Mid-career rut

One of the reasons why I haven’t been writing on the blog is that I’ve been in kind of a rut — a foggy state of Blah — for some time now, which doesn’t make for very interesting writing. The Blahs have especially hit my research work, but even teaching was getting kind of routine (until this semester — more on what shook things up in another post).
And no one wants to read about that, right? But then I thought about how Dr. Crazy uses her blog to get started in the morning — a big problem area for me — and so I thought maybe I might try that and see if it worked. And then I also thought that maybe it would be useful for people to read about a mid-career rut (or is it quarter-career? perhaps it’s more one-third-career), just like posts about being on the market or writing the first book and all those other proffie experiences are useful to current and prospective profs at or anticipating those stages. (Thank god for RSS readers, so that I know I have *some* audience still out there.)

Part of what I’m experiencing is related to the low morale at my university, but I don’t think I can chalk it *all* up to that. I bet if I had my dream job at a place full of unicorns and rainbows, I’d still be feeling stuck in my work right now. In fact, at Rainbow Unicorn University, I think it would be even worse because I’d be stuck *and* freaked out about becoming the dreaded deadwood because I hadn’t produce ten gazillion books every five years. At least here, a slower pace of research productivity is cool (and frankly, more humane, but that’s also a topic for another post). No, I think what I’m experiencing is a little more widespread and common and non-idiosyncratic.

OK, here’s where I am and how I feel about it right now. My first book was a modest success in my subfield of Middle English literature, and so the last few years were spent doing a lot of invited and necessary work — co-editing a new anthology of the genre of my sub-field, writing handbook chapters and articles on the state of the field, that sort of thing. And I’m running for election to a scholarly society in said field, and organizing a panel at a big upcoming conference of another society, both activities with the goal of opening up the subfield to non-specialists, because it’s a little too isolated — people outside it don’t read us and we’re frustrated by that, but part of that is because we’re off doing our own thing too much. So there’s a way in which I’m active in the area that got me the job, got me tenure, and so forth. But I haven’t really produced anything new in it in some time, and I’m frustrated by that. I have something in progress (an article), but I keep dithering about whether to do the relatively fast and easier version of it and get it *out* there in one of the subfield journals, or keep working on the more theoretically ambitious version of it, which involves me learning (or continuing to learn) all sorts of new stuff and would be sexier for the broader medieval and medieval-renaissance journals. The learning part is attractive, but it’s also slow. And I have been sitting on this thing for a long time now because it keeps getting shunted aside.

And the thing is, whichever version of that smaller work in progress I do, I kind of feel like that’s the last contribution I have to make to that particular subfield (unless my co-organizer of the above panel and I decide to do an edited collection, in which case I have a kind of meta-critical essay brewing — and if we don’t do the collection, there might be a place for it elsewhere). Once upon a time I had other ideas, but I feel like they’re methodologically and theoretically dull now. I feel a little like medieval literary studies has moved on without me while I was tinkering with my works in progress. So that’s part of my rut.

The other part of my rut is a similar “what now?” issue, but on a different topic. After and during a lot of the above, I also had a sabbatical in which I *started* on my new, big research project, but other than a few talks, including an invited one, on the work in progress, it hasn’t gotten much farther since that sabbatical (which was 2010-2011). And that new work isn’t at all related to the old work (except maybe it might involve the same class of readers and producers/patrons) — it’s a totally different genre. And I’m finding with this project, I’m having to learn and teach myself yet *more* bodies of knowledge — traditional methods and theories — which, again, is cool and interesting, but verrrrrry slow. And what’s especially frustrating with this project is that I don’t know where on earth it’s going or what it’s going to be. I have this body of texts — which I’m still sorting through; I’m still doing the “data collection,” so to speak — and I have about an article’s-length stuff to say about them, but is that it? Or is there a bigger picture? And if there’s a bigger picture, how should I be framing it? In what scholarly or theoretical conversation (or should I say gallery, to keep the picture-framing metaphor) does it fit? I feel like all my reading and thinking about it is totally scattershot, an effect not helped by fitting it in around teaching, etc.

At this point, you’re probably thinking that this doesn’t sound like a rut at all, that I’ve got all sorts of engaging projects. Yeah, but I feel like I’m dabbling. I feel unfocused and  amateurish. And, because of the slowness and lack of clear contours, I feel frustrated. Half the time I just want to throw my hands up and say, “Fuck it, I’d rather be teaching. Maybe I should move to a 4/4 load and give up research.” Except that wouldn’t make me happy, either. In fact, part of the problem is that I’m isolated in my work and don’t have the stimulation of other people in my field or advanced students working on dissertations to teach me new things and keep me current. Giving up on research entirely would exacerbate that feeling and make my rut deeper (even if I keep reinventing my courses, which I always do). And it wouldn’t be good for the students, because one of things that keeps my teaching from being in a rut is bringing in new ideas from my research and others’ (that often includes new-to-me primary texts — there’s a lot of stuff out there that I don’t know and research of various kinds introduces me to it).

