As is customary pretty much everywhere, when I was up for tenure at my university, my students were invited to participate in the process by completing a survey about their experiences with me as a teacher and advisor. Unsurprisingly, I found myself fielding a lot of questions about the process. My sense is that, for better or worse, the intricacies of academic hierarchy are opaque to most undergrads, and I don’t lose a lot of sleep over this. I huff and grumble privately when a student addresses me by my first name or, worse yet, as “Mrs. Adelman” but never reprimand them directly. I wager that exactly zero of them noticed when I changed the signature line of my email from “Assistant” to “Associate Professor.” Again: totally fine.
Nonetheless, the most interesting question anyone has ever asked me about the tenure process came from one of my students who asked, simply: “Why?” While it was still early days in my review process, the subject-formation mechanisms had been grinding away on me for years, and so I gave a brief procedural answer and then turned to things like “intellectual freedom” and commitment to the profession. The soundwaves from this exultation (delivered even while I was imagining how satisfying it would be to change my email signature, how many people would totally notice) had barely hit the back wall of the room, when she shook her head and waved her hand like a fly was bothering her. “No,” she said. “That’s not what I meant. Why do you have to go up for tenure? Why can’t you just stay an Assistant Professor forever if you want?”
I had never even considered the possibility. Of course, there are practical reasons to not stay an Assistant Professor forever (though I am still awaiting the landing of the heavenly chorus that I thought would surely sing once my tenure was official). And of course, I knew what would happen — institutionally, if not psychically — if I were denied tenure. And I knew that I had no choice but to go up. But it had never occurred to me to question the requirement itself, and when I’ve shared this anecdote with other professors, they’ve all expressed the same never-thought-of-that incredulity.
It’s an interesting question because it queries the value of the security and recognition that tenure afford. My hunch is that the student didn’t understand the implications of being tenure-less or the practical and professional reasons why one might desire it. But even bracketing this, her question is worth pausing over. Of course, I’m glad I have tenure, and I’m not forgetting for a minute that I’m super privileged to have the certainty and stability it affords. But as I fumbled with my student’s question, I realized that I had never really considered why I was going/putting myself through the tenure process, any more than I had wondered why I get older every year.
In the academic universe, we tend to conceptualize movement toward tenure as (ideally) ineluctable, which also envisions scholarly careers as linear and progressive. Even as many of us eschew the narrative of History-as-progress on a larger scale, I’d wager that most of us imagine our careers along such an inevitably upward-turning arc. But I’d also wager that few of them actually play out that way. For a variety of reasons, we might go months or even years without making much in the way of forward progress; we might choose to slow down or be compelled to. Priorities shift. Projects stall, collaborations fall apart, proposals get rejected, we are compelled to revise, resubmit, and wait. These things happen to everybody, but nonetheless, we instantiate constant and quantifiable progress as both norm and ideal of academic work. Indeed, even the prevailing metaphor of the tenure “clock” (stoppable only in the most extreme circumstances) replicates this logic.
My student’s question was therefore truly inconceivable, even apart from the institutional requirement, as a condition of my hire and employment, that I go up for tenure by a certain year. In effect, she was proposing a refusal of institutional mandates and expectations, or imagining a refusal of this compulsory pursuit of security. It’s an imperfect comparison, to be sure, but imagine how clear the answer would have seemed if the student had proposed opting out of other coveted and widely-valued forms of security or legitimacy like … marriage.
As mechanisms for subject-formation, institutions work by conditioning our assumptions and expectations, offering recognition and security in exchange for alignment with preferred forms of each. My student, howsoever unintentionally, hinted at an alternative to this arrangement, in which ‘progress’ or ‘success’ might be measured by a different metric, or maybe recognized differently, as chimeras after all.
The last time I posted, summer hadn’t even happened yet. And now it is so over. I lost track of time a little bit. And I ran out of my words.
The past five months or so have been unusually deadline-intensive (and we aren’t done yet): a logorrheic scramble that included the submission of the full draft manuscript for my second book project.
