Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Always anticipating until it's over

It's that time of year when I keep expecting--at any moment!--to feel on the downward slope, where either the course prep and grading will have genuinely eased up or where I'll have crossed enough psychological thresholds (each class is now on its final text! I've passed out the last assignment sheet!) that I know the end is in sight even if nothing in my daily life has changed.

But just as I cross one big thing off my list, I'm reminded of another: peer teaching observations to write up. Essays to score for undergraduate assessment. My annual faculty report. An M.A. thesis from a student whose committee I'd forgotten I was on. An emergency three-hour meeting of that committee that hasn't met all semester. You know how it is.

Still, one of these days it really will be true: stuff will get crossed off the list and nothing new will get added. I'll submit grades, put an "away" message on my email, and for a week or two I'll luxuriate in a sense of satisfied completion.

In this way, my teaching and institutional obligations are unlike the rest of my scholarly life, where I'm rarely able to rest in a sense of achievement. This isn't about my being particularly disgruntled or hard on myself, but about the fact that even the biggest academic achievements tend to happen in endless increments.

I mean, let's say you're hard at work on an article for six months, a year, or two. When do you get to revel in its completion? When you send it out for review? When it finally gets accepted? When the last revisions are in? Or two years later when it actually sees print? By then I'm usually over it--and unsure if anyone has or will ever read it. (I may get nice notes later on, confirming that people have read it, but by then it truly doesn't feel like my work anymore.) The same is true for tenure: there are so goddamn many levels of approval that to celebrate before the last one is premature. . . but when the last one arrives there's no surprise and no suspense left to lift.

It's as if everything is incredibly far off on the horizon until the moment it's in the rear-view mirror.

The past six months have given me a lot of professional validation in a lot of forms. I don't want to make too much of any one, and I haven't publicized many of them for this reason; I'm at a comfortable enough place, professionally, where that feels tacky. Not only do I get more external validation now than I used to, but most of it's based on stuff I did a year or two or five ago, and I try to look forward rather than patting myself on the back for what's done.

But I suppose recognition, in our field, is always mis-timed and never feels earned (or maybe that's just me): either it comes for work that's past, and thus doesn't assuage my fear that I'll never do anything as good again--or it comes because I've succeeded in getting someone excited about work I haven't yet done, which likewise feeds my anxiety about not succeeding and not finishing.

And that's a stupid way to live. So I'm trying to find ways of celebrating, or at least marking the moment and pausing to feel good, when nice things come along.

I'll let you know how it goes.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I'm essentially done with prep for the semester. I have one more Humanities lecture, but I already decided that last year's lecture was good enough. I just have tests to write and papers to grade, basically. So yay!

By the way - what does you summer email auto reply say? I've never done one, as we're expected to be email available over the summer although we aren't on contract.

Good luck to us all for the end of the semester! Summer is in sight!!

Flavia said...


If you're expected to be email-available, it depends what you worry about being bothered by (and how you think such a message would be received by colleagues and administrators). But I think it's fair to manage expectations by saying something like, "during the summer months I check email only intermittently and my response time will be slower than usual. If you have an urgent question regarding [whatever you anticipate being the problem], please contact [relevant person, such as a secretary, registrar, etc.] at [email or phone number]."