Sunday, November 02, 2008

Coming up for Air, Part II: Some Extended Ramblings

Before I begin, let me just state for the record that what I'm about to write about here is just about me. It's not meant to be some universal decree about everybody's experience, nor do I think that what I'm about to describe is how it "has to" be or how it "should" or even how it "is" in "reality." It's just some stuff that I've been thinking about in relation to my own current state of emotional upheaval. My thoughts promise to be scattered, but I feel like it's worth writing this crap out in this space.

So where to begin? I suppose the first thing that I should acknowledge here is that any angst I've been feeling of late has nothing to do with concerns about my prospects for getting a positive tenure decision. I've done all of the things plus extra. I know that. My colleagues generally like me and have been nothing but supportive. I know that, too. And I've gotten positive recommendations in two of the four main parts of our process, so you'd think that would make me less - not more - stressed out.

So what's my damage? (I use that particular turn of phrase partly for the fun John Hughes Movieness of it, but also because I'm coming to think that my nutso behavior of late is really about "damage," at least in some sense.) I suppose I think that part of it is that I'm not supposed to be freaked out. Going up for tenure is not like finishing/defending one's dissertation in one crucial way: "everybody" seems to acknowledge that completing the Ph.D. is a painful experience. One that causes distress. A major life change. What's weird about the whole "tenure" business is that unless one is in some sort of "trouble" or has "cause for concern," people don't seem to acknowledge in a broad way how distressing just the experience of putting oneself under that kind of scrutiny is. And I'd say the same goes for the whole book publication thing. People assume, rightly or wrongly, that one is supposed to be "happy" about these things, that one is supposed to feel pleasure in the accomplishment of these things. That it merely confirms that you're awesome, and not that it signifies a major self-identity shift.

Now, let me just say, it's not that I'm unhappy exactly about those things, in the abstract. In the abstract, I'm quite proud of myself. It's just I hadn't quite anticipated how... unhinged... these two things would make me feel. In a lot of ways, where I am now is where people who enter this profession hope to end up. I feel positive about earning tenure; I have a freaking book that was accepted for publication, in a time when fewer and fewer scholarly books are being published, and I'm in a book field. I've managed these things in a job that people might look at as being not ideal on paper, but in reality, I really like my job. So in that regard, where I am right now is like this whole hopeful thing, where people can say, "Look! It's possible! Crazy has done these things! I, too, can do these things!" And it's true. I have done these things, which all of the doom and gloom about the market in English, about publishing in English, etc., ad infinitum, often makes to seem impossible.

But with all of that said, how these things feel isn't necessarily grand. In part I feel guilty for not being all celebratory and enthusiastic. Lots of people would feel very happy indeed to be in my position. Who do I think I am that I'm not over the moon at this particular juncture? And not only do I feel guilty, but also I feel like nobody wants to hear it that I'm not just super-ecstatic over where I am at this juncture. This is how it's not like finishing the diss: then, everybody got it that I was a train wreck, and indeed, there was a lot of commiserating. This is not to say that there is no commiserating now, but it's typically only with people who've already been through this wringer (who, by the by, have been fantastic) and who are not at my institution. I don't feel like I have any peeps who are in exactly the place I'm in, really. And that's nobody's fault - I think a lot of academics keep these feelings, if they have them, under wraps when they're in the middle of the process (because of the whole guilt thing, or because they're superstitious, whatever). And it makes sense that none of my colleagues in my department who are also going up this year are commiserating with me: I've got the strongest case of the lot, and everybody knows it, so obviously if there's commiserating going on, I wouldn't be included.

You know what's scariest about both going up for tenure and the book coming out for me? It's that I feel trapped. I do not feel, as I did when I finished the Ph.D., that everything that "really" mattered was ahead of me, like anything could happen. And yes, a lot of that feeling was uncertainty about my future, and that sucked in its own way, but I felt tremendously (perhaps foolishly?) hopeful. Now, all of those hopes that I had then are about to be achieved. And that makes me feel like I'm locked in. Like these things, rather than opening up new possibilities, confine me. And I feel like I'm under a horrifyingly powerful microscope, and like everybody is going to see, ultimately, that while I've talked a good game that really I'm a twit and a fraud. (Ah, imposter syndrome! It rears its head at the most inconvenient junctures.)

