Tuesday, February 22, 2005

A professor's work is never done

So a while ago I had a very inspiring conversation with Dr. H, which probably wasn’t that extraordinary from her perspective, but a few things she said shook me loose from some mental traps I’d fallen in.

I’m up for tenure this year, and so far it’s going quite well – after several very harrowing moments (suffice it to say that Murphy’s Law was wreaking all of its glorious havoc on the fate of my book manuscript over the past year and a half) I’ve been approved by my department, my college, and my dean, so that all that remains is the rubber stamp by the provost and the Board of Trustees. (Yeah, we’re very administration-heavy for a smallish college, but that’s another story.) But every time someone congratulates me, I brush it off with “No, no, don’t say that, it’s not official yet.”

But I’ve been saying that for months (years?) now, and I’ve been stuck in the rut of always focusing on the next thing, and not pausing to appreciate what's gotten done. The whole time I was writing the book, I thought, I’ll be so damn happy when this is done, I’ll treat myself to a week of massages and a chocolate cake and a trip to Costa Rica. Yet getting it done didn’t really count without having a publisher, so I thought, boy, when I land a contract, that’s when I’ll party. Then I got a good contract, but a contract alone does not a tenure case make, so I’d better wait until the tenure thing goes through. My department’s recommended me, that’s nice, but I’d better not celebrate until it gets to the dean… and so on and so on. By the time I get the final word on tenure, sometime in April, I’ll have forgotten what it was I was supposed to be celebrating. I have yet to even get myself that massage.

So much of the academic life is like this. It’s very process-oriented, which I enjoy, but we’re always struggling through the middles of things, and rarely looking back to appreciate how far we’ve come. (Prelims done? Great, but you'd better get to work on that dissertation. Dissertation defended? Nice, but have you landed any job interviews? Got me a job. Good for you, but you'd better start publishing so you can get tenure and keep it.) There’s a wonderful Goya painting of a dog up to his ears in a stream, gazing in desperation (or is it hope?) at the waterfall in front of him, and this painting always brings tears to my eyes, because it’s often how I feel about much of my work – bravely paddling away and keeping my head above water, but never on solid ground enough to relax.

Last week Dr. H insisted on congratulating me on (almost) getting tenure, despite my earnest efforts to dissuade her, and she suggested that it might actually be okay for me to be excited about this even if it wasn’t fully official yet. You know what? I decided she was right. Those of you who know me may find this ironic, because I’m usually readier to celebrate than most, but even though I’ve been working my butt off with the book and the tenure case, somehow I’ve not let myself enjoy finishing any of it. Too, one is always surrounded by friends and colleagues in the middle of their own struggles, and one doesn’t want to offend by tooting one’s own horn when others are stressed (lest one be whomped upside the head with a ten-pound textbook or stabbed in the throat with a laser pointer).

But dammit, I’m about to get tenure and publish a book. I’ve decided that it’s safe to do a little gleeful dance, very quietly in my office, when no one’s looking. And who knows… I may even go get that massage. Thanks, Dr. H.

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