Saturday, May 01, 2010

A Tale of Two Taskmasters

As I read around the academic blogosphere, I see that you all are coming into the home stretch. You're reading papers, managing student freak-outs, and switching into summer mode: simultaneous relaxation and research. So congrats to all of you. While you're busy feeling both exhausted but accomplished, I'm relaxed and freaking out: my leave is OVER!! And what do I have to show for it?!!

As per usual, I find myself oscillating between two opposing poles. On the one hand, my inner sadistic schoolmarm is flagellating me. What's worse that wasting a three month leave? That one is ostensibly given for research? Shouldn't I have mapped out a fabulous book project by now? Or drafted three articles? Or painted the Mona Lisa, trained for a marathon, and cooked my way through all of Alice Waters' books?

On the other hand, my inner overly-compassionate voice (who I imagine as an old school, baked, middle-aged hippie) is talking me down. The origins of sabbatical, after all, lie in "sabbath," as in rest. And I've done a lot of resting, that's for sure. I've traveled, I've reconnected with friends and family. I've spent a lot of time thinking about the kinds of bad work habits I've accumulated over the past five years. I've become pretty conscious about the consistent, negative talk in my head that goes on (see sadistic schoolmarm, above), and convinces me that it's not worth starting anything. For the record, it's sort of shocking, when you really write it down. Here's a sampling:
•"I didn't follow-up trying to publish my diss, so I've wasted all that work."
•"I didn't continue my diss research, and now I'm so far behind I'll never keep up."
•"I've given far too many conference presentations and failed to turn them into articles."
•"It's too late for me to pick a research field now."
•"Everyone I know has done/can do x, and I have tried and I can't, so I should just give up."

What a total and complete bitch that schoolmarm is! And just so you know, I totally recognize that this is textbook, and that I sound like a case study in a "pathetic academic psychoses" review.

I'm trying to go with the baked hippie, here. (Please don't ask me where these characters come from. Why can't the hippie be a Buddhist or something? Beats hell out of me. But he's a hippie, for sure.) For as much as the arguments that the schoolmarm are making aren't wrong, exactly, I think that for me, the last three months have been about slowing down enough to realize the accumulation of crap that I've built up during the tenure process in a toxic department. (The schoolmarm narrowly missed being a nun, but that would make her so close to an actual colleague of mine, whose discourse is so close to this kind of negativity, that if I had her talking in my head, I'd have to quit my job and move to Woodstock.) Sure, it would have been great if I could have just jumped at the chance of a leave to dive into a pre-established project that was a natural extension of the work that I'd done on the diss and continued doing throughout my years as an assistant prof. But that's not what my career trajectory looks like. Instead, it's a messy testament to getting interested in a number of topics and ideas that are loosely aggregated around a couple of consistent big ideas. I'm still learning how to focus those and describe their relevance. And more importantly, I think I'm figuring out who I want them to be relevant to, and that might not be a strictly academic audience.

So suck it, sadistic schoolmarm! You can have my spring leave, but I've still got my hippie summer! Here's to hoping for some compassionate, productive research in the coming months, that comes out of peace, love and folk music, rather than pain, suffering and judgmental silence.

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