Luck

Thomas Jefferson once said “I often find that the harder I work the luckier I am.” Actually, probably not. He is attributed with having said or written something of the sort, but the accuracy of internet quotations is such that I didn’t bother looking up the exact phrasing.*** The sentiment is the same however, regardless of the original context.

This aphorism fits neatly into a motivation, can-do ethos that suggests anything is possible if you just work hard enough. It fits nicely on a poster, too, but so do a lot of statements.

The problem is that this ethos is also a recipe for burnout when taken to its logical extreme. Graduate school particularly suffers from this sort of progression, but a series of articles have recently look at burnout as a social problem crushing some combination of millennials, young people, and/or everyone suffering from precarity.

As a junior scholar trying to make my way in the world of academia, I came to hate the word “if” in 2018. “If” is dangerous. If I just do X, Y, or Z, ad infinitum.

Without perspective, “if” paves the road to burnout. The problem is that “if” brims with potential, with hope. Hard work and hope are both good, but sometimes they can come to naught. Sometimes the most important “if” is “if I get a lucky break.”

Not the luck of hard work, but pure, simple, ineffable luck of forces beyond your control breaking the right way.

I wrote this post in hotels and airports while returning to Columbia from a campus interview where I was a finalist for a tenure track job. As I sit in an airport in Dallas I just keep coming back to the question, “Do I feel lucky?”

I embargoed this post until the  job search ended. I found out this morning that the job went to someone else.

UPDATE: ***My father pointed out to me that the original quote is attributed to L. Anneaus Seneca. A cursory Google search says this attribution dates to at least 1912 in a collection of quotations, but is thought to be a corruption of De Beneficiis 7.1.4, on the best wrestler being not the one who prepares all the tricks, but the one who masters one or two and looks for the opportunity to use them.

AIA-SCS San Diego: A Reflection

I spent the last weekend at the annual meeting for the Society for Classical Studies in San Diego, CA. I composed this post to reflect on my experience at the conference, almost entirely in two airplanes and the San Diego and Denver airports. The bulk of this post follows the jump, since I ran long and I doubt most people reading this are interested in the proceedings of an academic professional society.

For those who are interested: this is a birds-eye reflection rather than a blow-by-blow recap. See my Twitter feed for specific comments about papers.

Continue reading AIA-SCS San Diego: A Reflection

My 2018 – using words

This is the penultimate post of my year-in-review series, an essay trying to make sense of my year that was. It follows a collection of my best* posts, a list of statistics, and a listicle. A post containing 2019 resolutions concludes the series tomorrow.

Past entries in this series: 2017, 2016, 2015.

ΔΔΔ

On the precipice of 2019 I am in a good place. By definition this should mean that I had a good 2018, and, compared to many, that is true. I had some measure of professional success; I published two articles, submitted a book proposal to an academic press (along with five revised chapters), taught five classes, and scored multiple interviews in the cutthroat arena of the academic job market. In a bonus victory, each of the academic successes brought me closer to articulating my larger research agenda. 2018 passed me as a blur of activity with steady, but not stable employment and whirlwind travel, but I was not burdened by toxic relationships or flattened by the trauma of loss.

Just writing these words twisted my stomach into knots.

Reading over the past versions of this essay, I realize that I have written something to this effect each of the past three years. In this sense, 2018 was more of the same, except that the highs were higher and the lows lower.

This year marked the first time in my adult life where I suffered health complications worse than the flu that were not sports injuries. All of them were related to anxiety. Last spring I experienced the first round, which included GERD and at one point breaking out in hives. The digestive issues meant that I had to give up first chocolate and then coffee. By the end of the fall semester a new wave of symptoms developed that, thankfully, have largely disappeared after I gave myself several days entirely off over the holiday.

I have coped with anxiety in various forms for quite a few years now, but an overlapping series of issues have caused the symptoms to grow progressively worse.

One is the brutal academic job market, where there are dozens or hundreds of qualified candidates for every open position and the number of positions overall in decline because of cuts to education funding. For me this meant working on short-term contracts to teach individual courses without the security of knowing whether I would teach again the following term and, simultaneously, feeling pressure to research and publish without compensation in the hope that someday it will be part of my job.

Teaching history at the college level is something I deeply believe in. There are other career paths out there and graduate study in history should do a better job of creating pathways for students to get those jobs, but when I look at myself in the mirror it is hard to give up on this dream that I have now spent almost a decade pursuing.

