Category Archives: Da Whiteman

A rough draft (response to Jonathan)

I know people say procrastination is perfectionism but I don’t know how in the world they came up with this idea. I know perfectionists and they don’t procrastinate, they’re just meticulous and over-critical, over-fussy.

I first “procrastinated” twice in graduate school, when I had paper ideas that were not actually viable. Studying on quarters there was no time to change, so I tried to force the papers to take their planned shape anyway. They were hard to write because they were not working, and I called the stalling and thrashing about, “procrastination”. I think it was something else. I wasn’t putting off work, I was avoiding the work that was actually needed, because if I did that work I would not finish by the deadline.

I was also accused of conspiring to procrastinate in graduate school, when I estimated twenty weeks as the time needed to research and write an article while also doing other things. The professor said that would be procrastination. I should not write a publishable article, just write some essay, in ten weeks. Again, I don’t think this was procrastination: I think it was good planning (ten weeks of reading and ten of writing was what I wanted). I made a deal with the professor to give me two quarters of B instead of one quarter of A. I wrote the article and it was published in a good place. People laughed at me as well when I said I could write a dissertation in a year at the rate of six pages a week (they wanted seven very rough pages a day, but I don’t make progress when I write that rough). They were floored when I actually did it (they had also yelled at me every day when they saw me not at the desk, because I was working a job, so they could not believe I was making progress).

My next big procrastination episode came with a book contract that asked for major revisions to the manuscript, requiring major research, that I wasn’t sure would lead in the direction either I or the press actually wanted, to be done in six months when I would also be teaching three courses new to me. I knew it was not realistic but signed on anyway, due to fear of being accused of conspiring to procrastinate (conspiring to be lazy, I suppose, which is a sin). I could not figure out a feasible project plan because there wasn’t one within those time constraints. I wanted to ask someone about it but did not dare due to fear of the pain of being accused of conspiring to procrastinate.

Instead, I just waited to not get tenure. Note what the actual procrastination was: I did not procrastinate on work, but on asking the question I needed to ask. I thought about this clearly at the time. I preferred to have something bad happen for a good reason, not finishing the book, over the possibility of abuse and a false accusation of conspiring to procrastinate. (I also wanted someone to volunteer the suggestion that I ask the needed question, and would fish for this, but was not clear enough about it because I was so fearful that I might instead get an accusation of conspiring to procrastinate.)

People did not understand why I was not devastated, but rather pleased, over the tenure decision. The decision came from a high administrative level, not from those who knew me. The paperwork said everything was excellent except for the non-finishing of this project, and that the university would reconsider if the project were finished within the year. I was pleased because everything was true: nothing false, no apparent bias, nothing trumped-up. The only thing that was wrong was something I knew was wrong and could agree to. This was immensely satisfying because what was wrong was a real thing, not something unjustified or worse, justified but invisible to me–and most importantly, not a character flaw, only a project not finished.

Note, then, where the procrastination is in all of this: it isn’t in not working, it’s in being afraid to ask questions. In the case of the two seminar papers I struggled with, what I really needed was to visit office hours and say I was struggling with the topic and the argument. I was afraid to do this because facing the actual problem could put me past deadline, and also, one was supposed to be willing not to be a perfectionist. I did not think the professors in question would have these reactions; I thought Zeus or Yahweh would. In the case of the book, I again procrastinated about asking the right question. I was afraid because once again, what I wanted to ask was heretical and I feared either immediate execution or torture of a type that would cause permanent disfigurement and disability. It was better to simply freeze.

Note what I have been afraid to ask: (a) can I let the research on the project take it where it will? (b) can I have a reasonable deadline, so that I can concentrate on the work itself? Note that the only constructive answers to these questions are a form of yes. But I not only expected negative answers, I also expected extreme violence and devastating abuse as a result of asking. Note also that when I was accused of conspiring to procrastinate, I went right ahead and did what I was planning, and got an article and a dissertation.

Procrastinating on work, having outright bad work habits, is only something I got into later. I could not understand it. That was when I came up with what you have in this post: it is a form of self-punishment and a separation from self. (One of the ways I have thought about it is as an overdeveloped superego, tied to an underdeveloped ego, that makes one want to retreat into id.)

