Tuesday, March 10, 2015

An Early Thirsty from OPH: Shattered Expectations

When I was arriving at post-pubescence, I found myself attracted to someone with whom I was barely acquainted. As these feelings grew and invaded my consciousness, I delighted in imagining being around this person more. There was no help for it but to explore the possibilities more directly: thus came the first date.

Procedurally, the date went well, but that might be the best that could be said of it. As the evening progressed, I came to realize that we were very different people who had come from, and were headed towards, very different places. I would never find out if I was as vastly different from her expectation of me as she was from mine.

As I lay awake that night, I was gripped by feelings that were then hard to fathom. I was grieving for a relationship that could never be. I was disappointed, not really by her, but by how our differences had so soon proved irreconcilable. And I was disappointed in myself for having allowed myself to foster attraction not to the person, but to the idea of a person, which I was coming to realize was a fool’s game. This melange took physical residence in my heart while I awaited sleep’s fleeting respite.

I’ve since come to see that events like these are important in a person’s development, as they prepare us to work through life’s daily disappointments. They inform our weltschmerz; they gird us with a healthy skepticism; they prepare in us a (sometimes cynical) humor that buoys us against the riptide that could so easily pull us under. But, apparently, they don’t completely immunize us, as even jaded old me can be surprised by the depth of disillusionment I can still feel.

Q: In your life in the academy, have you ever been unsettled by your disappointment or disillusionment? What was it that brought this about, and how deep was your reaction? Anything from “is that all there is?” through “the emperor wears no clothes!” to cardiac arrhythmias or outright emesis will do.

13 comments:

  1. For me as an undergrad, when I realized how little the University cared about me and my learning. I was naive. They need there large piles of research money. Which is critical, but undergrads, in large intro courses, should be taught by folks that want to be there on some level. They need to have a class of professor (with tenor, etc.) that are rewarded for teaching ability, not whether the students like them, but that they can do a good job in a hard situation (think freshmen chem with 200 students). When I think about this amazing chemistry professor leaving (an amazing teacher, I wanted more chemistry after him) because my undergrad institution did not want to pay him well enough. I still get pissed. Undergrads are important to the function of a school too*. I think the work we do is important and I think that fact is often lost on administration!

    *I am saying this knowing I too, have students that make me think a career as a barista would be better.

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    1. Precisely this experience when I was an undergrad is what keeps me teaching my undergraduate courses to the best of my ability, so help me Doug. Life loves its ironies, of course: now I get no shortage of students who squander the opportunities I knock myself out to make for them.

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  2. Times like this, the pseudonym thing could be useful...

    Realizing that, at times, I am part of the problem, in ways that I would (in the abstract) decry. (Also, that my sentence constructions have gotten no more elegant with age, but that's a whole other ball of fish.) Simultaneously realizing that, even if critical and careful people participate in deliberations, the process can be pre-structured so that nothing you do in good conscience matters to the final result.

    Both of those have been deeply disappointing, and cause me to question the nature of the work I do and the institution in which I think I'm supposed to be functioning.

    I mean, I'm an historian: I'm supposed to be good at seeing structure, and discerning ideologies, and a good feeling for the way the present flows from the past and will move into the future. And I find myself just... disappointed a lot of the time.

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    1. I have led the charge to implement The Next Great Thing, which ran successfully for a while but foundered when personnel backed away from it due to waning interest and/or just having to get on with other things. I am chagrined that I am one of those who has let thing things drop.

      I am also disillusioned by the institutional structure that makes such things a predictable outcome. We are chained to the assembly line, with just enough staff (colleagues and otherwise) to keep churning out the same product. Yet we are expected to develop the Next Best Thing that will allow us to make different product or even more of the same. Are we to do this during our pee breaks?

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  3. I remember being extremely confused and upset to learn that intellectual talents do not correlate with either work ethic or ethical character. I learned this early in grad school but it still troubles me.

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    1. I'd like to add two things. First, this is a really good Thirsty. I thought we had covered everything at least twice but this is new.

