February 25, 2008

In the zone-out facing multiple deadlines

Let me preface the remarks below with a simple fact of working in a huge university: There are hundreds of colleagues who are better read than I am, hundreds who work longer hours, hundreds who are more organized, hundreds who are wiser, hundreds who are more clever, hundreds who have published more, hundreds who have taught more, hundreds who are better cited, and hundreds who have a much better sense of humor.

That doesn't mean that I'm a slouch. Far from it: I work hard, and I don't mind working hard. As I write this sentence, it's about 10:30, and I'll still be going for a while. I don't think one can survive as a tenure-track faculty member hired in the past decade at many universities these days without either working very hard, being very organized, or being damned lucky (and possibly all three). (I was hired in 1996... I'm stretching "the past decade" a bit.)

My point right now is that I'm in the multiple-deadlines-hitting-at-once zone, which is an inevitable coincidence if you have multiple and often competing obligations over time. They're just going to pile up, and once in a blue moon (or the week after a lunar eclipse, right now), everything hits at once. At this point in my career, I just have confidence I can get done what I need to. I think anyone who survives grad school has at least several moments when they read prose with the density of a neutron star and just repeat to themselves, "I can get through this and get the gist." My first moment was the day in high school I was visiting my sister in college, visited her intro to women's studies class, heard the prof mention Paulo Freire, and had the very foolish idea that I could buy Pedagogy of the Oppressed and read it.

A few hours later, I was sitting in a car, halfway through the prefatory material, getting a headache, and exhausting the rest of my faith on the belief that I could understand Freire. You've probably had that type of moment, and I hope you bulldozed your way through it and came out the other end with the type of understanding you needed.

In college, I had several other experiences writing papers between 10 pm and 5 am, this time a little more confident that I'd get through. The first time is an adventure, and the fourth time you have enough confidence (and caffeine) to get through it. And I had a few sour-lemon readings to compete with Freire: Talcott Parsons is what I recall most.

In grad school, I had a few moments that approached the Freire sensawhatthe? feeling, first with Hayden White's Metahistory and then a few others. But Foucault was accessible by then, and a few book-a-week courses inured me to effective reading. And after several semesters of TAing courses, grading was less anxiety provoking. It's a growth process (or maybe a synaptic-death process: take your pick).

One could view the postdoc and tenure-track years in a similar vein, except adding multiple job and personal responsibilities and eventually deciding that it is better to trust that one can get through it in the long term than to juggle multiple deadlines by the panic method. Generally, an hour later everything looks better, or at least you're exhausted enough that you can just get along.

So I've handled multiple oncoming deadlines today, and I'm fairly confident that I can handle the next ones coming up. Or at least, whatever I do will be good enough for Microsoft. No: I can do better, I have, and I will continue to. It is less arrogance than a temperament of confidence in the long-term bet. Friends of mine have nominalized cope as referring to one's capacity to handle the unexpected, the demands of life, the energy drains that are inevitable.  After all these years, I think I have enough cope. It is perhaps too much confidence, but we need that to get through Paulo Freire, Talcott Parsons, Hayden White, a linear algebra proof without the details, mathematical demography, titration in a shaking building or with shaking hands, grant-writing in a program with a 5% hit rate, and the uncertainties of academic politics.

Those of us in higher education trust that we have enough cope for our role in the world, in our students' lives, and in our research community. It is a belief in the future, for ourselves, for our disciplines, and for knowledge. We may not be enough to save the world, but we are necessary. So yes, we believe in our ability to handle multiple deadlines, unreasonable demands, and have enough humor to get through the semester.

It is the audacity of cope.

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Posted in The academic life on February 25, 2008 10:48 PM |