For me, I still need to refine the theory, because if it is just this odd choice of askesis over the feeling of accomplishment, if that were a sufficient answer, I’d snap out of it. (Note that I procrastinate on many things, on everything that is a required activity, including also work on house and yard, and I only have healthy relationships to art work, political activism, and program design/institutional grant-making. *Because in these activities I do not feel there is some terrible super-ego watching me.*)

So in tentative conclusion: yes, procrastination is self-destructive yet feels good, or feels constructive in some way. But to understand why this is, one must refine the theory. Practical example: in my first academic job I would always stay up too late, because I hated the job and wanted to maximize the time in which I had gotten away from it for the day. Going to bed only brought the next day closer, when I would have to go to the torture chamber again. So once more, for me, procrastination is self-destructive but feels like self-protection, or like *the only way available to grab some space for the self to just be, as opposed to be subjugated to être-pour-les-autres*.

This, actually, could be an important insight. What if procrastination is pleasant because it is the en-soi? What if working should be the pour-soi, but is often the pour-les-autres? What if it is only easy to work if one can be sure it can be pour-soi?

Finally: I could also write about another form of procrastination in which I have engaged, about changing careers, but this post is already long. I would rather end with a newer insight, gained as I wrote this post: I have always procrastinated about speaking for myself, due to fear of extreme violence. The example that came to me while writing is from a conversation with a professor on my Ph.D. examination committee. The exam had been good and she had been surprised: “Don’t take this the wrong way, please, because I didn’t think you would fail, but I didn’t know you were this good. You are always so tentative, so careful, so unwilling to fully engage. What you have done here was brave and you should continue: you can have a brilliant career, I know this now.”

I have of course not had, because of Reeducation in all its aspects. But notice what the professor pointed out: I had always procrastinated about developing my ideas and asserting them. I did not explain to her that I had decided to do this for the examination because as I studied, I realized it would be the only way to pass: if I did not stand on my ideas, I would not be able to organize my thoughts, because there was too much information to retain and organize. So I came out with my ideas, did not procrastinate, because I thought that the best way to avoid failure or death. But in many other instances, I procrastinate because I wish to avoid death.

Axé.

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On defenses of the Confederacy and Jim Crow

I did not know, and do not want to know, and my father was always kind to his workers, who did not need to unionize.

This kind of statement, especially from an adult in this day and age, is not a sweet excuse but actually a refusal to look at reality and to change it.

It really means:

I do not care about what happened or is happening, I only care about feeling innocent and virtuous as an individual.

ADDENDUM: I should write about my mother in relation to this. One of the ways in which she was a good mother was that she did not try to teach this, but tried to teach against it despite having been taught a great deal of this herself.

Axé.

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Henry Giroux Today

Having a bad day today. Maybe the hangover from being denied tenure by the right-wing stooge John Silber, the then president of Boston University, in 1981 still stings. Since those dark days, I have always had some hope in the university, recognizing that it was an important site of struggle and filled with contradictions. I am losing that hope. I consistently meet administrators who are not only unimaginative but cowardly and incapable of supporting programs whose value cannot be reduced to cost-efficiency metrics. These people do not just lack a vision, they constitute a kind of academic walking dead, albeit with the ever present smile on their faces–a kind of sickening embrace of civility. They are truly incapable of providing support and resources for faculty fighting for economic and political justice, faculty who take risks, join hands with those colleagues who have been reduced to Wal-mart workers, and act in solidarity with students who refuse to be reduced to customers. Where are the administrators from the ranks of the humanities and liberal arts? In too many instances we have dead-beat administrators drawn from the empirically based disciplines who do not have a clue as to what scholarship is about and increasingly reward the most unfit people with university awards, academic positions, and committee assignments–all the while making clear that qualified people should not apply. Rigorous and courageous scholarship has now gone the way of typewriter. Faculty are rewarded for committee work, grants, and a general attitude that can only be viewed as supine. Even worse, these individuals organize themselves in clicks exercising power that represents the worse form of cronyism. They barely publish, have no international reputations, and feed on gossip and innuendo, reproducing themselves in hires who mimic their own idiocy. I am sure there are exceptions in North America, but dark side of neoliberalism has just about killed the university as a democratic public sphere. All that is left is the detritus, filled with losers and dead beat careerists.

Axé.

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A flash of insight

Why did you not ask for advice and information?

