Wednesday, February 28, 2007

My Job≠My Self

I had a telephone conversation with someone lately (I honestly can't remember who), and this person talked about those poor souls with their nursing jobs, or the like, whose lives and very selves are inextricably linked with their career. For these people, any and every failure reflects poorly on not just their performance, but on the deepest core of their existence.

I nodded many times, expressing my agreement and my chagrin for Those People, you know, because the person on the other end can see when I nod when I'm on the phone. Anyway, I was all, "that's right! It is so sad." And the conversation moved on to other things.

I had some fleeting sense of something directly after I got off the phone, but didn't revisit it fully until I was driving home from school today. That something that I was brushing off earlier was a niggling feeling that fully flowered today: I am, in some ways, one of Those People.

Perhaps I am in denial, but I do believe that academia is particularly conducive to the My Job/Self people. I think it's a hazard of that career track. Long ago, when I was going through my crappy high school phase, my parents sent me to a psychiatrist to make sure everything was okay. This psychiatrist talked to me about all of my parental issues and mentioned that, unfortunately, I was subjected to certain rules and regulations because my father is a lawyer. Sort of like the kid who is the progeny of a doctor--the doctor knows what could happen based on a simple headache and rather than giving the child aspirin and sending her out the door, Dr. takes her to the hospital to check for meningitis and won't let the kid out of the house for the next 3 weeks. The point is that I think academia is similar, and I never felt this way with my regular jobs.

Why is the "Job/Self" disease so possible with academia? Because we work so hard on our research, throwing our hearts and souls and every kernel of intelligence at the problem we have created for ourselves. This problem we love so much that we are willing to give years of our lives to pick at it, take it apart, and master every contour and nuance. In giving so much of oneself, it is difficult not to feel crushed when you are giving a paper and someone in the audience calls into question the basis of your career and, really, a huge part of your life.

But, I'm not sure that really gets at it. Isn't a "regular" job a huge part of everyone's life?

Well, another thing about academia is that it always comes home with me. When I worked a "regular" job, I rarely, if ever, brought my work home with me. Hell, I was just happy that I finally didn't have homework to worry about after I got was what made happy hour so goddamned happy. This job? I'm constantly thinking ahead: have to grade this weekend, conferences next week, need to start changing stuff for next quarter and getting the syllabus and reader together. Not to mention the stuff with my own research, the stuff that will never go away no matter how high I may reach in academia: have to finish the grant applications due tomorrow, write another conference proposal, finish a chapter, write the paper for a conference, fix a previous chapter's draft, plan a research trip to Paris that may never come to fruition, etc. etc. etc. It just never ends.

And I'm okay with that. Because I like it. Because there are those times when I'm proud of myself for what I've done. What I don't like is the fact that so much of myself is wrapped up in this crappy-ass blanket. This blanket that is so warm and soft and fuzzy and wonderful when people tell me I'm doing well. What a high! But, it's like trying to sleep on sandpaper when I'm blindsided by negativity about my work. It's not that I want people to lie either. I really want to know the truth,'s still heart-wrenching. Unfortunately, I've now resorted to automatically thinking that everything I submit is shit. It's easier that way. It is not, however, a good way to approach a job.

Further, this is truly about my work. My teaching? I'm a pretty good teacher--I've had my bad moments, but I'm all right in the grand scheme of things. I don't have that same confidence in my own work and I need to get over it. Because I can't keep going through this cycle of highs and lows with this job. I've got some prime opportunities to test my new resolution in the next few months, so wish me luck. It will be a tough road.

But, it will be a road filled with martinis, KTinis, Rebtinis, Mtinis, good wine, and good food. And really? What more could I ask for?


Rebecca said...

Great post. I need to reread this when I'm not conferencifried. So for now, you will have to wait for my eloquent response. More later. It is quite annoying that your posts aren't showing up in Google reader.

Rebecca said...

Ok, now I have the time for a little more insightful commentary on your wonderful post. Of course, I will begin with: "tinis" are essential.
With that out of the way, some thoughts:

Academia is the job. Music is the passion. We are both workers and artists. Many "regular jobs" are chosen on the basis of pay, benefits, hours, etc. As you have noted, being a teacher, or even more so, a scholar, does not constitute a 9 to 5 job.

As far as our work goes (and I would actually include teaching in this for those of us who actually care about effective pedagogy), it is the "art" for us. Papers are not just content...they are narratives. We want to craft our ideas and discoveries in a way that other people can comprehend our excitement. True, academia does not allow us the freedom of the artist (at least in the exploration of new media). We are restricted by a certain set of norms and rules. I still say, however, that we have an obligation, particularly since we specialize in music (part of art as a grand concept), to always allow our work to be measured with the passion we have for our topic. We aren't trying to discover a cure for cancer. We are, however, trying to investigate the human condition, on some level (as do all people who investigate the arts).

My last thought is that we have to fail sometimes...I fail a lot more than I succeed (if I'm measuring success on the basis of reception). But we learn the most from failure and mistakes. I'd caution that many perceived "failures" are not that at all, but simply symptomatic of our own misconception and insecurities.

I've taken enough room on your blog. I just think you really have started a wonderful conversation here and I hope we continue it.