On Being Neither Fish Nor Fowl

escherMy 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!

12 thoughts on “On Being Neither Fish Nor Fowl

  1. Stefanie September 25, 2014 / 1:37 pm

    It’s tough. I imagine there must be all sorts of opportunities for peer pressure and guilt because you have chosen to strike out in a different direction than most. But take heart, we non-academics appreciate it! And I honestly think that a large part of the dilemma the humanities in general is facing about how they can prove they are relevant stems from the tendency for academics to write only for other academics. So kudos to you for breaking that barrier.


    • Rohan Maitzen September 25, 2014 / 6:59 pm

      Thank you, Stefanie. And I am well aware that plenty of people (yourself included) maintain very lively and worthwhile blogs and don’t do anything like this kind of fretting about its relationship to their professional lives — I think it’s just baggage I carry because of the specific culture in which I was trained and now work.


  2. litlove September 25, 2014 / 2:44 pm

    I have this conversation with myself all the time – even now in a life beyond academia! That push to research is such a huge part of university life, isn’t it? And yet in all honesty, I have to say that far more books and articles get published than need to be written. You could rush to keep up with the herd and publish something unusual and scholarly on George Eliot’s knitting patterns, but I think it’s more than fair to wonder if the world really needs it. The question here has to be: what do YOU really need? Writing is all about going where the energy is – and frankly I have weeks, even months, when there isn’t much energy to follow, and that has to be fine. It’s what it is. But the project worth doing is the project that really inspires you. They don’t come along all that often, but they’re wonderful when they do. It would be quite sensible, I think, to conserve one’s energy for that moment.


    • Rohan Maitzen September 25, 2014 / 7:02 pm

      George Eliot’s knitting patterns! I’ll be right back — I have to go find out about them! 🙂

      You are right that this is part of the university world that we both know so well and have both in our own ways struggled with. It is right that research should be a priority, but I couldn’t agree more that at some point the question of what needs to get done, or what is the best way for a particular person to use their skills and interests, ought to get asked.

      I like your point about conserving energy for the right project. I think one of my problems has been that in doing a number of interesting, rewarding, but ultimately unconnected reviews or essays, I have gotten in my own way a bit when it comes to the larger project I aspire to. That’s something I have to think about as my sabbatical approaches.


  3. Robert Minto September 25, 2014 / 11:50 pm

    Hi Rohan, this is my first comment on your blog, though I’ve been a faithful reader for some time.

    This post made me very sad — partly because, as a grad student, I’ve always rather hoped this kind of self-doubt was a component of scholarly life that disappeared after a while. I certainly spend a scary proportion of my time moping around, bemoaning my bifurcated life, the seemingly opposite tidal pull of writing for a small group of scholars and writing for the public. But that scholarly discourse has become a matter of specialized, unreadable prose, delivered to obscure venues with few readers, is not endemic to the vocation of scholarship itself, but to the state of scholarly institutions in our time; and therefore to attempt to be a scholar in public — to write carefully, guided by method, informed by close study, but also with the goal of producing readable and much-read prose — is not a departure from the work of scholarship, but an attempt to improve the discourse of scholarship. I firmly believe that. It seems to me that what you do is a service to the study of literature as great — and arguably greater — than if you saved your energy to write two or three academic articles a year.

    Anyway, all that is a preamble to sharing with you two quotes I keep in a special file ro read when my own graphomaniacal propensity to write non-academic prose begins to depress me:

    “Poetry has a form, the novel has a form; research, the research in which the movement of all research is in play, seems unaware that it does not have a form or, worse still, refuses to question the form that it borrows from tradition.” — Maurice Blanchot

    Could there be a better reason to say that scholarly blogging is a service to scholarship? Self- ghettoization within academic journals may actually be a culpable rejection of the essentially protean and un-pin-down-able nature of scholarly research in its truest forms.

