I’m participating in the TLQ group again. The last two weeks have had suggestions for thinking about maintaining perspective in the face of trouble which, taken together, have prompted me to post my thoughts here rather than in the comments there, because they turned out to be a long preamble to a tale.

Taking care of oneself, and having a home life that is separate from work life, provides space. As JaneB noted, sometimes it’s easier to connect with family (children/spouse) than with one’s own self/ house/ pet/ non-human preoccupation. So pay attention to the people or critters you live with. If you live alone, take care of yourself as you would a friend.

One thing I notice about academics who are very productive is that they don’t seem to entertain doubts about the importance of what they’re doing. They don’t say, “Well, I’m not curing cancer,” or “well, not that many people really care about this.” They think they’re making a difference to the world, and that includes the people who do literary research in earlier periods. Some of them may justify such work by the idea that it makes them, or other people, better teachers, but whatever way they find to think about it, they think their research matters. They think it makes the world a better (more interesting, better-informed, more thoughtful, more enlightened) place.

We’re trained to question everything, including rhetoric and values. But maybe we’re overdoing the questioning. Maybe we need to give ourselves some answers. “My work is important because . . . ” and “Though small, my audience is significant because . . . ” and even just “I love my work and I can get paid for it, so someone thinks it’s significant and I think it’s a good thing to do work I love.”

And indeed, it is a good thing to do work you love. I know there has been a shift in advice for young people, so that it’s now less “Find your passion” and more “Find something you’re decent at and can stand, get really good at that, and see if it becomes your passion, or if you can pursue your passion as a leisure activity.” Even if we give that advice to our students (and heaven knows following your passion to grad school in the humanities is not such a good option these days), why should those of us who are already academics belatedly follow it? Why take on Puritan notions (or are they Romantic?) about suffering and not having fun? Why be a tortured writer (artist, academic) if it’s possible to choose to be a happy one who has fun with writing, who dances with the Muse in the moonlight, who gets to have conversations with famous long-dead writers (artists, whoever)?

So what do you love about your job? I hope there’s something. I love research and writing. I have a lesser but still notable love for teaching so long as I have at least minimally engaged students. I don’t mind committee work so long as I feel it is productive.

What I don’t like: I dislike the climate of anxiety that has clouded LRU for the past few years: less and less money, low enrollments, re-shaping programs, low faculty morale. I don’t like trying to gauge how much I, personally, need to worry.

What I am doing: I am trying very hard not to get sucked into other people’s anxieties. Some of them are very real, especially for those who are single or partnered with other people who work for LRU. Since I am fortunate enough to have “married out,” I think it’s better for me to avoid taking on the anxieties that many of my colleagues feel. I sympathize. I acknowledge that they have real things to worry about. But I, personally, don’t have to worry in the same way they do, so why should I torment myself with their worries? I’m going to do me, and let them do them. This is not saying I have no worries. This is saying I want to assess the things that I need to worry about and not worry about ones that aren’t my individual problem.

I’m also consciously saying, “The work will still be there tomorrow, and now it is time to get some exercise/sleep/relaxation/food—to have a life that is more than work. The students can wait another day or two for their papers. The world will not come to an end if I file that form next week instead of tomorrow.” Along with over-questioning, I think we’re also over-conscientious. Sometimes there are hard deadlines. Other times, we expect too much of ourselves. How much of such expectations comes from our job guidelines, how much from feeling competitive with other colleagues (if you made it through a Ph.D., you are probably fairly competitive, at least about some things), how much from early training in being a good girl?

What I wonder about: can I make people pay rent in my head? That is, if I’m thinking about something that annoys me, can I find a way to make those thoughts productive? Can they spur me to do something differently? Can I learn from people I’m angry at or jealous of?

