Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Next Big Thing

If it isn't already clear from my recent posts, both the semester and the academic year are limping painfully toward their close here at RU. Today I was missing half of my students in one class, most of them for semi-legitimate reasons; they're dragging, and so am I.

I don't think that my own exhaustion is especially apparent to my students, since I tend to get more manic and more enthusiastic the guiltier I feel about being underprepared (I'm also more patient on account of that same guilt: what right do I have to be short-tempered about my students' not remembering an obvious plot detail, or not being able to decipher a metaphor, when I barely completed the reading myself and have nothing so much as resembling a lesson plan?). But although I do believe that my guilty, half-assed classes are sometimes much better than the ones I've really thought through, teaching this way for any length of time is its own kind of stress; worrying about being the lamest and laziest fraud on God's green earth isn't exactly a productive use of my energy.

So I'm ready for summer. But as I approach that long, lovely vacation I'm also approaching Year Two on the tenure track and in this location, and I'm more concerned about those things than perhaps I ought to be.

Make no mistake: there are no actual hurdles that I anticipate in Year Two. What I'm worried about is the kind of sophomore slump I'm afraid I'm prone to. Consider: my first year in college was busy and exciting; I wasn't homesick and I didn't really question my abilities, or at least not too often. My second year? I was completely miserable. I remember starting to cry one day as I was walking across campus and realizing that not only did I have no idea what I was crying about, but that I had no one to talk to about whatever that something might be. Similarly, my first year in grad school, though certainly stressful, was also pretty exciting. . . but my second year was beyond miserable (and things didn't get better for a long while after).

Those examples are both drawn from my schooling, but even my second year of post-collegiate adulthood felt somewhat aimless and disappointing after the fun and novelty of that first year.

So you see the pattern. I think that I tend to throw myself into new situations hopefully and enthusiastically, and either genuinely enjoy myself or am too busy to wonder whether I am, in fact, enjoying myself. But after a year there's not a lot that's new, and I either get bored or realize how stressful or less-than-fully-satisfying my situation actually is.

Maybe what I need, then, is something to focus my energies and attention on for the next several years. For a long while, that something was finishing my dissertation and getting a t-t job; I had other interests and goals, sure, but those were the defining ones, the ones that directed all my other ambitions. But now I'm not sure what The Next Big Thing is supposed to be:
Is it my first monograph?

Is it getting tenure?

Is it working toward getting a different kind of job (or a job in a different location?)

Is it buying a house?

Is it getting married?

Is it developing some kind of sideline identity? (As, I don't know--a journalist? a novelist? a Wise and Famous Blogger?)
Not all of those are things that I care about equally (or even necessarily care about, period); the point is that while any one of them would be a reasonable short-term goal, they're all short-term goals: reasonable and entirely achievable. Most of them would present certain challenges and produce certain pleasures, but none is all-consuming. And I wish, I think, to be consumed.

Maybe this is just what it means to be an adult, or to have found something that one truly enjoys: from there on in, the challenges and the changes are much more modest and incremental, without the seemingly revolutionary potential of every decision made in one's early 20s.

I love my profession and I'm relieved to have made it to a job that I like in a city that I also like, with a good salary and benefits. Unless I started sleeping with my students, I'd almost certainly get tenure here--and I could stick around for the next 30 years, publish some books, and have a perfectly pleasant life.

And yet. . . the prospect of being here or anywhere for thirty years--even doing things I enjoy and am good at--feels strangely more like a sentence than a reward.


Anonymous said...

Getting married is a SHORT TERM goal???

Flavia said...

In the same sense that becoming, say, a novelist (which I don't aspire to, BTW) is a short-term goal, yes: my emphasis here is on the becoming, not the being. One IS MARRIED (or is an academic, or a novelist, or whatever) for a long time. But getting to that state, to the point at which one can say "I am a novelist" is usually a shorter process. I'm more interested, I think, in becoming than in being; being is when one gets bored.

Artifact Junkie said...

If I may be so bold... I wonder if feeling like tenure being a sentence instead of a reward, has to do with so many people I know between the ages of 30-45 spending so much time skipping skittishly from one contract to another for something (i.e. a rewarding long term career) that's always been out of reach. It's like a part of us has grown used to instability.

I'm told so often that I'm one of the generation who should expect to be on perpetual contract that I think if I ever landed a full time permenent position with benefits I would be terrified. Developing projects over the long term and not 12 month period? Scary.

I imagine tenure can be like that - suddenly you can think of projects in long stages. And if you haven't done that before, it can be scary.

Anonymous said...

get married!

dhawhee said...

