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)