Someone needs to dust in here.
Hi everyone, it’s been a while! I lay low this summer, busy writing fiction and enjoying it, as well as just immersed in the literary Twitter community. But I would never abandon my academic blogosphere! I hope to go back to writing in this space more regularly, once or maybe twice a week.
I think I got swept by fiction writing because it’s something new, where I have room to improve, and—this is most important—it all depends on me. I don’t have to train anyone; I don’t have to find ways to lift anyone to competence; I don’t have to figure out how to make them even want to rise to competence. What I produce is all mine; what I do with it is all mine; no one to consult, no one to ask for permission, I can just do whatever I want. Sure, there are rejections, but I have to say they don’t bother me nearly as much as professional rejections, perhaps because writing isn’t my career; I see on Twitter that writers who are much more serious about their craft do suffer after rejections a lot.
The grant game is soul-crushing. NSF reviews have become completely nuts. This year, the reviews I received were borderline unhinged; they had nothing to do with the proposal. I have been at this long enough (and this particular proposal was funded by another agency in another capacity) that I know it’s not my profound inability to explain myself. No, this time a reviewer went on about a proposal weakness being the use of a technique that I never proposed to use at all and that has nothing to do with my project, save for perhaps a passing similarity in the name.
And this goes on and on, this insanity of having to write grants to NSF, year after year, only once per year per directorate, in order to get some pittance of money, and what you get back are these half-assed—nay, no-assed—reviews written by God knows who about God knows what, because they sure as shit weren’t about what I’d written.
I have a new crop of students, who need to be trained from scratch. Among them, it seems one is quite capable and independent, the rest appear average, which means they can do well but need a lot of hand-holding at the outset. I understand that’s my job and I will do it…
…But, boy, am I exhausted just thinking about it. In my heart of hearts—and maybe my midlife crisis is speaking here, too—it’s not all that interesting to, yet again, take new people and spend years bringing them to competence on so many little details, only to have them leave right after they’ve achieved it. I have a new postdoc who is not from my immediate field, but I needed at least someone energetic and senior enough to help me wrangle all the new students. Right now, the postdoc is a costly addition of still undetermined helpfulness.
We spend so much time being negative in science. Finding reasons not to fund something, not to publish something. That’s what it’s about when it comes to money and prestigious papers, if we’re being honest. We’re all about sniffing out the claims that are too bold, the ideas that are not that novel, the reasons why something can’t, shouldn’t, won’t work as promised. Sure, we should evaluate, but at the core of peer review is a distrust of authors, of their work, of their claims, and the reviewers (who we pretend aren’t deeply affected by their own biases, insecurities, and jealousy) are these shiny knights, supposedly protecting science from the outrageous! preposterous! money-wasting! but most of the time really decent, serious, solid, if incremental work.
So I write short fiction. I write fiction, because I don’t have to train anyone but myself. I get to be weird and creative, as opposed to serious and evaluative. I worked as an editor for a bit, but dropped it because it sapped my creativity and made me bitchy; I didn’t want to evaluate and reject people on yet another front. I want to create, freely, to the best of my ability. It’s sad that I don’t get to do that in my work. I haven’t in a long time. I wish I could find a way toward it again, but it’s too late — I am too deep into working with students, having to maintain funding to feed them, having to spend energy on training them, having to keep the pipeline full.
Instead, I write short fiction to feel creative and vibrant, and to have no one to answer to or worry about but myself. And I’m getting really good at it.