Most people who write insist that it’s a naturally cyclical process, that periods of being stuck will be followed by stretches of productivity … that give way, eventually, onto new deserts of wordlessness, which in turn lead to insights that beget the next profusion, and so on. And that’s pretty much been my experience, though I don’t yet have the confidence to sit through the dry spells with poise, equanimity, and faithful anticipation of the return of my words. Mostly I pass those seasons in torrents of profanity, interspersed with sniveling.
Professionally, I was super relieved when my creative mind finally got unstuck after months of feeling disordered and cottony. This dislodging happened with just barely enough time left for me to meet my various and sundry writing commitments with the delivery of products that were reasonably complete and not too embarrassing.
But the urgency of these commitments artificially accelerated my progress back to writing. This was not a steady and natural movement back into the circuit that links my ideas to hands to words on a page. It was necessary and desperate. The resultant work was decent, maybe even better than that in places. But it did not, does not, feel quite like it is mine. It feels familiar, but vaguely, as if composed on my behalf by someone who knows me very well.
Writing from the vantage of or else begets a particular kind of alienation. I tend to idealize writing as the luxury part of my job, the part of my work that bears the least resemblance to general understanding of what “work” entails. Especially now that I’m tenured, writing is the work that I “get” to do, at least theoretically. But it doesn’t feel that way.
It’s hardly a revelation that work is supposed to indistinguishable from pleasure under late capitalism, and that this is a problem. This affective blurring at the intersection of desire and necessity is part of what makes neoliberalism tolerable, and it’s particularly (though not uniquely) acute for academics.
But the work/pleasure nexus has been iterating itself differently in my writing practice lately. Finding myself somewhat disconnected from the content, yoked to deadlines and editorial predilections rather the exploration and refinement of ideas, writing feels less like intellectual pleasure and less like creative work and more like mechanical habit.
After I submitted my manuscript draft I exhaled. And then thought about how I was now freer … to do more work. And not really any work in particular, no long-neglected pet project or some experimental new venture. Just: work.
This kind of productivity is not the opposite of writer’s block, except in the most functional terms. It’s a different kind of incapacity, to think for the sake of thinking, to write just because instead of or else. Hence the long stretch of quiet in this space, and elsewhere in my life.
I have a few more commitments to satisfy, a few more writerly have-tos in the coming weeks. And, now that I think about it, a handful after that.
Despite this, I want to reclaim just because writing. At the same time, I want to insist on the difference between work and not-work. This distinction is important, I think, for personal, mental hygiene reasons, but also political ones. It’s a privilege, surely, to be able to enjoy one’s work. But work itself is not the privilege. And there is a cost to misrecognizing it as a pleasure.
In their introduction to the special issue, the editors–Taylor Black, Elena Glasberg, and Frances Bartkowski–frame survival as follows:
If survival has just one affective mode, it might be defiance—the feat and fate of living beings after injury, trauma, war, captivity, and natural disaster. It would also be the survival of words, signals, and germinal states of being in the world that we sometimes call natural, but that also encode the cultural landscape. A topography of ruins, trash, exhaustion, and depletion remains and reminds us of that which lives on after in a state of belatedness that is survival: the afterlife of what was not supposed to remain, that which was to have died, but did not, after all. Survival defies nostalgia, envy, and accusation. Survival in the realm of resources—whether human, animal, or mineral—gives the lie to a necropolitics, forcing the living, those living, and those living on to accede to a call from the future to turn away from that fallen angel of history (14).
Wendy and I analyze Krinitz’s work as a register of how the everyday process of surviving war lasts as long, or longer than the conflict itself, and consider how her art functions as a reparative practice that ameliorates the traumatic impacts of historical violence without ever succumbing to them. We are drawn to Krinitz’s tapestries not only for their technical virtuosity and lush aesthetics (see the panels in person if you ever get the chance!) but for the way these dimensions stubbornly refuse to grant monstrosity authority over the beautiful.
All is not lost. What I have lacked in tangible productivity over my long season of writer’s block (which seems finally to be limping its way to a close), I have gained in new understandings of the intricacies of my writing process and the fussy mechanics of getting words on the page.
