Being a professor is doing wonders for my insecurities.
It think most people outside academia imagine professors spend much of their time teaching. And it is certainly true that I teach. But the majority of my anxiety in this profession comes from scholarship. Research. Grants. Academic writing. That sort of thing.
The academic publication process is a doozy. You conduct some sort of research that you think is important. Hopefully. I guess there’s plenty of folks who just go through the motions. Not me. I took a major pay cut to be doing the work I’m doing now, mostly because I care about schooling in this country. Race and improv too. Next, you spend energy pouring over data. Thinking really hard. Well, again, I hope people are thinking really hard. Sometimes I wonder. Then you write, write, and write some more. And then you send a piece out to a journal. And that journal sends your writing out for review with other people who are playing this same game. If you’re lucky, you get a chance to revise the manuscript and do the writing part again. If not, you go to another journal. And if you’re really lucky, after one or two rounds, a journal accepts your piece. Then you add the publication to your vitae and start again. And again and again. To get tenure. Or become marketable for other jobs. To feed your family.
I’m being a little facetious here. Certainly, there’s more to the creation of knowledge in higher education than this game of winning over reviewers and editors. I’ve had plenty of great experiences with good journals. Sometimes my work is sent out for review with really knowledgable people. And sometimes an editor is really thoughtful and excited about my work. And sometimes a piece gets published in a good journal and I get to feel like I’m contributing to a field of knowledge. And sometimes I learn something through a review that forces me to change my opinion about something altogether. So all of that’s cool. I like thinking with smart people.
But it’s also true that I write about things like whiteness and improvisation. I’m a narrative researcher. And so I often end up challenging all sorts of orthodoxy without realizing it. And sometimes it feels like editors or reviewers haven’t even read my work because they’re so bothered that a white guy is writing about whiteness. Or that an educational researcher is suggesting indeterminate practices of improvisation have something to contribute to education. Or that I didn’t use a method they think is a method. Or something like that. That’s fine. I’m okay with those concerns, and I think really hard about them. But if I were just writing boring papers about high leverage practices, I’d likely have more luck in this game. Oh well. That stuff doesn’t really matter to me.
I’ve had a couple of manuscripts – work that I feel is pretty strong – sent back to me in the past month. I even got an email while I was drafting this blog. We regret to inform you that, despite how important blah blah blah is, blah blah blah. Blah. This has happened enough recently that, despite a pretty successful five years in this game, all my insecurities start chattering. I don’t end up in the fetal position. But I do open up Out of the Park Baseball 2020 on my computer. Lead the Twins to another World Series. Hide in a video game.
But then I close the video game and get to work. Read the feedback. Respond to it. Send the piece back out. Keep working. Keep thinking. It’s fine. The work will be shared eventually. I’ve learned that.
This is all to say that learning the ebbs and flows of academia has been an anxious process.
Creative writing has a similar ebb and flow, although I’m far less versed in how to make that game work. I gave up querying agents for my first memoir, Shot Across the River Styx way back in 2014. Chose to move forward without representation. Buy 80 copies of that book here. Styx was too damned weird for an agent to get behind. Especially as the print industry is sputtering out. Especially when you don’t know anybody in said print industry. And I don’t know anybody.
Rejection in creative circles is often silence. Silence was almost better than the handful of messages I got that the writing was really cool, but the agent wasn’t sure how they’d sell it. Blurred genres too much. Oh well.
So I published three damned memoirs, buy 10,000 copies here, by sheer determination. And help from Amazon, the evil empire. Just to get them out of my system. And I keep working on a damned science fiction novel because, damn it, I feel compelled to do so. To keep writing. With nothing in the way of commercial success. Just lots of rejection.
Oh well. An artist in obscurity. A thinker in obscurity, too.
I’m a people pleaser. It likely has something to do with my unstable childhood. I probably came to think, at a very early age, that if people saw my worth they might not leave me. If I were impressive enough, people would validate me. Love me. Include me. Or something like that.
That’s a dangerous energy to bring to living, let alone writing. To being a professor, too. Always trying to win over colleagues? Or agents and readers? Or editors and reviewers? Placing my self-worth in their subjective hands? Yikes. I’ve learned, at the ripe old age of 39, that most people are as damaged as me. Best not to give them control over the value I place on myself.
You might get the sense, in reading this blog, that I’m a complete failure. I don’t think I am. I’ve written four books that are just sitting on Amazon, waiting for you to buy them. And I’ve published all sorts of academic work. In fact, one of my pieces is currently being highlighted by something called the Marginal Syllabus Project.
Essentially, they choose a piece, interview the author, and allow folks to annotate in online. Mine is highlighted this month. Check it out. Unless you hate thinking about race and whiteness. Then steer clear.
One of the interviewers referred to me as a marginal scholar during the interview. The phrase made me chuckle. I took it both as an insult and a complement. Being a marginal scholar means my work is disruptive and speaks back to orthodoxy and power. It also means that my work is easy to dismiss for the big shots at the big shot universities getting published in the big shot journals. Or something like that.
Marginal scholar? Okay. I’d rather be that than do work I find unethical or boring. High leverage practices. Educational researhers throw that phrase around in education all the time to legitimate ways of schooling that usually disenfranchise people who aren’t sold on white middle-class values. I’m not sold on those values. So sue me.
Recently, I accepted a position as co-editor of Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy with my friend Erin. Want to talk about legitimate? We have cards. So, in one context, I’m agonizing over the rejection of my manuscripts or the exhaustive feedback from reviewers. In another, I’m organizing reviews and sending the same sorts of letters to other scholars. It’s been telling to see how the sausage is made.
I hope this doesn’t come off as self-pity. Just working through rejection. If I stay the course, I’ve got years of this ahead of me. In an academic world. A creative world, too.
But I suppose all of this transfers to being with people. It feels good to be valued. Feels secure to be validated. It feels yucky when people seem to think you or your ideas are worthless. And, like I wrote earlier, I think I’ve learned enough to know that everybody else is messed up too. Better to find my self-worth in ways that don’t hinge on emails from Educational Journals or comments by colleagues.
So, insecurities be damned, I just keep going or, as a wise man with all sorts of value (the same sort of value that all people have) once said, keep building.