To some extent, I realize that the answer to what I'm feeling right now is to find a new project, a new goal, or seven, and to stop dwelling on these things that are now out of my control and that, really, are in the past. (Indeed, the scrutiny is happening now, but the work in both cases is done.) If I haven't done this, a lot of it is because I've also been thinking a lot about certain sacrifices I've made along the way toward this particular end. I'm not sure I want to continue to sacrifice the same things. I'm not sure what comes next, not because I believe there won't be a "next thing" but because I don't want to choose a "next thing" by default, out of habit. And that, well, that's uncomfortable. It would be easier just to start a new book project, honestly, or to plan a series of articles, or to develop 27 new courses, or whatever. Because I know now how all of that works. But I feel pretty confident that I need to choose whatever comes next pretty consciously and in a calculated way. I need to decide and to choose, on purpose. I know that will be good in the long run, but it's a hard thing to do, to be measured and to wait and to consider. I'm much better with acting first and thinking later, with doing whatever falls into my lap. In choosing not to do that right now, I'm responsible for a lot of the angst I'm feeling right now, but I also feel like it's better to move through this and to force myself through this rather than to do the easiest possible thing.

What's sick is that if JWIBSNA ends up resulting in anything, then a lot of this angst will have been for nothing, for I'd just go through some version of it again in two or so years. This is why I almost hope nothing happens with JWIBSNA, because then at least I'll have been going through this current rough patch with a clear end in sight.

Finally, there's this thing that's been bothering me. So I've talked a bit about the one class I'm teaching this semester, that is probably the best class I've ever taught in my life and in which I'm directly teaching in my specialization. So, a group of students from this course - amazing students - approached me because they wanted to know whether I'd help them form a reading group and advise them about what to read, so that they could do more in Specialization Field. All of these students, in spite of my straight-talk about going to grad school for English, are thinking of grad school. Note: Specialization Field is one of the most notoriously competitive, which I didn't really realize when I began my journey into academia as an undergrad, both in terms of getting into grad school and in terms of the job market. Now, on the one hand, I feel utterly gratified by the fact that I've inspired these students, all of whom work and have complicated lives, etc., to want to do something of this magnitude in their free time. (Also note that it's highly unusual for students to want to do this sort of thing at this institution, as a rule.) I'm just... I'm astonished by their curiosity and their motivation and their interest in stuff that typically students sort of hate me for teaching them. But with what I'm going through now, I also feel like I want to warn them off (which of course I won't, because while I do enjoy crushing spirits and all, I could never do that to this group of students who is so utterly enthusiastic) and refuse to encourage what I now realize (in dark moments) is a pretty fraught path. I know how amazing they are, but I also know how horribly competitive it is. And I know that they don't have a pedigree that's necessarily going to get them where they want to go. This is a no-name regional institution, and these students are in part responding to the material that I teach because I challenge them, which is not their experience in all of their classes. They're so bright. And I honestly feel like anybody who really pushed them would elicit this response, whatever the material. They're just so thirsty for challenge. And yes, Specialization Field offers challenge all on its own without me. What I offer, I hope, is that I make that crap accessible and cool, in spite of its notorious difficulty. Thus, the request that I sponsor their super-secret Specialization Society.

I somehow wish I could convey to them that while I am, truly, fascinated by this material, that it's not the only material, and that their feelings about it are colored by the fact that I'm challenging them. I wish I could convey to them how scared I am for their futures if they go down this road, even though I know that if I did so then it would be utterly fucked up and would so not be good for me to do as a teacher of these students, because it would be more about my weird issues than it would be about making a conscious choice as a teacher. And also, part of me loves that they are loving what I love. Even though I also hate that I feel that way, because I really think it's fucked up to produce a bunch of mini-me type students, and I actively try not to do that, but I feel like how I'm feeling right now is about giving in to that impulse, which I despise. I have no interest in populating a bunch of grad programs, and then finally adjunct lines, with former students of mine. The thought of that is utterly disgusting to me.

But so obviously I'm going to help them. How could I not? But the thought that I'm perpetuating a cycle that has left me, at this current juncture, a hot mess, well, it really does bother me. I know that their interest isn't only about me, but I fear that more of it is about me than is necessarily good for them. And I don't want this world that is academia to chew them up and spit them out. And I don't know how to express that, if I haven't already communicated that to them at this point. (As you might imagine, I'm very up front about the realities of grad school, the job market, and the job of professor in my field. Not in a discouraging way, but in a way that is about communicating information. The problem is, students seem to listen selectively.)

Just like I once listened selectively to the advice that was offered to me. And so I'm in this weird place, where I'm questioning a lot of things about my life as a professor, while at the same time I'm in this position of authority and mentorship for a group of students who are truly intellectually engaged in the material that drew me to the profession in the first place and who really want me to guide them. How do I do that, feeling how I'm feeling? How do I encourage students to enter on a path where they will be scrutinized and judged, and maybe beaten down, over the course of about 10 years (give or take)? How do I continue to encourage them to love what I love (and I do really love the literature of my specialization) and yet still give them the tools that I know they need to survive? How do I "keep it real" with them without bringing my own bullshit to the table?

