Saturday, March 17, 2007


Although of course, since I'm posting this on the blog it's not quite total introspection - extrospection? Is that a word? Because that's what I'm doing. When I'm truly introspective I write in my journal, but sometimes I find that I'd rather write on the blog than in the journal because it forces me to do more than to ramble and whine and pine and moan. Tragically, my journal tends to be one that is filled with the above - the good things that happen appear only as quickly dashed off lines - like punctuation to the rambling screeds that fill the pages. In that way, the journal is therapeutic, but it also means that it's not true. It's irrational, it's off the cuff, it doesn't much care about readability. It represents a version of my life, but that version is... limited. And so tonight, as I wind down after a day that wasn't as unproductive as it might have been though which was, largely, unproductive given the List of Things to Do, I don't want to write in the journal. I don't want to give in to its solipsism and I don't want to go round in circles in the way that I do there. And so I turn to the blog, probably making some people "amazingly queasy," not because I want to divulge all of the gory details of my life here but because I don't want to get caught up in the gory details. I want to take the gory details and to turn them into something - and I can't do that in a forum that exists for me alone. Or maybe I won't do that - I'm sure I could but whether I could or would I don't.

So tonight I had a great talk with my friend J., and it was... yeah, it was good. J. has had one hell of a past couple of years, involving a bad relationship, changing jobs, and a bunch of other things. But the thing that's great about talking to J. is that she's totally outside of the academic orbit. She reads self-help books and chick lit unironically, she goes to a shrink and to a psychic, she makes mistakes but she's always thinking about how to improve who she is. She believes that you can improve who you are. She's 35, single, she's got this great career, and she's not... cynical - even though she could be. Of the people in my life, I think that she's probably the one person I'd ever say wasn't cynical (even when she should be, some might argue - that a dose of cynicism can ultimately be a blessing). My point, I suppose, is it's good to have a person in one's life who can tell you, again, without irony, that you should pray to god and to the angels for what you want and then you'll get it. (She's not all fundamentalist or something - she just actually believes in things, which so many of us are far too "smart" to do.)

But so one thing that I've been thinking a lot about is that I need to live my life more - all parts of it. In a lot of ways I'm a really closed off person. I know, how is this possible, given that I blab all of my business out to the world every day? But while I blab, in my actual life, I think that I sometimes don't take leaps I should take. Oh sure, I take leaps, but they are rational leaps, sensibly and carefully considered leaps. And sure, people are often noting my "bravery" in taking those leaps that I do take, which for others might seem incredibly risky. But what I do when the opportunity for a real irrational leap happens is I back off. This is all related to my tendency to fall into holding patterns, to my tendency to put things that are scary or uncertain on the back-burner and instead to focus all of my attention on that which is controllable. The thing about J., as wacky as she may be with the angels and the psychic and all the rest, is that she really is open to possibility. I love the idea of possibility, I don't really believe in it and I'm not really open to it, not if it doesn't fit into the rational and logical constraints of my life. The problem is, I make those rational and logical constraints, and so perhaps a dose of faith might do me some good.

I've been thinking a lot about this because of the intense pressure I've been feeling in the past month or so, related to work stuff. I honestly haven't felt this kind of pressure since getting this job. Sure, I've been busy, and I've accomplished a lot - perhaps more than many others in the same situation might do - but what getting a job meant for me was that I had mental and physical space to become my unpressured self again. That's not to say that there hasn't been pressure, but I became a person who read for pleasure again, who listened to music again, who wrote in my journal not only about work again (the dissertation took over all journaling when I was dissertating, so I had to learn how to write in there about my life again after that was finished). In the past month or so, I've reverted in some really fucked up ways to the person I was in graduate school. I've lashed out at people who haven't deserved it, I've been really emotionally up and down, I've been beating myself up for all I'm not getting done, I've been really insecure about whether I'm doing anything well. And the thing that's crazy is that I remember being this person, and I thought she was gone.

The thing is about this, though, that some parts of it are really great. That may seem contradictory, but there is something... alluring... about not having every single fucking thing under control. It's nice in some ways (though uncomfortable) to think that things might happen that I don't plan, that I don't decide. But the corollary of that is that I also feel really out of control, and that makes me do things that don't make me happy, in an effort to get the control back. Notice a recurring word here? That pesky word "control"? Yes, I think I may be a bit of a control freak.