Another issue is the gremlin who has long sat on my shoulder telling me that I should be working harder. When I was young I could ignore him, perhaps too well, but in the crucible of academia he has grown strong indeed.

I gave in to that gremlin more often than not in 2018, sacrificing my weekends, my evenings, and much of the time that would have been spent just being outdoors, much to my detriment. By the end of the year, my partner started saying that even my hobbies started to look like work.

Self-care taken to its extreme becomes hedonism, but self-care itself is necessary. My much belated revelation at the end of 2018 is that things like self-care that I admire and encourage in others are also things that I need to allow myself.

But, like I stated at the outset, 2018 was a successful year by many metrics. I remain in a healthy relationship with an amazing woman and read a lot of breathtaking books. I was a little bit ambitious in my writing goals, which always ends up going slower than intended. Teaching new courses (four of the five I taught for the first time) consumes more time than I estimate, and most of my writing time was given over to “old” work, between editing chapters to submit with my book proposal and rounds of edits and proofs. Still, I am pleased with how my courses went for the most part and am pleased with the work that I put out into the world in 2018. I also saw progress in the long-term process of self-improvement, which provided hope even in bad moments.

As much as my year was defined by struggles with anxiety, I want to take time to reflect on those things that were good.

My universal resolutions every year revolve around mindfulness and happiness. Anecdotally and superficially, at least, I smiled more and laughed more easily in 2018 than I did in past years, but also with the impression that this was grim laughter going out into unrelenting darkness.

#AcWriMo 2018: Liking and Writing

This is another #AcWriMo reflection post, adjacent, but not directly in response to the reflections designed by Scholarshape.

My father asked me a tough question a few months back. He asked me if I like to write. I hedged, if I recall correctly, first saying that I liked having written, before answering affirmative. 

And yet, when I told my partner that I was writing this, she laughed at me, saying that I obviously do.

The reason why this is a difficult question for me is that I don’t like my writing, much as I don’t like my handwriting. While there are individual pieces that I like well enough in retrospect, there has never been a time that I have actually liked my prose. Since the process of writing is, in effect, being forced to sit and look prose for extended periods of time, it can be painful when your opinion of that text is that it is clumsy and labored.

On the flip side, I have written quite a lot over the past ten years. I wrote an MA thesis (c.130 pages in MS Word), a PhD dissertation (c.500 pages), three articles (c.5, 25, and 40 pages), a book proposal (c.25 pages), three published book reviews, a dozen conference presentations of varying lengths, a few hundred thousand words of blog posts, as well as seminar papers, assorted scribblings and thoughts in other venues and physical journals. If you subscribe to the idea of words as a zero-sum game such that writing one place limits your ability to write elsewhere, there is a critique here about where my words are going and I should try to find more outlets that are not self-published, as much for the purpose of having an editor as for any other reason. Other people write more and other people write better, but this is a considerable output that indicates that, at the very least, I don’t hate writing.

But not hating writing and liking writing are two different things, in much the same way that there is a small, but significant difference between responding to the questions “how are you doing” with “not bad” and “well.” It is also inadequate to say that I like having written because it distills writing to its completed form, boiling away both process and the work that goes into writing. I had the thrill of seeing my words in print this weekend when an editor sent me a digital copy of my article due out this month, but this payoff is just the tip of the iceberg of the rounds of research, writing, feedback, and revision that went into the publication. Reducing the pleasure of writing to the pleasure of having written fits well in an age of instant gratification, but the implication that writing is painful is suggestive of an artiste suffering for his art.

I may never like my prose. I can see obvious improvement in hindsight, but still find it wanting, particularly contrasted with stylists whose prose conveys depth, erudition, and wit. The pain of working with my writing is thus the pain of frustration and envy. I may never be the sort who writes the perfect sentence, but there is beauty even in a plain style and every sentence I write gets me closer to finding it.

There are days that no words come, but writing is thinking. Writing is a means of organizing thoughts and making sense of what I read. So, yes, I like writing.

My 2017 – Using words

In the spirit of routines and trying to buck some of the frustration that comes with this season, I am again putting out a series of reflection and planning posts, including this reflective essay, by the numbers listicle, and best of 2017.

Last year, and 2015.

I am in a bind to start this post. How can I write about 2017 without sounding like a knock-off version of Dickens? It was the best of years, it was the…yeah.

