26 July 2010


Persistence counts for an enormous amount in academia. Intelligence, talent, and luck all play a part, of course, but sheer hard work (or just hanging in doing little pieces of work) can get you a long way. How many times have you heard the narrative of the Ph.D. who adjuncted and visited and finally, finally, got the tenure-track job?

There are a lot of ways to abandon the race (I'm still thinking in bicycling terms, and allow me to note that next year I'd like to see both Schlecks on the podium). And these may be "better" lives than staying in; it depends on what matters to you! Here are some abandonments I know of:
  • go to France to do dissertation research and never come back.
  • get a job as an editor and give up on the dissertation.
  • finish the dissertation, get seriously ill, get married, follow husband to his job; after recovery, raise children and adjunct.
  • finish the dissertation, get a job, hate it, go to law school.
  • get a job, write a book, get tenure, jack it all in to do something completely different.
  • get a job at a teaching-oriented school, mine excellent dissertation that could have been a book for enough articles for tenure, put energy into family and community life, eventually get into administration (not very happily).
I turned out not to be a high-flyer. I often wish I were more like a couple of people I went to graduate school with, who swoop and soar above me. But I am still here. I may be slow to publish, but I haven't given up. I don't want to give up. Sometimes I wonder if I should, but I don't want to. I want to keep doing my work.

In academia, there's always the hope that if you don't give up, eventually you will put your name on the map, somehow. I have a colleague whom I admire greatly because he has persevered at doing work he considers valuable even when he got no departmental support for it and at least one other colleague openly disparaged his obscure field. He knew what was important to him and didn't care at all what anyone else thought. One day he published a book with an important flagship press, and the department changed its tune about him. He continues not to care what anyone else thinks, and to work on what matters to him.

So today's slogan encapsulates these thoughts on perseverence, in a form borrowed from a friend who competes in triathlons: Dead Fucking Last is better than Did Not Finish is better than Did Not Start.


undine said...

Interesting post. I knew a lot of people for whom "DNS" or "DNF" was a morally superior position to "DFL." There's a difference, though, between never finishing the diss (I'm guessing if you can afford to live in France, you don't have money worries) and feeling as though the race is abandoned because your career isn't that of Stephen Greenblatt. There are different maps and different levels of being known.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Oh, living in France involved years of au pair work; I think eventually something more like a career and/or marriage evolved, but in the case I have in mind, mostly it was wanting to be Anywhere But Grad School. I guess I don't understand seeing DNS or DNF as morally superior. Maybe it's my sporty side showing up. How would you ever know if you can compete if you don't try? And in sports most of us wind up competing against ourselves: "can I improve my time," rather than "can I beat Alberto Contador." Clearly I'm not Greenblatt, nor D. from my last post; but there's still room to be my colleague.

Anonymous said...

*Love* the slogan!

And I often feel like no one ever really wins in academe...there is always something that someone else is doing that can make us feel like crap.

Especially re: books. E.g., either the topic is "not good enough" for someone or the press isn't. Or both. AND...even if someone publishes a brilliant book with best press ever, the nature of the occupation means THAT book becomes the one to argue against in subsequent books.

It's a crazy way to make a living.

undine said...

Morally superior as in "I could have lowered myself to do that if I had wanted to and done a much better job than you, only I didn't feel like it." To compete is to fail. To abstain from competition is to win.

It was a complicated system for them, no question.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Undine: I've run into that attitude, but I think I call it being a jerk. As to your previous comment about broadcasting over the internet (in WWDD?), I wish I could! Imagine yourself as selfish and entitled, while also glamorous and fascinating: sort of like a very ambitious cat.

Ink: I think you've put your finger on a key part of why writing can be so difficult. Once a person assimilates that attitude, the self-nagging is hard to shake. Somehow one needs to recognize the crazy and then put it aside. But I think being steeped in the crazy is part of what feeds my perfectionism.