Tuesday, May 31, 2016

2 legit 2 quit

It's finally happened: most days, I mostly don't feel like a fraud!

Or to put it more positively: I feel, increasingly, like a legitimate Knower of Things.

I wouldn't say that this is the end of Impostor Syndrome, exactly; I'm still painfully aware of how clumsy my language skills are and how little I know about various things that are, technically, within my specialty (the Continental Renaissance! Most of the sixteenth century! Playwrights who aren't Shakespeare, Marlowe, or Jonson!). But I feel, finally, that I know enough about some things that all the stuff I don't know isn't totally discrediting.

This sense of legitimacy has been a long time coming. I submitted my dissertation eleven years ago and I've just finished my tenth year as tenured or tenure-line faculty. I've felt comfortable in the classroom for a very long while. But as a scholar I've tended to feel, at best, just minimally competent--in possession of exactly enough knowledge to write a given conference paper or article, without a datum to spare.

There are probably a couple of reasons it's taken so long. First, my first book covered 100 years and six authors (and focused almost entirely on noncanonical texts), so I really did know only a small slice about each of the authors/historical moments in which I was ostensibly an expert. And then, at just the point that I started to feel comfortable with my mastery of that material--as well as more canonical figures like Shakespeare--I started working on my second book, which immediately required lengthy detours into totally new areas (Patristics, the Middle Ages, liturgical history). So my sense of the shallowness and insufficiency of my learning is partly a side-effect of trying to be conversant in a lot of different things.

But some people emerge from grad school--heck, even from college--with a blithe confidence in their learning and the ability to speak glibly and persuasively about any manner of subjects. My own graduate program privileged both broad training and an easy, learned manner; the fact that I didn't have the latter (whether through introversion, modesty, or a slow brain) means I've always over-valued this kind of performance of intelligence. Doesn't it stand to reason that those who can speak learnedly are drawing on deeper reserves of learning than those who can't?

This past year, though, I've started to feel that my reserves are deeper than I thought. Say that a student asks an oddball or sidebar question--maybe it's a biographical or historical detail she saw in a footnote; maybe it's a big-picture question about the culture and its values. In the past, even when I knew a bit about the subject in question, I'd answer briefly and move on. These days I have to struggle not to share all the cool stuff I know about how early moderns read a particular biblical passage or what current scholarship thinks about some event in Milton's early life. Since such a digression usually isn't directly relevant to whatever we're doing in class, I rarely allow myself more than sixty seconds--but even sixty seconds of sharing freaky factoids reminds me of my own professors and how impressed I was by similar shows of seeming erudition.

And it's not just in the classroom: the conference Q&A feels less terrifying than it used to, and I find myself more frequently offering advice, asking questions, and generally presuming that I have something to contribute to my peers and seniors. Maybe this is the long-deferred payoff of learning a small-to-moderate amount about a shit-ton of things, or maybe it's the confidence that comes with middle age and having enough professional credibility that I figure there's a greater-than-even chance that people will take me seriously.

Whatever the cause, feeling legitimate is a great thing. But there's a downside: believing that you know stuff and that people want to hear about it dramatically raises your odds of turning into a pontificating, digressive bore.

So for now I'll stick to fascinating/boring people for just sixty seconds at a time.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Personality transplant

Changing jobs has made me think harder about a phenomenon I've long been curious about: the way departments (or academic divisions or entire institutions) develop distinct personalities.

That they have such personalities I take as a given, though both the recognition of a particular place's personality and any description of it are bound to be subjective and imperfect. For one thing, we all tend to read the networks to which we belong as normative.

It wasn't until a few years into my first job--after I'd made friends at other places and met their colleagues--that I began to see that, relative to those other departments, my own was more X or less Y, and that my colleagues, on the whole, tended to hold these values and not those. The exact descriptors aren't important, but I'm sure you can supply your own, both for places you've worked or places you know well. Some departments give off a general sense of being cynical, friendly, downtrodden, agreeable, competitive, scatterbrained, efficient, political, argumentative, optimistic, and so on.

But even once I'd started noticing that one department, say, seemed full of awkward introverts while another was cheery and gregarious, I understood this personality to be primarily about hiring (and secondarily about a process of acculturation that reinforced whatever the department's dominant traits might be): a friendly department might subtly preference candidates with certain signs of warmth and energy, and a place where everyone thought of herself as an up-and-comer might hire people who performed ambition in similar ways. And if enough people in a department embodied certain traits or shared certain values, those would get communicated more widely even to those who might not, in other contexts, really be that thing.