When you aren’t getting words on the page, it’s crazy annoying (at best) to hear about people that are. And it’s similarly unpleasant to receive unsolicited suggestions about how to get yourself unstuck. As if it was simply a matter of will or ergonomics or mental hygiene. But if it was that easy, anyone could do it. Producing good work, and doing it well, takes more than that. So here are a few things I figured out about being productive when I was struggling to produce anything at all. It’s an open letter, of sorts, to my writerly self – the “I” is me, and so is the “you.” But the “you” can also be, you know, you, if you are reading this and wanting to reconsider your writing praxis.
Become attuned to your limits.
It’s hard to tune out the constant drone of academic meta-commentary about how much (or, from the occasional maverick, how little) we work. And it helps to know that most of those aggrandizing self-reports are bullshit. But even still, focusing too much on what other people are doing, or not, just leaves me insecure, or anxious, or envious. So spend less time worrying about what other people are doing and focus on your own patterns. Then figure out how you work, and be honest about whether all the hours you spend “working” are actually that. For example, I’ve figured out that I’m neither efficient nor terribly lucid after dinner, and that even when I go back to work late in the evening, I’m not getting much done besides maybe assuaging my guilt about not working enough.
Diminishing returns are a thing. So consider whether you might be better served by reinvesting those mediocre or largely symbolic work hours elsewhere.
Figure out how you want the experience of writing to feel.
Turns out, there are no extra points for suffering. Or if they are, they circulate in an economy that is wildly unrewarding. Like the counters where you redeem your tickets at arcades: a small fortune in tokens and hours spent playing Skeeball leave you with an armload of little cardboard rectangles and the teenager in charge of the whole operation barely acknowledges you when you come to select your prize and it ends up that all you can afford is a pencil case. Anyway.
Few of us have the luxury, presumably, to only write when it feels good. Deadlines, tenure, promotion, &c. But unless you produce your best work in the throes of abject misery, experiment with the novel practice of setting your writing aside when writing feels terrible. We all have different thresholds for ‘terrible,’ and that terrible feeling might be mental or physical, but when you encounter that threshold, I think it’s smart to heed it. Admittedly, I am still relatively new to the routine of being a peer-reviewer, but I have not yet encountered a reviewer questionnaire instructing me to give special consideration to a project if I think the author cried a lot (A LOT) while they composed it. And if there are people who will give you extra credit for your anguish, think carefully about whether you want to play by that set of rules.
Spend some time thinking about how it feels when you are doing your best work. Maybe you feel focused, or excited, or peaceful, or maybe you’re so in it that you don’t feel anything at all. Take advantage of those times, figure out how to increase their frequency if possible, develop strategies for doing good-enough work in circumstances that only approximate them. And otherwise: leave it alone.
Work at a pace that’s sustainable.
Pretty much every academic I know, including me, is overcommitted. There are lots of reasons for this, both individual and structural. Obviously, everybody will define “overcommitted” in their own ways, and experience being overcommitted idiosyncratically. I’ll need to figure out, eventually, why I have a tendency to hoard projects, but here’s what I know for now: I tend to overestimate the amount of time that I have before a deadline, while underestimating how much work I will want to put into a given project. Part of me also imagines that the asteroid will surely hit between now and whatever deadline so it won’t actually matter.
I can manage the consequences of my over- and underestimating (as well as the general paucity of asteroids) fairly well under normal circumstances. But when shit, inevitably happens, that mismatch becomes acutely untenable.
So: try plan out your projects and commitments, as best as you are able, so that they align with how busy you want to be, and when, while also maintaining an overall mode of existence that is tolerable. (Parenthetically, I think academics ought to aspire to existences that are more than tolerable, and break the habit of postponing tolerability until the summer.) Not all of this is in your control, of course, so another part of writing and working well is, I think, accepting that those plans won’t always pan out. And leave a margin for catastrophes, great and small. If your whole writing scheme is contingent on you never getting a flat tire / your kid never getting sick / you never getting called for jury duty / no one you love ever needing you or dying, it probably isn’t going to work for you long-term.
Consider what it’s worth to you.
