Monday, May 26, 2008

Some Thoughts on Finishing Things

You will note that I'm writing this post not having ever written the final two posts in what I promised would be a five-part series. Will this series ever be finished? Can we really tell the future? Well, not really. But while I in theory want to finish that series, I'm feeling like people shouldn't get their hopes up, if they had any hopes for this in the first place :)

And this is why blogging is infinitely easier and more rewarding than actually doing "real" writing. One can crap out on plans without consequences. In terms of my real-life research projects, well, it's not so simple to just drop the ball. And so today, after a great deal of procrastination, I did finish going through the book manuscript, and tomorrow the plan is to wake up and to go into the office to get the thing done and sent off (with all permissions paperwork! huzzah!) and that will be one item off the list. The idea is that I cannot enter June with any writing projects hanging over me. Now, as I've learned the hard way, even though I'll think I'm done, I won't really be done, probably, as apparently these projects are never done when one thinks that they are. "Done" is a relative term, apparently, and really it's about being done with a "phase" of a project as opposed to actually being "done." Dude, it's not done until it's actually published. And even then it's often not done, as you've then got to talk to people about it as if it's "new" when for you it's not been new for a year or two. This is demoralizing.

And this is why I probably would suck if my job were more research oriented, because really, I do find this really demoralizing and depressing. I realize that while I enjoy myself in the moment of writing or of researching, of having ideas and thinking about how to execute them, the whole bringing projects to completion part really is in no way satisfying to me. If anything, it just stresses me out and feels... anticlimactic and upsetting. In contrast, teaching gives me tons of gratification, even when I'm feeling annoyed by certain discrete parts of it (ahem, grading).

The fact is, I always feel like the glass is half-full with teaching (as opposed to the half-empty feeling that research gives me). So, for example, sure, I've got a few students across my classes right now who consistently look like something smells bad throughout the seat-time that they put in. And they constantly challenge my authority, and they, well, suck. But that's only a few, and so many more of them are excited. And I can focus on the excited ones. And that's not too hard, ultimately. Sure, I'm annoyed by Bad Smell Face, and by the rudeness, but that's not about me. That's about them sucking. (And I really do believe that, for if it were about me sucking then a large majority of students would have the Bad Smell Face.) And the thing with teaching is that things happen according to a carefully plotted schedule, and even if something sucks, it's going to be over. And I know, with exact certainty, when it will be over. And then there are happy surprises. In fact, with teaching I feel like the only surprises are happy. I'm never surprised by bullshit with teaching. In fact, I expect the bullshit that goes with teaching, which makes any good day in teaching a really great day. And I feel like a huge majority of my teaching days are really great days.

The problem with this whole bringing writing projects to completion is that nothing ever seems to be over and the only surprises totally blow. I feel good about something, and then there are niggling details that I've got to address. Or I think something's done, and it's not done. Or I've got to pay a million dollars for copyright permissions before the deal can be done. And then I have to beg for money (which I probably won't get) or course releases for which I am denied, even though I'm the only person in recent memory who's actually produced anything concrete with her course releases. But apparently, I have been smiled upon too often, even though I've paid for those smiles with blood, sweat, and tears. See? Nothing gratifying about any of that.

I suppose one is supposed to be gratified when the research actually comes out and people respond to it. And, yes, that is sort of gratifying. You know what though? I always feel very disconnected from the research by that point in the process. So while I love praise and interest and whatever that results from the research, it never feels like it's really about who I am right now. Instead, it feels like it's praise for who I was ages ago, and I don't even know that person anymore. I think that's been the hardest thing with the book, is that I feel like that's who I was ten years ago - it's totally not who I am right now, or what I really want to talk about right now. Sure, I want it to be a book, and I love it in a sort of abstract way, but I've been done with it for so long now that it doesn't even feel like it's mine. That's also how I feel about every single thing that I've published. I look at a past publication, and I'm like, "Wow! That's what I thought? That sounds really good.... did I really write that?" The truth is that as soon as I hit the "done" point I don't feel like it has anything to do with me anymore. And it surprises me when somebody actually associates it with me. Because I don't associate it with me.

Here's the thing. I truly believe that I'm not necessarily what makes a class great. I think that my students deserve most of the credit for whether a class goes well or not. But at the same time, I also know that I facilitate my students' greatness, and that's really rewarding for me personally, even if I can't quite take credit for their accomplishments. And it's a reward that I feel very personally, and a reward that I do associate with who I am right now and what I'm good at doing. Publication.... well, I like seeing my name in print. I like it when people think something that I had to say was smart. But it doesn't mean very much to me. The act of research and writing means a lot to me, but the outcome feels sort of belated or lame or something. I'm just not terribly proud of myself at that point.

And that's why I have such a hard time pushing through the home stretch. It's because I don't value the finishing of such things as much as I value the part in the beginning and the middle. I value the ideas, and I value the figuring out of how to pursue and to articulate them, but the end product? Who fucking cares? Really?

As lame as this blog can sometimes be, people do care about what gets written here, and once it gets posted, for good or for ill, that post is done. And if I hate a post, I post something else to get the hated post off the top of the page. Sure, it exists on the internet forever, blah, but for me, it's done. And really, for most other people, too, the hated posts don't really register. And readers either respond to what I post or they don't, but a post doesn't languish on for months and years, waiting for its moment. Similarly, I can have a great class or a lame class, but another class comes along to replace it if the previous one sort of sucked, and I've got an audience of people there who want to see what happens next. Both blogging and teaching are connected to me in the present tense. This research shit? I don't even know who it signifies, but by the time something comes out, it bears so little relation to me now that I wonder why my name's on it.

So yeah, I really like doing the research and writing part of this job. But the end result? So not motivating. And this is why I post so much about how I need to do things and I'm not doing them. Because motivating myself for something that brings so little ultimate gratification is not terribly easy. And yet somehow, I do manage to do it. But it sucks having to do it. As good as it feels to cross that item off the to-do list.


New Kid on the Hallway said...

My first real publication began life as a seminar paper in 1994. (Yes, it got revised a lot!) When did it finally appear in print? In 2001. Career-wise, that was actually a good thing, but it was still kind of crazy. And it's still the piece for which I'm known (by the 6 people out there who aren't my friends who know my work), but it's very weird to talk to people about it, because 1) I never expect anyone to read my work - it's just what I had to do to get lines on the CV - and 2) while I think it's good and I'm proud of it, it is SO not where I am now, or where I've been research-wise, for a LONG time. It's really bizarre.

(Which is all to say, I get you on this one.)

Brigindo said...

Interesting gives me a lot to think about. I can relate to much of it, especially not associating your current self with the self that wrote the article/book/whatever. However I've found I also lose some interest in finishing a class. I get all excited before the semester begins - creating or tweaking the course and enjoy getting to know this batch of students but at some point (around the 2nd half of the semester) I start to wonder what about the point of it all. This isn't about the students being bad or evil or any particular way, but, I think, about not having a tangible product. With my research there is something that exists in the world once I'm done with it but with teaching whatever happened exists in the minds of students and I have no real way of knowing what that is. I'm not sure if this makes a lot of sense...I'm still processing.