The fact of the matter is, I want to control everything. I always have. Like the whole world, I mean. I want to control how other people feel in relation to me, I want to control how every aspect of the classes that I teach go, I want to control every. little. thing. This is not healthy. I know it's not healthy. I do my best not to be this person. But deep down, this is who I am. And at the end of the day, I totally wish I were different. Because while these impulses serve me in many areas, they are deeply, deeply fucked up. And they fuck me up, even as I think at the time that they make everything ok.

I don't want to be a cynical person. I don't want to be a closed off person. I don't want to be a jaded person. I don't want to be the sort of person who questions everything to the point that she makes it unreal. I don't want to be the sort of person who retreats into work because it's controllable when ultimately, work is not going to be the thing that gives my life meaning.

In my conversation with my mom this afternoon, I said something that I never would have imagined I'd say. I said to her that if I won the lottery, or if there were a really good reason akin in scale to winning the lottery, that I would quit this job in a minute, even if it meant not having a job as a college professor on the tenure-track. I blurted this out while I was crying to her, and I didn't know I felt it or that it was true until I said it. The fact of the matter is, this job, this career, which I've used to define myself and to order my choices since I was 20 years old, isn't really all that important to me. I am in a place where I feel like I've achieved what I'd meant to achieve, and if something else came along - some opportunity, some possibility - I think it would be a mistake to hang on to this career just because of the years that I put into achieving it. The thing is, I've done what I set out to do, and ultimately, while my life is fine, I'm not satisfied with it. It's not enough. It never has been. I don't think it can be.

I don't want to go on the market next year just to move up in the academic hierarchy or something. I don't give a shit about that, even though I think I did when I went on the market this year. And I don't want to stay here just to get tenure. Sure, tenure means security, but fuck security if it means living this deliberately limited life.

But so. Where does all of this leave me? I've had this revelation, so now what?

  1. Of course I'm going to keep wanting things professionally and I'm going to keep pushing myself professionally. But that can't happen to the exclusion of everything else.
  2. Even as I'm totally overcommitted and totally stressed out, I'm going to work on my personal life right here. Sure, I might leave, but living in the future is no answer to my present dissatisfaction. Especially since this mythical future may never come.
  3. I'm going to let a thing that's going on in the periphery go on, and I'm going to see what develops. I'm not going to shut it down because it's inconvenient and stupid. Because as inconvenient and stupid as it is, it's somehow important. I don't know in what way it's important, but it's not some fake, imaginary thing, and it's not ... I don't know. I don't know what it's not but that's partly because I'm not entirely sure what it is. And while that indeterminacy is totally uncomfortable, I'm not going to do, or I'm going to try not to do, that thing I do, where I stop things before there's anything, really, to stop. (I'll admit, I already did a version of that thing I do, and - I think luckily - I failed.) But yes, it's in the periphery, and I need it not to be in the center, but I also think that I need to let it play out to whatever conclusion to which it will naturally come. I need to not do some melodramatic thing that closes off possibility (which I did in the one other comparable situation to this that I've had in my life - which I named and controlled and ultimately turned into a thing that cannot become anything other than the thing that I decided it could be).
I know this is cryptic, and for that I apoligize. I'm using you to figure shit out. So if you've read to this point, thanks. Because if it weren't for readers, if it weren't for blogging, I'd probably be crying again, writing illegibly in my journal. As it is, I'm feeling kind of good. I feel like this post helped me get my mind around a lot of stuff that I haven't really allowed myself to deal with.

Today's been a quiet day. Other than talking to J. and my mom, and to A. in the morning, I've been pretty much silent. I haven't been emailing, I haven't been emoting. I've kind of just been sitting with myself. And I think that's good for me every now and again, even if it's not something that is the norm for me, which it's not, because I'm chatty.

It's just so weird to think that I don't really care whether or not I remain an academic. It's so weird to think that I care about other things more than I care about professional accomplishments and success.

So I've been listening to the iPod on shuffle, and the song "Absolutely Cuckoo" by the Magnetic Fields just came on. I think that signals the end of this post.


The Constructivist said...

Back in summer-fall 2002 I was in a somewhat similar place as you've been mapping out the past few weeks and I have no advice for you, but I will say that by the end of the spring of 2003 I was married and this spring have two amazing daughters. So anything's possible.

