS AFTERNOON ONE OF THEM ALREADY GOT IN TOUCH WITH THE LIBRARIAN!!!  WHAT STRANGE WORLD IS THIS?!?!?!

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It’s that they are awesome.

What’s also great is that they keep in touch with me, and that they tell me about the awesomeness of their lives, whether it is in grad school (English fields) or professional school (law, mba, library science, etc.), or even in not going on to more school but in getting jobs, and that they, even while they are scared, understand how what they learned in my courses is what they needed to learn in order to succeed in their new lives.

I am a proud professor.  My students do me proud.  Indeed, I couldn’t be prouder.

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My students:

  • My freshmen have written excellent papers, and have spent the last week revising and revamping and caring about all the things.
  • 3/4 of my Gen Ed students turned their final assignments in early, because of a confusing situation with the dates on the Course Schedule that Is Our Bible. Normal gen ed students would have given themselves a pass – especially since the *day* on the course schedule was right, and I confirmed it in class.  But my awesome students – no, they didn’t take the pass.  I love that class.
  • The Survey students.  So unbelievable.  Even though it’s the survey.
  • My upper-level seminar: students are writing on 6 of the 7 books I’ve assigned.  Which is astonishing to me, especially since only 3 have a large critical conversation to support research papers by undergrads.  And the ideas?  So original and so interesting!  For serious!

Colleagues are terrible:

  • The battles in academia re so fierce because the stakes are so low.
  • I can’t even talk about it.  Just – NO!

The End of the Semester is the Worst:

  • Do I really need to explain this?
  • Apparently one does need to explain it to one’s boyfriend who isn’t an academic, but for serious?  It’s just terrible.  TERRIBLE.

The short version is this: I love my students, the colleague situation is not cool, and the end of the semester is hardcore terrible.  Expect to see me around these parts in a few weeks, when all this is over.

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I hate the metaphor of “spreading one’s seed” as an academic.  I think it’s gross, not only because of the whole “seed” business but also because it makes it seem like one’s students accomplishments are one’s own, and really, they aren’t.  But when my students and former students accomplish amazing things, I also feel unbelievably happy and proud to have taught them – not because I think that I am in any way “responsible” for their accomplishments or that I deserve credit, but rather because I feel so grateful that I attract the sort of students who go on to do awesome things. (In case you were wondering, from what I’ve seen, not all professors get to experience that particular joy.)

So what are my awesome students (former and current) up to?

Today:

  • Tattooed Student just got admitted to a very competitive MA program with full funding.
  • Rocking Student (who I actually saw at The Breeders show!) just got a promotion at work (she’s working in a staff position at a university).
  • BES got a named award that came with travel money for a paper that she presented at a conference in her dissertation field, plus she won an essay award from an allied organization of the MLA.
  • Law Student #1 is finishing up law school, got married, and was accepted for publication in Law Review in his second year and I believe is doing Law Review in his third year.
  • Law Student #2 is actually a current student, who was painfully shy when I first taught him a year and a half ago and has now come into his own and has been accepted with full funding to law school for next year.
  • CC Transfer has been accepted into a great MA program in Chicago to study poetry.
  • Hippie-ish Student from a while back went to that same MA program in Chicago, and is now getting his PhD at State Flagship.
  • Michael Fitzsimmons (do you get this reference?) is studying abroad in Barcelona with lots of scholarships to support him….
  • Mr. Frankenstein, who was accepted to and did his time in Teach for America in inner-city Midwestern City, is now, after teaching middle school for three years, working in that city’s education office, doing awesome shit.

And I’m sure I’m forgetting some people!  Again, their accomplishments are not my accomplishments.  But I do feel such gratitude that I know them and that I had any small part in getting them where they wanted to go!  And I feel such gratitude that I am a teacher who has the privilege to teach students with such wide-ranging abilities and ambitions.  And I feel such gratitude that I am a teacher who has students who want to keep in touch with her and tell her about their accomplishments!  I am a lucky, lucky professor.  And my students and former students are ridiculously cool.

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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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