Friday, April 02, 2010

Making Doors

In the continuing saga of my mid-life, mid-career crisis, I had the opportunity to talk with two people from my academic past: my undergraduate advisor and my dissertation advisor. Honestly, I'm still impressed that these two pick up the phone when they see that it's my number on the display, because nine times out of ten, I'm always calling with these weird, not-really-academic questions. And yet, the kinds of advice I get: out of the mouths of the patriarchs!!

My undergrad guy, who I will forthwith call Rainer, in deference to his advanced age, gravitas, and love of all things reich, was quick to tell me that this discomfort with the profession---and what I do now---is nothing new. "Totally normal, Fluff. Even pedestrian!" Always the metaphoric thinker, he first suggested that post-tenure is a "pivot point." Which way did I want to turn, now that one foot was stationary? Some, he noted, turn to administration for a new outlook, while others find a new angle on their research. All this image gave me, really, was agita. It could have been because I was picturing myself in a shiny basketball uniform, complete with long, saggy shorts, desperately pivoting trying to decide which way to pass the ball.

"Think of it this way," he continued. "You're looking down a very long corridor right now." Yep, I thought, about 30 years long. "You have to figure out some ways to make some doors for yourself." Is that not a bleak image? Jeeeeebus. Without some imagination and creativity, I'm going to be stuck in this same goddamned hallway for the rest of my life? Noted, there are way worse hallways---hallways where you shovel shit or sit in a cubicle and have someone yell at you, for instance---but 30 years of hallway is still 30 years of hallway.

Diss advisor had similar advice, although a bit more of an open approach. [Dude, in the misty past, did I ever give DA a name? He needs one. And since the hallmark of writing the diss was our mutual distraction by Sex and the City episodes, his name henceforth should be: Dr. Big?] Big, who happened to visit a few years back, was careful to remind me of what a great corridor I've got myself on. "Look, Fluff. It's clear that you're valued, and you get to teach stuff you like. I've got students right now who are fighting for 4/4 positions at Idaho State with a three-quarter load in comp." (And again, I have to ask myself: am I the last generation of academics who could get a semi-decent, not outrightly exploitative job? Damn! That is some f'ed up shit right there.) "Take another look at what you've got," Dr. Big said, "but you might start thinking about other ways to work. What you have to ask yourself about any opportunity is: 'when I get in the car to go to work in the morning, am I happy?'" And then he delivered some incredibly sage advice about a position I'd been turning and turning over in my mind for a week, since my informal lunch.

All of this to say, there's something about the corridor image that works for me (the pivot? not so much). So what are the doors that are available to us, post-tenure? How do you make a door out of a wall? Or at the very least, how do you decorate your damn hallway so that it gives you something interesting to look at while you traverse it?

I had lunch with one of my newer colleagues yesterday, and she mentioned that one of the benefits of this job is that she can choose her panic---as in, she can decide when to apply for a conference or a seminar, and thus light the "must write and be smart now" fire under her ass. It made me realize that pre-tenure involves managing panic, and making it work for you. Outside standards push you down the corridor, sometimes at breakneck speeds, and you're desperately trying to stay in that hallway. Once the hallway is your fate, I think the propulsion changes; what I'm looking for is the thing that will pull me down the hall---where I'm running toward something, not frantically away from it, and as an added bonus, I'd like the pull that's so strong it opens up a door.

I think I've now officially exhausted all of my metaphors for one day. More soon.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Sisyphus said...

I like the idea of making doors --- especially since they just had that article on a video artist at the Whitney who used that as part of her art:

http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1971454_1971458_1971466,00.html

I hope the art inspires you in your post-tenure quest!

Friday, April 02, 2010 4:49:00 PM  
Anonymous The Bittersweet Girl said...

I like the corridor/doors metaphor -- I don't think of the corridor image as claustrophobic, but I guess you could substitute it with a nice meadow path or hiking trail image instead, if you wanted. You know: the kind of trail with many offshoots leading in new & exciting directions.

Anyway, I've been blogging about a related issue: when you've been looking forward to exploring the corridor and suddenly one of those door blows open with such explosive force, it closes all the other doors ... and then what do you do?

I guess you plunge ahead.

Sunday, April 04, 2010 4:55:00 PM  

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