Hypatia said...

My granddad tells the story of deciding to go back to school - someone asked him what he would do if he won a million dollars. And he said quit his job and get a PhD and teach at a college. And then he got to thinking and asked himself why was he waiting to win the lottery to make a change that he really wanted. So with 4 kids under age 5, and without winning the lottery he quit and went back to school. And they were very poor and it was a lot of work, but he spent the rest of his life happily working as a college professor. (this makes it sound like a simple happy ending, but I understand it was a very difficult 4-5 years).

I guess I'm telling this story in response to your description because I'm curious... If you won the lottery and quit your job, what would you do with your time instead once the novelty of sitting around and eating bonbons and shopping wore off? I don't know if everyone has a clear answer to this when they think about a change (NOT X is different than I want Y). But...

Also, you should check out what now's blog... she's going through a series on career exploration and choices that is interesting.

helenesch said...

Thanks for writing this--there's a lot here that I can relate to. I think I'm in a somewhat similar place, though I attribute this partly to my having just gotten tenure. And to living in a cool city far away from here in the fall (where I wish I could be!)

I also really relate to your feelings about your friend J. I have a friend who's quite similar, and I often wish I could be more like her. It seems that so many of my academic friends are stressed and fairly unhappy. Yet this friend is struggling with a lot and has a very positive attitude about the possibilities for change and personal growth. It's not that she's really much "happier" than my stressed out academic friends, but she has some kind of positive attitude (maybe it's "faith" of a sort) about the future that most of my academic friends lack. And I wish I had more of that!

Sometimes, too, I find that having friends like this reflect back to me this idea that they think things in my life can get better--and that I can change the things about myself that I wish were different--helps me to believe this is possible.

Sorry if this post sounds all rambly, and self-helpy. I guess I really like your posts that make others "queasy"!

Tenured Radical said...


I think hte other comments have made this point but -- everyone I know in academia feels like this sometimes. Or even a lot. And i is my memory that you were on teh job market; there was a little high of success; and then nothing happened (I haven't been reading as consistently as I usually do due to my own work pressures & keeping up w/ my own blog.) But if hta is correct, then you ahev even mroe reasons to feel like this than the average Joe Prof.

Two things: one is that you are a mart person who has a lot of interest in your inner life. Get a shrink -- not because the rest of us aren't interested, because we are -- but some of the things you are talking about reallly resonate for me, and it was much easier to be mentallly free to take the leaps you seem to want to take if you have a good therapist to talk back to you about stuff. I wish I had had the shrink have now 20 yrs. ago.

Second: necause teh economy of rewards and recognition in academia is so pitiful, we are always pushing ourselves to get something that reassures us that we really are valuable -- a job offer at a more prestigious school, a grant, a prize.

Remember what you love about this: books and papers. Books and paper. And sometimes students.

Take care of yourself. You are really ok and normal in thinking all these things.


Dr. Crazy said...

Just a quick response about the winning the lottery thing: What I'd do is move the fuck out of the city I live in. I would give up the tenure-track job to just get out of here. Now, I don't imagine I wouldn't work. It's not the work that I want to leave - it's the place. But does it have to be in a t-t position? Does it have to be in academia at all? I'm not sure that matters so much to me. Having an intellectual life matters to me. Having independence matters to me. Doing something valuable matters to me. But doing that *here* does not matter to me at all. And in fact, doing that *here* may be part of where a lot of my feelings of dissatisfaction are coming from. The job isn't the problem but the job isn't ENOUGH - and yet the job can become so all-consuming that it becomes everything while not being enough. Not good.

Anyway, enough. I need to write. Thank you all for the supportive comments. Writing that post really helped me to think things through- and I do think that a lot of academics face these sorts of feelings - another reason why I thought it was worth posting even though kind of rambling and self-absorbed.

gwinne said...

Sometimes, I think, it's hard, if not impossible, to separate unhappiness with place from unhappiness with job. Almost two years ago, I left a job I very much liked in a place that I couldn't stand. It wasn't until leaving that I could really see that I *loved* the job. Now I live in a place I love and have a job that causes me stress. Still, I'm happier overall because being here is "right" for me and my family.

Could you move to a place you liked and commute to your job? I know several people who commute 1-2 hrs, just so they can live in a major city, when they teach in Small Town, USA.