The past year was busy, both because I took on (and accomplished) a lot and because it felt like the world careened from one potential catastrophe to another. Things are still holding together, but the ride was draining. I have written and called my elected officials and turned out to protest more than at any time in my life (I also had the unpleasant feeling of insignificance that comes with the impression that your representatives are not listening), and much the way that fire consumes all available oxygen, I discovered for the first time in my adult life that I did not have the energy to really keep up with the “news,” let alone to follow much international news. This is not the only reason that I am coming into the New Year exhausted, but it is a contributing factor.

But 2017 was not all bad. I finished my degree, and I have an unopened cylindrical mailer that (I think) contains a diploma to prove it. I’ve had pieces of academic writing, including an article and a book review, accepted for publication, with more under review and I have made progress on a book proposal to try to sell my dissertation as as book. And this is before counting the half dozen talks that I gave, proposed, or prepared in the past calendar year to go along with the dozens of job applications.

I am proud of the work I did this year, but there were also less visible changes taking place. In the second half of 2017 I renewed my focus on PROCESS. For instance, I joined two writing groups, one in person and one online, and used these as an excuse to build good habits. I started waking up early so that I can dedicate an hour of writing first thing in the morning and keeping a log of the time I spent writing distraction-free, and had the pleasure of watching a steady increase. Setting weekly goals has helped me learn how to keep things realistic, and learning to share works in progress has helped strengthen the things I write. Similarly, between reading about writing and working on book proposal, I have been thinking a lot about writing for audiences rather than writing simply to make my argument. One of those is a lot easier to read. I won’t claim expertise in any of these things and I don’t know that these practices have necessarily increased the speed at which I work, but they have improved my writing and should serve me well going forward.

This past fall I also taught my first college course as a PhD. I had a lot of fun teaching the course and think that I would only change about a third of it for the next iteration. In brief, with a lot of people who were history majors but without much knowledge about ancient Greece, I sought a balance between content, historical practice through engagement with primary sources, and interactive, student-driven learning. The results were uneven, with the distinct feeling that trying to do all three meant that none of them was done quite to my satisfaction. I also felt that I learned as a teacher last semester, particularly in terms of ceding power as the instructor in order to give the students the tools and the agency to learn in ways beyond rote memorization. I know this material, but learning is more than playing a game of telephone through the students to an exam. I witnessed exceptional growth in a number of my students, which has me excited all over again for the two courses I am teaching next semester.

My non-academic reading pace took a step back last year, finishing just fifty books, though several took a lot of investment and I gave more time to reading things for professional use, so it comes out about in a wash. The big change was a breakthrough in terms of diversity, with 38% of the books I read last year being by women. I would still like to read a little more non-fiction and some more African and/or African American literature, but I read more books by women in 2017 than in the previous four years combined(!) and discovered some of my favorite authors along the way.

I continue to live with a wonderful and supportive person, I learned some new recipes for baking, continued to learn languages with Duo Lingo and stayed physically active, including lifting weights and playing basketball. I still had periods of extreme anxiety and wore down at the end of semesters, both of which too often result in snapping at people close to me, but I also felt like I was willing to smile and laugh just a little bit more easily while taking the time to appreciate a view…though the latter might be a side effect of looking for the next picture to post on Instagram. Despite a high level of uncertainty about the world at large and about my future in particular, I am in a good place right now. Going into 2018 I am taking a moment to reflect on this fact, to appreciate steps that got me there, and then to get back to work.

But first, some goals for 2018.

The eternal, nebulous, unquantifiable

  • Continue learning to let go of things that are beyond my control. Most things are.
  • Be more patient and charitable with people I know and tolerant of distraction (while working to limit them)
  • Smile more often.
  • Continue to exercise, maintain or improve health, flexibility and fitness.
  • Take more time for mindfulness exercises

The concrete and quantifiable

  • Write more often, here, there, and beyond. Some specific (but not a complete list of) quantifiable goals:
    • Sell my first academic book, based on my dissertation
    • Finish a draft of my novel….which would mean working on it
    • Complete and send off (3) articles to academic journals
    • Apply to review (1) academic books
    • Find one non-blog, non-academic site to publish a piece of writing, either fiction or non-fiction

    • Keep up my non-academic reading, but continue to expand my horizons, meaning:
      • Read at least (52) nonacademic books. I fell just short of this last year.
      • I crushed my goal of (10) and the revised goal of (25%) with almost 40% being by women in 2017. In 2018, my target is at least (33%).
      • I read (7) non-fiction books (not for academic purposes) again in 2017; in 2018 I want to hit (10).
      • I added a category of “professional development” non-fiction books in 2017, reading (3) titles. In 2018 I would like to read (6). Right now this is a separate list, but I may merge them this year.