Thursday, August 13, 2009

pre-season jitters

pre-season jitters



So it's that time of year -- almost new year's for me. Like many others, my years tend to start at different times. The important new year for my mind is the beginning of the academic year. My intellectual clock tends to run with that. My emotional and physical clocks have been moving away from my intellectual clock as I've got older, though. For those parts of me, the year begins about a week after the Winter Solstice, and I don't feel myself till about halfway to the Vernal Equinox. Yep. I am a person who reacts to the sun, but also to the dark. So I am happiest around the equinoctes, and sort of non-productive and disgruntled around the solstices. Too little light at one, too much (and not enough sleep) at the other. But it's new year.

Usually, I look forward to the beginning of the academic year. This year, I have mixed feelings. I've never been so secure in a job before, and I think I have some of that post-tenure ennui going on. I have a TON of projects, some unfinished, and some new. I've fortunately been given permission and encouragement to work on them as much as possible -- a good thing, as my publisher likely hates me at the moment. Good thing I talked up the project at Leeds, because now I have more pressure to get the bloody thing finished.

And yet ... I'm trying to find my feet as 'senior' faculty. Nothing's really changed -- I have always been outspoken, so it's not like I'm suddenly going to find my voice. And yet I'm feeling a little lost. Part of this is because I'm finding myself comparing myself to colleagues more and more. This isn't me. At least, I don't think it is. For most of my academic life, I've assumed that people who got good things deserved them, because they were hard-working and smart, and whatever. And I think that's for the most part true. This year, and maybe even since last semester, I've been going through a lot of 'why not me?'

I think I'm going through an identity crisis. Leeds was hard for me in many ways, because (as my friend at 10th Medieval and Magistra can tell you, as they put up with a LOT of whingeing) I was going through major imposter syndrome. Over here, I've never really felt part of any group of medievalists except those I met through blogging and sort of socially. Berks helped with that, and the early medieval dinner a couple of years ago gave me the chance to hang out with a bunch of early medievalist women, but there's a weirdness to being one of the token early people in most circumstances. I'd met a few of the other Carolingianists out there, but since I didn't work with a Carolingian specialist, I never really got included (or the chance to be included) in what seems to be a growing group of us over here. I never did Leeds, so I missed out on that group, too. So at conferences, I tended to hang more with the people I knew through my DV and Legal Historian -- the Late Antique folk and the Anglo-Normanists.

This summer, I've met a lot more people in the field, but still often feel that I don't quite fit in with the Americans, and won't really fit in with the Europeans (including the UK folk) till I get a couple more papers and at least one publication in my field under my belt.

At least, that's how I feel today. Coming home from the Leeds dance, I'd have said otherwise.

I think part of the crisis is the normal part of switching from research mode to teaching mode. One of the things I have yet to learn is how to balance teaching and administration/service duties and writing. Yes, it's hard with a 4-3 load. But people do it. I need to learn how. Unfortunately, part of that is finding the part of me that knows how to make myself a priority in a productive way. It's the part of me that needs to learn how to say 'no'. But one of the things, and I think I alluded to this a bit in my last post about service, is that at places like SLAC, it's very easy to fall into a mentality that sees research as being selfish, and it can -- at least for someone like me -- go the way of getting to the gym: it gets pushed aside because there are umpteen other things that need doing, that no one else seems to be willing to do. So here I am, in my head thinking about research, and writing, and scared to death to even work on my syllabi (and yeah, I need to get those done!) because I worry about getting sucked into teaching and losing the research.

And that's sort of silly. Or at least, it seems silly till I look around me. One of the things that I've noticed about SLACs and even Rural Us is that there can often be a culture of comparison. There's a lot of questioning as to why one person gets one thing and another doesn't. As I said above, I have generally thought it was usually down to people actually deserving things -- and I was perfectly satisfied that I couldn't know everything that all my colleagues did. I've found part of that to be even more true since being department chair, because you find out on a different level that there are things that happen on campuses that most people don't know about, because there are things that can't be spoken about publicly, because laws like FERPA prohibit it -- and yet people have things to deal with.

Also, I've always felt that I had no reason to complain. From my undergrad years on, I have been taken care of. I have had wonderful mentors, and patronage, to some extent. I know I've said before that I never realised how lucky I was, that I was pretty clueless about how much was given to me -- or in come cases that I earned, but basically, it's hard to see just doing what I do naturally as earning things. I do wish sometimes that people had told me, or maybe told me more clearly, that not everybody got the things I was getting, and I might have done better to appreciate them more. But it didn't really occur to me to think I'd done well when I got a big fellowship (or more...). It's weird -- when I didn't get things, I assumed it was because I'd failed in some way, which was only natural. When I was awarded something, I don't think I ever thought once about me deserving it more than anyone else, because it honestly never occurred to me that I was competing with anyone else. Seriously - how clueless was I?? I never really got that particular idea till I was on the job market, but even then, I had a hard time seeing myself as competing against anybody. What -- like I'm going to try to fix the odds against somebody? Nope. I can only do what I do, and try to make myself the best candidate. But you know? I know people who have been hired for jobs I applied for, and honestly? Can't argue with the choices.

