Wednesday, January 3, 2007

A Resolution

So it's January. A new year with new hopes, new resolve that this time things will be different. Against my will, I made a whole list of resolutions (if my friend hadn't called me and asked for my goals, I wouldn't have done it). Many are about being more organized about work, so that I can manage to send out conference proposals and work on my diss at the same time; others are about being a better friend. I've had two days where I've promised myself I'd get back to the diss and no go. Instead, I've been daydreaming about having a job and checking the Wiki. The Wiki indicates that one of my interviewers has already (!) invited people to campus. I'm not one of them.

What makes this not a catastrophic experience is this strange new sensation I have. Instead of feeling like a pretender, waiting for someone to figure out that I'm an imposter, I feel like an academic. Somehow, something has turned on inside myself; I'm ready to be an assistant professor. I'm not sure what made that happen (and let's face it, it's probably a 24-hour bug), but suddenly I feel ready to grow up out of grad school and walk new halls as an assistant professor. In a response essay some of whose main points I would take issue with elsewhere, Jeffrey J. Williams claims that "affects or feelings are a primary medium of professionalization -- part of its informal structure -- and the affects and modes of behavior that one learns, notably in grad school, tangibly make us into academics" (JAC, 160). The dissertation doesn't make me an academic, but rather the feeling of being one. It's the feelings we learn in grad school that I've been thinking a lot about.

There's a grad student in my program who is very accomplished and very talented -- also very organized. This "star" wins prizes and fellowships. Everyone I know compares themselves to her. On the market now, people are watching her; if she doesn't get a lot of interviews, others worry that they won't get jobs at all, because, they lament, they are not as good/organized/talented/smart as she is. She has become the model. She's also a friend of mine. I admit I have certainly done my share of comparing myself to her and coming up short. But inspired by Donald E. Hall's The Academic Self and his call for academics to own our academic dysfunctions, I had to own up to what I was doing. Not only did I inappropriately project my dreams onto her (her path is not my path), but I compared myself to that dream-image in a way that would always leave me feeling bad. Every disorganized and procrastinating person I know who thinks they should be more organized talks about how they should be more like their image of her, almost as if they don't deserve to be an academic otherwise. I have found myself explaining that she is not the perfect image they have made of her. She is just not all that. But I don't feel good about denigrating her achievements in order to make other people feel better.

Before break, I found myself having a conversation with a student who was talking about how he'd like to change his major but he's so far into his current major that he feels he shouldn't switch. His main reason was that he was far enough behind the people he went to school with -- and changing his major to something he liked better would get him even farther behind.

"Well," I said in my usual snarky way, "that is what life is all about -- keeping up with the people you went to high school with." And then in a demonic possession of unbelievable pretentiousness, I had the audacity to impart, as if I were some wizened sage he had climbed a mountain or two to meet: "You look one way and there are people better than you. You look the other way and there are people worse than you. Both are traps." (Oy. He was very gracious and didn't roll his eyes or anything. Let's face it -- I was talking to myself and to everyone who had ever compared herself with a "star.")

What can I say? With my pseudo-hippie parents, Desiderata was on the wall the entire time I was growing up. I passed these words a zillion times a day: If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

It's obvious that if we compare ourselves to others, especially people totally unlike ourselves in temperment or goals, we're just asking for trouble, not just making ourselves feel bad, but accepting professional values and goals that may not be what we believe in. Furthermore, the "star system" may also be bad for the stars. It's tempting to think that if we had that sense that our departments or fields loved us, then we'd do our best work. But some of us use our worry and panic to fuel our work, learning about the Job Search Wiki after sleepless nights spent at the keyboard, learning about why some liberal arts colleges might not post their jobs on MLA Job Information List, and making friends on the Chronicle Fora. Some stars may not restlessly seek out all available knowledge, content to believe those who provide such fulfilling social mirroring. Others may be terrified to be found out as less than all that. As Hall says: "Unless we find ways of taking our successes as well as our failures as less than fully accurate indicators of the sum total of our fundamental worth in this world, we will forever be driven by a fear of failure rather than a love of learning or a commitment to students" (11-12). I would add, we might also be driven by a love, even the expectation, of success.

Which is why my resolution this year to be better to my friends and myself is to not engage in or support this kind of fruitless comparing of one's self to another. We shouldn't have to tear each other down to make ourselves feel good or use other people's successes to feed our senses of ourselves as failures. No more back biting. No more self-pity. I've played with these enough during grad school. It's time to put these toys away.

1 comment:

medieval woman said...

I think this is a very good post about something I definitely relate to. I, too, am a "comparer" - it annoys the hell out of my friends (who pretend that they don't do it themselves), but I am very honest about those people who set the bar in my life/work/etc. And it's not good - it doesn't do anything good for me except make me feel sub-par. I've thought about the things that have made me achieve career milestones (like publishing or presenting at conferences) and not one of these things was accomplished because I was trying to keep up with the Joneses. It was because I had the motive, opportunity, and inclination and I enjoyed venturing into that new territory!

So I think this is a fantastic goal for this year - especially a year out on the market! I've deliberately tried not to find out where my competition got interviews (although I do know someone from my "nemesis school" who got a gaggle of them), but it's a small pond we live in and it's bound to get around.

I wish you the best of luck with it and totally agree with all that you say here!