Off the Clock

About the time I was finishing my doctoral dissertation and preparing to go on the job market, my not-yet-then husband and I composed a little ballad. Think Flanders & Swann crossed with C.W. McCall, sung to the tune of Mercedes Benz with apologies to Janis Joplin. Here it is:

THE CURSUS ACADEMICA (sic)

Oh Lord, there is something I want to confess.
When I become grown up I want to profess,
Drink sherry, do crosswords and play lots of chess.
Oh Lord, there is something I want to confess.

Oh Lord, won’t you give me an honors degree?
I’ve passed all my courses with only one B.
I’ve picked out a topic for my Ph.D.
Oh Lord, won’t you give me an honors degree?

Oh Lord, won’t you grant me a doctoral gown?
For I have enrolled in a school of renown.
Tho’ my supervisor is getting me down.
Oh Lord, won’t you grant me a doctoral gown?

Oh Lord, won’t you get me a tenure track job?
I don’t want to be a postdoctoral slob.
I want to drink sherry and mix with the nobs.
Oh Lord, won’t you get me a tenure track job?

Oh Lord, won’t you help as you have in the past?
The people behind me are coming up fast.
My tenure committee may feel I’m outclassed.
Oh Lord, won’t you help as you have in the past?

Oh Lord, won’t you give me a personal chair?
I’ve written three books, as you must be aware.
I’m reaching my fifties and losing my hair.
Oh Lord, won’t you give me a personal chair?

Oh Lord, won’t you make me an Ivy League don?
My colleagues are dead but I’m still hanging on.
My research has dried up; my hearing is gone.
Oh Lord, won’t you make me an Ivy League don?

Oh Lord, there is something I have to confess.
My subject is still in a hell of a mess.
But now I’m retiring, I couldn’t care less.
Oh Lord, there is something I have to confess.

Okay, okay, it’s not Shakespeare or even really Joplin, but it (mostly) scans and the rhymes aren’t too bad. And if you’re wondering, no, I don’t think and didn’t even then that postdocs are slobs; it was just the best we could do to find a rhyme for job. Apologies, if any are needed, and no offense intended, truly. Remember, I was a graduate student and didn’t even know if I would get any job, never mind something tenure track. The song was supposed to be funny and give me hope, as, indeed, over the years it has and I have found more and more of its verses coming true, at least as an expression of my anxieties. (The stanza about coming up for tenure was particularly keenly felt.)

The thing is, I no longer find the song very funny any more. To be sure, I’ve gotten tenure and published two books, one, admittedly, a co-edited collection of essays, but having a number of articles out at the moment in volumes still “forthcoming”, I’m starting to appreciate that I (and my co-editor) should take a bit more credit than I had initially allowed for bringing our volume to press. I am on leave this year to do the research I will need to get book number three off the ground and, being still in my forties, I should have plenty of time to make the mark for the personal chair, or, failing a chair, at the very least (and more realistically) promotion to full professor. I do still have faint hopes of maybe one day getting a position in Oxford or Cambridge—wouldn’t that be wonderful? But I would be just as happy staying where I am now. Certainly, there are plenty of ivy-covered halls on the campus where I teach. I don’t know whether I will still care about my subject when I am older (I actually hope I do), but there are times when the futility of the whole enterprise does strike me, particularly when I dust off books published fifty or even only thirty years ago and realize they have been either forgotten or superseded.

But if the ballad still resonates, why doesn’t it make me laugh? Numbers can probably explain something here: when we wrote the song, I had not yet achieved even stanza number three. Now I am moving up to stanza number six, after which I will have only two left. And then, if all goes well? Death. Not the cheeriest thought, you say? I’m probably reading too much at the moment about late medieval religion, with all of its provisions for making a good death and praying for those who have already died. And indeed, my father died just over three years ago, before he had even had the chance to retire, which incident makes me not a little bit depressed. But, then, if you think about it, the song was always about death; it’s just that sixteen years ago, when we wrote it, death seemed somewhat further off. It was funny then because it was still hard to imagine being even fifty years old. Even my grandfather had only just retired and he was in his eighties. There was plenty of time, right?

So, now I’m older and the verses about losing one’s faculties and drive don’t seem quite so amusing any more. Prophetic as the song has thus far been (I did get the tenure track job and, thank God, tenure), shouldn’t I nevertheless still be hopeful? Maybe I will get promotion to full professor. Maybe my husband and I will be able to move back to England (where he was born) before we retire. Maybe I will be able to look back on the work that I have done and let go when I realize that I have done the best that I could for my field. Or maybe not. Even then, what will I have achieved? I know what the answer should be: a lifetime of thinking and teaching and writing. What I fear now is that even as I am doing the thinking and teaching and writing I am, well, missing it.

Here I am with a whole academic year of leave stretching before me, and all I can think about it how little time I have. Part of me would still insist that this is the only way I can be sure of getting anything valuable or worthwhile (think about those adjectives) done. It is what I told myself when I was on fellowship to write my doctoral dissertation (drafted in a little over a year once I had worked through my primary texts); it is what I told myself when I was on fellowship to write my first book (that took more like three years, working flat out, nine hours a day, five days a week, no holidays during the work week other than Thanksgiving and Christmas). How does the saying go? “Death concentrates the mind wonderfully.”* Knowing that time is limited, one stops dithering and procrastinating and simply does the work. It would be folly to let myself off the hook now. Who knows? I might become so dissolute as to spend the whole year blogging (not that you would mind, I hope!) or reading around in books that took my fancy (a.k.a. that I needed for “background”) or travelling to places I’d simply quite like to see (again, that I needed for “context”) or competing in as many tournaments as I could (for the experience and for the discipline). I might enjoy myself; I might even learn something valuable (that word again). But I would have to say good-bye to the prospect of promotion, possibly forever, because I would have squandered the only chance I had to get started on my next book before I was too old to be eligible to be considered for a professoriate. I am out of time and I haven’t even started yet.

Clearly, it’s time to write another stanza for the song.

Oh Bear, don’t be foolish, life isn’t a race.
Moment to moment it’s about more than face.
Don’t be so anxious about making your place.
Oh Bear, don’t be foolish, life isn’t a race.

*Actually, the original quotation is a bit more specific: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Samuel Johnson, Letter to Boswell, 19 September 1777.

Comments

  1. The only thing you need to apologize for here is for apologizing. You need to put this to an mp3.

    ReplyDelete
  2. In the words of Gregory the Great, whose words a good friend and mentor passed along to me, an anxious grad student: AGE QUOD AGIS.

    Thanks for your refreshing thoughts on this perennial occupational hazard!

    ReplyDelete

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