This blog is about getting over Reeducation, which had several elements – one of which was the academic advice given advanced graduate students and assistant professors, advice I misunderstood because it didn’t really apply to me. In the same period I had a psychotherapist who, unbeknownst to me, was also an AA sponsor; in AA, as I learned after doing research on it when I discovered I was being taught a series of dark formulae, an important mantra is “don’t think you are different from anyone else.” I learned to feel guilty about what I am sure is actually a really normal thing to do, namely decide what advice fits your situation and what does not. Here, then, are my views on some standard academic advice.
Wrong advice #1: Do not put time into teaching and especially not into lower division courses; find ways to reduce time spent; it will not be appreciated and you will track yourself into teaching jobs, especially if you are a girl.
And I answer: When did I ever put excessive time into teaching? When I first started receiving this advice, I was putting in exactly the amount of time that was specifically prescribed, and everything was going well. But I was perceived to be putting in too much time because of the quality of the handouts and other materials I could prepare within that time. I also got scared: the advice was given in such passionate tones that even now I am nervous preparing classes because I feel at a deep level that I am writing my death warrant. If I am discovered doing this it will not be appreciated; I will track myself into teaching jobs; I will become known as a research slacker.
Managing the fear makes preparing and teaching classes slow. I dissociate and lose focus, have trouble making decisions, and spend most of my time battling the twin demons of fear and guilt.
Wrong advice #2: Avoid service.
And I answer: If you have no administrative support or negative administrative support and you avoid service, then the fact of things not having been done will come back as obstacles to what you need to get done; you will spend more time stepping around the service you did not do and managing the results of your not having done it than you would have spent doing it, and it will take far more time and energy than it would have done to step up to the plate be the administrative support you need in the first place.
I know that is disappointing to hear, and I know things should not be that way. But when they are, they are, and reality must be addressed.
Wrong advice #3: Have social life and recreational time but do not develop regular hobbies or have regular civic involvement. That occupies time that should go into research.
And I answer: No, it doesn’t. It’s time that will renew you as the person who can do research. Especially if you are working without administrative support and/or in an uncollegial environment, you really need an alternate work-like atmosphere where you can rebuild your sense of yourself as a professional person. After this healing experience you will be able to come home and write, as opposed to come home and wonder why a nice walk and so on do not do enough to help throw off the pain.
Wrong advice #4: Write before doing research, write really fast; write really bad first drafts with plans to come back an “fix” them later; realize that writing is pain and put timers on to make yourself do it.
And I answer: Having a PhD does not magically transform writing into torture. Nor do you forget how to write once the degree is conferred. These are two important misconceptions professors seem to have. I do not know where they acquired them, but these are highly irrational ideas. I know that now the proverbial wolf is at the door: if you do not write, you will not get tenure. But wasn’t that always the case? If you did not write, you would not get your degree; you would not pass your examinations; you would not pass your courses. If you got a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D in the Humanities, and you wrote these while working and taking courses as most of us did, then you may already know everything you need to know about how to plan projects and get things done. You might consider simply carrying on.
Misconception A: It seems to me that most academic advice assumes much less competence on the part of new Ph.Ds than most of the ones I have met – and I have met quite a few – really have. In that way it is condescending and infantilizing, and it projects into them a fractiousness and a state of unknowing that they do not possess. Actual questions they have are ignored while principles they already know by heart are tiresomely spelled out again and again as though they were not who they are.
Misconception B: Academic advice appears to assume that the advisee is a very green assistant professor in a very well run R1 environment. It is discouraging in that way because it asks most advisees to operate as though they were in environments they are not. It also asks them to assume that issues such as lack of administrative support, hostile or volatile workplaces, and so on, are simply epiphenomena of their own alleged “poor time management.” This call to misconstrue one’s situation and internalize as something else situations one did not create but must address and not ignore if one is to move ahead, is more destructive than I can even begin to describe.
Advice from me:
1. If you are one of those who relaxes by complaining and venting, and I know such people exist, find other new people outside your department to do it with. If you have a problem you actually want addressed, bring it to your department, but if you only want to bond by letting off steam, find other people in your situation. Explore the new area with them rather than asking older hands to act as tour guides and shoulders to cry on.
2. If, on the other hand, you are one of those who relaxes by getting problems solved and moving on, do not discuss these problems with peers unless you have a peer whose attitudes and goals truly resemble yours. You do not want to get involved with people who will bring you down! For advice seek out a friendly Full in your own department or another, who is not your assigned mentor and who does not currently have an administrative role. They will be able to contextualize things for you in useful ways. They will also project into you some of their calm, full professor energy instead of the desperate, assistant professor energy with which any peers you may have who are committed to suffering may wish to imbue you.