Random Bits of Starting a New Semester

♦ Teaching in person this coming semester. Looking forward to interacting with students, feeling bad for them, and let’s face it, myself, too, in the light of incessant saliva-based testing that is now required in order to access any building. In the fall we didn’t have anyone get sick in class, all positive cases were traced back to dorms and frat houses, so while I support free and widely available testing, this seems like overkill and has been causing a lot of stress among students, faculty, and staff because many samples get rejected as discolored, containing bits of food or mucus, people not being able to provide enough saliva, etc. It’s a mess.

♦ There is a special kind of loneliness that comes from widespread long-term stress. Everyone’s reserves of good will, patience, hell, fucks to give, get depleted. People can barely hold themselves together and have nothing to spare for anyone else. If one ever needed an explanation for why so many people in the US were lonely even before the pandemic, this heightened stress should make it clear. You can’t connect when no one around you has anything left to give.

♦ I am facing a busy grant-writing period (well, busier than usual). Oof. But, I suppose this is a good, normal kind of oof.

♦ The university is vaccinating people on campus who are over 65. When you think of it, this is a somewhat nonsensical statement. Students are obviously not in this category, and 65 is retirement age; most staff will have retired by that point. There should be very few people in the over-65 bracket on campus. But  plenty of professors teach well into their 70s and 80s. I thought I’d be one of those people, that I would never retire. I don’t think that anymore.

♦ This is something I noticed even before the pandemic: Very few of my colleagues have anything to say about new books, or movies, or shows. Nobody reads or watches anything. There aren’t talks of museum exhibits or concerts, either. I would even welcome chatter on sports! The young ‘uns work nonstop; I do remember the insanity of tenure, so that’s warranted. But all midcareer colleagues work nonstops, too; it’s unclear why.  Maybe they’re still enjoying it more than anything else in the world? Maybe they’re still chasing something? What is this strange place where everyone (but me) seems compelled to work all the time? How did I get here, and why? Should I flee, and, if yes, where to?

♦ There is a special kind of loneliness that comes from being surrounded by people, some of whom are not supposed to know you, the rest of whom don’t give a shit to know you. At least, with the first kind, you can pretend that, given the chance, they wouldn’t be the second kind.

17 comments

  1. Teaching in person? Lucky!!!!

    I might teach a lab in person in fall, but probably not any in person lectures until January 2022.

  2. Wow, yes, so much of this resonates with me, except that I felt like nobody has given a shit to know me since I started medical school. I’ve kind of given up trying to connect with people because nobody has anything left, and everyone’s social networks are already complete and there’s no room for anything else. Once you realize nobody will ever care about you, it’s kind of freeing in a way. That’s how I was able to move 1/2 across the country and my life is essentially unchanged.

    Was also contemplating the lack of reading in my life. Nobody in my residency read AT ALL. In fellowship, self help books were the only socially acceptable medium to consume. Fuck them all, I read what I want, and watch movies that I find interesting. I work all the time because what else would I do with myself? It’s not like I have many irl friends to spend time with…

  3. Professors can never relax (which simply means not working as hard as he/she could), even after tenure or full professor, because even a bit slow down would cause a huge problem in securing funding for the future, which would be a disaster for STEM faculty (perhaps excluding mathematics). Without funding, you can’t recruit postdoc and graduate stuents, you won’t be able to produce results, and you won’t be able to follow the newest trends in your field. I’m a full professor now, and I feel I’m busier than ever. Of course, the nevousness and feeling of uncertainty while on tenure-track is gone.

  4. I read books all the time and finally (after 10 years here) got a library card over the holidays. Now I’m like a kid in a candy store with e-books…I can have anything I want and I don’t have to feel bad about quitting books I don’t like because they are freeeeee!!!
    I hate feeling like I should be working all the time and I can’t wait to retire, although I also really love my students. Retirement is 20+ years away though and I think I might be getting a little bored.

  5. IIRC, the average retirement age for profs is something like 72.

    I have discovered that a surprising number of my colleagues read trashy* novels either of the spec fic or romance novel variety. But it takes knowing them for quite some time to find that out since most academics don’t admit that (or that they watch the Bachelor on the reg as one of my colleagues does) straight up. One of my senior colleagues is also really into ballet, though we have to go into the city for that. (I am NOT into ballet, but my sister is, and she takes my kids. Some of my colleagues are surprised that I don’t care for ballet because I seem so hoity-toity. But I like opera, get bored during orchestra concerts even if I like working with performance today on, and find ballet dull.)

    *I mean trashy in the best possible sense of the term– as a synonym for highly enjoyable and unlikely to show up as a book club rec.

  6. N&M, we had a guy who retired last year and who was born in the 1930s. He would’ve stayed on longer if it hadn’t been for Covid-19 and him getting scared of getting sick. My PhD advisor retired just before he turned 80. Perhaps these late retirements have to do with (among other things) people having little to look forward to on account of not having cultivated their lives outside work.