Because we are all, alas, constrained by the laws of time and space, doing one thing generally means not doing another (or half-doing two things at once). Try to be cognizant of the trade-offs your writing affords and requires of you. Be honest about whether the potential rewards actually appeal to you, and your values. And then consider the costs, and whether they’re acceptable. With a few exceptions, I am generally fine to sacrifice binge-watching for writing. And sometimes I feel very okay opting out of being social so I can stay in and work. But on the other hand, it’s almost never worth it to me – though it used to be – to trade work for sleep, or healthy food, or exercise. Maybe your non-negotiable stuff is different. The point is to figure out what that non-negotiable stuff is, and protect it … otherwise work will eat it all.
Detach from the outcome.
Beyond doing your best to make your ideas intelligible and your style engaging, you can’t control how people will respond to your writing. Consider your audience, but don’t obsess about them, and learn the difference between wanting to connect with your readers and needing to charm and trap them into your ways of seeing and thinking. Efforts to engineer reader reactions almost never generate better writing, and are much more likely to result in arguments that overreach or result to pedantry, while the fixation with impressing your audiences will ultimately leave you stultified and unable to say much of anything at all. Good ideas are much easier to come by than magic words.
Look, and move, forward.
You will have seasons when you are more productive, seasons when you are less productive, and seasons when you are scarcely functional. Hopefully, over the course of your writing life, these will balance out into an overall sense of accomplishment, with a body of work that bears it out. When you are more productive, spend some time figuring out what enables you to work at that level, but don’t make yourself crazy trying to recreate it every time you encounter a slump. Chances are, it’s mostly a matter of circumstance: a legitimate manifestation of your brilliance, sure, but maybe also just good luck. Conversely, the seasons when you are less productive are also likely to those in which your luck is worse than usual, and not a final revelation of your incompetence.
Capitalism tells us that time is modular, that any hour has potentially the same value as any other hour, and hence that missed hours can be replaced. Nope. If there is something big that keeps you from your work for a season, you won’t (sorry) be able to get those hours back. And especially if that something big is also something massively unpleasant, you probably won’t be able to stop feeling lousy about those lost hours, anxious or mournful about the work you could be doing, and resentful of the people around you who happen to be enjoying one of those good-luck seasons of magical writing. In those moments, all you can do is muddle through: do what you can with your radically reduced resources, plead for deadline clemency if you need it, and accept – your overwhelming fatigue may help lubricate this process – that you probably won’t be producing your very best work at this particular godawful juncture. And don’t compound the insult by blaming yourself for those lost hours, those words left unwritten. For my part, now that I’m halfway (give or take) back in the saddle after a pretty unrelentingly miserably eighteen months, it’s a daily struggle not to take the losses of that period out on myself. It takes a lot of mental discipline to focus on what you can do, not on what you didn’t because you couldn’t.
* * * * *
So that’s a little bit of what I know now that I didn’t know before. It strikes me as odd that academics, generally so good at questioning why things are the way they are, rarely bring their skeptical sensibilities to the task of questioning their own work habits or the expectations they have internalized. And for those who are satisfied with their circumstances, there may be no need for this kind of querying. But I get the impression (or maybe I just run with an exceptionally grumpy crowd) that lots of us are less than satisfied. Of course, many of the reasons for that are structural, and so insuperable by these tiny little hacks. But despite this, or maybe because of it, minor adjustments made in the service of your own comfort are meaningful, worth it, and necessary.
Being on sabbatical is not as uncomplicated as I expected it to be. I mean, it’s fantastic. And the thought of how I will eventually not be on sabbatical is almost too unbearable to entertain (and yet, there it is, every day, when I look at my calendar). But it also amplifies all the various forms of utter lunacy mental anguish that rattle around the interiors of pretty much every serious academic I know, including me.
It took me about a month to figure out that sabbatical is hard (and here is the point where everyone who is not on sabbatical starts feeling stabby) because it’s this massive contradiction: Time Off to Be Productive. Okay. And like all contradictions that originate in institutions, it’s left to individual subjects to negotiate them with virtually no guidance and a keen awareness of the stakes of getting it wrong. So I’ll work on that.
So far, my negotiation has taken the form of really acute, and generally fruitless, writing guilt.