Another part of this Blah feeling, this rut, is the isolation. Remember when we used to think romantically how digital communications would solve the problem of the isolation of the single scholar who’s the only one in her field at her institution?  Yeah. Right. Frankly, social media and other digital outlets just make me feel *more* isolated. All I see are the cool collaborations and energetic conversations of colleagues who get to talk face-to-face as well as online, and I feel shut out. I do have a collaboration with another scholar who lives in a totally different part of the country, but it’s not the same. Conferences help, but eventually you have to go home.

And the final piece of this is that I feel a little bit out of date and a bit left behind by various developments in literary studies, but especially by the confluence of digital humanities and manuscript studies and by the “new materialism,” all of which I’m really super interested in, but don’t quite feel capable of doing on my own. You know what would be really cool? If there were “mid-career post-docs” to retrain people like me. There’s a whole slew of cool digital humanities/mansucript post-docs out there right now, but you have to be within three years of your PhD to be eligible. When I win the lottery, I’m funding a series of mid-career post-doc sabbatical thingies, I promise. I think that’s what getting to me, too — I feel old before my time. I’m not really *mid* career; I’ve been in it for 10 years, starting at age 34, so if I retire at, say, 65, I’m not even a third through my career yet. Sheesh, that in itself is a little daunting. I have to do this for another 21 years? Will I always feel like this, this sense of Blah?

What say you, oh wise people of the internet? How do I shake off the doldrums? Do you ever feel like this? What do you do to shake off the Blahs and get out of the rut?

24 thoughts on “Mid-career rut

  1. Hm, it seems kind of soon for another sabbatical, which was my first thought. I don’t know… I’m keeping myself going with 2-year plans, but as I finish stuff up, I’m seeing some looming empty spaces.

  2. Well, there’s summer, at least. And I did just come off a crazy year last year (by which I mean all of 2012), so maybe I just need to allow myself to be a little fallow right now. I like the idea of a 2-year plan, though. It’s big enough to be longish-term, but short enough to be manageable. Hm.

  3. ‘Smatter of fact, it really does sound like you have engaging projects on the hob. I don’t see the problem in ‘dabbling’ in your work — it suggests that you’re stretching yourself, and expanding your fields of knowledge. To my mind, not dabbling would land you in more of a rut.

    I know it’s trite, but perhaps a writing group would help you to knock that article out in satisfactory fashion. If you join a group and pledge to submit the article in whatever state it’s in by the end of the writing period, then you could feel the comfort of an external deadline that forces you to kick it out and move on. If I didn’t have external deadlines to contend with, I’d probably still be toiling on my dissertation.

    One of the virtues of 2-year plans and the like is that they create those milestones to pass. All time is looming and empty, in that homogeneous unspooling-of-the-universe sense. We need to impose a little artificial order on ourselves now and then just so we don’t all wig out and run screaming into the void.

  4. Yeah, but it’s the dabbling *plus* the isolation — the feeling of being unmoored — that I think is getting to me. The last time I learned a whole bunch of stuff to write a substantial work of scholarship, I was in graduate school with loads of other medievalists.

    Maybe the medievalist down the road (at another institution) and I need to start a writing group of 2. Our work is very different, but that could be good. I’ve done the online ones, and they help with getting the word-count out, but what I really need is interaction with the ideas, too.

    I do think I’m going to force myself to do the “easy” version of that article by the end of summer (for a sense of deadline) with the thought that the more ambitious version could still be publishable later on if distinct enough from the first version.

  5. I should also add that I’m frustrated by my freakin’ *slowness*. I’m slow to start in the morning, a slow reader, a slow writer. And social media is just pointing out to me how slow I am — for instance, I’m *way* behind on reading blogs by people like you fine folks, and some of you are not only blogging up a storm, but you’re also finished drafting your next book which I swear you only just started last year. Who *are* you speed demons?! (I say that with affection, but it does kind of freak me out.)

  6. I see many parallels in our situation. There are two colleagues in the English department here who work in the same era(ish). I’ve reached out to them as well as realizing that some modernist colleagues make good writing buddies because we share similar schedules and/or similar outlooks, even if our scholarship is literally centuries apart.

