Monday, June 24, 2013

On the internet, every week is old home week

As I've been trying to finish up revisions on an article, I've found myself taking an increasing number of internet breaks--the five minutes that stretch into ten that stretch into a whole afternoon gone. To be fair, I entered this particular rabbit hole with the best of intentions: I wanted to see if an acquaintance's book was out yet, so I could ILL it. But Googling him led me to his CV, and then to looking up his publications in the MLA database--and the next thing you know I was looking up practically everybody I've ever known to see what they've accomplished since the last time I checked in on them.

And, well, that takes a while.

But I'd defend this particular episode of Google- and career-stalking on these grounds: it's been forever since I last indulged in it.

My first two or three years post-degree were a different story. I felt I was keeping obsessive tabs on how everyone else in the profession was doing: not just people in my field, but acquaintances from grad school and their colleagues. It wasn't about envy or feelings of rivalry (at least not most of the time); I really felt I had no clue what I was supposed to be doing and at what rate. In grad school, there had been a pretty clear series of hoops to move through, and we moved through them at more or less the same pace. And when one of my compeers got a journal article accepted or went to a conference, I knew it.

It was different once I had a tenure-line job. For one thing, my colleagues were at different career stages, so it was harder to assess what would be an appropriate level of production for me at mine. For another, there was only one person in my subfield. And for three. . . we just didn't talk about that stuff too explicitly. We talked about teaching, departmental business, our personal lives. And while I had a mentor and a very clear T&P document, I didn't have a sense of how my department's promotion and tenure standards stacked up against other departments', or even of how much my colleagues were actually doing (as opposed to the minimum of what they and I needed to do).

So I tracked the progress of people I knew who were in my field and closer to my career stage. There was a certain woman a few years ahead of me in the profession who became my aspirational benchmark. I didn't really know her and our work wasn't especially related, but for a variety of reasons I decided that whatever she was doing (the places she was getting published, the fellowships she was receiving) were a good index of what I should be shooting for.

There were some smart things about this strategy. I was able to identify and pursue opportunities I wouldn't otherwise have known about, and keeping my ear to the ground, as it were, helped me to make better choices about where and how to spend my professional energy.

At the same time, though, it wasn't totally healthy to be constantly comparing myself to others. It's also wrongheaded to think that you can take a valid measure of anyone's scholarly or professional development--including your own--on a semesterly or yearly basis. Scholarly time doesn't work like that. Sometimes a person goes three years with no new publications because of a backlog at a press or journal, or because they're immersed in a massive book project--or because they got pregnant or married or divorced or depressed. During other periods, they might seem to be in constant motion as everything piles up on their CV at once.

Coming to this realization may be why I've stopped keeping active tabs on other people's professional lives. Sure, I know how my friends are doing--because they're my friends--and I'm eager to hear about new work by those I admire. But I no longer think that I'm learning much about what I should be doing or where I stand by comparing myself with others.


So what was behind this recent flurry of Google-stalking? A deep aversion to working on my article, for one, but I think I also thought that now--when most the people I know are five to eight years post-degree--some patterns would be more apparent and it would be easier to assess who's doing what. And I'm curious, in a more distant and less personal way, about what it means to be a scholar at early midcareer at this historical moment in the life of the profession: what does that path of a young(ish) scholar look like in this day and age?

But while it's easy to identify the extremes (those who have published twice as much as anyone else and those who have dramatically underperformed or overperformed whatever the conventional wisdom about their early "potential"), the signal is still pretty fuzzy.

What we need, obviously, is a longitudinal study.

I'd hazard a guess that it takes 10 or 15 years post-degree to start to see the shape of anyone's career very clearly. In the same way that it's pointless to hyperventilate about what a loooooser you are on the eve of your five- or ten-year college reunion (because seriously, no one's who they're going to be yet, and anyone who thinks they are is the boringest person alive), it's pointless to compare oneself too closely to others professionally. Just do your thing and go to the damn reunion.

So maybe we should check in on each other only every five years, as we do with our college classmates. We could even submit ridiculous self-narratives and assemble them into a handy bound volume.

No, you're right: that's what the internet is for.


Anonymous said...

"But I'd defend this particular episode of Google- and career-stalking on these grounds: it's been forever since I last indulged in it."

It's good to know that this incessant checking on other people may come to an end. I just graduated last year and I find myself checking on my peers constantly. One of my cohort mates who graduated with me just posted hir cv with a publication sent to a flagship journal. Now I wonder if I should do the same.

I do agree with you that in grad school and even now it is helpful to know what's reasonable, what others in my station are doing. But it's also a relief to see that I may grow out of this as well.

Flavia said...


I'm here for ya. I like to think it's my blog's mission to publicly admit to doing all the embarrassing things that we all secretly do.

As for your cohort mate: I think it's a bad idea to publicly announce where your work is under submission. Naturally, we all do this for job applications or our annual reports or fellowship applications, and it's right that we should--especially when you're early in your career, it's important to let people know what you have in the pipeline, what stage it's at (if you have nothing in print but you've received an R&R from a top journal, that info is really valuable to a hiring committee).

But. . . there's also the potential for abuse, as well as for this scenario.

Historiann said...

I have a commenter on my blog (also a friend) who repeatedly says that the only effective measure of our teaching "outcomes" is in the future obituaries of our students. IOW, the only measure of a liberal education is a life well lived.

I think this is pretty much on the mark for Ph.D.s--there are a number of people in my subfield who toiled away for 20 years at fairly obscure institutions before getting offers from Ivy League/Flagship U. type jobs, usually after a third book! So maybe 10-15 years isn't really the right scale for some.

Susan said...

Like Historiann, I think the time-scale is longer. The real test for most people comes with the second book, when you don't start from a dissertation (usually). It almost always takes people longer than they expect, and I find the newly tenured often remarkably ungenerous to the trajectories people take as they try to create interesting and compelling scholarship that keeps them interested. (Lots of people I know go in odd directions for the second project, or the second project morphs, or....)

I had a professor in college who told us that good historians were like wine, they improved with age.

Flavia said...

Historiann & Susan:

Sure. I wasn't saying that 10-15 years post-degree provided a final verdict on anyone's career--I was proposing that it might be the first point at which the general shape of someone's scholarly life could be said to be starting to come into focus.

My point is that even the tenure-year (or thereabouts) is still too early to assess much of anything, but that a first reading might be made around year 10 or 15, with subsequent readings every five or ten years thereafter.

But I'm open to hearing objections to that schedule.

My dad, who has gone to every one of his high school reunions (his latest was his 55th-year, I think), has long remarked that it wasn't until the 25th that people seemed to have settled into themselves and stopped having something to prove.