Sunday, March 15, 2015


One of the difficult things about the early stages of one's career is never being sure how much you should be doing, what's normal, what's possible. This is one--though certainly not the only!--reason that academics feel they're never working hard enough and are haunted by vague feelings of guilt and idleness and shame.

In my experience, those feelings lessen after a while: you learn the rhythms of your job and your life, when you work best, what's normal and possible for you--and also you clear certain hurdles (reappointment, tenure, book publication, whatever). Now that I'm nearly a decade post-degree, I can also better identify the outliers.

In grad school, this is almost impossible. You don't know if the person who completes all his seminar papers early and his dissertation in five years is brilliant, disciplined, facile--or just really well prepared for graduate work. And your job-market competitor who has three articles to your one may have many more publications by percentage--but only two more publications, numerically. It's hard to know how to read that kind of data.

Things are a little clearer now. That person who already has fifteen articles when even her more serious peers have half that? Who has a third book out before most people have a second? She's working at a totally different level. And that's a relief to know. If I assumed her to be the norm, I might feel shitty about myself. But understanding her to be the scholarly equivalent of a fashion model--exceptional, admirable, even aspirational in some respects, but not a standard any sane person would expect me to meet--frees me to feel good about what I can do.

Although the conditions of one's employment certainly affect what's possible, there are outliers up and down the academic food chain. Any job that has some research expectations and gives research some time and some support is going to see a wide range of outcomes. Moreover, there are people at middling institutions who are outliers not just for that institution or their professional circumstances, but for their career cohort. I know people at institutions like my own who are dramatically outpublishing their peers with fancier jobs.

And here's where I say something a little controversial: while acknowledging both that professional circumstances shape what's possible and that most people's productivity ebbs and flows over the course of a career, I think that, on average, we work at the rates we work at. I do not seriously believe that if I had an R1 job my output would look materially different. Maybe I'd publish an additional article every two or three years or my books would come out slightly faster, but I don't believe the fundamental pace of my thinking and writing would change.

I like to believe that I would do just fine at a fancier job, but I have no illusions that suddenly I'd be able to publish a book every five years; even the outliers at R1s are lucky to do that, and if I'm not an outlier at my current institution, there's no reason to think I would be at another.


Comradde PhysioProffe said...

I'm sure you're right about humanities scholarship. But in the sciences, one's environment and the resources that are available in it--which include money, students, and post-docs--have a *huge* impact on one's scholarly productivity.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I'm the most productive scholar in my cohort (5 years or less time) at HU, and I do think that I would be more productive at a fancier school, because I'm already a fairly prolific writer. When I have time to write, I do it. If I didn't teach such an insane schedule, I'd do more of it. Plus, if I could pop over to the library for resources instead of ILLing everything, I think I'd waste a lot less time waiting around for things. So I'd have more time to read, too.

But maybe I'm wrong. I'll probably not get Columbia to convert and give me a job anytime soon, so I will probably never find out. :) But when I had access to Stanford's library when I was in the bay area, I wrote my dissertation very, very fast. So if past is prologue, I think I'd be more successful if I had a better library on my campus.

Flavia said...


Yes, I think the sciences are different for the reasons you note; one simply cannot do the kind of research at a teaching institution that one can do at a major R1.

This isn't to say that there aren't significant inequities in the humanities, especially between the very fanciest and the least-resourced institutions; I would never suggest that the average faculty member at a 4/4 can do as much as the average faculty member at an R1. But in the humanities, I do think the quality of the work of the two can be just as good (and in exceptional cases, so can the quantity); ILL and access to a few key databases are great levelers. For us, time is a much more important variable than material resources.

Flavia said...


Why is ILL a hindrance? I get (completely!) why your teaching schedule is a burden, but for me ILL is an extremely minor inconvenience. In grad school I still had to find a book in the library catalog, get to campus, and then go up into the stacks to retrieve it. Ordering it through ILL and then picking it up at circulation is a negligible increase in time, if it's even that. I can't browse the stacks, and that is indeed a loss. But ILL is a pretty efficient way to get specific items that I know or think I need to look at.

JaneB said...

For me ILL is a burden because it interrupts the input to the thought I am having, so it slows down the creative part of the process (and as an arch procrastinator, any slow down is significant). Fortunately I am also a scientist who can do cheap- ass science that still makes good papers, so I survive, but oh, what I could do with a technician and a couple of juniors... If only because nearly all my best ideas come from explaining the basics to junior staff and I don't get to teach my research stuff at my place since there's on masters courses.....

Flavia said...

Jane B:

Ah, that makes sense. I've never done much work in the library, so carrying books home is carrying books home regardless!

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

For me, ILL is an inconvenience because it means my work is at the mercy of the library's timeline. Unfortunately, my children don't care about the library's timelines, and neither does my non-academic, though supportive, spouse. And neither do students who demand that their papers be graded within a couple of weeks of turning in assignments. I have very limited amounts of time to work, and if I don't have sources when I need them, then I lose that work time. Of course, when I'm working on a project pretty regularly, I just give up sleep to do it. Not like you need a sharp mind to write about Shakespeare, right? ;)

Renaissance Girl said...

I've been thinking about this post for a couple of days, and it seems to me that our sense of our own progress is tied in significant ways to where we are on the professional path, and where we imagine we might be later. While one might feel satisfied with one's in-lier status at one's own institution, the job market and its endless urge to hypercompetitiveness in the event one decides to try to make a move(i.e., for a spouse) may keep those anxieties about, as you put it, "how much one should be doing" very much at the front of the mind. Consciousness about how the market (truly or in imagination) demands that we demonstrate the *potential* to be, and to be over time, an outlier remains sharp for me even though, for a few years yet, I'll likely be where I am.

Flavia said...


Yes to this 100%. As my spouse has written elsewhere, anyone who wants to make a move to another institution--but especially to an institution a step or two above one's current one--needs to already be producing at the level of the faculty who are already there; doing above-average for your current institution isn't enough, and doing as well as the middling members of the new department isn't enough (it's always tempting to cherry-pick the outliers on the low end, and say, "see? I'm doing more/better/as much work as people at Super Fancy-Pants U! they should totally hire me!).

So, yeah. I get it. I'd like to continue to think of myself as mobile over the long-term, too, though obviously I have no immediate plans for any moves other than the one I already have scheduled! I think what I'm saying is that I'm accepting that I can't keep up in quantity with the outliers, at least not at this stage of my career (though who knows what the fuller course of everyone's career will look like?). But perhaps I can still hope to be competitive on quality.