Saturday, February 28, 2015

Good News, with a Side of Nostalgia

This morning, I had occasion to visit my very first post on this blog. That was way back in June of 2007, almost 8 years ago. Yes, I've been blogging for that long. Not as regularly as some, but I've been hanging in there.

This post, among other things, announced a bit of my motivation for starting the blog: I had just gotten a fellowship. And just in the nick of time: I had tenure review staring me in the face and one lousy article plus one revise & resubmit (one that I didn't know at the time would plague me for a full year). And I needed to finish a book.

So I figure that chronicling the first-book process would be cool, and that I'd actually have time to do it. And I did.

And then my post-tenure malaise set in, and blogging declined for... oh, half a decade or so. Inspiration waned. For everything. Until... one magical day, the shape of the next book -- the one that had been digging in its heels -- appeared fully-formed in my head. And I wanted to write it. But how? with what time?

And so I applied for fellowships again. Two long-shots.

And I got one.

So, next year, I am off to Fancy-Pants Institute (FPI) to write, write, write. A book, one hopes.

And maybe even a few blog posts.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Choosing to Change Direction (Mid-Career Malaise part III)

I've left everything hanging on this series for far too long. It's because mid-career is running me over with a steamroller, work-wise. Mid-career does this. It has no mercy.

BUT... I did promise a happy ending, or at least a hopeful one. I can't tell you what can work for you, but I can tell you what turned things around for me. I think it dovetails nicely with what some commenters on the previous post have said, even though it's different in its particulars. My thoughts on this are a bit unformed, so I hope you'll bear with me.

When we last left the discussion, we had brought up the problem of post-tenure malaise/depression/anger, and how it was compounded by the fact that nobody talked about it because... well, in a world where departments are 50% adjunct labor and tenure is not a certainty even if you do land a permanent job, it seems like we should be doing the opposite of complaining (and, of course, one or two commenters have agreed with this position -- that we've got no right to complain, that is -- fair enough).

I also told a bit of my own story: the post-tenure letdown, the frequent feeling of being overworked and underappreciated, the tears, the snappishness, the serious contemplation of walking away from it all because it seemed that my job was making me deeply unhappy. Or, at least, it wasn't making me happy.

What I did, at some point a few years back, is that I really, seriously allowed myself to look at where I was, what I wanted out of work and life, and how my job helped and/or hindered me getting there. Here are a few of the things I realized along the way. Maybe one or more of them will apply to you.

1. You always have a choice. Yes, seriously. Maybe you don't have the choices you want, and maybe the "other choice" is really, really bad. But you do have a choice. Many, actually. Start thinking about those options. Include the most ridiculous (circus) to the prosaic (I can make a good latte) to the "within the field" options (administration; part-time adjuncting) to taking a flier on something totally new. What do each of these get you in the way of better quality of life? What do you give up? Really play out the scene all the way to the end: If you took door #2, where might you be five years from now? I thought about ditching my job, looking for adjunct work + coffee shop jobs in the town I grew up in (and which I love dearly), and maybe writing books on the side. I really tried to imagine what my life would be like. I also thought about the practicalities of that decision.

2. What nourishes you? That's a really hippy-dippy way to phrase it, I know. But it's also the most accurate. Where do you feel most like yourself, both in your job and out of it? Does your work situation enable you to do that thing? Even facilitate it? Or does it get in the way?  Or, maybe a better way of putting it is: does it enable more than it obstructs? Or vice-versa? 'Cause things change from day to day. I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that I loved writing. I love the creative process, and that little moment where all of a sudden you see something that wasn't there before, and the mad, frustrating scramble to show it to other people, even while knowing that you'll always be inadequate to the task. That's what gets my middle-aged ass out of bed in the morning. And I started thinking, "Hey... my job does give me the space to do this (except when it doesn't)."

3. Realize that your job doesn't owe you anything but a paycheck. We sometimes come into academia expecting personal fulfillment from our jobs. And I think that academics get it more than people in most jobs -- from teaching, from research, from service. But that was never in the contract you signed. You agreed to do a job; they agreed to pay you. Chances are you find some parts of your job more fulfilling than others. So, if you stay, you can think about compartmentalizing your jobs. For me, everything got sorted into two columns: "Things I do with integrity, and to the best of my ability" and "Things I do because it's a joy to do them." Sometimes there's even overlap between the two. But realizing -- really acknowledging -- that my job did not owe me personal happiness... and further that the fact that I did gain personal fulfillment from a decent chunk of it (way more than, say, most food service professionals -- the other thing I'm actually qualified to do), allowed me to reframe the rest of it.

