Fruitless or Fallow: On Being ‘Unproductive’

success-measures

One of the frustrating things about the way productivity is typically measured in academia is the near exclusive focus on outputs: what counts (what can be counted) is the product of our reading and thinking, not the process. One side effect is that this makes it risky to change directions, because it takes time to explore a new field and figure out the contribution you can make to it, time that might end up looking “unproductive” on your c.v.–which then becomes a mark against you when you are up for professional evaluation.

anthologyI have first-hand experience of this. After I earned tenure on the basis of my scholarly work on 19th-century women historians, I did some hard thinking and decided I did not want to work on that material any more. It just did not feel very important or interesting to me, so while I could imagine (and in fact had put together some preliminary outlines for) new projects in that field, I decided to take advantage of the security of tenure to do something that mattered more to me–something that felt more urgent–which was the work I went on to do on ethical criticism. I eventually published two peer-reviewed essays based on this work, one in Philosophy and Literature on Martha Nussbaum and the “moral life of Middlemarch” (in 2006), the other in English Studies in Canada on Victorian ethical criticism (in 2007). A further result of this reorientation of my research was the edited volume of Victorian criticism I published with Broadview in 2009.

These are the tangible–countable–results, but I would say that the effect of this work on my teaching was every bit as important as these “outputs,” particularly the conceptual framework I developed for Close Reading–a course I offered for the first time in 2003, when it was required of all majors and honours students in the department and have taught six or seven times since then, meaning its effect has been “incalculably diffusive” (to quote from Middlemarch, which I boldly made the centerpiece of the course). I think it’s fair to say, though, that all of my teaching since then has been affected by the reading and writing and thinking I did about ethics and literature starting in 2000, when my tenure was awarded and I could approach my research in less instrumental ways. The questions I pursued about the nature and purpose of criticism also played a significant role in my eventual decision to start blogging and begin writing for non-academic audiences: I actually consider this later period the most productive of my entire career.

fallow-fieldNow consider how that phase of my scholarly life was described in the letter denying my promotion appeal. The committee’s assessment was that my record showed “limited scholarly activity between 2000 and 2005″* followed by a “second burst of scholarly output.” Where do you suppose they think that “burst” came from? It came from giving myself time to read, think, and write–and it’s worth keeping in mind that I was in fact writing both of the articles that I’ve mentioned well before their actual publication dates, because the academic submission process takes forever. During those years I also gave conference presentations related to my ongoing research and attended a symposium on literature and ethics in Australia convened by a prominent scholar in the field. This is all scholarly activity! It is “limited” only in the sense that it was preparation for the “output” to come rather than (mostly) measurable outputs in the moment.

The same committee described my career as having “long periods with few scholarly publications.” The validity of this description depends on how you define “scholarly.” They were particularly exercised about the period between about 2010 and 2016 (when they issued their verdict). It is true that during this period I published only one article in a conventional peer-reviewed journal, and it turned out they didn’t think this article counted as peer-reviewed because it was solicited by the editor for a ‘forum’ rather than double-blind peer reviewed (if that’s the actual standard for what counts, they should also have discounted my academic monograph). My arguments that projects and publications during this period, including the Middlemarch for Book Clubs website and my many essays and reviews on 19th-century literature–or, for that matter, essays like the one I wrote on Gone with the Wind, another example of the ways my research on ethical criticism infused my critical work–are indeed “scholarly” clearly failed to persuade them. (In fact, in the one comment that probably still rankles the most from that whole process, they said that apparently what I had decided to do instead of scholarly publishing was to “write about books and elements of popular culture that interest her”–which is an odd way to say “invite a wider audience to understand George Eliot’s secular ethics” or “explain Anne Brontë’s devastating critique of toxic masculinity in an accessible way”).

Gone_with_the_Wind_cover

Anyway! My aim here is not to relitigate that dispiriting process (sorry–obviously I am not over it yet) but to highlight the way its professionally powerful agents explicitly devalued time I spent changing and growing as a scholar. That time without new publications was anything but unproductive–but that attitude towards time spent not writing, or more accurately not (visibly) publishing, is pervasive. I am free from overt professional consequences at this point: I’m not applying for promotion again, so I have the extraordinary privilege of being able to define productivity on my own terms. (If we just keep going through the motions, then what is tenure even for?) Even so, I find it hard to shake off the guilt and anxiety that comes with not, right now, knowing what my next “output” will be. I said before that one of my key goals for my sabbatical was to work this out, and I have been trying to, I promise! But after all this time, and especially after the emotional and psychological drubbing I took during that promotion process, the little creatures Jo Van Every calls “gremlins” can get awfully noisy and discouraging. As much as any specific reading and writing I am doing, I am spending time right now trying to give myself permission for some quiet time, some “unproductive” time–because while I know I need to let the ground lie fallow for a while, I’m afraid that from the outside that looks (and from the inside it can also feel) as if my time is not being well spent.

