Wednesday, September 02, 2009

How to Avoid Becoming a Casualty?

A new reader (I think... hi there!), Kiki, left the following comment to my last post, and I thought I should probably respond in a post, because it really deserves a response, but I don't have a short pithy answer:
"With all this in mind, what advice do you have for up-and-coming academics on how to create the balance that you feel is missing? I'm in the last year of my Ph.D. and this is a key issue for me now at the crossroads of moving on.

What mistakes do you feel you made? What choices could have made differently? What decisions would you not change?
My instinctual response when I first read the comment wasn't terribly productive or positive. It was something along the lines of, "Don't you see? It's not about mistakes or alternate choices or any of that. None of that makes any difference. And this idea that we've got the power individually to create balance is actually part of the problem."

But see, that's me being a vortex of negativity, and I don't really want to be that. So I thought it would be useful to really take Kiki's thoughts as they were intended, and to try to give an honest a response as I can, while still offering a productive one.

So let's begin with the "balance" question. I think I decided a while ago that looking for this elusive balance was ultimately going about things the wrong way around, at least for me, at least on the tenure-track. The tenure track is not about balance. The tenure track is about investing the bulk of your energy in one thing: your job. This is not to say that you can't invest energy in other areas. You have to, otherwise you won't be able to do your job well. But in a career where you've got 6 years and then you either get promoted or you get fired, and in an academic market where those jobs are few and far between, the job, at least for that time, has got to come first. I think if you set "balance" as your primary goal, you'll often feel like a failure. At least I have when I made resolutions about balance. When I've been happiest, I've allowed myself to accept that "balance" might not always be possible, and that really, "balance" isn't something that's entirely in my control to create or to achieve. Other people get in the way of that, personal life circumstances get in the way of that, and yes, the job can get in the way of that. At least for me, I've come to the point where I've stopped trying for "balance" and instead tried to focus on trying for "fulfilled and happy." No, those things aren't opposites. But I've found that "fulfilled and happy" doesn't necessarily equal "balance," though sometimes it might.

I suppose here's the thing: I don't think that it's fair to myself to see my life as a balancing act.

One of those mice is always in danger of falling and getting run over by the tricycle. And at least for me, that's no way to live, though I did give it the college try for a good long while. I do however think it's important to have a range of priorities that address one's needs as a whole person. No, you may not be able to manage all of those priorities equally, but it's really important not to focus all of one's energy solely on the job. This has also been a struggle for me, but it stopped being as much of a struggle once I accepted that I couldn't do everything all at the same time. Sometimes you've got to just focus on riding your tricycle. Sometimes, you'll get off the tricycle and balance a cat on your head. You don't necessarily need to do both at the same time, and giving yourself permission not to can be a really liberating and powerful thing.

I also think avoiding the language of balance is important for women - generally, as well as in the profession - because "balance" for women often translates into something like "taking care of everybody's needs but your own and trying to be superwoman." It is rare that I hear men in my life talking about "striving for balance." That's something that the women in these men's lives do, while the men are busy prioritizing demands and taking care of business. When men do talk about balance, in my experience, they most often talk about it in terms of childcare or housework - balancing that they need to do with a female partner. They don't typically conceive of balance as something that should be a primary goal for all parts of their lives. Rather, it's a word that means something closer to "negotiation." That's the definition I'm much more interested in embracing and advocating. (Aside: I think the issue may be this. When women use the verb "balance" they use it as an intransitive verb. "Balancing" in and of itself is the point. When men use the verb "balance" it is most frequently transitive - it takes an object. I think I like the transitive version of the word better, much as I prefer to use "write" as a transitive verb, as opposed to an intransitive one. And yes, I'm thinking of the Barthes piece as I write this.)