    I’m glad you’re focusing on that immediate article and not the paradigm-changing bigger piece. Having the first out there will make the second a better option as well as better-supported if you do carry on with the next stage.

    Also, making a 2 and a 5 year plan is good. Where do you want to go with your work and what do you want to achieve? This is helping me to make decisions and also to put the emphasis on work that I really value over the other that’s there and shiny but not really the wisest use of my time right now!

  7. Aw, Virago! So much about this post is familiar to me! Rather than clog up your comments, I’m gonna write a response post over at my place. But seriously: these feelings? As far as I can tell they are completely par for the course.

  8. Oh, and one thing that doesn’t fit into my post, but you should do one of the DH summer institutes through the NEH! My colleague (a medievalist) has done a couple of them, and they have been *really excellent* – both for her research and for her morale.

  9. That summer institute sounds like a great idea! My mom’s writing really took off after she joined a writing group at her uni– but not with people from her department or even within her greater discipline. They’re still humanities folks, but not in foreign languages.

    Re: mornings. If you can get yourself in the habit of doing them, then you can knock out some good stuff in the morning before you are able to convince yourself that other stuff is more interesting to do. (And then if the rest of the day is spent doing other stuff, you’ve gotten good work in.) It’s the habit part that is important … you have to do it consciously before you can do it habitually. Even just an hour is great. Online buddies are good for this– if you have a standing date with someone just to check in, it helps get you going.

  10. Pingback: Ruts and Tracks | Reassigned Time 2.0

  11. It can be frustrating when people in our specialties appear to have “moved on” to all sorts of new-found lands of inquiry while we were plugging away at our current, longstanding projects. It is also sometimes strange to go to conferences and see how many people seem to be passionately involved in their research pursuits on a continuous basis, in a way most of us have trouble maintaining for more than a few years after tenure.

    In some ways, doing research is simpler with a 4/4 than with a 3/2 or 2/2/ load: if I taught 4/4, I would say, “To hell with it, I will keep working on this article, make it as good as I can in two months, mail it out, and go down the list of journals until the article is accepted.” Because I teach 2/2, my impulse post-tenure has been to think a lot about what the best use of my time will be. This is the opposite of what one might expect, that the scarcity of the resource (time) would make me less particular about how I use it. So, having 60% more time does not make me 60% more productive (no matter how one measures productivity).

  12. Crazy and EngLitProf – Thanks for making me feel normal!

    And yeah, re: DH, I think I’m going to look into one of those TEI seminars — it’s not NEH but similar (because Text Encoding is what I need to learn to do). I could probably teach it to myself — and there are plenty of online places to do that for free — but camaraderie would be awesome, too. I went to the “Getting Started in DH” pre-conference workshop at MLA, but it kind of just freaked me out (although the person leading the TEI group convinced me that I could totally pick up TE quickly).

    Nicoleandmaggie — Yeah, I try and try the morning thing. One of the problems: getting out of bed!

  13. I was also going to say NEH institute or seminar. They’re like being back in grad school but even better because everyone really appreciates the chance to read, think, and discuss, no grad-school angst. My other point: embrace the slowness. One of the great luxuries of having tenure is that you can do things properly, take the time it takes to think things through and let them develop, do really good work rather than work that is good enough to get out the door. Oh dear—I don’t want to criticize what you have already done, but I do think you should not “force” work but enjoy letting it unfold, now that you can.

  14. /comfort

    For me, the feelings of isolation here are sometimes overwhelming. They shouldn’t be, but they are. I tried at one point to make contact with one of the R1 faculty folks in my area, and it wasn’t that they were unfriendly or anything, but busy in their own worlds, which didn’t have a lot in common with mine, and far enough away that it wasn’t like I could just go spend an afternoon at some even there easily. (It would have to involve an overnight, and that’s expensive in time and money.)

    I do have a question, though: can you suggest a couple readings or so to help me catch up in case I want to teach some medieval drama in a course coming up, please?

  15. I clicked over to comment yesterday, but all I had to say was, “this is such an important post and I’m so glad you’re blogging about this!” Which seemed unhelpful. So I decided to wait in order to have something smarter to say. But I don’t, so there you go!

    I guess all I’ll add is that I’ve been thinking a lot about this myself. I’m still excited about seeing my first book in print, and I’m excited about next year’s sabbatical and getting some real work done on the next book — but looking ahead, it’s hard not to wonder how sustaining it will be just to be doing the same thing, in the same place, over the long haul. Post-tenure and post-book, there just isn’t the same sense.of professional *progress* — new skills, new stages, new boxes to be checked off — that kept many of us going for the first 7-10 years.