      Second, nobody but an academic would say, "Procedurally, the date went well,..." and that is everybody else's loss.

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    2. Indeed (to both points above: good thirsty, and it does display the academic tendency to break things down into their constituent parts and analyze them individually, whether or not most people would think the situation calls for such an approach).

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  4. For a long time, including grad school and postodc years and even before that, I was immersed in places that were rarefied all-math institutes, where everybody was fully involved in research and undergraduates (or people who hated/feared math) were nowhere in sight. At places like those (wherever they may be, worldwide) you'll find a strong consensus about what's "good", "deep", "elegant", "nontrivial" (or "trivial"); there is a sense of shared values and even a kind of shared psychology. We understand there are things like "other people" to whom none of this means very much, but who do in fact pay the bills. So we talk to them when necessary, teach some of them them some easy stuff, hoping they'll please leave us alone to think about beautiful, strange, useless things and talk to people like ourselves. Get the picture?

    So it came as a big surprise to me, that took a while to sink in after moving to "this place" over twenty years ago, that not everybody who thinks of themselves as "mathematician" actually shares those elitist values, much as they might talk as if . It would have been normal for me to think of it as a game in which we have to do and say certain things that aren't actually part of our belief system (or mine, at least), but interact amongst ourselves according to those presumably shared values. But no, in their willingness to throw me to the wolves, my so-called colleagues finally convinced me that, in fact, their deep values are in fact different, even orthogonal to mine. And yet they can prove theorems too. Amazing!

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  5. I remember once, being essentially told by my chair how to vote on a particular decision. My vote was of no great consequence, since the measure already had the votes, to pass the way the chair wanted. But he kept stressing how important it was for the decision to be 'unanimous' - with unanimity defined here as everyone voting the way the chair wanted, regardless of their actual opinion.

    I remember weighing my options - I was coming up for tenure the next year; this chair would essentially decide my fate; my vote made no practical difference. So I figured this wasn't the hill to die on, and voted the way the chair wanted.

    And I've been deeply ashamed of that cowardice ever since.

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  6. I think my reality check hit in the second year of my T-T when I realized how much power my chair had over me (at least at my institution). I was young and treated terribly, humiliated in from of students, belittled, challenged on every idea, pitted against other faculty and assigned work not my own (and as this is relevant to almost each of the previous – I am female). I realized that getting tenure was not going to be a matter of teaching or research, but of being doing a lot of shit work without complaint.
    The realization made me want to quit. I had been through grad school, I was tough, used to defending my work, not everything in my life. When I was hired in, there were 6 of us on the T-T. I tried to leave several times. Once even came [thisclose] to take an unpaid leave of absence in order to try private sector. I got divorced. Years later, guess who was the only T-T to win the gold ring? Just kidding, it was totally brass.
    I have a hard time encourage my little hamsters to go to graduate school. It is like hitting a target that is always moving - first getting in, getting through comps, getting ABD, getting the diss done, defended, finding a job, tenure, promotion. It is a 15+ year trajectory that is so easily derailed.
    I was halfway through that process when I realized how incredibly fragile success in academia is and even though like R and/or G, I have some regrets about not speaking up for myself. it has made me stronger (or maybe just angrier). I am junior faculty’s number one advocate. If you are good, be good. A bunch other BS shouldn't be the difference in have a lifelong career or not.
    ~Pensive Proffie

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  7. I'm not sure what the correct dating metaphor is (maybe an online profile that doesn't match the in-person reality?), but, when I was considering next steps during my senior year of college, the grad school option openly came a-courting, not only in the form of professors at my undergrad institution who liked my work, but also in the shape of a national fellowship designed to offset a predicted shortage of humanities professors in the coming years. I can't say that, without this encouragement, I wouldn't have gone to grad school (I was as idealistic, and as stubborn, and as uncertain of what the heck I wanted to/could do for a career, as many 22-year-olds), but it certainly seemed as if the "will this lead to a job/career?" question was covered, without my even having to ask it. Instead of worrying over my career prospects, I, with the encouragement of everybody from professors to family members to the foundation behind the fellowship, spent my application-writing time trying to envision where I'd be happier: a research university or a liberal-arts college.