4. Don't de-prioritize those things that make your life worth living. The previous point may sound like I'm saying "Suck it up, Buttercup." I'm actually not. A decision to stay should not feel like a martyrdom. It should feel like a strategic reframing of your relationship to your job. Think about the things you love that you no longer do because you "just don't have time, what with work the way it is." Fuck that noise. If your job is just a job, then you owe it integrity and hard work... but you do not owe it every corner of your life. That, too, was not part of the contract you signed. You get to take a day or two off. You get to go for a hike, or go to a yoga class, or just sit on a park bench with a novel. Start small. Think about a day. Or a three-hour window every day. Practice saying, "My job does not get this. This is MINE." And if your job does not let you do that -- have even a little corner that it can't pre-empt... well, then maybe that job sucks. It's certainly sucking the life out of you. But then again, are we just assuming that the job won't let us have it? Have we ever tried just saying "no"? (I'll tell you: I'm better at this some weeks/semesters than others, for certain.)

5. Think about all this, then make a choice. As an academic -- a tenured academic, no less, you have so much more choice than just about anybody. But that includes the choice to walk away -- or make an internal transition to something like administration, or become "downwardly mobile" to allow yourself more time -- if 1-4 have convinced you that this is the right way to go. Do it. You can recognize that you have a great, enviable job and still realize that it's not working for you. On the flip side, if you decide to stay, make that a choice, too. "I choose to remain in this job because..." For me, it was because I could do more of what I loved in the job than in some other situation (other than "independently wealthy," but even the circus is a more likely option than that for me).

5b. ...and continue making that choice every day. When I decided to stay, one of the things (other than the conscious reframing) that helped was the knowledge that I could walk away at any time if I changed my mind. Granted, there would be consequences, some of them (mostly the financial and personal ones) quite serious. But my job would never again feel like my jailer. As long as I did my work with integrity and to the best of my ability, I could engage with it on my own terms. And let me tell you: that's fucking excellent.

Let me leave you with a little fable -- actual, that's its title: "A Little Fable," by Franz Kafka:

"Alas", said the mouse, "the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I am running into."

"You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and ate it up.

You can choose to change direction, whether that's in your career or in your mind. Don't get eaten.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Crying in My Office (Mid-Career Malaise part II)

NB: this post is meant as a forum to discuss something that doesn't get talked about often: the depression or anger that often accompanies the year or so post-tenure. As I noted in my previous post, I write this well aware that many out there would be incredibly grateful to be in this position. Yet, like Betty Friedan's discontented suburban housewives, we do need to talk about this. So here goes:


So, here's how it is.

You work through grad school. You beat the odds and get a Tenure-Track job. Then you bust ass for six years. You teach. You develop classes. Maybe you write a book. And then: you have tenure.

Whoo-hoo! Set for life!!!

So why do so many of us spend a year or two post-tenure chronically pissed off, depressed, or both?

The commenters on my previous post (especially Curt) kind of said a lot of what I wanted to say, but it's worth bringing up a few points, and then just opening up the discussion.

The first, and most important thing to say is this: You are not alone.

It might seem like that. The reason is that we haven't been talking about it. Because frankly, it's embarrassing, right? "Oh, boo-hoo; I have a career and tenure and job security and a book and everything. My life is soooo saaaad..." I mean, who wants to be that person, right? So we bite our tongues and figure that there's just something wrong with us, some inability to be happy.

I'm basically here to advance the thesis that you're totally normal. Here's the thing: you spent half a dozen years in grad school, and another half a dozen more on the tenure track. That's most of your adult life, all pursuing one thing. You had a purpose. You knew where you were heading. There was a Big Goal.

And now you've achieved that goal. And here's the thing: Nothing is different. Well, you may have a slight bump in your paycheck. And you've certainly got more committee work. But other than that, after a few people stopping by to say "congrats!", it just all stays the same. Or maybe a little harder. And for some, this might be the first time in five to ten years when you've looked up and taken stock of your life and wondered where all the parts of your life that are Not-Work went. Remember when I had a hobby that I loved? Remember when I went out on dates or with friends? We invested so much of that for so long in The Job. And now we realize that some days would be better or worse than others, but The Job was never going to be anything more than The Job.

I know that I never thought any of this consciously, but I do recall spending a lot of time in tears, or planning to leave my job -- not to go job-hunting; just to put in my notice and pack it in. I was more impatient with students. I was easily upset by colleagues. I couldn't bear to think about my next book project. In short, I was a wreck. And yet, nothing was really wrong. Nothing. I couldn't name a single reason why I should be miserable and wanting to pack it all in when I was arguably at my most successful by any external measures. But there it was.

God, that's a grim note to end a post on. I promise that the next post will be more hopeful. After all: I'm still in my job (which is still pretty much the same as it was then -- including the exact same salary, sad to say), but I'm actually pretty content. But I did go through a very dark period, and I've seen a lot of other mid-career people go through the same thing, so what I'd like to do now is open up the comments for people to just share their own experience -- that stuff you were embarrassed to admit because intellectually you knew just how fortunate you actually were. Were you depressed post-tenure? Angry? Did you contemplate a career change? Did you check out for a while? Did you double down on the work?  Feel free to post anonymously if you want. And if you're not in this situation (and especially if you're rolling your eyes at a bunch of privileged folk talking about their high-class problems), I'm going to ask you to remember that YMMV.

