Saturday, February 08, 2014

Mid-career academics: Just tired or over it?

Last week I had lunch with the Colleague from Another Place Who Keeps Me Sane (Colleague for short). We got to talking about how hard it has been to get motivated and keep working longer and longer hours during the Endless Gray Winter--and ours isn't bad compared to some places this year.

"Maybe we're just tired," I said, talking about the possibility of yet another conference with lots of tedious travel, costly out-of-pocket expenses that won't be reimbursed, anxiety about writing yet another paper, time taken away from other projects, and all the rest.

"Or maybe we're just over it," Colleague said. "Maybe we've just done that and want to do something else for a change."

I've been having this conversation a lot with mid-career academics, especially those who are at full rather than associate.  They still love teaching and research, and they're still good at it, but they want to do something else.  If they write criticism, maybe they want to write something different, nonfiction or a biography. Or maybe they want to work more in administration, or write fiction, or work harder for social change within the academic or local community. 

Let me be clear: this isn't a complaint, because I know how lucky we are to have a career in academics and how many adjuncts (of which I was one) would kill to have this job. Reading the blog posts where we're invited--nay, enthusiastically encouraged--to die or quit or retire keeps that very firmly in one's mind.

And I'm not quite at the "over it" stage. I have a lot of academic goals I haven't met yet and am faithfully working away at them.

But I wonder this: at what point does the tipping point for creative reinvention of one's career take place? When do academics start thinking about extending or shifting what they do, even if they love the basic parts of their jobs? After 10 years? 15? 20? After a promotion?


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I saw the PBS video inviting academics to die or retire. I used to think that way, too, as an adjunct. My attitude was the unfortunate result of bitter disappointment, over and over. Now that I'm TT, I sometimes see notices through different affiliations about academics dying, and I always think grimly to myself, "And there was great rejoicing!"

Just one more thing to love about academia -- there won't be 500 people at my funeral, but there will be 500 people who immediately apply for my job. People will be singing "Ding dong the witch is dead" instead of "Amazing Grace" at my death, while ironing their best black MLA suits.

Is it any wonder people are over the job by the time they've been at it for a little while?

undine said...

I saw that over at Bardiac's place, Fie, and then and there took a vow not to see/read/watch/listen to anything more from people who wish me ill--and wanting me to die or get off the earth is wishing me ill. There's not nearly enough recognition that the problem is really that the systematic gutting of middle-class jobs is hitting academia.

I read your post this morning, and you've done such a good thing in creating better conditions for instructors. But no amount of amelioration is going to turn the job market back to 1966, even if every person now employed in a t-t position dropped dead tomorrow.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Thank you. I know three jobs isn't much, but to the three people in those jobs it makes quite a difference.

I think you're right -- if everyone in a TT job died today, they would be replaced with non-tt folks who were probably more qualified than me for a tenure line.

As for the overall bitterness and wishing people ill -- I think that that's what happens when people are put under this sort of pressure for so long and come up with nothing but disappointment. No denying -- it's a tough life. I wish people would realize that it's tough no matter which side of the fence you're sitting on.

Historiann said...

Maybe it's from the pressure. Maybe they're angry because they didn't listen when in 2004 their advisors tried to warn them against grad school. (Maybe they're delusional enough to believe that no one tried to warn them.) Maybe it's just that they're bad people. Maybe it's that social media and the "world is flat" means that they really should think before they Tweet/blog/wish someone dead publicly.

Maybe they're so unempathetic and unimaginative that they think those of us with tenure or TT jobs were born here, or at least had lives of leisure and multiple job offers. This is what really sticks in my craw: just because I don't write/blog about my efforts to find TT employment in the late 90s and early 2000s doesn't mean it was easy.

It took me 3 years on the job market to get my first TT job offer (only ONE), and then four years of abuse before I got a second TT job (again, only ONE offer, unfortunately!) And yet, the Special Snowflakes will inform us that we're "lifeboaters" blinded by our "privilege," and that they're the first generation ever to have to hustle for a job. As if.

sophylou said...

Oh my, are people really tweeting about wanting professors to die? I've backed off Twitter (actually retreated to a tiny private account) because it was getting so toxic and harmful to my mental health. If that's happening, I'm not inclined to go back anytime soon.

undine said...

Fie--I can understand the rage at the conditions, but I think the tt people are targets because those who are actually responsible are out of reach.

Historiann--I know, and it does no good to argue. This blog is too obscure to come in for the attacks (or so I sincerely hope), but I saw what happened with TR on Twitter, and the vitriol was astonishing. As you say, reasoning or actual job market history doesn't seem to help.

PS--the Wordpress ID I use to comment at your placeseems to be blocked on all the other Wordpress blogs, too, so I will figure out another one.

sophylou--I think I am just being a drama queen; "die" wasn't the word, maybe (although PBS came close), but it surely was the feeling based on the intensity of the discourse on Twitter and elsewhere. Frankly, the intensity of the hatred makes me a little reluctant to write.

sophylou said...

Yeah, I can understand how the intensity would make it feel like someone was wishing death on TT/tenured faculty. I really had to step away from Twitter because I felt like I just couldn't absorb all the anger that seemed to be filling my timeline, from so many directions. None of it was directed at me, but I knew I couldn't respond to any of it publicly, and I noticed that it was most definitely distorting my thinking and yes, making me reluctant to write ANYTHING at all. Which is not OK with me.

Z said...

People in German have been hateful about more established faculty as long as I can remember. That is decades. Dissertation directors in German might be really mean.
It could be a tradition.

On changing one's focus -- the moment it changed for me was moment of first book contract. Up until then, I realized, my basic research question was not in my field, it was whether or not I could make it in academia. The answer turned out to be yes. So then I had to figure out what I would like to study, and so on, and what my motivation would be now.

Historiann said...

Z's comments about German scholars are really interesting. That might explain a great deal of at least one vector of an enormous amount of internet hatred and ressentiment.

Undine, I'll check my spam filter for you. Sorry about that!

Sophylou's comments here illustrate what happens when an internet hatefest gets going: people of goodwill who want to intervene productively don't bother because they don't want to become objects of hatred themselves. It's easier to walk away and let the haters hate.

undine said...

Z, Historiann, sophylou--that's indeed really interesting about German and would explain a lot.

And it is too bad when people worry about writing because of attacks. I know for some people it's the blood sport of the internet, but people of good will (as Historiann says) don't enjoy it.

Historiann--I think it might be a Wordpress or address problem on my end since a comment over at Z's didn't show up, either.