Nevertheless, I Persisted: One Year Later

One year ago this week, the members of my promotion appeal panel wrote up their final decision: in their view, my file (“with its heavy reliance on non-peer-reviewed on-line venues”) had not met the requisite standard and therefore “promotion to full professor is not merited at this time.” Though they claimed to “see merit in reaching beyond the confines of the academy,” overall they confirmed what President Florizone’s earlier letter had told me: if I wanted professional advancement, I needed to “focus [my] efforts on seeking peer-review of [my] work.” In other words, as I wrote at the time, I needed to “get back in the box.”

Well, I have not taken their advice–not just because I still believe they and the others along the way who insisted on the primacy of peer review were at best misrepresenting and at worst disregarding explicit university policies, but also because, inadvertently, they, and the whole unpleasant process, helped clarify something for me. I don’t want professional advancement. Or at least I don’t want it more than I want to keep trying to succeed on the terms I have set for myself. I was (unfortunately) seeking validation, but I wasn’t asking permission–and the doubts about my abilities, accomplishments, and prospects that were sown in my mind over that grimly discouraging 18 months are finally being overcome by my growing confidence about and satisfaction with my work as a literary critic on my own terms.

It’s still a slow and incremental process: I have more than once, in conversation, compared my efforts to build up my portfolio of work and thus my credibility in that role (for which my academic credentials mean relatively little) as being on a hamster wheel. I am very fortunate in that I do not need to depend on the results financially–but at the same time that also means I am doing this work alongside the other demands of my job. I’m increasingly happy with the results, though, especially now that they include a couple of pieces that reflect me more personally–that came out of my own strong interests and let me show a bit more of my own style and personality as a writer.

One of these is coming out in the next issue of Tin House: for their regular “Lost & Found” feature, I wrote about Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic in the context of my experiences as a student at UBC and my interest in the gendered relationship between history and fiction. The other is my appreciation of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, which was published in this week’s issue of the TLS. I’ve written a lot of things over the past decade that I am proud of, many of them in Open Letters Monthly but also here on my blog and in a range of other publications on and off-line. What’s especially gratifying about these two recent pieces is that they are essays, rather than reviews, that I successfully pitched them to these well-respected and widely-read venues, and that both I and my editors are very pleased with how they turned out. I realize that this doesn’t guarantee anything about what will come of the next idea I have for something to pitch, but it does give me courage to keep looking for ways and places to write that let me express myself more as a reader and critic.

In other words, a year after a fairly crushing blow to my career and (not incidentally) my self-esteem, I’m doing OK, even well. (Today was certainly an excellent day! There’s nothing like being included in the TLS’s podcast to make you feel like you really are participating in the “wider conversation about books.”) Soon after receiving the letter telling me that my appeal had been denied, I resolved to stay on the path I had chosen, even if it meant the end of any lingering academic ambition: as I said in my post last year, “an academic’s reach must exceed her grasp, after all, or what’s tenure for?” In the last 12 months I think I have actually done more to advance both the university’s profile and its central mission–“the increase of knowledge and understanding”–by doing what I have done than I would have by devoting myself to the kind of research and writing that would (eventually) lead to peer-reviewed publication. So I don’t feel that I am being unprofessional! I’m just not limiting myself to the rigid, narrow-minded, and insular definition of my profession that was advanced and enforced by the university’s gatekeepers. They can keep their “past practice”: as Aurora Leigh says, “I too have my vocation–work to do”–and books to read, and criticism to write, and also, most important of all, classes to teach.

And with that, I’d best get back to it: I’ve got another 1600 words due on two books about Golden Age crime fiction in a week or so, not to mention the rest of both Middlemarch and North and South to reread for next week.

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6 Responses to Nevertheless, I Persisted: One Year Later

  1. Jeanne says:

    Hooray for doing what you choose to do well, on your own terms.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Thank you. We only get one chance at all of this, after all: I’m fortunate to have jumped through enough professional hoops already that I can make this choice. I’m not swearing off research or anything — but it will be in service of other kinds of writing, mostly, probably.

  2. Jenny says:

    In several ways I feel envious. You are so good at this, and you are making your own marvelous opportunities to do it. I wish I did this as well as you do! I’m ineligible for tenure at my university (a Byzantine structure that has several tiers of faculty ready for sacrifice) and this sort of work would have to be in addition to, not instead of, my research. But it’s something to think and dream about.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I am very aware of how important my already having tenure has been to my freedom to persist in this way. I think I would be wasting that hard-won freedom, for which I did have to work very hard in conventional ways, if I decided to do the work I was “supposed” to even though I do not believe it is particularly valuable. I do still do research – for teaching, but also for writing projects. What’s really different is that it is less “academic” research (mostly) and not (currently) leading to “academic” writing. One of my hopes is that my diligent reviewing (some of which does draw, of course, on my academic expertise) will open up more opportunities for me down the road to do public writing about my academic interests. Publications like the TLS, though, hardly need me if they want someone to write on George Eliot or Dickens! Or, to put it more optimistically, it might take a while longer before I seem like someone they might want to write on George Eliot and Dickens for them, given the incredible and much more famous people they already have available.

      You should definitely think (and not just dream) about doing some of this kind of writing! I think the trick, when we can’t make it our only focus, is to draw on thinking and writing you have already done, or have to do anyway, to get started. I wrote a number of pieces for Open Letters that drew on my teaching notes, for instance. It was still challenging putting things into a coherent narrative, but I began with a pretty clear sense of what to include.

      • Jenny says:

        I didn’t mean to imply that this came easily to you. I know it didn’t. The depth and breadth of your writing and work, just what I’ve seen, is testament to that.

        Thank you for the encouragement about where to start doing this sort of writing myself. I would like very much to do it, and I’m on sabbatical right now, so I have some time to start thinking about it.

        Incidentally, I used your Middlemarch for Book Groups this summer. It was an absolute treat, so thank you!

        • Rohan Maitzen says:

          I know you didn’t mean that: sorry if my reply sounded defensive. What lies behind it is more that I used to advocate vigorously for change in the system and I was often asked how I’d advise grad students or junior TT faculty. Now my enthusiasm is sadly dampened by experience.

          I’m so glad the website was a good thing!

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