Friday, April 21, 2017

Distraction is the devil's work

On my drive home from work the other week I heard an interview with the author of Deep Work, which makes the case for work environments that allow us sustained time to focus solely on one task--periods where no one can interrupt and where we eliminate all distractions and temptations, especially electronic ones.

Now, those of us who write and think for (a portion of) our living know that it's important to have periods of immersion, but I confess that in recent years I haven't considered all distractions as equally harmful. If I set aside three or four hours to write, what's the harm, when I'm stuck on a sentence, in clicking over to Facebook for two minutes now and again? Surely that's not the same as being called away to a meeting! But the book's author, Cal Newport, claims that even brief distractions leave a "residue" that it takes 20 minutes to fully wipe away. Accordingly, he argues that 90 minutes, distraction-free, is the minimum required for "deep work."

I'm not sure that I'm convinced by those exact figures, but hearing Newport did inspire me to address my distraction-creep. I always intend to get X amount of work done (read a book of Paradise Lost, grade three papers) before a break to check my phone or the internet, but even though I'm pretty good at not allowing myself to get sucked into serious distraction, over the past year I've definitely felt my hands to be increasingly itchy for quick hits of email or social media.

So the week after hearing Newport, I challenged myself, when I had writing time set aside, to write for 90 or 120 uninterrupted minutes with no distractors (other than cats, or hunger, or the bathroom). It was blissful. Once or twice I went way past the mark because I just wasn't ready to stop.

And since I'm teaching a senior seminar on Early Modern ideas about the afterlife, I somehow also found myself thinking about the rhetoric of demonic temptation and whether it might bring anything useful to the way we talk about distraction. Now, I'm comfortable using the discourse of "sin" for the variety of ways that we fail or harm other people, and seeing our shortcoming as a result of our fallen condition has likewise always resonated for me--but the devil most emphatically has not. I'm not interested in the devil, just as I'm not interested in fairies or vampires or zombies. To the extent that I've thought about the psychological work that believing in a devil does, I guess I've always assumed it to be purely fear-mongery: stay vigilant! Because the devil wants your sooooouul.

But what with the class and my attempts to resist distracting urges, I wondered what it would feel like to reframe the desire to check my phone in the middle of a grading or writing session as a temptation sent by the devil. Presumably, there are people all over the world who see things in this light, just as there were in ages past. So when I was tempted to reach for my phone, instead of thinking, "aw, what's the harm? it's just for a minute or two," I told myself, "nothing new has happened in the past 20 minutes. You don't even want to do this. This is the devil trying to distract you."

And instead of feeling paranoid about my vulnerability to malign influences, I felt how true it was that this was a stupid distraction and one that I could resist--because it wasn't, after all, coming from me! I had a better self, one who was actually happier not checking Facebook every 15 minutes!

So there you have it: how the devil made me a better writer, no soul-selling required.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Always anticipating until it's over

It's that time of year when I keep expecting--at any moment!--to feel on the downward slope, where either the course prep and grading will have genuinely eased up or where I'll have crossed enough psychological thresholds (each class is now on its final text! I've passed out the last assignment sheet!) that I know the end is in sight even if nothing in my daily life has changed.

But just as I cross one big thing off my list, I'm reminded of another: peer teaching observations to write up. Essays to score for undergraduate assessment. My annual faculty report. An M.A. thesis from a student whose committee I'd forgotten I was on. An emergency three-hour meeting of that committee that hasn't met all semester. You know how it is.

Still, one of these days it really will be true: stuff will get crossed off the list and nothing new will get added. I'll submit grades, put an "away" message on my email, and for a week or two I'll luxuriate in a sense of satisfied completion.

In this way, my teaching and institutional obligations are unlike the rest of my scholarly life, where I'm rarely able to rest in a sense of achievement. This isn't about my being particularly disgruntled or hard on myself, but about the fact that even the biggest academic achievements tend to happen in endless increments.

