Glass Ceiling

I've been complaining a lot for a while now about feeling like I have reached the limits of what I am going to be able to accomplish in life, most viscerally (and vocally) in fencing, but more seriously (and melancholically) in my career, particularly my research. I have various theories about why I've been feeling like this:

* delayed post-tenure depression brought on by the opportunity at long last to spend a year off actually working on my research;

* fatigue brought on by working so hard this past year on my research, coupled with despair over the fact that there was no way I was going to be able to finish anything like a full draft of my next book in only a year, particularly since I was more or less starting from scratch on the research;

* anxiety at the thought that my son is now a teenager, which means that he will most likely be leaving home for college within the next five years, leaving me without a reason to get to campus in the morning other than to work on my own research (at least when I'm not preparing for class);

* fear that I've only ever been chasing the goals that I have because I saw others chasing them;

* disillusionment with my field and my profession because the questions that we are asking simply don't seem that important.

As those of you who have stuck with me through this depression know, I've also been obsessed with the prospect (or absence thereof) of fame, which in actual fact is a struggle with myself over what kind of writing I should ("should") be doing: whether the academic work that I've trained to do for these past twenty-some years, or something more "popular" that might reach a broader audience than just my (presumably) insular and irrelevant (in the "popular" mind) colleagues. I'm not sure whether this blog is helping or hurting in this respect. I have been encouraged by the response of many of you to stick with it, particularly in my efforts to describe medieval spiritual practices in a way that makes them--oh, that word!--accessible to a contemporary audience, but I also worry sometimes whether the blog is not substituting for the work that I really ("really") should be doing.

And round and round. If I continue with my academic work, I have the opportunity to produce something truly original, at least with respect to what we ("we") know about the devotion to the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages. But, at the same time, if I write primarily for other scholars--which, sad to say, one must more or less by default if one is going to be able to deal with all of the intricacies that make up our actual knowledge about things, since nobody other than scholars by definition will care--then I miss the chance to popularize what I know and perhaps make a little money from the sale of my books. And yet, the world needs scholarship, even if it doesn't like it very much or, at least in this country, seem willing to value it unless it is packaged (sigh) in a way to make it (yes) accessible to somebody who has not spent decades trying to learn about something. I'm not being entirely fair here to those who enjoy reading non-fiction outside of their own fields; certainly, I am much more likely to read Freakonomics or Your Inner Fish than I ever am to pick up one of my colleagues' papers in economics or evolutionary biology. But if, unlike my oh-so-prolific colleagues, I only have stamina to write so many articles or books, is it actually a good use of my time to spend it on writing something that makes only a marginal contribution to the actual scholarship? Like, for example, this blog.

Which brings me to what I realize is actually my problem: scarcity thinking. How is it that I have so convinced myself--despite the manifest evidence of my blog--that it is impossible for me to write more than I have been, academically-speaking, or that I have nothing accessible to say? I worry that this now-some-months'-long depression means that I have been writing here more about my anxieties than I have about the materials I have been thinking about, but at least some of the posts that I did over the last year might actually be worth something other than just as my frantic musings, mightn't they? No, don't answer that. Yes, I'm worried about money and status, but what I'm really most worried about is my purpose in life. Surely, if I were meant ("meant") to be an academic rather than, oh, a graphic designer, I wouldn't be having so much trouble with getting myself to the page. I don't seem to have any trouble getting myself to the blog page. Why then is it so wrenching for me to try to write something in more academic prose? Maybe (horrible to think!) I have chosen the wrong career, simply gone to graduate school because I was always a good student; good, that is, "not"--as that so-called friend of mine whose name I now remember thanks to Facebook but which I shall not repeat here despite how tempting it is to want to humiliate him for being such a jerk--"brilliant," but still stubborn enough to survive the Sitzfleisch of graduate school and the hazing of being a tenure-track assistant professor.

But what else should I be? It's not that I am completely unsuited to be doing what I am doing. I am, I think it fair to say, a good teacher; at least, I enjoy teaching immensely and I have the good fortune to have wonderful students to teach. I've been a bit tired this term, finding it harder coming off leave than I remember it being before (selective amnesia?), but I experience nothing but pleasure being in the classroom, getting to argue and think about the texts that my students and I are reading together. There are, of course, still many things that I wish I could do better as a teacher, but (I am happy to report) solving problems like these is one of the things that actually energizes me. I will spend hours and hours and hours (and have) on putting together slides or rewriting my discussion notes or reading background materials so as to be able to answer as many of the students' questions as I can. Not for every class meeting or even for every course--I like experimenting, changing the kinds of things that I ask the students to do--but enough to suggest that maybe, just maybe, I'm actually "meant" to be doing this in the sense that I seem to have not only some aptitude but also some interest in teaching well.

But I do worry about the research end of things. Again, not because I have not been willing to put in the hours, weeks, months and years learning about medieval Christianity in order to be able to contribute something to our understanding thereof, but because I experience finding something to say about it so comparatively terrifying. What do I know about devotion to the Virgin Mary that isn't in fact somewhat narrow, at least in comparison to everything that it is theoretically possible to know about even this relatively limited topic? And it took me years just to figure this much out! How could I possibly have anything new or even remotely correct to say about anything without spending years and years and years making sure that I had taken account of every last piece of evidence at our disposal? Except, of course, I can't; no one can. I'm jealous of scholars who don't seem to be paralyzed by the immensity of their topics in the way that I am. They somehow manage to rein in the terror (if they feel it at all) and simply write something. To be sure, when they do so without spending decades on their research, their work typically seems to me a bit thin, but it keeps the conversation going and may, therefore, be even more valuable in the long run (although who can tell?) than my more laborious contributions. But then, on the other side of things, there are scholars who must think my work somewhat frivolous, nowhere near as well grounded as theirs in the manuscripts.

As so often happens (can it be an accident?) when I am in moods like this of a Sunday, the sermon that our preacher gave this morning seemed to be written especially for me. The theme was the strength that comes from being willing to open ourselves to our vulnerability, particularly in letting go of ambitions that we may have been carrying in order, having let go, to be more authentic to ourselves. As, for example, in our preacher's own case of wanting to be a bishop when he was a young priest but having to give up this ambition when he decided to go public about his sexual orientation--only to find, wonderfully enough, that the ambition itself dissolved with his new openness, allowing him to recognize how much he preferred being a parish priest after all. What would I find I actually wanted to be doing if I were able to let go of the insidious ambition to be more than "just" a teacher or more than "just" an academic? Would I feel comforted--or terrified? More to the point, is it actually that I have hit the so-called glass ceiling, read, the limits of my ability (as my college "friend" suggested I would) or is it rather that (even more horrible to think!) there is no ceiling other than the one I have been using ("academic career") to protect me from the limitless possibilities of the open sky?


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