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?