Tuesday, April 08, 2008


(Be warned: This, I realize now that I've written it, is a post of the early-midlife-crisis variety...some strikingly unoriginal motifs follow...)

I've started having thoughts about leaving academia, again. Unlike over the winter, when I was depressed and the thoughts came from that dire place, this time they are coming when I'm in relatively happy.

I'm not sure exactly where this is coming from...I've been trying to sort out how much of it might be entangled with teaching. Emotional states have proven to be intermittently so entangled, for me. If I'm honest with myself, I can trace the beginning of this to almost a week ago, when I was teaching an article about the conceptual linkage of individual and structural - an ethics of personal accountability to one's political investments. I mentioned to my students - ever so briefly - that this is challenging for me, occupying the position that I do. I think this class affected me quite deeply, though. Because I think what that kind of connection - between one's political commitments and the life that one leads - is about passion.

And I have become a kind of automaton. Grad school did it to me - it killed part of me that feels this sort of passion, and other sorts as well. Grad school was a nightmare, in fact, in this regard. It was during my PhD, for instance, that I stopped keeping a journal after having done so for over thirteen years. That I stopped any kind of creative writing. That I learned how to clinically dissect things that I used to experience with both my head and my heart, so to speak. Now I teach about pain and devastation, a lot of the time, and I feel very little about it. That's how much I've objectified it.

Last year was so painful for me, teaching-wise, for reasons that I didn't feel comfortable blogging about, then. Now, with clinical distance - ha - I can explain that what was so emotionally dismantling was that, through all those extraordinary students, I was in touch with incarnations of the me that I was before grad school messed me up, dried me out. (I'm not saying I was extraordinary...I'm saying that I had passions and...life techniques...that approximated those of the extraordinary students....) I was surrounded by the kind of creative and political passion that I once had, and it made me realize that I felt a great sense of loss.

Having a tenure-track job now, instead of a visiting position, only further reinforces the grad school blood-suckage. Now I am obsessed with quantifying everything, with output, with everything that is the opposite of passionate contemplation that once defined my engagement with texts. It makes me feel unreal. The labour of love I'm working on - the co-edited volume - is proceeding rapidly, but I feel anxiety about the time I'm taking away from my monograph. But the labour of love? I love it - that's the point, isn't it. The monograph I don't love in the same way, nor do I think it has the capacity to make as meaningful a (actually quite political) intervention. I want to just be able to revel in the love I feel for the labour of love, but I can't seem to do that. It's all shot through with so much anxiety about productivity.

Blah. That's where I'm at right now. It's just, you know...this is my first year on the tenure track. I already lie awake at night, worrying about my publication record. Five more years of that kind of pre-tenure worry before I can come back down into a place of passionate engagement? That'll take (at least) five years off my life, in the end. Is that worth it? Or, perhaps the better question, given that I have a good publication record for someone who's just over 2 years post-PhD and my anxiety is probably unwarranted, is whether my worrying personality is cut out for this.

Probably, it is. I'm just, you know, thinking...


neophyte said...

Thanks so much for this post, Hilaire. I think I'm starting to experience that gradual siphoning off of creative passions, and I hate it. I keep trying to come up with strategies to resist it, but I have yet to be able to produce anything that keeps me moving forward, rather than just preserving me in a static place.

I think it is possible, even within the academy (I'd think that was youthful foolishness talking, but I know many people who've made it work. It must be possible.) It probably takes stepping considerably out of the immediate present and doing some hard thinking and strategizing -- passion and fire and gumption don't come as easily when you're not twenty years old. It might even require undoing a lot of things that have been programmed into us, the really hard work.

A few weeks ago, some undergrad students on campus were staging a creative protest on an issue that I care about. I sneered at their naïveté. It took me almost a week to take myself to task for that sneer. I want to stop that right where it's begun.

I think we can recover our selves. But it's going to be hard work.

I'm really, really glad you posted this. Thanks.

Brigindo said...

I think it is possible and I think it is hard. I have had the passion sucked out of my work by building my CV and pursing that which is rewarded by the academy. However when my passionate engagement came back it was back stronger than ever.

What made the biggest difference for me was finding a position that was more conducive to my passions. This meant giving up some of my more youthful dreams and/or definitions of success. Fortunately this wasn't hard as I realized they didn't fit with who I really am.

We talk a lot about balance in academia, mostly in terms of research, teaching and service but I think the greater balancing act is with your passionate engaged work and the work that is rewarded by tenure.

Psychgrad said...

I can recall my father laughing at some of my more left-wing viewpoints, saying "it's ok...just wait until you finish university, you'll feel differently". I think he meant that I'll become more right-leaning, but I think the reality is that many of us lose the desire to fight the system. Or, even the ability to fight the system because we're striving to stay within it.

I agree that it is possible to remain passionate and I see this in some professors. Unfortunately, these professors are quickly labelled as rebels and generally lose their status as members of graduate studies because of a poor publication record.

It's not an easy road, but it's probably more satisfying. I don't know what I would do in your situation. Maybe the challenge is being able to follow your political and creative passions in an academic setting. There may be consequences but they're probably not worse than losing/not pursuing your passion.

medieval woman said...