And next post (Friday, I think), we'll talk about Things That Helped.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

We Can't Complain, but Sometimes We Still Do (Mid-Career Malaise, part I)

After the eight-billionth conversation with friends about this, and the forty-billionth statement that "I should blog about that -- I think I will," I'm going to (hopefully) kick off a series of blog posts that are probably going to cause a bit of ridicule in some corners. But what the hell: I'm going to talk about post-tenure depression. Mid-career malaise. That approximately one to two years (and sometimes longer) after you get tenure when, all of a sudden, you're angry at everyone and everything sucks and you don't. know. why.

Because you've got it all, right? What do you have to be angry or upset about? You probably don't even have a right to complain.

But this is a Genuine Thing. I've seen it happen over and over again: to myself, to my colleagues, to almost every academic I've talked to. And the fact that nobody's talking about it makes it worse.

So: over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to try to take this on. I hope this will be helpful. I hope not to piss off too many untenured, unemployed, or underemployed academics by doing what amounts to validating bitching about a privileged position. I probably will offend several people anyway. And to them I say: I'm sorry. You have every right to be offended. But even though the problem here is nowhere near as grave as yours, it is still a problem, and we need to talk about it.

Stay tuned...

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Law of Committees

Hey! Who wants to serve on this committee?

Hands go up.

Great! We have a committee! See you next semester when we convene.

Months go by.

Staff coordinator to random committee member: "Say, do you guys have a chair? Because I need to know who to coordinate with."

Random committee member starts to wonder the same thing.

Random committee member: "Say, um... So the first deadlines appear to be coming up. Who's the chair of this committee?"

Crashing silence. Another week passes.

RCM: "So... we really need a chair, right?"

Other committee members do the internet equivalent of becoming very interested in their shoes; RCM begins to get a sinking feeling.

One week later: "Okay, fine. If no one else is volunteering, I'll do it."

Committee all of a sudden rediscovers their e-mail to cheer RCM's volunteerism.

...

I'll give you one guess as to who is playing the role of RCM in this little play.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

New! And Improved?

After over two years of construction/retrofitting, we have new! classroom! buildings! Actually, the buildings are old, but they were completely gutted. They look much nicer, and are reportedly much safer. But there are issues...

Because Grit City is located in a (mostly) warm clime, these buildings are constructed with doors leading directly to the outside, rather than to an interior hallway. To protect expensive equipment inside, the doors are equipped with key-card locks. Once doors close, they can only be opened from the inside; one needs a key card to get in from the outside. Propping them open is impractical because they open onto public outdoor spaces. And, we have been assured, this "causes aesthetic damage to the doors."

The problems with late-arriving students are likely something you're all imagining, and you wouldn't be wrong. But then there's this:

"A report circulated this week that a faculty member was unable to exit a classroom due to a malfunctioning door lock.  The problem was unrelated to the lock; rather, the door in question was found to swell when in direct sunlight such that it wedged against the door frame.  Construction Management was notified of the condition and resolved it with the contractor... In the unlikely event that this problem recurs, turn the door handle and apply sufficient force to open the door."

I believe that I'll start bringing a portable battering ram to class.

It may cause some aesthetic damage.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Notorious Encounters the Scientific Method

Step 1: Make an observation & ask a question:

With one exception, I haven't taken science classes since I was 15. Yet I love science books. I wonder if I could do an actual college-level science class. Is the fact that I'm a historian really due to innate skill in one area versus another? Or just some random result of taking one fork in the road instead of the other? If I'd applied myself in another direction, could I have been successful in this other field?

Step 2: Formulate a testable hypothesis:

Hypothesis: The same combination of intelligence and dedication can make one equally successful in two diverse academic fields.

Step 3: Develop and perform an experiment to test the hypothesis:

3.a: Enroll in my friend's "Biology for science majors" course.
3.b: Do work
3.c: take quizzes and exams

Step 4: Record and analyze results to see if they support (not "prove" -- I learned that last week!) the hypothesis:

On the first 13-question chapter quiz, on the chemical basis of life, I answered 8 of 13 questions correctly. Two of those correct answers were lucky guesses.


Results: the results of this experiment do not seem to support the hypothesis. Possible reasons:
  • The experiment design is flawed: there is a sample size of 1.
  • The experiment design is flawed: there is no control group.
  • The experiment design is flawed: conditions did not account for other independent variables such as the subject's completion (or not) of the readings, or her understanding of precisely which chapters the quiz was to cover, or the fact that she did not take the course prerequiste (intro to chemistry).
  • The hypothesis is false: as a historian, I am right where I'm supposed to be.