Every N years, where N is a small prime number, each department in my college does a post-tenure review of faculty members (1/N of tenured folks get reviewed per annum). I just received my own review, in which the evaluators (a small committee composed of some of my full-professor colleagues) wrote a couple of paragraphs on my research, teaching, and service. The conclusion is that I exceeded department expectations. I was surprised by the conclusion, to be honest. I think I am doing OK, but nothing special.
But when I read their summary paragraph, it really sounded awesome. Money, papers, graduated students, high-level service at the university and in the professional community, teaching evaluations far above average even in low-level required courses with large enrollments of grumpy undergrads. So, on paper, I might indeed look awesome. I might look like I exceed expectations.
I don’t feel awesome.
I think something broke last year. Maybe this is just burnout, but burnout (at least to me) has a cyclic nature. Instead, this feels irreversible. I think my job, or some parts of my job, might have actually broken my heart. I fell out of love with my job—my vocation—and, if my romantic past is any indication, once I am out of love, there is no going back.
I had a lot of very labor-intensive and emotionally draining service at the department and university levels. At a university-level committee I was chairing, a person from another department, who had previously been my friend, made my life hell. This committee is very important and handles sensitive work, and would have been challenging during the best of times. Unfortunately, this person on one side and a higher-up admin whose agenda did not align with the mission of the committee on the other side acted the double whammy of additional stressors. Their aggression affected me profoundly.
I graduated several students. In case you’re wondering, they all landed good industrial or national-lab jobs. One of the students was very good technically, but challenging to work with and I am overall glad he’s gone. However, I was put in a position by another couple of students to accommodate their personal choices, as well as the whims and/or funding woes of their significant others’ advisors, to the extent that made me quite uncomfortable, but where I felt I couldn’t say no; my husband says I am nuts to give them so much leeway and I think he has a point. I try to be flexible and help my advisees navigate the various transitional periods to the best of my ability, but in my experience students often take me for granted and are entirely self-serving in what they ask for, so I end up angry and resentful because I feel pushed far beyond what I am comfortable with because I had vowed to be helpful and flexible. They want more and more and more and somehow they always ask me, a stupid soft helpful woman, while the other important tough male advisors just dish out immutable decrees. I apologize to all future crops of graduate students, but going forward I will be far less accommodating. I will ask that what we had agreed upon be delivered in the manner and within the timeframe that we had agreed upon and I will be much stricter in enforcing how much time can be taken off for interviewing, moving, etc. I can and will be as inflexible as any man. Future students can thank those who graduated in 2017-18 for this. (This goes back to my oft-shared complaint: I wish people wouldn’t ask for so much. People say “What’s the harm in asking? You can just say no.” But the act of asking is already an imposition; it places the ball in my court and the burden on me to be the bad guy to say no, where in reality they wouldn’t have asked anything of the sort in any job or of most other advisors.)
This past year has also been a year of extreme annoyance at everyone who demands that I justify my work as worthwhile because, being that I do theory, it is a priori not worthwhile. This theory—experiment chasm has been growing in recent decades, with groups who do large-scale calculations becoming a world unto themselves with usually limited relationships with experiment, while experimentalists now think everyone just runs the codes written by someone else (We do not! Or at least my group does not.) and generally tend to neither bother to understand the work nor deem it important. This baseline disrespect and constant questioning of the core of my professional existence at the hand of my experimental peers seems to have become worse with time, instead of better with my increasing seniority. When coupled with standard parts of the job, such as the need to perpetually write grants only to have very few of them funded, or having to battle reviews to get papers published, this all makes me want to ask, “Why the hell do I care? This is all so stupid and pointless.”
A related annoying aspect is that I thought, at some point in my career, there would be respect. At some point, the mansplaining would stop or at least abate. I was wrong. I am now in a mansplaining sandwich, with both older and younger colleagues rushing to interrupt, correct, and generally talk all over me. I am so fuckin’ done talking with my colleagues. Every interaction is like having a 15-min run on a treadmill; I end up winded, with my heart racing, just from trying to finish a goddamn sentence.
There is a junior colleague whom I see often and who is particularly exhausting. I admire his energy, but he is a know-it-all who drives me bananas. He also comments on how I don’t work 24/7 like he does (he is single, comes to work at noon, meets with students at 8 pm, all that jazz). He says he can’t understand how people spend so much time getting this job and are then satisfied with just being mediocre. (I don’t know if he’s talking about me, but it sure feels that way.) When I was on the tenure track and I worked non-stop, senior colleagues were scolding me for not taking the time to go out in the sun and enjoy life. As a woman, I am some sort of mansplaining magnet. Honestly, how do people become so insufferable? To so not give a shit about those around them? It’s a complete lack of awareness and empathy. And what recourse do I have? To start telling people that they are getting on my nerves and to please stop talking? That’s a shortcut to Bitchville. Maybe I should purchase some property there.
What is funny is that I do my job and apparently do it quite well, as evidenced by my CV. You cannot tell from it (or at least the colleagues who evaluated me can’t) that I am no longer in love with my work—with my research, or my workplace, or the concept of academic science. Perhaps that’s how it needs to be, but it feels wrong. If feels like I should love it, and I used to. I used to invest all of my personal worth in it, but now it’s whatever. (In case someone wants to come and say “Move over and let someone who’s still fired up take your job,” to this I say fuck off—I don’t owe anything to anyone.)
So much of my ego used to be in my job, but I have now moved it elsewhere, probably temporarily. I am really into fiction writing and it’s going well. I get plenty of rejections, too, but at least the online community is supportive (as opposed to densely populated by egotistical mansplainers who couldn’t say a nice or even neutral thing to save a life), and I feel like I am learning and growing. There are different genres to explore and I am excited about honing my craft and learning about the lay of the marketing land beyond the literary genre. I had my first story accepted by a zine that specializes in horror! I have a really nice SF story that I want to place into a really good market; it got several close-but-no-cigar personal rejections with feedback. I know that I am getting better because I can already see a difference between the stuff written six months ago versus today, and the journals that accept my work keep getting better and better. Even the encouraging personalized rejections (versus the form ones) get more numerous and have started coming from higher-tier places.
Someone on another blog said that, after a couple of major setbacks, he threw himself into a new hobby with passion and purpose, and got better really fast to the point that everyone was surprised and he even contemplated making this hobby a new career. But the hobby served the purpose of fortifying a wobbly ego, showing him that he could do something well when he didn’t believe he could do anything. After a while, the hobby had apparently served its purpose and was abandoned, with very little lingering interest. I wonder if fiction writing is doing the same thing for me, but my creative hobbies tend to stick around (e.g., eight years of academic blogging, and counting *gasp*!)
Anyway, we’ll see. So far I’m really enjoying fiction writing (have had a couple of dozen total literary, humor, lab lit, now horror, and hopefully soon sci-fi pieces published). I enjoy the language, learning to wield it, learning to carry a narrative and draw people in and manage the pacing, and generally letting my freak flag fly.
As for my work—well, maybe it will have to be just a job for now. We’ll see.
How’s your April 1st weekend going?