So, I guess to actually answer the first question, I don't think that "balance" is missing in my life, or if it is, I'm glad that I've stopped seeking it. I think that for a long time my first priority has been my education and career, and that at this point my priorities are shifting. My education and career are still on the list, and still matter to me incredibly deeply, but I'm now at a point where I'm reevaluating priorities and thinking about other priorities to add into the mix, which means that the job will probably go a bit further down on the list than it has done once I figure out what else I'd like to pursue. And right now, I'm not quite there yet. In the abstract I think I am getting a better idea of where I'm heading, but I don't yet have concrete plans or objectives. I think that's probably ok, but I also feel a greater urgency right now to figure it out, perhaps in part because I feel like tenure has given me that luxury. And here's the thing: what I'm describing as my path will not look like everybody else's path toward this stuff. The specifics here matter. It matters that I went straight through undergrad and grad school. It matters that I've not married and not had kids. It matters that I got a t-t job right out of the gate. Those specifics made my trajectory, and not everybody is in the same boat.

And now to the second part of Kiki's comment. I think it's a mistake to characterize choices along this path as "mistakes." Are there things I might have done differently? Sure. But who knows how things would have turned out had I done so? Those alternate choices might have been bigger mistakes, but there's no way to know that. Also, it's not like our entire lives are totally within our control. Other people get a say, particularly when it comes to things like marriage and kids, and so it's not like you can just make all of the decisions and choices and have things your way. With all of that in mind, I'm reluctant to give the "do as I say and not as I did" advice. And further, I'm reluctant to say, "this is how I did it and these are choices will be good ones for my readers." Maybe they would be, but that doesn't mean that new problems wouldn't crop up if people made them.

So with those caveats in place, I'll make some observations, which are in no way meant as advice.

  • I think that it was easier in many ways for me to deal with the demands of tenure-track employment without kids and without a partner, at least for the probationary period. My time was very much my own, and I have been the only person who's had to deal with the consequences of those choices. This has meant that I haven't had to structure my work time around other people, and when writing under a deadline, or teaching 4 preps for the first time, that can help to minimize stress. That said, I also didn't get the benefits that come with kids and a partner. When I'm sick, it's on me to go to pick up prescriptions or over the counter meds for myself; when I'm out of milk, it's on me to go to the grocery store; when I'm feeling overwhelmed, there's nobody home (except for the tiny kitties) to take my mind off things. But my time was my own to use as I wished, and I think that was a help more than it was a hindrance.
  • It's been important for me to have support networks, not only elsewhere (the blogosphere, long-distance friends/relationships) but also where I am, in whatever form those networks have taken. Isolation is in many ways something that this profession produces, but it's not good to be totally isolated.
  • It's been important for me to take care of my whole self - not just my work self. This is something that I've struggled with, but things like healthy eating, exercise, and leisure shouldn't be seen as unimportant or negotiable parts of life. Scheduling those things in makes a huge difference in my overall well-being.
  • It's been important for me to realize that I'm not the master of my own destiny always, and to learn to forgive myself when things don't go my way, whether personally or professionally.
But with all of that being said, are any of these observations really a guide to not becoming a casualty of this profession, or, as Historiann noted yesterday, of patriarchal equilibrium? I'm going to be a total downer here and say no. Yes, we can all fight the good fight, and we can all try our best to resist the ways in which the profession and the culture back us into a corner. But at the end of the day, I really don't believe that there is some prescription for how to do this resistance, nor do I think there is a perfect set of directions to follow for how to make it all work. That's the thing about structural inequality. Being a "good girl" or a "good professor" or "making all the right moves" (whatever any of those involve) doesn't mean squat when the entire structure of the world in which we work and live is organized to turn us into casualties. And all of these things are made further complex by the hiring practices in higher education, but the funding cuts that are happening across universities, and by the corporatization of higher education. This profession is not a meritocracy, but it also is not, at its very heart, egalitarian.

The best that we can do is to make the best decisions we know how to make at a particular moment, to try our hardest to negotiate in both our personal and professional lives the many competing demands on our whole selves, and to be strong allies to each other, attempting tactically to resist, both locally and in a more wide-ranging way.

