Sunday, July 25, 2010

In Which I Think about How H&H is NOT My Dissertation

So. When I came up with the idea for Housewives and Hussies, I had a fair amount of anxiety about what the project would mean to me in terms of my mental and emotional well-being. On the one hand, I was worried because when I think back to dissertating - which was the last time I embarked on something like this - well, that was a fairly dark time filled with a lot of angst. Part of that darkness and angst had to do with feeling as if I wasn't qualified to do what I was doing - like I didn't know what a dissertation was, like even if I thought I knew what one was that I was going to do a terrible job at it, like my ideas were just generally stupid, etc. I suspect a good number of you went through the same thing. And I was afraid when I started H and H that I was just asking to go back to that dark and angsty place. Which, let's face it, I did not want to do. On the other hand, I think that the beginning of this project has been especially scary because I came up with the idea with little-to-no input from anybody else. While my dissertation project idea was my own, the shape of the project was very powerfully influenced (and constrained) by my adviser and by my committee. By the time that I got to the book phase with the project, it sort of felt like I was polishing up something that wasn't entirely mine, but also that was so carefully crafted that I couldn't make sweeping changes to it. And, with my 4/4 load, I didn't feel like I was in a position to just scrap it and start a new project without a sabbatical if I wanted to publish a book before tenure, which I did, and so, I published a book that didn't really feel like it was mine, but I was confident that it was ok, if that makes sense. With this project, I feel like I don't know whether the idea is any good, really, even though I think that it's exciting, I don't entirely know whether it is exciting, if that makes sense. And sure, I've talked in a general way with others about it, and they seem interested, but who among them really would say "Oh, that sounds like a terrible idea!" People just don't do that when you're not a student anymore. And so, yes, starting on this is a pretty scary thing.

But. It's weird, because one of the things I've been thinking about a lot lately is that for as much anxiety and fear as I've felt in really getting going on Housewives and Hussies, I've also been pleasantly surprised that working on this is not at all like how I felt when beginning work on the dissertation. Let me count the ways in which it is infinitely more awesome:
  1. Virginia Woolf was right that you need money and a room of your own in order to write. Material conditions make a huge difference in what one can accomplish and how one feels about accomplishing it, whether we're talking about creatively or whether we're talking about scholarship. It makes a difference that I'm not constantly worried about money. It makes a difference that I'm not living in a crappy apartment (or, as I did for 3 months during the diss process, with my parents). It makes a difference that the material conditions of my life are not distracting me. In other words, I will never be interested in becoming some sort of starving artist or scholar. Not that I ever thought I would be, but seriously: far from thinking such a thing is romantic and awesome, I know now more than ever that for me it's misery. This is also why I never could have been a hippie.
  2. I have learned so much in the 10 years since I started dissertating, and a lot of what I've learned has happened since finishing my Ph.D. Teaching, and teaching the kind of students whom I teach and the number of courses that I teach, has given me depth and breadth and focus as a thinker that graduate school absolutely did not give me. I find that I have all of these resources in my brain that provide context for the thing that I'm thinking about and that I make connections so much more quickly than I did before. Weirdly, I think I kind of know a whole lot about what I'm talking about and like I might - at least a little - sort of be an expert.
  3. I've found my voice as a writer, and a lot of that has to do with blogging, but also it has to do with the confidence that comes from knowing that I've already done what I'm trying to do. Instead of being in a constant state of anxiety - will I get a job? Will anybody publish my scholarship? - I have the security of a job and a respectable cv. My life will not be over if this takes longer than I want or if it changes along the way.
  4. Nobody cares whether I write this book or not. In graduate school, a lot of people had an investment in me writing that dissertation and in how I wrote it, and that for me was not a good thing. I have been infinitely more interesting and more productive as a scholar since I left an environment where people gave a shit about research. The fact of the matter is, I do best when I feel like my research is nobody's business but my own - sort of like how my blog works for me because it doesn't "count" for anything. Once something counts, I begin to despise it. It stops being fun. This book is ridiculously fun to work on precisely because it's only for me and for nobody else.
  5. As much as not having some authority figure put the stamp of the approval on my idea is scary, I feel like I own this project because no one has done that. I finally feel like I'm a professional in my field and not somebody's student. And that, as much as it's scary, is really exhilarating.
When I was dissertating I was making ~12K/year, living with a guy who was only sporadically employed, totally intellectually insecure, afraid to fail, suffering from periodic bouts of writer's block (the only time I've experienced those, and quite frequently miserable. This time around, not one of those things is the case. Realizing that, and realizing that I'm still doing it without all of the misery, is sort of like realizing that being in love doesn't mean fighting all the time and jealousy and unhappiness and hurting and being hurt by the other person and drama. It's kind of a profound epiphany. And I really have a feeling, though I suppose I could be wrong, that it's going to make for a better book in the end.


Anonymous said...

I like this post a lot.
Why is dissertation writing so horrible? Does it have to be that way? We should start a club called the I hate my dissertation club. I know I do.

Flavia said...

All of this rings profoundly true to me--even though I'm still finishing up the book that was my dissertation, rather than starting a new one.

But the point I'd really like to highlight is this one:

Teaching, and teaching the kind of students whom I teach and the number of courses that I teach, has given me depth and breadth and focus as a thinker that graduate school absolutely did not give me. I find that I have all of these resources in my brain that provide context for the thing that I'm thinking about and that I make connections so much more quickly than I did before.

Probably all teaching helps broaden one's thinking, areas of expertise, etc.--after all, everyone teaches outside of their research or personal intellectual comfort zone--but I really do think that teaching at less-elite institutions does this in an especially important way.

For me, there are two components to this. First of all, since I'm one of two Renaissance faculty, I can teach literally any class I want to, at any level from survey to M.A. seminar, so I've taught stuff that I wouldn't have been considered "qualified" to teach had I gotten hired at an R1 as a Miltonist. That's expanded my range tremendously.

Second, and maybe more importantly, when you're teaching students with a wide range of abilities, not all of whom have a lot of cultural capital, you get really good at learning how to give the right amount of context, in the right way. Feeling confident in one's ability to frame, summarize, and highlight the key points of a text or movement or event in a way that meets the needs of different kinds of readers is a skill I've learned at least in part from teaching.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

The scary thing about this second-book process, for me, is that, since we don't have that stamp of approval from Senior Scholar, but aren't yet Senior Scholars ourselves, there are folks out there who are more than ready to say (or at least strongly imply) that we either have no way of completing this project, or that it's already been done (e.g., "Isn't there already a scholarly book on Jane Austen?"). And for me at least, having the judgment and self-confidence to sort the good input from the bad is a particular challenge of this stage in our careers.

Historiann said...

Agree with Flavia on how teaching works to advance and deepen other intellectual work. And I disagree with Notorious: typically, Associate Profs with a book out are deemed "senior scholars," albeit still "mid career." (We're not junior scholars any more, anyway.)

You'll never regret cutting the ties and owning this project.