Finally, I’m reminded of a few bits of advice. Long ago, I had my own copy of Women in Academe: Outsiders in the Sacred Grove. (I gave it to a friend who, a couple of years later, quit a tenure-track job. Hmmm.) I re-read it last year. It’s dated, and yet not nearly so dated as you might expect. The advice given, about focusing on research and networking, is excellent, and I wish I had paid more attention to it when I was in the early years of my career. I was more interested in work-life balance, at the time, when I should have been thinking about work. Anyway, I will paraphrase, since I no longer have the book to hand: what is important is that you get your work done, and make sure that you and your family are fed, rested, and loved. What is not important is that you cook all your own food, clean your own house, or make your kids’ Halloween costumes by hand. Ms Mentor has similar advice: “Be good to yourself. . . . Do not diet—starvation will make you grouchy and boring. Buy frozen foods; cherish the microwave. . . . BE ADEQUATE, NOT PERFECT. Tape that motto to your fridge. . . . Routinize. Simplify.” (Emily Toth, Ms Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia [Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1997], p. 75)

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20 thoughts on “Maintaining perspective

  1. I don’t know. I focused on research and writing almost exclusively from 6th grade through the PhD, because I knew that was what you should do. Once I had the PhD I wanted some work-life balance and I think it was legitimate.

    Ms. Mentor was willing to gain enormous amounts of weight eating chocolate to write her tenure book. I watched that and decided I’d rather not get tenure if that were the price of it.

    What I have found is that so much advice does not apply if you are not at an R1, or if you are in a regional southern school, or if you are in a place where patriarchy really rules. In these situations it is doubly fraught: you know what would work, what you should do, but it doesn’t work, and nobody you know can understand why, and they think you have just misapplied the advice.

    I might be different from other people. I have not done well in part because of listening to so many exhortations about how you should leave for tomorrow what you can do today. People go on about this, and at the same time they set timers for themselves and say “Start writing, now!” and seem to sort of whip themselves. I don’t understand why there is so much emphasis on both slowing down and hurrying up. When I have done well, I always just worked at a steady pace, and did not try for all this speeding and braking that from what I can gather, most people like.

  2. But: like: the energy of a big, humming, research oriented university or other institution, especially when it is well connected to a large and interesting city, but even when it is not quite. Doing research, talking about it, writing about it. Teaching is part of talking about research. Organizing relevant activities, creating relevant programs.

  3. Dislike: culture of extreme deference, discrimination, hatred of research, poor teaching, lazy service, and no political activity.

    I think of the university as a community of scholars where knowledge is created. That is outmoded and it is a minority view. People who are more in touch with reality think the university is a place to work and that what you do there is train workers. They set their alarm clocks, they meet their production quotas, and they go home to watch tv; if I could get with this program, I would be happy, but I cannot.

    How to be more as I would like to be when it means swimming upstream and bucking the entire system is my problem.

  4. *Or, alternatively, they think the university is their substitute family and they are dedicated to nurturing privileged students like a good butler. This I find even more creepy.

  5. –And indeed, it is a good thing to do work you love. I know there has been a shift in advice for young people, so that it’s now less “Find your passion” and more “Find something you’re decent at and can stand, get really good at that, and see if it becomes your passion, or if you can pursue your passion as a leisure activity.”

    * But that’s what I was taught. Was also taught that the passion would automatically be your children, everything else was to catch the husband and have something to do while he was at work and also to talk about when you hosted parties. Was also taught vaguely that you could do “anything” — but steps to finding that thing and getting to it were a taboo topic.

  6. It is not that I doubted my first priority, to go to a big university and perfect the languages I had started learning. And I liked graduate school, it was good for me. It is just that I felt cornered into doing it, and then bullied to stay in academia in a form of it I do not like. If I did not have so many interests and talents, it would be one thing, but I do — if I just wanted a job and didn’t care what it was, I would live somewhere I chose and make more money, so I need this to be more than a job, and it is hard to turn it into something more than that, and it is very labor intensive so it’s not a question of balancing work and “life”, it is a question of choosing between research and “life” in the small amount of free time one has, with the additional problem that the prerequisite to both is to get out of town.

  7. So — and this *will* be my last point — I don’t think it is about either maintaining perspective or discipline, it is about whether or not you are a person and whether or not you have any rights. If this is your struggle — and it is mine — then no amount of perspective or discipline will get at the problem.

      1. It should. It’s written at the margins at this piece on the entrepreneurial university I am trying to finish.

        Today, though, I was reading translation theory for my translation class and in between, Google translating the websites of and about my Russian relatives, artists and engineers. I was quite satisfied and it felt like being in graduate school, thinking about technical things and art, and I didn’t leave the house or answer the phone, so I stayed in mode.

