Friday, May 29, 2009


So. I've got this article that I need to write, but yesterday rather than work in a concentrated way on that, I worked on a syllabus for the fall instead. I did do some major theory reading that I needed to get done related to the article, so it's not like I didn't work on the article at all, but I did not buckle down and work on the essay. Whatever. I'm not worried about it.

But see, this is probably weird, that I'm not worried about it. One would think that I would be most anxious about the publication side of what I'm doing, since I'm at a teaching-intensive place and I'm, ultimately, really well suited to being at a teaching-intensive sort of place. This occurred to me because this morning I was reading through this thread over at the Chronicle forums (one that won't make your head explode, so it's kind of worth checking out). And then that got me to thinking about the blogs that I read, and how often people will write about the stress of trying to get published.

I'm not trying to be a jerk here, or to pretend that I don't get stressed about research ever. You all know that I do. I don't exactly suffer in silence. But while I do get stressed out about research in the sense of being stressed out about working out problems, polishing, structuring, or finding time to do the kind of thinking that I know I need to do, I don't get stressed out about publishing per se.

In contrast, I do feel anxiety when I'm about to teach a new class (something I've realized even more clearly as I've developed courses that are totally new to me, that are totally about things that interest me, and that look nothing like courses that I actually took as a student). This is why I had to work on that syllabus yesterday, even though I won't be teaching the class until the fall. Because I've seriously been freaked out knowing that I'll have to teach it. I'm afraid the class will be a disaster, afraid that I'll be too ambitious, afraid that I'll not be ambitious enough, worried that I don't know what I'm doing, worried that I won't do well.....

But with research? I don't know. I have never felt the kind of pressure about research that teaching a new prep can make me feel. That total fear of being a failure and a fraud.* Wait. Scratch that. Yes I have. When I was in graduate school, I felt that kind of pressure. Which seems strange, since I had a heck of a lot more support and encouragement about research in grad school than I do now.

But it strikes me as an interesting question: why don't I feel like a failure and a fraud when I think about putting on my research hat? Why am I confident that I'll do just fine, thanks very much, and if not that it's really no big deal?

1. While I do hate dealing with criticism (which is why revising and resubmitting can be such a challenge for me), I really don't worry overmuch about rejection. See, my response to rejection is typically, "Oh yeah? Well fuck you, too, then." By the time I send something out, I think I believe in the work enough - and yet am disconnected from it enough - not to view the peer review process as one that is about ME being under review. Lots of articles get rejected. Lots of book proposals get rejected. So what? It's a blip on the radar screen. I've been rejected hundreds of times - for jobs, for publications, for conferences. Sure, it stings, but, well, "fuck you, too, then." If they reject me, they don't know what they're missing. And in the case of research, you just send the thing out again. No biggie. (In contrast, with teaching if something doesn't work, you're stuck with it not working for 16 weeks. 16 Weeks of students staring at you with hatred and discontent. 16 Weeks of knowing that you messed the whole thing up, and that no matter how you try to recover, you may just have to continue living through the hell only to get reamed on evaluations.)

2. I think it really helped that I wrote for newspapers in high school and college. That took a lot of the mystique away from the idea of seeing my name in print, and it also taught me to write quickly without falling in love with my sentences or turns of phrase. I mean, sure, every now and then I'll turn out a gem accidentally, but I don't labor at the sentence-level when I'm hammering out a first or second draft. I do labor at the sentence-level later in the process, but by that point I am somewhat disconnected from the piece of writing, which makes such labor go faster and more smoothly, typically.

3. I think I'm a good networker, and an engaging presenter of new work at conferences, which certainly has been a key component of my success with publication. Putting yourself out there in that way with confidence means people ask you to do things. If you take those opportunities when they fall into your lap - voila! publications! And let me be clear: I take those opportunities, and I pursue them enthusiastically. One might call it the "don't look a gift-horse in the mouth" school of publication. This might be unwise if one worked at an institution where "placement" was all. But I think it's a pretty reasonable way to go about publication if one is a grad student, or if one is working at a place where you should publish but there isn't a list of 10 journals that are the only ones that "count." (To be clear, though, I don't think you should publish with disreputable places. Just I haven't had to avoid publishing in smaller venues along with fancier ones. Although probably my laisse faire attitude about this has hurt me when I've sent out job apps while on the tenure track. Whatever. I like where I work and where I live.)

4. I think about publishing as a way of telling people interesting things that I've discovered or realized through my work on a text. The point of publishing for me is really not the line on the cv, nor do I think there's really a point in publishing just for the sake of publishing. Of course, I have the luxury of thinking about it that way because I've got a job (and tenure, but really, I felt that way before tenure, too). I have (for my institution) published a lot, but that's really because I feel like I've been thinking about a lot of interesting stuff and publication is a way of sharing that stuff, particularly in an environment where my colleagues and I rarely talk about Ideas or whatever. Publishing is a way to stay connected to the idea part of the discipline. I think it makes me a more engaged teacher, and it keeps me "fresh," I guess.

5. Publication makes me feel a sense of liberation from a set of ideas. The best thing about publishing my book, seriously, is that I'm done with it. I'm done with my dissertation, I'm done with the manuscript, and I don't ever have to think about those things again with any kind of focus ever again. I'm free to move on to new things. On a smaller scale, publishing an article feels exactly the same way. It means I get to move on to new things, which is exciting.

Writing all of that out, what occurs to me is that the reason publishing doesn't freak me out is that all of the parts I care about come before publication (thinking deeply about things, putting those thoughts into some articulate form so other people can think about them, too) and after publication (thinking about new things, and putting those new things into some articulate form). Do you need to publish in order to think deeply and to articulate your ideas? Maybe some people don't. People talk all the time about the dreck that gets published, that it's somehow wrong for so many crappy things to be published, etc. But for me, I would never think so deeply or ever bother to articulate those ideas as fully - to myself or to other people - without publication as part of the process. At the end of the day, that's why I like writing for publication, even though I'm not convinced that the publication itself is the most important part of the whole thing. And no, I can't trick myself into thinking and writing as if something is for publication.

But so anyway, it's a beautiful sunny day, and I'm not feeling terribly motivated to turn to the article, even though I do have a structure percolating in my head and I think the thing will come fairly quickly once I sit down to it. I'm wondering whether it might make sense to work for a couple of hours and then to go to the pool and work out for a few hours and then maybe return to the work in late afternoon? That does sound more fun than just working in the house all day. Or I could go to my favorite coffee shop with a patio and work outside..... Hmmm.

The thing I must not do is to return to the bed for 3 hours, which is a habit I've been getting into over the past couple of weeks that is really not a good one.

*Caveat: I think I actually did feel this in the months between when I finished with the proofs of the book and when the book came out. But that was more about the waiting than anything else. And about being up for tenure at the same time.

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