I suspect these aren't the answers that you'd hoped for, Kiki, but they're the only ones I've got.


Laura said...

Another very nice post on this issue. I have a post in the hopper in response, but wanted to say that I think you're right on with the way men and women differ in how they perceive balance. I think it would help many of us out there who use it in this vague sense of "a balanced life" if we really did think of it as negotiation. I personally have a fear of approaching it that way when it comes to my personal life. It's like admitting that there are real tasks that I can't do. Which is weird to say, but I think it's true and I think it's part of the whole superwoman ideal you mention.

What would negotiation look like. For me, I think it would be to say (mostly to my husband), here are the things that need to get done. I am willing to do a, b, and c. Which ones will you do? The real issue is this has to be done over and over again. Work loads shift during the year (now is crazy time for most academics) and during a lifetime. As the spouse of an academic, but as a former academic myself, I think I often have too much understanding of the time that academic work can take and that it can in fact fill all available time. But so can housework and dealing with children. And I need my spouse to see that more often.

I agree, too, about choices being sometimes out of one's control. At various points along the way in my sputtering academic career (which was in contrast to my husband's quite successful one), I could have said, "Well, I'm going to prioritize my career, so you (or you and the kids) go on ahead." While some people choose to live away from partners or children, I could not do that. It's not just an emotional strain either, but a financial one--two rents or a rent and a mortgage, plus driving or flying to see each other--and academia is not known for its high salaries. It's a tough give and take when a partner is involved. My husband plowed on ahead with his career. Had a good opportunity come my way, I'm sure we would have reevaluated, but it never did. Instead we agreed to locate ourselves where there was the greatest potential for opportunities for me. It's worked out, though not perfectly for me, career-wise.

Anyway, lots to think about and I'm looking forward to others' comments.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I think this is one of the times I appreciate having male mentors even more. Because I've been wrestling with this too, for years. When we had my 'welcome to the quasi-tenure club' meeting, Superdean told me that the biggest changes should be that I focus more on my scholarship, because if I had a weak point, it was that I let it slide for other things, and that he hoped I would now allow myself to get more of a personal life.

He didn't talk about balance at all, but about re-focusing and letting go of some things to add some important things. One of which was 'a life' -- which I think to him means doing things outside of the campus community, and possibly getting a partner or something.

I know for me the one big change I could make is learning to manage my time better, so I *can* do fun things. Having said that, this year has brought in several new faculty who enjoy many of the same things as I do, and I've been making some friends only tangentially related to my colleagues, and I have been making baby steps -- going to movies and having people to dinner, for example, and making workout dates with a colleague. It's amazing to me how much of a difference these things make to how I see myself -- and make me realize that Superdean's apparent concern that I was isolated may have been true.

Sisyphus said...

Sometimes you've got to just focus on riding your tricycle. Sometimes, you'll get off the tricycle and balance a cat on your head.

Awesome. I am going to print this out and put it above my desk, with no context, because it is so wonderful that way.

Ann said...

This is a brilliant and refreshingly honest answer, Crazy. There is no "right" answer, there is no path you can take that won't make you wonder what might have happened had you made other decisions or followed other paths. I think this is just a fact of getting older: at 35, you're starting to realize that time is not infinite and who you are now is probably who you're going to be.

Everyone has to make her own path, and everyone has to OWN her own decisions. Unless you inherit vast sums of wealth, most of us have to make choices. I think ownership of your choices has a lot to do with whether or not you look back on your life (at whatever point) with pride or regret. I sometimes think it would be nice to have 4 kids--but I don't, and I know why I don't, and I'm satisfied with the reasons I don't have 4 children. In another life, with a different set of circumstances and ambitions, it might have happened. But in that life, I might wonder about what it would have been like to get a Ph.D. and to write books.

Bardiac said...

What a great followup to an important post. Thank you.

I think your point about not characterizing choices as mistakes is important, especially.

I hope your year goes well!

Aurora said...

great post on balance.