This is, as usual, an incredibly well-articulated post and I'm so happy you've blogged about it. I think you're right that there's a kind of rote awareness and perception of the things we teach after a while. It's happened to me a bit as well, but I don't teach texts that I'm as invested in as you do, so I can imagine that it's that much more emotionally impactful. Do you think if you were to go back to Dream Uni that things would be a bit different? You could experience the passion through them again?

I'm glad you're thinking about things and having these realizations. Keep us posted, m'dear!

Earnest English said...

Hilaire, I also feel that grad school did something to my heart -- that it made it really hard to do anything but analyze and live in my head. I don't know what to do about the balance between tenure-able activities/academic production and doing the work/activism/service we love. But I know that we have to figure it out. When people say things like "just wait until after tenure to do. . ." I really worry. Are selling our souls, however briefly, for tenure? I think we have to find a way of being the best people we are and doing the best work (the work we love) we can even before tenure. (Maybe we do our activism in different places, or we can keep certain work under wraps, I suppose, but we must do it in order to feel the passion of our fields and lives.) I don't know how to do this. I have no words of wisdom, especially since I jumped off the tenure-track this year, but I'm worried about this as well.

Dr. Shellie said...

I am also a worrier, and I also feel like grad school took me away from some of the things I loved and was passionate about. All of my energy was going towards trying (not always successfully) to be productive. It worked; my CV looked pretty good in the end, but I lost my enthusiasm. I don't want the same thing to happen to me in the tenure track. I realized that my research productivity isn't much reduced by spending time on things I love-- what makes me less productive is when I am too worried or anxious to get work done, and can't sit down and start. So I am working on being a less anxious person (cutting out caffeine, doing yoga, jogging...) and hoping that leaves me time to be productive in the ways that must be quantified as well as the ways that make me passionate.

Dr. Shellie said...

Oh, and I feel emotional when I interact with women undergrads or grads in my old major, too-- at least, if I'm giving them career advice-- I think I am afraid for them, that they will be crushed.

Hilaire said...

These are fantastic comments from all of you.

Neophyte and Brigindo - Thank you for making me think about passion as hard, as labour. I hadn't been thinking about it that way; that helps.

Psychgrad - You put it well when you say that the consequences of "following my heart" can't be worse than not doing so. You're right. If a consequence is "not getting tenure," well, is that so bad if the alternative is to be a passionless tenured person?

MW - I think I'd probably feel that same thing "through the students" again at Drema Uni - though from now on I need to protect myself from it a little bit. But I want to do more than just feel it through them - I want to feel it deeply myself. Not nostalgically, not as loss, you know?

Earnest, I like the way you put it: "selling our souls, however briefly, for tenure..." Yes, that's the thing. I'm aware that it's brief, but the long-term damage seems irreversible.

Dr. Shellie - That was also a really helpful perspective - thanks. About anxiety, and using our energy wisely. I am really going to try to keep that fronmt of mind as I enter a summer of a heavy research agenda. It was a quite a brilliant insight, actually. Thanks.

squadratomagico said...

I see things a little differently. What grad. school does is train your intellect in a certain way that is very positive, as well as socializing your social and bodily habitus into a particular kind of pattern that is considered amenable to academic relationships. This latter pattern is middlebrow conservative in its social-moral values, and upper-class highbrow in its cultural and aesthetic aspirations. Being socialized into this particular way of being in the world is gives you common ground with a Great Western Tradition of asshole academics, and allows you to interact smoothly with other profs. who buy into it. It also teaches you to value other profs above other people (heard a colleague just Monday refer to non-academics as "ordinary people"), and to prize loyalty to the university structure and its expectations above anything else in your life.

The intellectual training is a great thing; the social training is what narrows your life and slowly makes you feel dead. The way to keep your heart open and alive, in my opinion, is to reject the stultifying social normativity, narrowness and, yes, bloddless lack of passion that characterizes academia and fly towards untrammeled creativity in some way.

You love the sharpness of your mind, I know you do. You can have the passion and the critical insight both. Find other passionate people, in whatever field of endeavor, who fuel your own passion.

Hilaire said...

S - Thank you for getting me to think more about this. Your comments are always right on and make me think.

You're right - I do love the sharpness of my mind. I do like the way I've been trained. But I think the problem is actually time constraints...I don't feel like I often fully revel in the way I've been trained because I feel under pressures of time. I don't let myself read and contemplate the way I used to because I'm trying to just plough through material. You know? That's at odds with the way I've been trained. Ha - the job I was trained to do is in this way at odds with the WAY I've been trained. Ridiculous.

I totally agree with you on rejecting the social normativity et al. This used to feel easier to do. I used to have a more direct connection to dance - like you do, to the circus.

I thought of you the other day. I was showing a video that focuses in part on a women's circus in Australia (probably you know of them?) and I was so jealous...I thought it looked amazing, what they were doing, and I wanted to do it.

There's nothing here like that, though. I am going to dance camp in the summer, but that's one week. I need more than that. I'll have to do some sleuthing, find some ideas. It needs to be about using my body.

Maude Lebowski said...

i have nothing insightful or helpful to add. i'm just in awe of the conversation--it's hit on some things that i, too, have been thinking about for a long time. i thought i was getting some of it back when i moved away from GCU, but i have to really find myself again.

good luck girl. i'm thinking of you.