    Re hoity-toitiness, I love classical music, but don’t care for opera or ballet. However, I love theater and museums.

  7. My mom only retired because given her pension situation she would have been paying them to teach.

    A few of my older colleagues stay because it’s nice to take home a six figure salary to show up to the department maybe 6 hours/week. They’re getting PLENTY of time with outside work lives at, say, their vacation estate in Montana. (We do not work in Montana.)

    That’s not my mom’s case though since she’s a humanities PhD.

  8. This post feels like some crumbs left over from your other writings. I love it. and not only because it resonates with this tiredness and inner inquisition and coming of new age that comes with after-mid career phase. Except that I am actually fleeing. I feel it in all my bones. I depart more and more from the type of work I used to do, the kind of involvement in the research work that I used to breathe in and out, all the time. And while I am fleeing I am wondering about where I am going. You have the writing, I am happy for you. So far, I have the reading and the outdoors, and getting a tad too much into working out, which, indeed, I did not pursue when I was working and working, all the time. But I find that I am thinking and bitting myself up for (not!) finding that new creative thing that should define me.

  9. When I was still in academia, the only socially acceptable hobby seemed to be “the great outdoors”. Everything else was met with “You have time for that?”. So I suspect many of my colleagues decided to pretend that their non-outdoors hobbies like reading did simply not exist? Which is a shame.
    Personally, on many days I was just to tired to read anything intellectually stimulating and conversation-worthy.

  10. It took until he got tenure for my spouse to have any capacity whatsoever to do things for fun and not work all the time. Like, he would go in on federal holidays.

    I read all the time but I am also not TT faculty! So I don’t have to care about anything but showing up and teaching. I read over 400 books last year (the pandemic helped).

  11. maaeli, that’s how it seems sometimes. Outdoorsy stuff is OK, exercise in general, woodworking and such. It’s as if you are not supposed to do anything that seems to be drawing from the same intellectual well from whence your work creativity comes. You can fill said well (exercise) but not empty is with anything that’s not work.

  12. Sara, this is something that I often think about. It certainly seems like we can never stop or slow down, because if we stop or slow down, we won’t be able to get funds to keep going. Basically we have to work nonstop so we’d be able to continue working nonstop.

    I know at least some people who don’t retire into their 70s and 80s do so because all they’ve done their whole life is work. Maybe their passion for their work still burns bright, in which case more power to them, but I know a number who have forgone everything (everything!) for their work. No families, no close personal relationship. That can’t be healthy.

    Another thing. My European colleagues all seem much more relaxed yet just as successful, if not more. They stay home on weekends, they take a monthlong vacation in the summer, they go home in the evenings. They go out to lunches and dinners with colleagues, seem to have time for friends and culture.

    Why the hell can’t we have that in the US? I have to write a pile of grants to get one funded, can’t stop working so I’d be in the position to keep writing grants, can’t take on drastic changes in research direction because I can’t get grants to fund it? It’s insane.

  13. omdg, my husband says that. He’s made peace with never having close friends again, anyone who will give a shit, and has stopped trying. I am perhaps misguided and definitely stubborn, but I refuse to give up. I have made some really good writer friends (yes, online, but I am too much for most people IRL anyway lol). There might be a few people IRL who I think give a quarter shit — maybe even half a shit!– about me.

    And I love LOVE the community of writers I’ve become part of, and just being able to create and grow without the pressure of raising grants or publishing papers or training someone new and clueless in order to be able to do it. Just me and my craft — it’s awesome!

  14. One of the (many) reasons I didn’t go into academia after grad school was that I felt like there was more to life than work, and I wanted to enjoy those other things.

    Sadly, in the last >5 years since I graduated and started working, the things I liked about my life outside of work have gradually become less fulfilling. There are numerous reasons for this, some of which I might have been able to control, others not so much. And work was actually one of the few things that gave/gives me something to be excited about and connect with others who care about some of the same things I care about. So now some aspects of academia look more attractive than they did to me when I was graduating (it also helps to be older and to have the stakes to my ego be lower), thought I still have no intention of pursuing that route.

  15. I get the impression that part of why funding is easier than in Europe is that the path to becoming a truly independent professor responsible for running and funding a group is longer. So less competition for grants. Also, they seem to have done a better job of matching the number of research-focused schools to the amount of funding available, rather than creating positions without any care for whether there’s enough funding to make these positions sustainable. The longer career path also means that research teams rely more on super-postdoc type positions for hands-on work, and less on armies of PhD students, so they aren’t churning out as many new people who will join the competition in a few years.

    There’s probably more to it that I’m missing, but that seems to be part of it.

    Of course, one also hears stories of lazy, insular departments that coast off the centrally planned nature of the system (at least in some countries) in ways that would make even the laziest American full prof shake his hypocritical head. But the mere existence of downsides is not sufficient reason to eschew something with upsides.

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