But it’s also increased my skepticism of all the gestures that institutions and other academics make toward “work-life balance.” Right out the gate, I’d like to suggest that, as a concept, work-life balance is a crock (and I was so cranky when I Googled that very phrase and discovered I didn’t invent it). And insofar as institutions advocate it with an eye toward increasing productivity, it’s a little too cozy with neoliberal imperatives to work for me as an aspiration. “Work-life balance” is essentially a soft mandate for employees to work out structural tensions, contradictions, and responsibilities themselves, shouldering all the risks associated with failing to do so, while sharing the benefits of success with the institution.
Too often, I think, academic “work-life balance” becomes just another thing to fail at, and so it devolves into an unfunny punchline about ‘getting to choose which 60 [or 80, or whatever] hours a week to work.’ Academics, I think, can rightfully aspire to more than that. But so few of us do. On the other hand, the people who do seem to manage that balance become objects of envy or skepticism to the rest of us poor fools who are groping around for it … and on the rare instances when I seem skate into it (very temporarily), it feels like a dirty secret. In the absence of good models for how to achieve that balance, I often just default to work, because that’s a thing I know how to do, should always be doing.
I think “work-life balance” reflects a similar incommensurability to that embedded in Time Off/Be Productive. Which is not to say that sabbaticals are a crock. Sabbaticals are marvelous and necessary and I am so grateful for mine (really). It’s just that they refract the dilemmas inherent in neoliberal approaches to academic work, filtering them in more gently but also, I think, more insidiously. The experience of Time Off to Be Productive aids, I think, in the formation (or buttressing, if you were already there – I was, for sure) of subjectivities that internalize, and indeed run on, the demands of productivity. And in the absence of an institution that metes out reprimands for failing to do so, I do that work on its behalf. Of course, I can’t fire or un-tenure myself, but I can antagonize myself with unrealistic expectations, denial of true rest or time away from work, and nonstop internal chattering about squandering my time and generally being a failure. Done, done, and done.
With a few extra moments to reflect on my attitudes and behaviors, and maybe those of the people around me, afforded by my Time Off, I can see a bit more clearly the costs of Being Productive. Too often, “work-life balance” amounts to a thin compromise, tiny corrections to make unreasonable expectations (some, but not all, self-imposed) more humane and, perversely, more sustainable. Things like avoiding email after certain hours or on weekends, setting boundaries around time invested in students, giving oneself permission to say ‘no.’ That’s the work side, and even those commitments erode, whether by incessant demands or the difficulty of establishing new patterns when so many others benefit from the damaging ones we usually maintain. On the life side, maybe it ends up being time for family and friends (but set rigidly aside and often spent calculating opportunity costs of missed work). Efforts to get more exercise or prepare healthier food (but postponed until we’re too tired or overwhelmed to enjoy them).
Of course, I am well aware that my tenured life is relatively cushy, and that these kinds of problems are derivatives of tremendous privilege. And all of this grousing underestimates the extent to which academic work can be fulfilling, energizing, even restorative. But I don’t hear many people talk about it that way, and I’m not sure how many of us experience it in those affirmative registers. Except on sabbatical or over the summer, maybe. Which is a problem.
More to say on this, surely, but it’s my sabbatical and I need to get back to work.
Funny because it’s true, of course, butt it suddenly strikes me as very odd. Look how illuminating social media can be!
I suspect that most of us academics have our own taxonomies of email closings. I do.
“All the best,” is my go-to: administrative, scholarly, pedagogical. In the absence of strong feelings about the recipient or the content of my email, I use this. And I think that might be a problem (about which more below).
I recently tried “All my best,” for correspondence with a person to whom I was especially grateful. At first, it made me feel really sincere and human. But then it made me feel promiscuous.
Speaking of sincerity, it turns out that “Sincerely,” is the one I use when I’m not feeling particularly sincere. My instinct is to use this for an email that is stern, serious, maybe a little cold … this is for those where-is-your-paper? queries and gentle reprimands of wayward students. It’s for those circumstances when wishing the best seems disingenuous or inappropriate, but conveniently ambiguous (it can be read as “I sincerely hope you have not turned your paper in because you got mauled by a bear” or “I sincerely wish you’d turn in your effing paper.”)
And when my reprimands are not-so-gentle, I dispense with the closing altogether. The austere “-Prof. Adelman.” I’m not sure what the “-” signifies in this instance. Maybe a withholding or subtraction of “the best” that I previously might have bestowed.
