My blogging has been a bit sluggish lately. Partly that’s because my life has been a bit busy, what with the start of term and all. But it’s also because I’ve been a bit broody and taking refuge in easy distractions, like rewatching the early seasons of The Good Wife, instead of in my usual levels of extracurricular reading and writing.
Broody about what? Nothing new, really: just the usual round-and-round of questions about how I’ve been using my time for the last few years and what I have to show for it. Not long ago I had vowed to put aside doubts and defensiveness about my decision to focus on writing that isn’t conventional academic scholarship: it’s not like my choices haven’t been carefully considered ones, after all, and if anyone really feels the need to challenge me on them, I’m quite prepared to have that conversation — but I thought I was done with both the advocacy and the apologetics, ready to just keep on with the projects I want to get done.
Then a couple of weeks ago I went to our meet-and-greet for new graduate students. It’s probably not fair to point at this event as the cause of my recent mental malaise. What it did, though, was reveal to me that I am not as sanguine as I thought about the state of my career — not that I regret it, but that I’m still vulnerable to conflicting and contradictory responses to it.
The specific trigger was a friendly and entirely appropriate question: “what’s your current research on?” That’s just the kind of exchange this event is supposed to encourage, of course, and for many years this question was not at all difficult for me to answer. This time, however, I wasn’t sure where to go with my reply. “I’m not doing any” seemed wrong (see “When is Reading Research“); “I’ve been working on a lot of different things,” while true, seemed somehow non-responsive; and “I don’t believe in academic research any more,” while temptingly snarky and also at least partly true (see “Mark Bauerlein’s ‘The Research Bust’“), is much too reductive, lacking all the nuance I have painstakingly tried to maintain in my public comments about this kind of thing.
I did, ultimately, say something about my having moved away, or out, from most academic research, and why; and I muttered something, also, about my work on a “cross-over” book on George Eliot, which, while not a scholarly project of the kind we usually discuss in academic contexts, will certainly require reading. Research. Whatever. The simple truth is, though, I am not in the loop anymore when it comes to the latest specialized research in my field, which is what the question was implicitly about, and while I don’t regret this at all, there’s a sense in which that makes me only barely qualified to do some of the things graduate students especially might ask of me — like, steer their own specialized research in my field. I also look at most conference calls for papers and realize that in almost every case I am unable to contribute: the only way I could generate the right kind of paper (or even the right kind of proposal) would be to radically change how I am using my reading and writing time.
While I vehemently disagree with the person who told me a year or so ago that I have “obviously thrown [my] career away,” then, (and let’s keep in mind, too, that research, however one does it, does not in itself define the whole of an academic career), I do at times falter under the realization that by some measures it looks as if I have — that in some respects or from some points of view (and why pretend otherwise?) I am failing as an academic.
Which is easy enough to live with, up to a point (again, because I have made choices that I stand by, to end up in this place) — but it would be easier if I could say “but look, I’m a success in this other way!” I can’t really say that, though. As I look around at what other people I know (online or “in real life”) are accomplishing outside of academia, I seem to be stumbling along by comparison there as well. Other academic bloggers have turned their posts into books, or into different kinds of writing gigs (or managed to publish academic articles and books while keeping up their blogs); other academically-trained writers I follow have moved on to publishing brilliant, original reviews and essays in prominent venues, becoming part of the bigger literary conversation in ways even my most topical pieces never seem to. I, on the other hand, seem to be puttering along, adding a piece here and a piece there to a somewhat miscellaneous portfolio of reviews and essays, while writing a blog that is neither quite academic nor quite bookish in a more popular way. If I’m not acting like an academic critic these days, what exactly am I doing? If I’m not a successful academic, what, or who, am I? In my grimmer moments, it feels to me that now I am nothing in particular: no longer in the game as a specialist, and not really in whatever the other game is — neither fish, that is, nor fowl, and floundering in my attempts to be either or both.
I almost deleted this post without publishing it because I was afraid it would sound whiny and petulant. Maybe it does. Maybe it is! I’m honestly not fishing for reassuring compliments or affirmation. I already know how to tell the “glass half-full” version of this story: that’s how I’ve talked myself out of funks like this before. But I had second thoughts about my second thoughts about saying anything at all about how I’ve been feeling — because it’s my blog, darnit, and it’s where I think things through. Also, given my frequent advocacy for blogging and non-academic criticism, and my posts about whether other people should engage in these activities, I think it would be misleading never to talk about the doubts and misgivings I do have, or to ignore the professional costs my choices have incurred (remember this one?). I try to stay positive, but it’s not like I don’t understand (and don’t sometimes agree with) the arguments against me.
I know, too, that the only way forward for me is just to keep on doing the best criticism I can, wherever I can (even if that isn’t what other academics mean when they say “research”) and to call it success when I think I’ve done it well. I am proud of what’s in that portfolio, even if it isn’t (yet) as deep a file as I’d like. It’s just hard to feel motivated to do this writing sometimes, when the rewards are so equivocal. It is also just hard to find the energy right now, when both teaching and administrative tasks are taking up a lot of my time. My other projects used to feel like more of a welcome liberation from the elements of academic research and writing that I have lost interest in or commitment to. Now, wobbling as I am between two worlds, it turns out both can be pretty constant sources of guilt and anxiety! I’m not reading enough – or I’m reading the wrong things! I’m not writing enough, or I’m not writing the right kind of pieces!
I know from experience that this too shall pass. I have writing plans I’m excited about – in theory, at least – and busy as the term is getting, I’ll make time for them and find in the work itself a better fix for these doubts and hesitations. I feel very tired right now, though, and for a little while longer I think there’s more of The Good Wife in my evening plans. At least I’m getting lots of crochet done at the same time!