Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why We Write

(or "Writing in a Time of Crisis")

So, I hinted at the end of the previous post that I would share my thoughts as to why, precisely now, I've decided that it's Time To Write (and by extension, publish, one hopes). I think that people have been guessing that it's because I'm lining myself up for some juicy job. I'm not. Trust me: the number of TT jobs in the field of Medieval Stuff this year can almost be counted on one hand, and most of the ones that do exist aren't that interesting to me. So let's stop the wild speculation right there.

It's also not because I've got some fabulous new thing I'm working on. My main project this semester is an essay that I was invited to submit for a volume, based on stuff I've already done. Except for a conference paper, Shiny New Project is on the back burner this semester.

It's also not because I'm just one of those people who loves the act of writing, and churns out publications at breakneck pace. In fact, writing has always been like pulling teeth for me,** and I've always considered my productivity to be a bit on the low side.

I write because of my university's financial crisis.

I write because the other two components of my job, teaching and service, are becoming increasingly corporatized: our teaching mandates are more concerned with time-to-degree, "outcomes assessment" and job training than with actual education, and because "service" here is every year less about contact with students, and more about going to long meetings run top-down by people who speak entirely in verbs-made-from-nouns and acronyms, and devising rules to preemptively avoid imaginary lawsuits. In both cases, we are driven by budget imperatives, and decisions made by people who don't teach, don't research, and think that professors are a lazy, whiny lot. These opinions about who I am, what I do, and what I'm worth are intensely demoralizing. Writing reminds me that these people are dead wrong.

I write because it is the one part of my job entirely in my control.*** I don't do it for any dean, provost, or state legislator. I don't pick my topic based on what will put butts in the chairs. I write because I need that daily reminder of why I fell in love with the study of Medieval Stuff in the first place: if I cease to care, then how can I expect my students to care? I write because I need to feel like a part of a scholarly community beyond Urban University, where everyone is hunkered down, waiting for the next blow. I write because I'm still an idealist who believes in learning for its own sake, and knows that losing that belief will turn me into an awful teacher. I write because, if I don't write, I'll become one of those embittered proffies who inhabit the halls of every department at institutions like mine**** across the country, doing the bare minimum of teaching because they don't care anymore, doing no writing because no one else around them cares, and spending most of their time either starting (or continuing) minute turf battles, giving the same lectures, readings, and scan-tron tests year after year, and terrorizing their junior colleagues. I remember those old men from my first two years here,***** and I wondered how they got that way. Now I see how it could happen. But I don't want it to happen to me.

I write, in short, because writing allows me to maintain my optimism about my job as a whole, in the face of increasing obstacles. The greater those obstacles become, the more I need writing to maintain my enthusiasm for both teaching and learning. Cutbacks in support and increases in teaching load are making it more difficult to research and write, rather than less. Writing is my way of pushing back.

The leaders of my university, my state, and my country are having a hard time figuring a way out of the current crisis. Writing is my way out.

**I like having written, and revising and fine-tuning my writing can be satisfying. But those first drafts? Ugh.

***Not to be confused with "publication of my writing," which is out of my control.

****I'm not arguing that all 4-4 profs are bitter and checked-out. I'm writing from the soon-to-be-4-4 perspective myself, and this post is meant to encourage people like myself to make choices that can keep that from happening. A teaching-focused institution can allow for just as much individual expression as one that helps you get research done, provided that your teaching is valued, and your autonomy and expertise are respected. And, of course,
people teaching 2-2 or less are just as capable of becoming bitter in the way I describe above. But a heavy teaching load that prevents you from doing other things that are more personal (whether it be writing, triathalons, or playing the highland pipes), if combined with a message that the only results that matter are the ones that can be quantified and placed on a spreadsheet, can be fertile ground for problems, and I think this confluence of circumstances is more likely to happen at mega-4-4 institutions like Urban University than at other types of school.

*****Making me even more grateful for current colleagues, whose good humor in the face of collapse makes this whole thing bearable, and a department chair who really does her best to mitigate the worst of the effects.


Good Enough Woman said...

Speak, sister. You've just explained exactly "why I'm getting my PhD" even though I already have a tenured CC job. Your description of the campus climate is SO right on, in every way. Kinda sad, really.

Anonymous said...

Not that I disagree with most of what you say, but isn't it rather an assumption to suggest that bitter and lazy profs are only to be found (or are found particularly) at the 4-4s?


Ms Corporealities said...

Thank you for this post. For a similar reason, though I am still doing my Ph.D., I am making myself write everyday because it helps to keep my passion and enthusiasm up. I've been experiencing many lulls, feeling lost with arguments, ideas and what I'm doing but through regular writing this is beginning to change.

The more I think about the career of being an academic the tougher it sounds. Keep it up and good luck.

Anonymous said...

I feel the same way, and write for the same reasons. What I've discovered is that it also makes me a better teacher, because I'm still engaged in Medieval Stuff, even when what I teach isn't what I'm writing about. That just makes my teaching experience better. Writing and research is a good antidote to many of academia's problems.

Anonymous said...

oops--writing and research are good antidotes...
proof-reading, the bete-noir of writing

Bookbag said...

Wow, this was a serious wake-up call to what my life might be like in a few years. It bothers me that so many people buy into the idea that professors are lazy and unprofessional (why do they?), and I'm glad to see that you are providing such a great counter-example -- even if it's mostly for your own sake, which is important too.

AliceAcademic said...

I meant it when I said you're inspiring -- I'm reading this post after doing over an hour of writing this morning (after an entirely dry month!) I love the "why" post here, and now I have lots more to say, but I'll have to save that for a post on my own blog and go prep for my class.

squadratomagico said...

Great post, Notorious!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

So many reactions already. Why are you all up so early?

Martha, excellent point. I think that came across wrong -- what I meant to say was that increased teaching load at institutions that don't make noises about valuing professors tends to lead to bitterness and alienation. I'm at a 4-4 (soon to be in fact as well as in theory), and these were some of the people I saw when I arrived. When I think back to our grad school, I remember that some people were just as capable of manufacturing bitterness and resentment on a 2-2 with TAs to do their grading, and certainly they were capable of terrorizing their underlings (you *know* who I'm talking about!). But there's something about the quality of what I saw with the already-checked-out types when I arrived here.

Just the same, I don't want anyone to think that I'm harshing on the 4-4ers, so I'll stick in another footnote.

Anonymous said...

That's certainly a good enough answer for me. And boy, yes, I *do* know who you are talking about!


Bavardess said...

Excellent post. I often find that writing gives meaning to a world that sometimes seems meaningless and superficial. I despair about the corporatisation of higher education, though. Depressing.

Historiann said...

Love the title of this post.

As for the content of the post: this is a major strike for mental health in our time. Budget crisis or no, this is the only way to keep on a'truckin' after tenure anyway.

You have to be like a shark always moving forward...

City Mama, Ph.D. said...

WOW - that post was the kick in the tuchas that I have been needing. I wanted to cheer by the end of it....thanks!

Another Damned Medievalist said...