Job Assessment

I hate my job. No, I don't. Well, not really. Just parts of it. Okay, big chunks of it. More than I would like.

I've been wanting to write this post for days, but I held off. Because I had work to do that I didn't want to do but that needed to be in by the deadlines.

Is it that I hate deadlines? Partly. They make me anxious because I don't want to let people down.

BTW, I figured out why I still haven't written those book reviews: the deadlines aren't really real, not in the way that deadlines for letters of reference or grades are. Nothing will happen if I don't get that book review in now or even this month. Or even this year--except that eventually I'll have to give the book back or, if I've already read it and marked it up intending to review it, pay for it (as I finally had to do with one of them just this past week).

Actually, part of me really appreciates deadlines. They help me get over the Great Hump of Fear. That anxiety that I get whenever I have to do something I'm not entirely sure how to do, like describe a student whom I barely know in a letter of reference. Or write a syllabus for a new course when I haven't done all of the reading.

So it isn't entirely the deadlines. At least, I don't think it is. And yet, I've spent most of this week feeling sick to my stomach or close to tears, so it must be something.

Something that saps all the joy out of the career that I thought that I wanted. Something that takes this job that I have worked and worked and worked at for the better part of twenty-five years (including graduate school) and makes me want to quit. Now. Yesterday. Back when I was 19 and foolish and saying that I wanted to be a professor.

What has happened? Where has all the joy gone? If I were to be melodramatic about it--and why not? This is my blog, I don't have to subject it to peer review--I would say it's the relentless, soul-sucking, unforgiving, incessant, never-to-be-thanked-for...grading.

Not grading for courses, although that can be fairly grueling. But at least there's a point to it.

No, it's the juggernaut otherwise known as "peer review." Reading applications for graduate school. Writing letter of reference that I am certain nobody will ever read (because who has time to in the midst of reading all those applications?). Reading more applications, for fellowships and lectureships and post-docs. Writing book reviews that only the author will read. Reading dissertation chapters just to make decisions about yet more fellowships. Reading book manuscripts for publishers so that once the book is published somebody else can write a review pointing out all of the mistakes in the book which I thought was fine.

I'm making myself sick again just thinking about it. Why? It's part of the "service" that we do to each other, our students, our field--right? I should be happy to "give back", reciprocate for all of the support that the system has given me for doing my work. So why does it feel like so much busywork, just yet more grind?

I've tried to find a way to enjoy writing the letters, but I'm always scared that I will say something that will adversely affect my students. What if I'm too flip? What if I don't say the things that the readers want to hear? Worse, what if I leave no impression whatsoever, my letter just blending into the mass of hyperboles and half-truths that we all use in trying to take care of our students, promote their careers while at the same time being honest with ourselves?

But it's really reading applications that's the worst.

Every year, reading applications for those who want to come to graduate school, choosing the ones that you think will do the kind of work you will want to write letters about in the years to come, only to have them decide, after all of your careful decision-making, to go somewhere else.

Every year, reading more applications for post-doc fellows in fields you don't care about and only barely understand, simply in order to be supportive of your institution, when what you feel instead is that your soul is being sucked out through your eyeballs, your attention for your life.

Every year, spending hours, days, weeks reading other people's books so that they can get promoted or published or praised, when what you want to be doing is writing your own or at the very least reading something that you are actually actively interested in.

Every year, reading thousands and thousands of pages of self-description, advertising disguised as support, reams and reams of arguments about things that you don't actually care about--and still don't, once you've read.

Okay, so every job, every career has its downside. But why this?

You can see why I've been putting off writing this post. Maybe I should have put it off even longer. But I'm dying here and I need to figure out why.

It's not because I don't like or can't do the detail work. Give me a problem that involves scanning thousands of pages of data and I'm on it.

But then it matters whether I learn what I'm looking at. It matters whether I make a decision about whether this or that piece of information is relevant.

Nothing in what I am reading in these applications actually matters other than for me to make a decision whether to accept or deny, recommend that we hire or publish. And then my decision might not make any difference anyway, depending on whether the candidate or editor accepts my offer or advice.

I spent the better part of today reading the second novel by "Richard Castle" trying to get up the stomach (literally) to write yet another letter for someone who wants to go to graduate school. Half-way through Naked Heat, with all of its detail about how grueling it is to be a NYPD cop, I started feeling a little better.

Maybe my life isn't so hard after all. Maybe I really am doing what I want to be doing. I just need to separate out the various parts.

I like teaching, I even believe I'm fairly good at it. So that's okay.

I think that I like doing research. I seem to be drawn to it fairly compulsively when I'm not reading accounts of what other people wish they were doing for theirs.

And I seem to feel a need to write, which, sad to say, is one of the reasons I find writing these letters so grueling: I really want to do a good job, even on something I know is ephemera, even on something that nobody will ever really read, not carefully, not with as much care I as put into writing it.

But I hate busywork. I hate feeling like I am being asked to use my brain as a sieve, forcing other people's thoughts through it not because I want to learn anything from them, but only so as to make a judgment: Y/N, Accept/Deny, Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down. As If.

Frankly, I think this is the reason that so many of us are disillusioned with academia. It's not just that we don't have time for our own writing and that we aren't valued as teachers in the way that we wish we were. It's that so much of our time--our lives, our energy--is sucked out of us simply to feed the Institutional Beast.

And that so little of what we spend our time doing actually counts. Towards anything. Like, I don't know, scholarship. Truth. Understanding.

Or maybe it's just that we're constantly being asked to do two things at once: create and critique, teach and condemn.

It's as if a movie director was forced to spend his life writing reviews of other people's movies so that he never had time to make his own. Or a sculptor had to spend her life making sculptures about other people's art. Or a cop never had time to solve a homicide because she was spending all of her time reviewing other people's cases.

Not that I have an answer. Who is qualified to review our work for publication other than our peers? Who is going to choose our graduate students if not those of us who are going to teach them? Would we really want somebody else choosing our colleagues?

And yet, who has time to have colleagues when all we do is spend our time reading other people's work so as to pass judgment on it?

Sod this. I've got better things to do. Like fence.


  1. Which is, in a nutshell, why I don't want to become rated as a referee. Then the system just tries to suck your time and joy into judging other people's performance rather than improving your own.

    Hang in there,

  2. Touche! The thing is, I think that some of my colleagues actually enjoy doing the "directing", just as others (like me) enjoy the "coaching" as well as the actual "fencing" (a.k.a. research). But as far as I'm concerned, I'm with you: I would much rather be out there on the strip, bouting, than standing beside it keeping score.


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