    As I worked my way through my Ph.D. program (a very short one -- theoretically 4 years, but thanks to winning the fellowship mentioned above, I knew I could choose to, and planned to, take 5), I was dimly aware of a cognitive disconnect between what the faculty in my department were telling me -- "just finish the diss and you'll get a job! Heck, try the market in your fourth year; it's good practice, and you never know; you could get a job ABD" -- and the growing number of 6th, 7th, etc. year ABDs, and -- more telling -- recent Ph.D.s still hanging about the place as lecturers. When anybody acknowledged the situation at all, the explanation was that there was a brief slump in the market (due to the economy, or perhaps the abolition of mandatory retirement at 70). But all those new positions, by now predicted by the Bowen Report as well as the purveyors of the fellowship I held, would appear any year now, they insisted. In the meantime, we should take a job, any job, and "write our way out."

    I can't pinpoint exactly when I realized just how detached from reality all this advice had been. There were disillusionments in other areas of my life that loomed larger than (and in some ways paralleled) those in my grad-school experience, and for a long time I was too busy, too distracted by trying to make ends meet, and too inclined to attribute all of my career difficulties to my failure to finish my dissertation (which stemmed from a lot of reasons, from my own immaturity at the time I started to departmental, university, and family of origin dysfunction; the sense of unease produced by the tension between the predicted results of defending and what I actually saw happening around me certainly played a role, but it's hard to define how much) to think too much about the larger picture. I left campus after 7 years (once teaching prospects at my university dried up -- an "incentive" to finish), and taught as an adjunct for another 6 before landing my present full-time, non-tenure-track job. After two years of that stability, I finally defended.

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    1. Things were pretty difficult in my personal as well as my professional life during much of this time, and it's hard to remember exactly what I was thinking or feeling when, but I know that, by the time I began work as an adjunct, I had some sense that the job market was in a real mess, and that my career was unlikely to proceed as I had been told it would when I began grad school, or even as my advisors still insisted it could, if I'd only finish the diss. By the time I defended, I had a much more realistic picture of how the job market was actually working, and realized that (1) the job I held, though far from what I had envisioned, was in some ways a pretty good one given the current higher ed landscape (which was beginning to include cutbacks/"consolidations" in the humanities and reports of severe economic distress at some smaller colleges of the sort I'd once been told I could "write my way out" of), and (2) it made very little sense for me to spend time going on the market with a Ph.D. but no recent publications. So that's what I've been doing for the last decade or so -- trying to produce a bit of scholarship while teaching a 4/4/often 2 in the summer load. I can't say I have a clear picture of where I think such activities might lead -- it's not as if I'm actually on the market, though perhaps I should be -- but at least I enjoy the work, and it keeps me feeling like an active scholar (which, in turn, makes me better at the job I have: teaching).

      There have also been more recent moments of disillusionment with how things were (not) working in my present department (as well as, even more recently, some moments of hope). I'd like to say that I was less surprised, or at least less affected, by these than by my first, very gradual disillusionment, but, looking back I can't say that's the case. In some ways, disillusionment with my present department hit even harder, because I'm an optimistic person at heart, somewhat inclined to think "okay; I got through that; I've accepted things as they are; I've figured out how to cope with the present reality; now things will get better." The other all-too-obvious predictor of how hard all kinds of disillusionments hit is how they affect my economic situation, and how economically-vulnerable I feel at the time they hit. Worry about money is really wearing, and -- as I've happily had the chance to figure out in the last 18 months or so -- eliminating some of that worry makes a whole lot of other things look more hopeful, or at least bearable. That's one of the costs (and potential benefits) that, sadly, doesn't show up on the spreadsheets, but has a very real effect in the academy (and in the many other workplaces increasingly filled with workers who feel they are teetering on the economic edge).

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  8. I don't know if there was a particular moment, but over some period of time, I realized that my institution was all about the money. People I talked to just said, "Duh. What did you think?"

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