On the other hand, when I’m corresponding with a colleague (including those I know well, or respect, or genuinely like), I say even less: “-r.a.a.”.
Taken together, this reveals that the people to which I wish “the best” are those for whom I have least invested in seeing that come to fruition. Excepting the “-r.a.a.” crowd, it appears that I am most honest with the “-Prof. Adelman”-ers, for whom I express no good will at all, just a neutral affirmation of my own textual existence.
My only other habitual deviation from “All the best,” is “Take care,” which I use quite selectively, most often in professional contexts for students in some kind of crisis. But this, too, is curious, for at the precise moment when they might actually need the best given to them by some external magic, I instead imply that they might want to fend for themselves. What I am really intending with “Take care,” is to use my professorial authority – such as it is – to encourage them, give them permission, to prioritize their own well-being in a difficult period, but it’s a curious way of communicating that.
This bit of introspection makes me wonder about how variations of “Best” became hegemonic in academic corresponding. I have a vague recollection of making the switch myself (though I can’t remember what I used before it), sometime in my later years of graduate school, but I’m not sure why, other than a sense that it was the right thing to do, a subtle way of performing my apprehension and mastery of the subtleties required to be a credible academic.
But what, really, is the substance of “All the best,”? Of what does the “best” consist? And does the definite article preceding it imply that there is a consensus about what “the” best is, or presume that I and my correspondent are in agreement on this matter? Do I have the authority to distribute it? And is anyone really entitled to “all” of it, whatever it is? Have they earned it simply by reading to the end of my message?
I’m wondering about the imperatives behind “All the best,” both affective and ideological. It is a tiny, reflexive expenditure of affective effort from me; to prove I am a credible academic, I demonstrate that I wish the best for anyone who crosses my path, regardless of whether it’s true or I know them at all. Moreover, it’s a way of partaking, I think, in the fantasy of the ‘good life’ that Lauren Berlant and others have critiqued of late, and perhaps also of locating it within the sphere of academic work. It’s a three-word replication of neoliberalism, while the fragmentary nature of the phrase, without verb or actor, implies that one might simply call “the best” into being by force of will.
I wasn’t so hot at math. Or Home Economics. But I could spell. In elementary and middle school, I held my breath for spelling bee days, the equal and opposite dread with which I anticipated the gym class gauntlet of clipboards, stopwatches, and chin-up bars comprising the President’s Physical Fitness Award testing process.
No honor among thieves, and not much in the way of loyalty among the “gifted” students, with whom I inevitably shared the few remaining folding chairs on the auditorium stage in the final rounds of every year’s local contest. The other gifted kids were my main allies against ostracism from the cool kids or ridicule from the ones who ate a lot of paste, but on spelling bee days, all that went out the window. I remember clutching my best friend’s hand, sweaty juvenile palm to sweaty juvenile palm, in the last round of the third grade bee, and then letting her go, gently but decisively, when she misspelled “bamboozled” and I subsequently got it right, for the win. A few years later, I didn’t so much as look at anybody when I crushed it all on “xenophobia.”
My brief moments of glory always came to crashing ends at the citywide level, when my parents bundled me into the car on freezing winter Saturdays, driving us into downtown Chicago, where I would always flame out in the early rounds. My recollections of those events are spotty: terror that I would fail, my dad’s stone-faced disappointment, superior eye-rolling from the other smartypants kids, and misspelling “approxAmately.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about years-long but hyper-local reign as the bee queen, as I float on in this quicksandy writer’s block that’s been dogging me for months. I knew “approximately” as confidently as I knew “bamboozled” and “xenophobia,” but something about the change in venue, the weight of the expectation, and – paradoxically – the relative ease with which I had so far proceeded, seemed to erase both my memory of the word lists and my intuitive sense of how letters combined themselves into pairs, phonemes, words, sentences.
I’m still animated by words, and the acts of playing around with them. My mind is busy. So busy that it’s been keeping me up at night. And I’m all enthusiasm for my work. But I can’t seem to string anything together, to make the pieces fit. I’m watching everyone else go through their turns, sailing on to the next or getting eliminated, so anxious for mine, I guess, that I can’t even hear the word I need when it finally does.