Cover2An important step in this process was self-publishing my (non-academic) essays on George Eliot. This was not an easy or entirely happy decision, but I thought I needed to do it so that I could move on, and to some extent this strategy has worked: it is now pretty clear and not entirely disappointing to me that it’s time to stop focusing on George Eliot and write about something else. At least I have something to show for my years of effort. Also, I’m not giving up on George Eliot altogether! In fact, I have one (last?) essay I am currently writing that I hope might find a home somewhere during this, her bicentenary year, plus I am preparing a paper for presentation at the upcoming George Eliot conference. (I am so excited about going to this!) I will keep teaching her and will write about her again if the right occasion or invitation arises. Having given up on a cross-over book, though, and with no incentive to contribute anything to the academic literature (the MLA Bibliography calls up 4,254 results for ‘George Eliot’ – that seems like plenty), all that remains would be constantly searching for a ‘hook’ to pitch, and that approach (for reasons I will probably be talking about at the conference) just seems wrong to me.

southridingOne way to think about where I am now is that I am having the critical and scholarly equivalent of a “but why always Dorothea?” moment! This is a good thing, or it will be, and I do have some ideas about which direction to go in. I’ve been reviewing things I’ve read and written about over the last decade or so, and it quickly became clear to me that the work I did that excited me the most was the reading (or was it research?) that I did on the ‘Somerville novelists.’ This did have some measurable outputs already (though not of the kind that really “count”): a new course, offered only once so far but perhaps one I could try again soon, a large number of blog posts, an essay at 3:AM magazine on Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf, and a “listicle” on Vera Brittain at For Books’ Sake–which in turn led to a very pleasant dinner with Brittain biographer Mark Bostridge when he passed through Halifax. I loved working with this material, for its own sake and because it did not seem to be already overworked: the MLA Bibliography, for example, turns up just 49 entries on Winifred Holtby, 71 on Brittain, and 17 on Margaret Kennedy. Dorothy Sayers has a somewhat more intimidating 334 hits–but that’s still a long way from Eliot’s 4000+ or Virginia Woolf’s 7232. This is a crude measure, of course (countable things!) but it does suggest there’s room in those conversations for someone else and that figuring out what they are and how I might join in will be a manageable task as well as an interesting one. brittain

I suppose there’s nothing really surprising about this new plan, but I personally have been surprised at how much mental effort it has taken to stop doing one thing–to accept that I’m stopping, that it is no longer going to be my priority–and to start doing something else. Now I need to grant myself time to do it, to accept that this next phase, though it may feel aimless at first or not look productive, will be necessary to my next “burst” of activity the same way those post-tenure years were essential to my transformation from one kind of scholar into another. I know how lucky I am to be able to take this time: I wish all scholars could reclaim their time in this way rather than chasing metrics and measures of productivity that (ironically) actually discourage innovation by making it so risky to stop and think.

*It occurred to me after I posted this originally that I was also on maternity leave during some of this period, as my daughter was born in June 2001.

4 thoughts on “Fruitless or Fallow: On Being ‘Unproductive’

  1. Readerlane March 11, 2019 / 4:14 pm

    Good luck with your new direction — I hope we’ll be reading more about it as you progress. I’m not an academic so I’m a little surprised to hear the need for periods of thought and reflection versus “scribble, scribble, scribble” isn’t better understood.

    • Rohan Maitzen March 12, 2019 / 1:03 pm

      Thank you! For better or for worse, you are sure to hear how things go. 🙂

      I think academics do recognize that need, and that’s one of the key reasons sabbaticals are granted. But as my committee demonstrated, they may not be very good at applying what they know. It occurs to me too that during the period they pointed to as a gap in my productivity, I was also on maternity leave for a year…

  2. karenbourrier March 11, 2019 / 11:55 pm

    Thanks for this post! Just tenured last year and I am finding that it’s hard to have the courage to pursue new directions (which can mean making room for research that doesn’t work out). But it seems so important to have the bravery to stop and think and try something new.

    • Rohan Maitzen March 12, 2019 / 10:38 am

      I think there’s a lot less risk of those pauses to stop and think then lead to further “bursts” of productivity of the usual (acceptable, countable) kinds. But I still think there is too much pressure (REF, anyone?) on academics to have a steady stream of concrete “results,” which inevitably makes them worth less — not because they are necessarily of lower quality, though I do think that is an issue when we push people to publish more and more earlier and earlier, before their ideas have matured (much less their writing and research) — but because there’s just too much material around for us to pay attention to it. If the increase of knowledge or understanding is really our goal, the current system is self-defeating.

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