My solution to the kind of unhappiness you seem to be describing was having a child. Being a mom was my *one thing* I knew I absolutely couldn't live without doing. Once I figured that out--or, really, remembered--everything else more or less fell into place. Best wishes sorting all this out.

Second Line said...

Up to my early 30's I was spoiled. I'd been fortunate enough to live in, arguably, three of the premier cities in the USA. And then I moved to the city where I went to Grad. School (it's a "charming" little hell hole of a hamlet stationed on the NE corner of Lake Erie ... yeesh ... who knew hell on earth would be so effin' freeeeeezing?) And from there I returned to the world, the mid-atlantic, but still not where I'd really like to be, or where I'd choose to be. And this brings me to my point, which I think intersects with yours. For the last 13 or 14 years I have been waiting for my life to begin. And yes, rightly or wrongly, I associate its start with where I am living. I used to associate it with getting a t-t- job, but that never happened, so I defaulted back to place.

Most academics don't get to live where they want to live. A few do. But most don't. I know some who have found happiness in Bumble F***, but then it turns out they were raised in some other Bumble F not that far from the one they're in now, and so it worked out.

I think it comes down to either making peace with the place in which you're stuck, or not. And if you're from "The World," as I like to call it, and with all the obvious elitism affirmed, the "Not World" is kind of hard to reconcile with.

What Now? said...

This is a powerful post -- not at all "rambling and self-absorbed" in that it spoke to many of us. I have had several moments in my life (and last summer when I left my job is one of them) in which I've realized that I'm essentially waiting around for something to change so that my "real life" can start, so that I can start being happy. Although my current in-between state is not particularly to my liking, I will say that there's been something liberating about taking a decisive step that eliminates the illusion that the next academic achievement is the thing that's going to let happy life begin.

Courage to you in the midst of this reckoning.

History Geek said...

Thought I'd left I comment but I guess I didn't.

*HUGS* Hope things start looking up for you.

Teach said...

The most well-adjusted academics are the ones who have no trouble seeing a life out of the profession. I think it means that they have enough of a critical distance to know how they fit in with the world.

Karen said...

Dr. Crazy -- I read your blog when I can and have thought of posting responses more than once. Your comment about the place you live affecting you so strongly resonated with me more than anything -- I'm in my 4th year of a t-t job at a regional campus in the midwest (in the middle of nowhere). M husband is able to work from home some of the time, but travels to Chicago to meet with clients with some frequency. Chicago is my/our dream city. I went on the market this year and actually applied for a job at a fundamentalist Christian school because it was in Chicago. I'm pretty sure I would have gotten a job offer but ... during a meeting with the Provost at my campus interview, I was shown their "policy of sexual conduct" which states: "Scripture teaches that God intends sexual activity to be expressed betwen a man and a woman within the confines of
marriage. All other expressions of sexual activity, for example -- but not limited to -- fornication, adultery, or sexual activity between two individuals of the same sex are ouside the will of God..". (etc., etc...)

I really can't teach somewhere with such a discriminatory attitude towards gay people (let alone the implications for straight students! can they not kiss, or what?) One student I met was already married, which is I guess what happens when 20 yr olds aren't allowed to fool around.
Besides, it was a 4-4 teaching load (here I have 2-1-2 on quarters) and a lower salary than I have now.
But it was IN CHICAGO!! (I sadly emailed them and said even if they offered it to me, I couldn't accept).
I don't want to raise my son here (16 months old), I want to shop in a bookstore (I am 45 minutes from any), I don't want to tell random people I meet when I'm on vacation that this is where I live. It's not who I am!!
So -- sorry for the ramble. Please keep writing. It's nice to know you're out there.

squadratomagico said...

One of the most important realizations I've had over the past few years is that the institutional aspects of my job are not challenging, and are only rarely stimulating. I love teaching, but it doesn't "give back" to me at the same level that I give to it. I enjoy my colleagues, but have little in common with them socially or even intellectually. I detest meetings and committees. I am excited by my research, but I could do that if I won the lottery, too.

My job is not my identity in the way that I envisioned it would be years ago. I'd give it up in a heartbeat and feel none of the conflicted emotions you express. But I have a very rich life outside my campus -- indeed, almost none of my friends are academics. This configuration for my life is a great source of creativity and stimulation for me. I highly recommend it.