I thought you were already a Wise and Famous Blogger!

phd me said...

Oof, that pretty much describes my teaching at the moment. I know there are things I still need to teach them but, for the life of me, I don't know what they are.

And I too wonder what the Next Big Thing is supposed to be. So with you on this post.

Ancarett said...

You're wise to be wary of the sophomore slump. I know that in my second and third year here, I still had a lot up in the air -- a pile of new preps, settling into married life, new pets and trying to publish. Tenure, surprisingly enough, wasn't a scary deadline looming over me: somehow I felt that I was a shoo-in (well, there was a spot of worry about my French fluency, but that went fine in the end).

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that maybe a useful big goal that doesn't seem like one, is learning how to enjoy where you are at the moment even if where you are isn't going to be forever. Checking out the local parks this summer, maybe? Getting a feel for the local restaurant culture once term's all squared away? Something that allows you to just be and experience what's out there in the rest of life that isn't all achievement-oriented.

Eva Kopie said...

It seems like, as a professor, it would be easy to hide away from the world for the rest of your life now, but wouldn't you be cheating your students, then, plus cheating your academic work of relevency and vigor? You ought not settle yet! Find something to be excited about! I like reading your blog; it's always fresh and simply written and interesting. Don't go boring and retired on me! I think you could have a lot to say about something.

Dr. Virago said...

Man, Flavia, once again you manage to write a post I could have written. Sometimes I think I should post nothing but "see Flavia's blog." I'm glad to know I'm not the only one just completing the reading before class and going in with a "lesson plan" that consist of a couple questions on post-it notes and a few dog-eared pages.

Anyway, as for the "30-year sentence" issue, I hear ya. We're at similar institutions in similar kinds of towns, and in my case I keep singing Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" But the planning for next stages does help. Bullock and I keep dreaming of the vacation land/house and looking at real estate. And when we're not overworked, we try to get out and try new restaurants, see quaint little towns in the area, and things like that. I figure I'm likely here for the long haul just because Bullock and I already have jobs in the same institution and that's just too hard to come by on the market. So I'm trying to find ways not to think of this as a "being stuck" but of having something good. Just like a relationship with a person, I think a relationship with a job and a place is ongoing work.

Of course, you've got GWB, so your situation might change in the future. In the meantime, explore where you are, tinker with your teaching, and keep it interesting.

Anonymous said...

It's amazing to me how restless academics are! Although tenure is supposed to promise stability, it actually instills wanderlust. I was at a similar stage, having been tenured for a few yrs now. I thought what I needed was another job but then I got a great research project dumped in my lap. I say go with the monograph.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Oh, thank you sooo much! I'm feeling all of these things. I'm especially worried, because I'm up for tenure (or the equivalent thereof) at the end of next summer -- I only have a two-year run-in to prepare my portfolio, etc., so I need to keep burning bright. Without, of course, burning out.

Anonymous said...

My second-year project was adding lots of administrative things -- mostly getting the defunct English Club up and running and taking over the running of an interdisciplinary program, but also teaching in a cross-department program. Lots more meetings, but also connecting with an academic institution in a different way that I found rewarding. And, at my school at least, these administrative projects looked *fabulous* when I went up for tenure.

medieval woman said...

Hey Flavia-Flave:

I really respond to your "more interested in the becoming rather than the being" comment. That's something that I feel all over the place - marriage, finishing the diss, etc. I do think there's a wanderlust and a feeling of constant transition inherent in going to grad school and (for many of us) taking a few tries to get a job. The temporariness of our lives is the aspect that we ostensibly poo-poo and groan about, but then when the opportunity comes to settle - for a long time! - we resist it. I'll be thinking about this next year at the start of my job. I'm sure the shine will still be there, but at the end of next year (as you are at the end of your first year at RU) I think I'll start scratching around at the edges of my office window and looking around for the next transition - instinctively if not consciously. But if the Dutchman could get a job anywhere around there, I'd stay and no one could pry me out with a crowbar! :) At least I think I would...

I think you should write the monograph (b/c your project sounds so great) *and* consider eloping to Greece or something!

Flavia said...

I think that MW hits this on the head: if academics are restless, maybe it's because our training, the job market, and the profession more generally teaches us to think of so many stages of our development as temporary. I too HATED this for most of the time that I was existing in professional limbo. . . but I guess that one gets used to it. And even likes it.

Ancarett & Dr. V: good advice. And now that that weather here is cooperating, I actually *feel* like checking out the local parks and the not-so-local historical sites & other attractions.

And ADM: I can't believe that you're up for tenure already! Good luck with all that. . .