Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Short term, long term

The conference was excellent! (And yeah, I've been back for over a week, but have spent most of that time in Grading Jail, as Philosophy Factory would say. Even now I've only momentarily escaped, and they'll be dragging me back any minute now.) It was a huge ego trip, really. I'm accustomed to being fairly invisible and not knowing many people, but I've finally hit some sort of critical mass in terms of the number of folks I know (especially in this fairly narrow field) and now that my book is out, even more people came up to introduce themselves to me. A graduate student e-mailed me a few days before the conference and asked if we could meet, because she admired my work, and we had a lovely lunch together. Boy, do I wish I'd had the guts to do that more often; from the student perspective it's terribly intimidating, but from the other side, it's wonderful to know that someone enjoyed your work, and to talk with them about their own ideas (which in this student's case are far superior to anything I ever did with that particular topic - if anyone should have been intimidated, it was me).

My panel was well-attended, and all the papers fit together remarkably well. An Awesome Senior Historian attended, and gave me some very supportive comments afterwards. (In spite of my recent experience with the graduate student, I still couldn't get over feeling completely outclassed and tongue-tied with him.) A book review editor from a well-respected journal approached me to say that someone had just asked him to review my book, and if I'd arrange to send him a copy. I met several people from my Ph.D. institution, and had a lovely time chatting with them, feeling much more like a colleague instead of a former student.

So all in all, an excellent and encouraging experience! It's odd that I'm into my second year as a tenured professor, but I'm just now starting to feel like a grown-up in the academic world. (A junior-league grown-up, but a grown-up nonetheless.)

While I'm enjoying the sensation, however, I'm uncertain about the future. As several others have written recently, there's a moment after you get tenure when the future stretches out in front of you in this long flat featureless ribbon, and you realize that there are no more hoops to jump through. Everything during my academic career has been relatively short-term tasks and rewards: take exams and get a grade; complete an undergraduate program and get a degree; complete a thesis and get an M.A.; complete a dissertation and get a Ph.D.; go through the interview cycle and get a job; publish a book and get tenure. There's always an immediate, measureable goal, and a prize when you get there.

But now what? I am not without goals, but as of now they're entirely of my own devising. Which, when I put it that way, sounds like it ought to be more rewarding. But when you've been trained to jump through clearly defined hoops for twenty years, it's hard to adapt to setting up your own, especially when the prizes aren't as definite, and there's no punishment for failing. For as lovely as the academic life is, it really does rely on a great deal of self-motivation to keep productive. My pride and sense of basic decency will keep me going for a while yet, I imagine, but it's hard when there are other faculty in my department who make a practice of being so incompetent that no one will give them any jobs to do, and they coast along making a nice salary for virtually no work. Once you get tenure, there are no carrots and no sticks.

What got me thinking about this (again) is the ceremony I attended on campus the other day to recognize people who have been at this institution for recognizably important numbers of years. The five-year folks (including me) got little pins, as did the ten-year folks; the 20- and 30-year survivors got nicer gifts and little speeches about their accomplishments. This is what got me, because after a few dozen names the speeches started to sound more and more alike, except for the few individuals who had clearly made a recognizable impact; of the rest, all the men had a "can-do attitude," and all the women were "unfailingly cheerful." I thought it would be a little depressing to dedicate thirty years of your professional life to an institution, especially when that dedication comes mostly from your own internal motivation, only to be rewarded with your life described in three sentences about how cheerful you are.

So my question is: how do I want to be described when I've completed thirty years here (or wherever)? That's a very scary question, but I like it as a way to figure out what to aim for. The conference experience has me all warm and happy right now, but "she impressed a few people at a conference once" is not going to hold up for a description of my career. I have no answers yet, but I'll share the question: what do you want your three sentences to say?

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