Thursday, May 17, 2012

Summer is a Time for Optimism

I was excited when Matt invited me to be a part of Modern Medieval, and I promptly promised myself to write weekly posts…back in February.  And here we are, mid-May, and I am just now putting up my first post.  Of course, in making plans and failing to meet them I join a very fine and long academic tradition of optimism, denial/delusion, and overworking. I decided to start off my first post with this wee-bit of self-flagellation (another thing some Academics are good at), though, because I want to focus for a moment on the first term in the little trio I listed: optimism. 

The beginning of summer is a time to be optimistic. For many of us, the semester is over and we now have time, time, to do some real work. I’m also at a moment in my career that, theoretically, could engender optimism. As Matt noted many moons ago when he introduced me, I have just started a Postdoctoral position at Tulane.  I feel immensely fortunate to have this position, especially given the realities of the job market, and I feel even more fortunate that, for the first time in several years, I do not need to do summer teaching (on top of other odd academic jobs) in order to pay my rent.  I often love the intensity of summer courses, but as I’ve found, they can leave little time and energy for researching and writing.

With such a novel summer in front of me, I was really struck by Jenn Jordan’s “Summertime and the Living is Moderately Easy”.  At the end of her post she asks: “Whether graduate student, adjunct, post-doc or tenure-track professor, how do you like to spend your summers?  How do you balance the need to recuperate from the school year while also developing your ideas and pushing your work forward?” For me, the real tension is between my initial optimism—a summer full of potential—and the pressing realities of the need to recover, of travel obligations, and of the need to do all the things I ignored during the semester. Glorious summer can quickly turn into discontent (groan, I know) as the optimism I began it with quickly gets buried by so much reality.

I don’t, yet, have much of an answer for Jenn since I’m still new to this, and so I need to figure it out.  For now, I want to try to hold onto my optimism for a bit longer than I typically have done.  By this I don’t mean any sort of self-help actualizing business, but rather I’m trying to rethink how I orient myself toward the temporality of “summer”, and toward academic work in general. During grad school, my sense of time was ultimately teleological (and perhaps apocalyptic).  The goal of the dissertation subordinated everything to itself—every piece of work I did should form into a chapter, and finally, a finished dissertation that is defended at a specific point in time. This mindset bred a utilitarian approach to my work, and I constantly had the telos of the finished dissertation propelling me forward. I was like a Joseph Campbell hero (but not really) with a defined quest, including many interlocked subquests, which needed to be achieved.

At this stage of my career, or at least for the summer, I want to replace this sort of monomythic temporality with one inspired more by aventure.  Like a knight-errant (and surely making many errors and wanderings along the way), I want to see where the summer takes me.  I want to experience the temporality of this summer as something more open-ended and full of potential, and not impose upon myself a strict set of teleological goals.  (As I write this, I am tempted to make some connections to the many conversations surrounding the dissertation and the monograph—are they still the rightful endpoints of scholarly work or are they archaic and limiting? I’ll leave that for another blog post, or more likely, leave it to others.)  Right now, I am feeling the need to be intellectually peripatetic, at least for a while.  I want to be on the move—I just don’t know exactly yet where I’m going.

The trick will be to make this into a productive venture, and not let it be an excuse to meander.  And, of course, I cannot (nor would I want to) avoid the discrete goals with specific limits and deadlines that I have already laid out.  Here are the tasks I want to accomplish this summer:
  • I want to send off a revised chapter of my dissertation as a journal article (on St. Erkenwald, the pagan judge’s missing name, and the making and unmaking of history)
  • I am giving a paper at NCS in July on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as part of a panel on the Neighbor.
These are my two main, definable goals for the summer, and I expect to be blogging about both in the coming weeks and months.  At the moment, though, I am trying to be open to where these two projects will take me.  I want to treat them as way-points or beginnings, not final destinations.  Will the NCS paper turn into an article? Or be a cornerstone of my first book? Will the Erkenwald article be part of that first book project or will I treat it as the last hurrah of the dissertation?

I’m trying to be ok with not knowing for now. In this way I hope to remain optimistic.

1 comment:

Eileen Joy said...

Well, I can tell you that "postmedieval" would like to see that Sir Erkenwald essay, and also: it will be great to see you at the NCS meeting in Portland.