        I thought: I came into this to have interesting experiences, not because I had a project that simply must be done. When I did not get interesting experiences I wanted to quit and do something more sociological and Relevant in the 60s or 70s sense.

        But in the end I am glad to have stayed with permanent things, philosophy, art, history, I thought.

      2. P.S. The hardest thing about it though is being away from the Sierra and the sea. I never realized they would become so hard to reach, always thought there would be money to spend time at home. Aber nein — and if I had it to do again I would not abandon the glacial lakes, the marmots and Belding ground squirrels, the broad vistas, the granite.

      3. I totally agree about the geography. At this point I would settle for anywhere on the west coast. I know why I left and I try to trust that my younger self really did need to do that . . . but it really is painful to live in exile. The ironic thing is that I suspect I inherited this strong sense of place from my Midwestern farming forebears whose livelihood was the land.

  8. Really great post that ruminates on a wide variety of ways in which we react to pressure, from within or outside. I know that once I achieved tenure, I had a crisis in my career that was largely obscured by the scarier problems of working to support an autistic child. By the time I figured out much of the latter, I’d totally deep-sixed the former and gained a boatload of anxieties about my scholarly competence.

    *sigh*

    One of my best realizations in the past few years, achieved with the help of some very smart friends and one awesome career coach, is that I can be productive as a researcher and writer and that I am competent as a scholar, just maybe not in the ways that I expected to be when i started this job. What I want to do has changed as much as what I can do, and that’s okay!

  9. Ever since I got demoted from the chair position I’ve realized that I have to focus on the things that make me happy — not the BS politics that are like a fatal, incurable virus at HU. So I’m focusing on teaching, research, and my family. Not always in that order. More often with family last, if I’m honest. But I do make an effort to do something important with them — even if it’s one-on-one chats before bedtime– every day. Today, we went to a Ren faire and stomped around in the mud, after a rainy yesterday. The kids got to ride war horses. What can I say? It was cool.

    1. Fatal, incurable virus, yes. It is easier to ignore when they are not also threatening to close the university / the program, but yes: one should just ignore it and live life

  10. Great post, Dame Eleanor. Because I’m a person who agonizes for years over decisions made (should I have given away that stuffed animal? Taken this job), I try to keep the “what if?” and “is this important?” questions out of sight and out of mind.

    I hope that people like my writing & my subjects, but if they don’t–well, I like writing and I like making things, so I won’t stop. The same is true for caring what others think about various orthodoxies and whether I’m living up to them or not. I just don’t.

    What can I change for the good? What can’t I change at all? That’s my focus now.

    The hardest habit I have to break right now is warning people that there’s a brick wall up ahead and then, when they ignore the warning, shutting up about it, knowing that they might crash. It’s a “save the world” compulsion, and I’m starting to think it’s a useless trait.

    1. Wow—so there’s another way of doing it. I find it almost impossible to push the “is this important/why does it matter” question out of sight/mind, maybe because I live with an engineer whose team releases software updates every six weeks, or because I feel that I have to do a lot of justifying of my work to colleagues in other periods and other disciplines. NB: Sir John does not ever ask me that question; he respects what I do. It’s all my own self-doubt and tendency to make odious comparisons. At least I’ve become aware of that tendency and try to counteract it. But I often feel I could use an injection of egotism.

      1. Thanks for replying, Dame Eleanor. Spouse always supports what I do, too, so Sir John’s perspective is helpful. As for justifying your work to colleagues: it’s their egos that believe that what they do is more important than what you do, not an actual fact, and the louder and more dismissive they are, the less important the work probably is. (That’s what I’ve found on reading work that gets loudly bragged about on Twitter, anyway.) Don’t let them shake your confidence on this.

  11. Fascinating rumination. Sometimes when I’m stewing, I draft a memo, or some other document. I don’t usually send it, but I feel that I’ve written out my thinking, and I can let go of the issue. It doesn’t quite make the feelings pay rent, but it helps.

    1. Lately I have been thinking a lot about colleagues (who have moved on) about whom I used to feel strongly because they did not pull their weight in terms of service. I still mind that they didn’t—but I also ask how they got away with it, what I’d have to do to get the same concessions, and whether there’s anything I can learn there about politics and saying no. Possibly not, due to changing circumstances around here, but I find that anger and jealousy definitely can carry lessons if I analyze exactly what I’m angry about.

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