You know, one thing actually does make me feel better about this conundrum. It's that I did manage to mentor a former student through a (very good) MA program, and that student made the choice to take a break from academia upon finishing the MA, in spite of the student's MA program's professors encouragement toward the Ph.D. This student may well end up returning to academia - in fact, I kind of expect that - but I think the fact that I continued to mentor the student did make a difference, and did make the student think that it was ok to try out something else for a bit, and even made that possible, actually, because the standard advice I give about grad school is to only go where one is funded, in addition to not going the straight Ph.D. route. Even in a very good program, it's easier to leave if it's not a straight Ph.D. program. If I know anything from my own grad school experience (I did an M.A. first, though many of my friends from my Ph.D. program didn't), I know that. And it's easier to leave if you haven't accrued a mountain of debt. So in other words, there may be hope for my current students yet.

So tomorrow will be a day of grading. The grading didn't happen so much today, though I feel ok about the fact that it didn't.


Flavia said...

I really appreciate this post, Crazy, and am interested to see whether others weigh in. I'm almost three years from this process myself, but I've gotten the distinct impression that more people than you'd expect freak the fuck out immediately post-book or post-tenure (and I say this not merely because my last serious relationship may have been partly a casualty of this phenomenon. . .).

Since I have no first-hand experience to go on, I'll just speculate wildly here--but it strikes me that having "made" it, and maybe especially at a relatively young age, leaves one staring a bit into the void, wondering what next, and what it's all worth. The nice thing about a treadmill, I guess, is that it keeps you focused!

Rose said...

I got tenure a while ago, and you come far closer than anyone else (anyone I ever talked to or read) to my feeling at the time: "unhinged" and "trapped" convey my experience perfectly. Thank you, thank you.

kermitthefrog said...

I can only express sympathy, and the hope that your upheaval settles a bit soon, to the tenure/book question. In terms of the students, however, a couple of things:

Isn't it pretty common for students to pursue graduate study in a sub-field based on a particularly exciting experience in it? That is, while you may be responsible for getting your students into Specialization, the phenomenon is, for better or worse, a pretty standard one -- it's so spotty which material is taught in particularly exciting ways. So I wouldn't worry about becoming one of those profs who develop a circle of acolytes (which does seem especially worrisome in Specialization, at least in my experience). The fact that you're concerned about it, and providing them with as much realistic information as possible about grad school and academia, already speaks to the fact that you're not one of those.

I also wonder, based on my own undergrad experience, whether it's the combination of inspiring prof (hooray for you!) and a group of equally curious and involved peers that's giving your students such an intellectual high. In which case, they are hopefully aware (and it sounds like you've tried your best to make them aware) that their peers in grad school won't at all replicate that experience. If that's part of the equation, your advice to enter an MA program first seems especially pertinent.

Finally, it sounds like you've already done a lot to stock your students' survival kits, as it were. I think having spoken to them consistently, and having a track record of being honest with them during times when you didn't feel so conflicted about academia, will really help to insulate them from any conflict that sneaks through in your interactions with them now.

Dr. Virago said...

It's that I feel trapped.


I feel exactly the same way (along with many of the other sentiments in this post). It's partly the structure of our profession -- it's a LOT harder to move at our level. (Though, FWIW, I've seen what I think may be a new trend in the JIL: jobs advertised for assistant/associate positions. Interesting.) And the idea of starting over in another career seems also impossible -- those bloggers we've seen do it did it *before* tenure and 1st book. And god, even the *thought* of trying to start over somewhere else, in another job or another profession sounds exhausting and depressing. Who wants to start all over again? And yet, who wants to stay put, either?

The feeling is like a version of professional post-partum depression, and I imagine it would happen anywhere at this point in one's career. But our particular kind of universities might seriously deepen the feeling. While I have some fabulously productive and interesting senior colleagues, I also have some that just seem so sad and so beaten down and I think, "God. Is that me in 20 years?"

I hear you. I really do.

Anne said...

Tenure is a trap, my dear.

Enjoy your symptom.


Good Enough Woman said...

Although I'm only tenured at a community college (which in contrast is much shorter/easier path to hoe), I had similar feelings to those you describe. I did not think of it those terms, but I did have very strong urges to dye my hair cotton-candy pink and get an eyebrow ring. After some thought, I realized I was, indeed, too old for the pink hair (which was depressing), and a guy who does tattoos and piercings told me that I did not have enough eyebrow flesh for a piercing.

A few years after I got tenure, I suffered from ennui and restlessness. Then I accidently got pregnant and those feelings quickly went away! Several years later, with an awesome family on board, I'm getting my PhD without the pressing of the job market--because I already have a job.

All this is to say that 1) you never know what's around the corner that will alter your trappings, and 2) I think it's great that you encourage your students to take the less intense path towards graduate school.