Now, I posted a long time ago about stuff related to this, and I think I still believe much of what I wrote in that post (and in the others surrounding it). This topic has come back to mind in part because of Sibyl's comments to this post, in which she writes:
"My experience is that the emotional and psychological investment in professinal training of this nature is, as a result, much more likely to result in a kind of entanglement that is toxic when coupled with very bleak prospects for success."
I should note that this is a very brief extract of what Sibyl had to say. Perhaps Sibyl says it better in her initial post to which mine was, if only tangentially, a response. Sibyl's point (though I may be putting words in her mouth and/or being incredibly reductive, so Sybil, if you're out there, correct me if I'm wrong or off base) is that to the extent that an academic path binds our personal identities to our work (and, subsequently, to our "success" or "failure" on an academic job market) is ultimately bad for people.
Now, I think that historically I would have agreed with this position. In fact, if you read that old post of mine to which I linked, I think I mostly did agree with it. What's been interesting since receiving the tenure letter and since the publication of my book is that I think that my identity as an academic has been shifting in ways that I hadn't anticipated that it would, and that interestingly have little to do with my intellectual life.
Now, before I go any further, let me just say that I totally recognize my position of privilege in having the resources and support to experience this shift. I think that the shift that I'm experiencing has everything to do with the fact that I ended up in a t-t gig in which I was able to thrive, that I did not experience the adjunct track, and that ultimately I wasn't subjected to a lot of the more dehumanizing practices in this profession. That is an important thing to note, as my experiences have been shaped by this relative position of privilege, and I do not mean in what follows to discount experiences that are not similar to mine.
So, here's the thing. As a student - both as an undergraduate once I decided that I wanted to pursue academia and as a graduate student who was pursuing academia as a career path - I think that my identity was very much bound to my intellectual pursuits and to my "success" or "failure" in those pursuits. In very real ways, I think I saw my scholarship, and then later my teaching, as my identity. A rejection meant that I was a bad person. A bad teaching evaluation meant that I was a bad person. I think that this simple equation of "me" with "my work" was not a good thing. I think that if we felt like doing so we could trace a lot of the "failures" in my personal life to my tendency to equate my self with my work, and I think that we could trace a lot of the dissatisfaction that I felt in my first years on the tenure track to this tendency, too. I think that those failures and that dissatisfaction had a lot to do with me believing that "the work" was who I was, and that it was more important than any other aspect of my life. Why? Well, because the problem was that I saw my "self" as my work, and there was dissonance between that perception and the way that I was perceived in the world and the way that people outside of myself valued (or didn't value) my work. See, if my work was "me" then that meant that I was a loser because I ended up at a no-name university, even if it was in a t-t gig. If my work was "me" and I wasn't moving up in a broader hierarchy within my discipline (publishing my way out of my current institution, publishing my book with the fanciest of university presses, whatever), then I was "going nowhere." After years of jumping through hoops successfully, and having that hoop-jumping success define me in ways that were positive, the crash into the hoops that came once "arriving" on the t-t was pretty sucky. And since who "I" was depended upon jumping through hoops, then that meant that I felt like "I" (in some intrinsic way) sucked.
Now, of course, I didn't suck. And I was still jumping through certain kinds of hoops (annual reviews, etc.) successfully. It's just that the hoops that were now my hoops didn't "count" in the same way, to others (grad school mentors, grad school colleagues) or to me. They also didn't seem to count at all to my students (because seriously, why would they?) or to my current colleagues (I'm not at an institution that has historically placed much value on individual achievement of its faculty). Also, and I think that this is crucially important, my experience in grad school was very much one in which other people - not even necessarily people at my university - valued me for the fact that I was getting a Ph.D. as a primary index of my worth. It was, even to my friends outside of the academy, who I was.
When I became a professor, I think that what shifted was that I "just" had a job. Sure, it was a job that not just everybody has, but it had about the same status as people who are engineers, or lawyers, or doctors, or plumbers. It was an "occupation" and not an "identity" to those whom I encountered. (Aside: this was an interesting shift for my mom, too. She was surprised when people didn't care more that I got a job as a professor, and it really irked her. Of course, she thinks I'm fantastic and that people should be incredibly impressed with me. And they were, when she said that she had a daughter who was going to school for her Ph.D. But once I became a professor, people just started finding her bragging annoying, which I'm sure it is, but I'm also sure it was annoying before, too, only people responded much more generously.) And there was some lag time for me between other people responding to my job as an "occupation" and in me responding to it in that way.
What's been interesting to me over the course of this year is that I think I finally get it now that this job isn't who I am. My book isn't who I am, and tenure isn't who I am. These are accomplishments, surely. But they're not my identity. My identity exceeds these accomplishments. And, perhaps most importantly, it exceeds them in my workplace.