So what does all this navel-gazing have to do with identity crises, etc.? I think it has to do with the fact that I'm now in a position where the real luxury commodity is time for research. Just as I'm finding my feet in terms of who I want to be as an academic, I'm in a situation where there's also a shortage of that commodity. I'm not the only one -- nor is SLAC the only place it happens. At least one other friend who has got tenure in the past couple of years has said the same thing -- as soon as one is associate, there are all sorts of new duties for which one is qualified. For the first time in my academic life, I feel that I am competing with colleagues for something. In this case, it's the freedom to have a personal life and to do research and write -- not in that order. Ok, inasmuch as the gym counts as personal, yeah. But I digress slightly.

The competition -- or maybe just competitiveness. On the one hand, it's trying to justify yourself to others. As someone who studies Europe, and especially medieval Europe, I've always had friends and colleagues react to my research trips in a variety of ways, but it's generally a form of, "gee, must be nice to *have* to go to Europe," or "I don't know why you're complaining, you just spent a month in a place I never get to go to," or "How did you manage to pay for that? Must be nice!" Yeah. Well, remember back when you were an undergrad and decided to be an Americanist/other field-ist because you didn't want to learn languages/wanted to make more money? I learned the languages, buried my nose in German historiography, and now work an extra job in the summer to pay for the trip. I earn it, and in exchange, I don't get to take those fun little weekend getaways, or trips to Bali in the summer, or buy a season pass for the local ski lifts. There are trade-offs. But still, sometimes you feel it, the competition. It shows up in other places. There's the weirdness of having colleagues who haven't gone up yet acting as though my success has somehow prevented theirs -- even when they are not yet done with probation. There's the sniping one hears about who has time to do research, and what they aren't doing in order to get their writing done -- they must be cutting corners, right? My guess is that yes, people do cut corners. But not the same ones. Some cut their personal lives, or give up TV, or the gym. And some others really do avoid doing anything they don't have to, or focus on courting the 'right' people.

Honestly, I don't want to be one of those people who are trying to game the system. Even more, I don't want to be seen, or even give reason for people to think, that I'm one of those people. And yet, when I see people who are good at it, there's a part of me that wonders if it's a skill I should learn. Because sometimes, those people seem to have more time, the commodity for which we all compete. So that's part of the identity crisis, too. What if the competition is part of a game I *should* be playing, and just don't know? I have turned into the sort of person who thinks through the internal and external politics of a situation more and more, but the idea of actively trying to work the politics? Do not want.

And yet ...

So yeah. The identity crisis -- no longer just one of whether I'm a teacher, scholar, or goddess of service. Now it's about whether I'm missing out by not wanting to be something I don't respect and pretty much detest in others.

Put that way, it sounds way lamer than it did in my head before I started writing. Carry on, people. Nothing to see here.

5 comments:

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Nice post. I personally think that the cessation of identity crises = the cessation of being an interesting person capable of surprise and innovation. So crisis on!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Thanks, Jeffrey -- coming from you, that means a lot :-)

Steve Muhlberger said...

Point one: You are going to have to be selfish with your time. You may have to learn how to be firm yet diplomatic about it.

My suggestion is that you figure out how much time you can spend on service w/o losing your teaching and research edge; then allocate that time in service areas that are valued both by you and SLAC and then stick to that "specialization in service."

I am concerned by the tone of this post , because I am just now pulling out of a three-year episode of bad health which may have been partly caused by work-related stress. If you find your situation unsatisfying now, imagine being forced to drop all committee assignments for a year and a half because you only have the energy to do your basic teaching duties and not up to your usual standard at that. And research? Hah! Wouldn't that be fun? This could be you.

Before you wear yourself out trying to fulfill impossible, contradictory expectations held by other people, take a good look at your situation and take control.

And be good to yourself.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Thanks, Steve! I do think that you are right, and those are all things I've recognized. I'm very happy that my dean reminds me regularly not to spend my time trying to fix -- or worry about -- things over which I have no control. And as long as I'm not being held respnsible for those things, I really should listen to his advice.

Mostly, I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by the things I want to do, and should do. And resentful of the people who seem to be adding to my own natural tendency to get in my own way :-) But hey, I figure if I can manage my one serious goal for the year -- to get to the gym or work out in some way at least three times a week, maybe the rest will fall into place?

Steve Muhlberger said...

It sure couldn't hurt!