The second sentence of this is more or less how I view everything I do, both professionally and personally.
What if listening to an inner voice or heeding a passion for ethics or beauty were to lead to more important work in the long term, even if it measured as less successful in the moment? What if deeply reaching a small number of people matters more than reaching everybody with nothing?
From Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, p. 72
When you spend too long in a pursuit that claims to value expertise and enforces a fairly rigid prestige hierarchy, imposter syndrome is inevitable. I have flushed away so much time to this affliction (thank you academia!) that I have moments where I feel desperate for radical solutions.
Almost a year ago I fell from the rafters of my attic, through the ceiling of the first floor, and down to the hard floor. I landed like a gymnast, sticking the landing and bending the legs, trying to absorb the impact, and I collapsed to the ground. I don't know whether the ankle got ripped when I started to fall and had to twist it out of the corner where my foot had jammed in the rafters or whether it was from the impact itself, or a bit of both, but the result was that when I tried to stand, feeling mostly bruised, I collapsed back to the floor. I glanced at the ankle enough to know that it was no longer straight.
The paramedic said, upon entering the room, “Well, that doesn't look right.”
We've been having a non-argumentative argument in my house about what to do with the kids over the summer; more specifically, what camps or activities we might send them to. One of those ordinary parenting logistics things which, with so may camps and summer activities planning to be online rather than face to face (yet still chargin lots of money), has some added wrinkles this summer. In my own household, this everyday planning is but the latest proxy war in the never-ending ideological struggle between my spouse and me on the matter of unstructured time.
I have taken to seizing mornings for my own work. This is a bit of a change, given that for years I had trouble setting aside this time.
I had heard this age old writing advice... and work advice too I suppose: Pay yourself first.
I didn't take this advice when I started as a young academic. Or at least I thought I was taking that advice but I really wasn't. I was sidetracked far too often taking care of stuff for students, responding to emails, or tending to departmental business because of far too much “service” for a young faculty member. In academia, that's not your work. That's the other stuff. Even and especially when your “colleagues” lay it upon you. Family obligations, errands, the demands of young children, ate away further.
It has been the rare pleasure of having mornings carved out for research or writing. By this time it is too little, too late for my previous life.
This past year I have been more serious, more religious about this time in the morning. Nothing scheduled before a certain time, under any circumstances. That's a luxury, so I shrink away from it instinctively. It feels... selfish. That time for me (!?) to work on my stuff... that is too selfish. You mean I should sometimes just work on the things that are a benefit to me, in my career and in my endeavors and my projects? That's so selfish.
But of course it's not selfish. It's necessary.
I needed to have understood the second part of that wisdom.
It's a rare morning when I don't have a million ideas bubbling up first thing (or at least as soon as the caffeine kicks in). This morning is chilly, and as I sit on my porch and settle in to work for a bit on the various writing, coding, and other projects that might occupy a morning, the cold is a bit too metaphorical. Warming up with the sun has become a pleasant ritual, or at least a reassuring one. It's a kind of sympathetic magic whereby as the sun renders my freeing fingers a bit less freezing, so too words loosen up. Again, more often than not the problem is that I can't type quite quickly enough to keep up and documents span documents, checklists self-propagate and material that has to be worked on later gets noted and set into the queue.
But cold mornings, well, that's a different beast. I'd like to think it's part of the process of rumination. That's a nice meaty word, ruminate — chew the cud, chew over. I like it because it sounds just a bit Anglo-Saxon, like all the earthy words that become meaty in the mouth; but it's Latinate, and a pretty metaphoric Latin at that. At those moments of cold I can sense that there are ideas percolating around, warming up, not ready to boil over yet. Thought ripens with time I suppose, and can't find its way until ready.
I'm stuck in my thinking on a business matter. An idea that is sound and good and appealing, but I can't quite wrap my head around. I suppose there's some fear, as it is a shape of something that is a bigger leap from what I regularly do. So my instincts are to research the crap out of it. But in some ways I've already done a bit of that. There's fear that I'm not really up to the challenge of trying this. There's fear that others — by which I mean the others from my other areas of life — will find it stupid or presumptuous. There's the old academic fear that I won't be qualified or expert enough. (I am constantly reminded that the academic scale of expertise is damaging to all other endeavors. Being expert in a field sometimes means, depending on how strictly you slice the subfield, being among the top x most knowledgeable people in the world. It can often be content based as much as achievement based. Or, rather, there are damaging preconceptions and conditioning around both modes of judging oneself.)
But the sun's out and it's warming up a bit. Hope springs eternal.
There are two kinds of mind poison that linger after extracting oneself from the academic priesthood. The first is yourself thinking like an academic. That's about thinking of projects as never-ending, worrying that your expertise is not expert enough, drowning in imposter syndrome, giving away your labor for free and so forth. But there's a second kind of academic mind poison too, not completely divorce-able from the first, which fosters the condition of constantly looking over one's shoulder, an intrusive thought which asks “What would an academic think?” about whatever it is that you are doing.
I was reading Elaine Aron's The Highly Sensitive Person, a self-help guide of sorts to those who find that the world offers just a bit too much sensory input. It is, in so many ways, like reading the manual to myself that I never knew existed.
There's a part in the end when she talks about spirituality and how many HSPs find tend to the spiritual but often outside of organized religion. (check and.... check.) I think about this every weekend, when we tune into the livestream from my kids' religious school (in a religious tradition from my wife). I am an outsider of sorts. I appreciate the music, the sentiment, and all the positive expressions of faith. But I'm detached from it. At first these were fairly pleasant affairs, but in recent months they've devolved into endless tech troubleshooting and arguing with my kids over getting dressed and putting down their other devices while listening to/watching the live stream. It cuts out constantly (fu facebook) and doesn't work at all on some devices. So spiritual breaks have become the opposite of what I tend to need – quiet time and reflection.
It is a constant worry, comfort, tragedy, and comedy to recognize that I probably could have been a decent monk.
Aron's description of HSPs crystallized for me why I can go back to religious services and enjoy the music and the spectacle without wanting to remain part of the flock.
I wonder whether it's the difference between religion and spirituality. Is spirituality different, a connection to nature or the world from a place of quiet and stillness? So spirituality is nature, outside, trees, beaches, water, sky, animal noises, moving through space or sitting quietly and observing the world outside. That seems to be what I crave most, a space for that.
https://fivebooks.com/best-books/james-turner-on-philology/ gives a handy introduction to some key works about the 'pre-history' of modern humanities, with James Turner's answer here being the perfect explanation for why I never feel at home as a professor despite doing everything, outwardly, that would seem to say otherwise.
So do you think there should be philologists in universities now, studying this broad range of subjects? Or is that impossible?
I think it’s very difficult, not for any intellectually solid reason, but because of the institutions that have grown up around disciplines. For example, if you are an assistant professor of art history in an American university and you write a book about Dante, you’re going to get fired. You’re certainly not going to get tenure. It’s very difficult for people to ignore the present disciplinary boundaries and get away with it in the structure of the modern university. People who are not hampered by universities can do this kind of work and they should. People who are old and in no danger of losing their jobs can write a book like I wrote.
One correction there. It's impossible for anyone not already at the twilight of their career to do this kind of work. Not difficult. Impossible.