I mean, let's say you're hard at work on an article for six months, a year, or two. When do you get to revel in its completion? When you send it out for review? When it finally gets accepted? When the last revisions are in? Or two years later when it actually sees print? By then I'm usually over it--and unsure if anyone has or will ever read it. (I may get nice notes later on, confirming that people have read it, but by then it truly doesn't feel like my work anymore.) The same is true for tenure: there are so goddamn many levels of approval that to celebrate before the last one is premature. . . but when the last one arrives there's no surprise and no suspense left to lift.

It's as if everything is incredibly far off on the horizon until the moment it's in the rear-view mirror.

The past six months have given me a lot of professional validation in a lot of forms. I don't want to make too much of any one, and I haven't publicized many of them for this reason; I'm at a comfortable enough place, professionally, where that feels tacky. Not only do I get more external validation now than I used to, but most of it's based on stuff I did a year or two or five ago, and I try to look forward rather than patting myself on the back for what's done.

But I suppose recognition, in our field, is always mis-timed and never feels earned (or maybe that's just me): either it comes for work that's past, and thus doesn't assuage my fear that I'll never do anything as good again--or it comes because I've succeeded in getting someone excited about work I haven't yet done, which likewise feeds my anxiety about not succeeding and not finishing.

And that's a stupid way to live. So I'm trying to find ways of celebrating, or at least marking the moment and pausing to feel good, when nice things come along.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Lifetime employment, for now

On Monday I was notified that the Board of Trustees had approved my tenure. So I have job security again. Or at least until the state decides to abolish tenure.

I know: I never exactly mentioned that I had to give up tenure to take this job. It's not something I was particularly happy about, and it's one of the reasons I negotiated an unpaid leave from my previous college. As I've written before, the casualization crisis means that even the luckiest among us can be convinced of our precarity (an experience that does not, alas, always translate into solidarity with those who are truly precarious), and I'd had some paranoid idea that someone might just decide it was cheaper to get rid of me.

This is, of course, a thing that has happened in the world--but after a couple of months I felt confident that it probably wasn't going to happen here, or to me. The vast machinery of a unionized, public university, with its predictable policies and procedures, was one reassurance. I also noticed that administrators, when they met me, either already knew who I was or seemed unusually pleased to be told. And I had to remind myself: right! I was a good hire! Everyone's happy here!

I mean, I didn't feel that way at every second. But it was good to feel that way sometimes.


So what's it like, going through tenure again? On the one hand, the external review process gave me very little anxiety. I knew I had a strong research profile, if only because I'd had four more years in which to build it up. But everything institution-specific was stressful, not because my university doesn't have clear guidelines, but because they were entirely new. Ordinarily, one goes through a third- and fifth-year review, so by tenure-time the genre of the dossier is deeply familiar. But I hadn't gone through those reviews at this institution. I was also the first person in living memory to arrive with so many years of prior service, so my file didn't look like anyone else's. Moreover, I had virtually no track record of service at my new institution and very little teaching. So I remained apprehensive that some committee at some level would decide I needed more seasoning--or that I'd violated a hugely important requirement in having sixteen tabs in my binder rather than the regulation fourteen.

But it wasn't all bad. In addition to the compensations that came with my hiring (the fact that I'd kept rank and gotten a good raise and start-up package), there were a few pleasures to go along with the tedium of snapping in and out tab dividers and protective sleeves. I do like thinking about what animates my pedagogy and my research, and I kinda like assembling information into a clear and digestible format. And because my new employer cares a lot more about quantifying research quality and impact--which means I had to hunt down every last citation or review of my work--I wound up with a delightful document that enumerates my book's reviews and quotes the single best sentence, phrase, or in some cases, isolated words, from each one. Tendentious? Yes. The best I will ever feel about myself? Just possibly.

Even more surprising was how enjoyable the external review process felt. I don't have access to the recommendation letters, of course, but because the reviewers get mentioned and quoted in small, glowing snippets in the recommendations made by my departmental and college committees, I do have their names (and a few of their nicest words). It's moving to think that these six people, half of whom I've never met but all of whose work is essential to my own, were willing to sit down and read just about everything I've ever written. And for what? A token honorarium. There's a lot more generosity out there than we sometime remember, and I'm grateful for it.


So on balance it was okay. But I sure as hell better not have to do it a third time.