    Unless I move somewhere else or take on a major administrative role here, I suspect that I’ll need to find something else motivating and sustaining, in addition to my professional life, in order to keep excited *about* my professional life. For a lot of people, it’s their kids. Not sure what it will be for me.

  16. Bleah on the blahs! You have just forgotten your own sense of awesomeness! And what’s wrong with “slow scholarship,” if “slow food” and other similar slow paradigms have emerged as similar?

  17. Bardiac – I sent you a FB message re: drama. And yeah, I think you get the isolation thing. I, too, have tried to make contact with people at other institutions, and it’s something, but it’s not the *same* thing.

    Dame E and Sisyphus — Yes, letting it unfold, doing “slow scholarship”– I need to keep those ideas in mind. Sometimes I remember to look at it that way and sometimes I forget. Also, as I have said, apparently I am also “slow blogging”! Ha!

    Flavia – I think I’m still trying to work out those other things, too. I’m starting to get into gardening and landscaping, but that’s not a year-round thing here. But also, I found out this week that preparing versions of my work in progress in unusal forms or for unexpected audiences sometimes works, too. In a month I have to give a “pecha kucha” talk for a non-specialist audience — 20 power point slides, only 20 seconds for each! — and working on it this week is making me see my work in progress in new ways. It’s helping me boil it down, yes, but the visualization of it is also helping reconceptualize it. So I think maybe I need to seek out more “general audience” or “interdisciplinary” presentation platforms for my research, in addition to doing similar things with stuff I teach.

  18. I just want to articulate how much I appreciate this post. I’ve been feeling this way too (low morale at my uni-, isolation increased BY social media) and I’ve been thinking is this just me? I’m glad you put this into words. I also really appreciate these comments; they are making me re-think my future plans. I like the idea of letting the work unfold. After my sabbatical where I wrote two chapters of book project, I haven’t returned to it except to get a piece published. But, I’m starting to think, what’s the rush? This can be a good—what happened to ruminating over things for twenty years? (not that a vicennial rumination is in my plans!)

  19. As an undergraduate, I wonder if my feeling of being so out of my depth on the ridiculous number of things I’d love to pursue is similar to the slow-ness of learning you’re describing. I always feel so far from what I’m trying to do. Plus, my interests in the Classics, in Medieval history and lit, 19th c. American and British lit., 20th c. postcolonial studies, etc. and the intersections I see in those things will never meet in the academy (at least, not as it is structured now).

    I’d just say that the most poisonous thing you can do to yourself in this position is silence yourself because you may not know enough. It’s only because of my own willingness (again at a far lower level than you speak of) to look completely batshit stupid in class and in office hour discussions that more knowledgeable people have helped me learn better. So, even if it’s at a “slow blogging” pace, post your thoughts and process notes here. It’ll help you feel a sense of audience. Just a thought. Whatever you do, just keep at it.

  20. I’ve been a long time catching up with blogs, so I only just found this. The first resonance it strikes with me therefore is the feeling that one is too slow. I worry about this a lot with reading, I take ages to chomp through books if I’m doing it properly, or I skim and remember nothing. as a result what should be a week’s work to read round becomes a year’s when fitted round everything else, and so on. I do fight this somewhat, and the most obvious way is not to take notes, but to zoom through things with a sense of urgency. I do find that then means one only reads them for what was has in mind but it gets them off the pile for a bit.

    The second thing I wanted to say it sounds as if you already thought, which is: that troublesome article that could be more or less ambitious sounds like it’s really two articles to me, the easier of which will make it easier to do the second one. They’ll probably come out within days of each other anyway given the print queues, I have a piece of which part two is already published but part one got such a thorough revise-and-send-somewhere-else from the journal I sent it to that it’s never emerged. It’s not obvious from their separate versions that there’s another part, but I know…

    But thirdly and lastly, I just want to say, remember that you’re in one of the very few professions where you actually more or less get to choose what you work on. If a topic’s not exciting you, it’s totally legitimate for you to look for another one, and take the time necessary to get into it. That’s one of the luxuries your work so far has got you. Some of us will never get that; make the most of it!

    Oh yeah, also, mornings, huh, what a bad idea they are.

  21. Jonathan – Thank you very much for your kind and wise words.

    And Christopher and Sharat, above — I never thanked you for commenting and saying kind things. And welcome to the blog!

  22. Pingback: Confidence? | Quod She 2.0

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