I still believe that's an important part of the story. But it's not the whole of it.

The thing is, a department's personality is dynamic and relational, formed by the way individual temperaments and communication styles collide and collaborate--and how they, together, respond to external circumstances. So, yes: you can get a sense of a place by meeting its individual members and noticing that they tend to be warm, or flaky, or self-important, or whatever. But its personality really emerges in its decision-making processes. How do things get done, and for what reasons, and by whom? Who has a voice, and what kind of assumptions and attitudes are on display?

The distinctiveness of those things is a lot harder to gain perspective on when you're living inside a place. I've written before about toxic departments and the way they remold a person's sense of self, but it's not just toxic workplaces that create their own reality. I suspect most departments do, just as most families do. And in the same way that it's easier to see the collective personality of your in-laws than it is to see what's unusual about your own family, it's easier to get a read on a department once you have a) a sense of what it means to be a member of a department, but b) some separation from the department in question.

So yeah: moving at midcareer makes some things extremely obvious. On the one hand, the personality of your new department is likely to be clearer than your old department's was--but at the same time, experiencing a new place inevitably brings the personality of the former into sharper focus.

But being plunked down into a place where the things you took to be normative suddenly aren't also suggests another explanation for how departments acquire personalities. It's not just about hiring, or even about how specific personalities interact with one another. It's about things that happened before you got there and that involved people you'll never meet. It might have to do with a department chair who retired a decade ago, or with a particular institutional crisis or success. Or it's about dynamics beyond the department: the stability of the upper administration; the political climate in your state.

And this raises the question of how long a particular personality persists. Let's say that a given set of attitudes and behaviors are the result of external circumstances, whether good or bad: an inspiring chair and lots of resources; an upper administration with a siege mentality. When those circumstances change, how quickly do the learned responses of a department change? As in a family, there's not a lot of turnover, and early habits can become ingrained. If the senior and mid-career faculty came up under a particular regime, they might still communicate their attitudes to those hired much later.

So who shapes a place's personality? All of us. None of us. But that doesn't mean we're off the hook.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Knowing better

You know what's vexing about being mid-career at a new institution?

You already know everything, and you have all the impatience and world-weariness that come with being at mid-career--but no one else knows that you know everything! And you kinda don't! A new institution means rules and procedures that you don't fully understand (ranging from basic chain-of-command issues to the longer history of why things get done X way), not to mention unknown people and personalities, so when you see something that strikes you as problematic, it's hard to know when interjecting an opinion would bring some much-needed outside perspective. . . and when you should shut your damn mouth.

This is an even bigger problem if you're me, and have a fundamental conviction that your way of doing things is always the best, most reasonable, and most efficient one.

I mean, let's be honest: it probably is. But in order to convince people of that, you still have to understand the terms of debate, the personalities, and all the rest. And I don't know those things. So instead of seeming like the patient, reasonable one (another fundamental conviction that I hold about myself), I fear I come across as simultaneously intemperate and patronizing.

And sometimes I find myself at big, college-wide meetings where someone is being That Guy--perseverating, bloviating, whatever--and I look sideways at my neighbor, a total stranger, and he looks sideways at me, and we both exchange an omigod eyeroll and it feels all nice and familiar--and then suddenly I realize I have no idea what we're actually bonding over. Is it That Guy? Is my neighbor signalling that, holy hell, there's Fred being Fred again? Or is he rolling his eyes at the particular issue under discussion, which is a total non-starter that some idiot or other raises at every meeting?

I have no idea! I just have reflexive mid-career snark spilling out of me!

I suppose there are virtues, though. Being a midcareer newbie means you have certain kinds of cynicism, but lack others. I've been to enough meetings and met enough academics that I know all the types and behaviors--the irrelevant stand-taker who cares more about students (or adjuncts or, God help us, Palestine) than all the rest of you; the perseverator; the committee chair who can't keep to an agenda; the person obsessed with Robert's Rules of Order. Those things are pretty much the same from one place to the next. But when you don't know all the personalities and their backstories and prior conflicts, and you have no idea what proposals have been shot down before, you may have more optimism and a greater willingness to believe that things can be done differently.

Because, of course: you know better than everyone.