    “… whenever one is concerned about having a continuing claim to intelligibility, the word “scholarly” is a very appropriate label to use. “Scholarly prose” means that here someone is speaking who has mastered a science and yet is capable of making himself so intelligible to uneducated people — un-educated is the true opposite of “scholarly” — that they learn something.” — Hans-Georg Gadamer

    Some might say this duty of intelligibility is satisfied by the act of teaching undergraduates. But I believe it is much more truly fulfilled by the kind of writing you do so well and so prolifically. For me at least, your model of scholarship — and I will insist that it is genuine scholarship you’re doing — is an inspiration.


    • Rohan September 26, 2014 / 1:53 pm

      I appreciate your comment very much, Robert, and wholeheartedly agree that the intent is “to improve the discourse of scholarship.” One of the big “but on the other hand” elements here is “but on the other hand, I have tenure,” which means I can afford to define scholarship in my own way. I earned it (and followed it) with a reasonable dose of the usual kind of research output, but I don’t underestimate the value of being free to “fail.” But it’s still hard to make yourself not care what other people think, so knowing that someone like you (doing your own excellent writing for other readers!) sees my work as something of a model definitely shores up my confidence. But no, the self-doubt never goes away (see “imposter syndrome”). Sorry!


  4. Dan Green September 27, 2014 / 6:05 pm

    I’m not sure it’s true that it’s “right that research should be a priority,” at least as “research” is now defined in the humanities disciplines. “Research” in a field like literary study just isn’t like research in the sciences and social sciences, and arguably (I would argue it, anyway) the attempt to make academic criticism a form of “research” has ruined it. It has inevitably led academic criticism away from engagement with works of literature in order to illuminate and appreciate into the endless search for the right “method,” the right way to make literary study and criticism as “scientific” as possible. Historical research can still be done , of course, but few academics are interested anymore in the kind of historical research done by the first generation or so of academic literary crtics–Eric Auerbach, say, or any of the great historical scholars of literary periods or particular writers. It seems to me that at least implicitly you have become alienated from this movement of academic criticism away from the effort to give readers more tools with which to understand literary history or read particular writers with more satisfaction and have tried to find other ways to pursue the goals of literary study as it was originally conceived. It’s not that you’re abandoning the ideals of the academic literary scholar but that your colleagues have abandoned them.


  5. RT September 28, 2014 / 7:16 pm

    What is the history of this publish-or-perish mindset in academia (a.k.a., do scholarly research or exit stage left)? I did not know the infection extended to Canada. I thought it was a U.S. aberration. The mindset is one reason (there are a dozen more) why I did not pursue a terminal degree and a tenure-track position. I did not want the B.S. (not pun intended) that goes with all of that. I prefer to suffer the indignities and impoverishment of an adjunct while enjoying my role: teacher. As for the impoverishment, I had been fortunate that my “other income” from an earlier career allows me the luxury of being an adjunct — i.e., teaching for the love of it without being pestered by the academia pests. In any case, I have for a long time enjoyed reading your blog, I have commented only rarely, and I hope you move on beyond the doldrums. Don’t let the ____________(s) get you down! (Fill in the blank as you see fit.) Best wishes from the Redneck Riviera — the Gulf coast of the U.S.


  6. RT September 28, 2014 / 7:37 pm

    Please ignore the typos and grammar gaffs in my previous (hasty) posting.


  7. Susan Messer September 28, 2014 / 9:16 pm

    Oh, dear. This sounds so much like me in the context of novel-writing–struggling with the comparisons to others, with the tumult in the publishing world in general, with having submissions completely ignored, with all the reasons not to do this hard work. As always, thanks for the interesting piece and the access to your internal self.

    This paragraph captures what I most love and admire about your postings:

    “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.”


  8. Jeanne October 28, 2014 / 9:24 am

    It’s all too easy to get caught up in the myriad methods of time-suck that academic administration, in particular, demands. But I would be bereft if I finally got back around to your blog and found that you had become more like the others that I come here to get away from.


    • Rohan Maitzen October 28, 2014 / 12:21 pm

      Thank you, Jeanne. I have spent the last month trying hard not to worry so much about whether or what I am writing and I think it has helped me get back in touch with my own motivations. The habit of second-guessing oneself is deeply ingrained in academic life, isn’t it?


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