I've learned this in large part through teaching, and especially through the comparison of teaching online vs. teaching in the traditional classroom. My online students, when I do get the chance to meet them F2F, always are surprised by what I look like. As a student said today, she thought I would be "old." In teaching online, I've learned the ways in which I've always relied on my presence to negotiate student-teacher relations. I've always unconsciously relied on certain things - like standing in front of the class, to give a really obvious example - to convey authority. But to my online students, I have to find ways to indicate "presence" that don't carry with them the same assumptions. I've also learned it through service, and in the way that my colleagues react to my contributions on committees and in meetings and such. The thing is, my book, or my ideas, or even my pedagogy, just don't matter there. They are not "who I am" but rather they are "what I do." "Who I am" is a person who can be impatient and talk over other people, a person who can be pragmatic to a fault, a person who cares, at the end of the day, a heck of a lot more about results than about the theory behind them. Now, these things relate to my intellectual approaches to questions and problems, but they are not identical to them. Who I am informs my ideas, but who I am is not equatable to my ideas.
What's interesting is that I think I've always known all of the above - subconsciously, intuitively - about the other "academics" in my life. I've known this about my teachers, my mentors, my advisers, my colleagues, and even my students. The thing is, I didn't know it was true for me. Somehow there was a disconnect between the way that I perceived other people in academic life and the way that I perceived myself as an academic.
But what I've been coming to realize, slowly, over the course of this year, a year in which in many ways you can say my academic identity has been endorsed, both through the publication of my book and through tenure, is that my identity is not bound to my work. I am good at my work, and I would never suggest that I'm not. And yes, my work is very important to me. But I'm also a good cook, and yet who I am is not the dinner that I make. Yes, a good dinner is important to me, and I like that I can make one, and I like eating that dinner. But it's not me. And I'm not a bad person if dinner one night comes out crappy.
What's interesting about this slow realization, though, is how centrally connected it is to the things that I've been exploring in my scholarship, and I think that in a lot of ways my scholarship has gotten me to these ideas about the self and about subjectivity. Because ultimately, I'm really interested in the ways that the self is erased through work, through writing, and in the ways that that erasure is ultimately playful and, if there is such a thing, freeing. That's not to say (obviously) that I don't exist, but it is to say that I am not what I do. Rather, what I do takes me away from who I am, and that's not a bad thing: that's an awesome thing.
But see, here's the thing: the only reason that I can feel that way is that I'm not trying to sell who I am on a market, I'm not trying to "sell" my "self". I can get accepted for publication or get rejected for publication, but I'm still a professor. I can go on the market and get no interviews, and it doesn't mean anything because I've still got a job, and a profession. I can teach a good class or teach a bad class, and that doesn't have to be about "me" - it has no bearing on my reappointment or tenure or getting a job next semester - it can be about the classroom dynamics or the students or about the material. The comfort that I feel in detaching my identity from my work right now has everything to do with the fact that I can do so without negative material consequences.
And that may be fucked up. In fact, I think I'm prepared to say that it is fucked up. Because I do think that the only way to "succeed" in securing this sort of comfort is, under the current conditions of higher education, to move through a period in which one is entirely identified with one's work, because that is what is required to get a t-t job and finally to get tenure. And then one has to go through a period of wondering what the fuck one has been doing once one secures that "success" because it turns out, it's never been true that one's identity was one's work. It might have been one's passion. It might have been one's desire. But it never really was who one was. That was a fiction that one had to perpetuate - and to believe in - in order to get to the point of being able to say - being allowed to say and even being encouraged to say - "oh, actually, that was all a performance."
I think that the people in my department (tenured) who are most unhappy have never gotten the memo that it was all a game, a performance, a ruse. That it was all dues-paying, and that at the end of the day, they aren't their work, and that all people really care about is whether the person in the office next to them is carrying their load - not whether they have Deep Thoughts or Grand Ideas. I think they are holding out for recognition that's never going to come, recognition that endorses their belief that they are their ideas, and, if they are, that this is what gives them value. I think the people who are happiest in my department (tenured) gave up on that long ago, and they came to realize that work is valuable only inasmuch as one values and enjoys and excels at the work, and inasmuch as one can contribute to our students and to the community as a whole. That's not to say that one's intellectual life isn't important. It is, and in crucial ways. But, as I said to my chair in my annual review meeting today, I think that we need to think of it as valuable not just to our personal enrichment and edification, as people like to characterize these things when they talk about the cushy lives of professors, but rather to show how it is so intrinsically important to the broader jobs that we do. My intellectual life is "important" to my institution not because it "is me" but because of what it allows me to do for my institution. I don't expect for "research" to matter just because I care about it: I expect for them to see how it enhances all of the things that our mission purports to value and how my research specifically has allowed me to contribute to those goals.
Now, all of this is new territory for me, in terms of how I'm thinking about "academic identity." In the past, I know that when I thought about these questions I did not think about them in terms of my institution or in terms of the greater good. I thought about them in terms of "me." And I think that this is the public perception of how academics regard their intellectual lives, too - that we're all leading these "lives of the mind" that don't contribute to society. But what I realize now, now that I have the privilege of doing so, is that's total bullshit. And not only is it bullshit for "society" in a general way - it's bullshit for the individuals who have to go through a period of believing that the entirety of their identity is what they do. We don't expect this of people in any other line of work. Why exactly do we expect it of people in higher education? Especially when it was never true in the first place, and when in the fields where this sort of ideology is most pervasive (the humanities) we don't believe in things like universal or true identity anyway? How exactly has it come to pass that we've missed the fact that we're trying to ground our reason for being in something that is totally false?