Because I already knew that my father would not answer such questions. From this I had learned that answers would not be forthcoming from anyone.

Axé.

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Steal this university!

The book seems dated now, but I did not pay enough attention when it came out in 2003, although I read the reviews. It is about how the for-profit ethos has crept into universities. I do not know whether I knew enough then to understand the book as I do now.

I learned a very great deal from the third chapter, about the inefficiency of merit raises, whose points are supported by this recent article on metrics. And I am fascinated with the poor behavior of some professors I know in the 1995 Yale strike.

The truly important insight I had while reading in this book, however, was that much of the academic advice I have received and been confused by came from professors dealing with the slow encroachment of this model. Either they were in a position to take advantage of it (e.g. had other people to grade for them and were otherwise in a position to say, don’t spend time on teaching), or were themselves struggling with it and saying things that did not make sense entirely, because they, too, were in a new world they did not fully recognize because it used (in another way) the vocabulary of the old, and were looking through a glass, darkly.

Axé.

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Pour penser

I would not frame the discussion in terms of success and failure, instructions for success, but I think this post gets closer to a useful discussion of how to do an academic job than do most in the genre. The activities it discusses are, of course, the ones that interest me and also interested me in taking this direction.

In my case the question is complicated, of course, since I was not raised to think I would ever be able to do anything. And my father was a professor and said he was unhappy. He thought going into academia was a poor idea, and did not think I could survive in it. I, of course, did not think I could do anything at all, yet knew I could do academic work and was very interested in it. I was careful each year of graduate school to make sure the main reason I was continuing was that I was interested, not that I was trapped; and to make sure I was working to lessen the factors that had made graduate school my only option when I was twenty.

I always felt I should quit to please my father, and I always felt one could not commit fully, since one would probably not be let in. And I haven’t always had the best of luck, or made the best informed choices, but these things, no matter how serious (and they are serious), are secondary. The primary issue is the early and constant message: you must renounce now what you love because it will never love you.

My father loved this song. It seemed to express much of what he felt and to comfort him, but it terrified me. I already knew my parents were afraid of ending up on the streets themselves, and ambivalent about us. Would they put us on the streets if they could? Would we ever be able to hold onto anything we loved?

And these things are all true and must be acknowledged but at the same time, I am so tired of them. I would like to work as I did in graduate school, days of innocence, when the work itself was healing balm.

Axé.

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On giving up what you love most

I was saying things about academia, how I dislike it because it requires you to renounce the things you love most about it. That is about working at institutions that work against your programs, of course, and I won’t say this is not a real problem, and that it is not highly irritating. But “renouncing the things you love most” means something more to me, I realized as I heard myself speak.

“I don’t have the money to keep you.” That was what my mother always said, and she kept saying it even though she had the money. We were to be cast out, it was a daily danger, and she was to commit suicide, and that was a daily danger as well. Again and again I prepared myself for these losses and although they did not actually take place, the psychic one kept being repeated. Every day we were told, every day we renounced and steeled ourselves; every day we knew we would be abandoned, and love was withdrawn.

I always appreciated and felt affection for my mother, but I do not remember loving her. One could not love her, she was too coercive, cruel, weak and vindictive too often, and she might commit suicide any day. She was also a potential role model, and that was risky. If I got too close, I feared, I could become death-oriented like her, and I did not want this.

Just now I was thinking irritably about how foolish it is to accuse people of insufficient love (“you don’t love the university enough, if you did, you would put up with this!”) when they have in fact gone so far as to renounce what they most love to prove this love — renounced their own work and their better judgment to be polite to fragile power. I realized suddenly what this meant at another level: it means I must have loved my mother once. I don’t remember when I had to stop but it was very early on, and it must have been very painful because I have repeated it a few times, to try to get over it and also to try to see it; this also explains the reactions I have when I am asked to sacrifice or renounce.

People really should not have children to amuse themselves or to claim an identity. They should also not threaten suicide around their children. With the suicide threats, and also the accusations having to do with our failure to fill an emptiness, I remember renouncing love again and again. I remember the toy I held in my hand one time, watching my mother sail away from me as it were, and saying, “Good-bye, my honey. Good-bye, my honey.”

I can see it now. It must have been devastating, and I know there were many such scenes.

Axé.

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