I returned from the high seas a week ago. It took a few days to recover. Not so much from the physical work — although the tiredness and vague nausea of the ship heading into the seas the last few days does take it’s toll– but from the social intensity of living in close quarters for a month.

I spent a month carefully curating my interactions with the crew, my colleagues, and my little team. There are so many potential pitfalls, so easy to annoy people, so easy to lose their confidence. It was exhausting to do everything just right. I felt brittle upon my return… carefully constructed but not sturdy.

And this careful construction is just the many tiny bricks of an ego edifice. The curating of my ‘professional’ image. I post about my activities, accomplishments, clever observations. But with all this reporting, feel further from myself upon return. I can feel the change in my body– tightness has returned in the hips and loss of sensation in the thoracic spine. I can feel it in my relationship with H.

Can I do this work without the striving?

4 Responses to “Edifices”

  1. (0v0) Says:

    Brittleness. But the time out there away from beautiful words made your imagery so clear. Your life as it filters in here is spare yet rich, and always watery. I love it.

    Re: the question. From the luxury of having gotten out (offcially adjunct), I think so. The Editor is asking this question now, from the razor-sharp front edge of the tenure track.

    He says he is part of science, and he gets up in the morning to contribute to science. The new research ideas and sharp idea-work is there to “keep the instrument sharp” so that the bigger operation – the collective discipline’s gathering of knowledge – can go forward.

    I thought this might resonate with you too.

    Admittedly, this mindset sometimes leads to his getting manipulated by those who know he’ll expend energy somewhat unselfishly. But acting in this way has also drawn out others who are secretly wishing they could do the same thing. Closet idealists. This way of working has also shown us both that the best people in our particular discipline – the ones who are smarter than the rest of us so don’t have to worry about job security – about a third of them are operating on this logic. The others are the usual egomaniacs trying to beat death by with long resumes. 🙂

  2. wombat Says:

    Dear Owl,
    Thanks for this. I like this idea of serving The Science. It is difficult to find a comfortable place in my psyche for the CV-building activites required for the tenure-track. Another rationale that I have been working with is choosing projects simply based on who’s fun to work with. But this is self-serving in a different, if more palatable, way.
    I have just started working with a very interesting ecologist, who just retired from Stanford and moved to Hawaii. While she was visiting the lab last week, one of my colleagues was trying to get her interested in a project (a very cool, but very challenging and somewhat unfocused project that I backed off from, deciding that it was too complicated a timesink pre-tenure but also wondering whether I had anything useful to contribute), and she replied that if she can be useful to the project, she will join in. I found this approach attractive and reminiscent of The Editor’s: is my expertise needed here to solve an interesting/important problem? (This is a nice idea but, not being a member of the brilliant third, I wonder whether my expertise is of much use. Of course, this self-doubt promotes ego-building activities of it’s own.)
    I am currently suffering in preparation for an obligation I agreed to last year. Perhaps I was flattered into thinking that I could be useful. It’s clear that I am in over my head. Ugh. And now I have committed to spend a bunch of time on it. This is the kind of thing my ego building gets me into… And now I will have to work harder to make myself useful.

  3. (0v0) Says:

    Phhht. Tenure is such an overwhelming imperative. It’s actually amazing that you can find space for this much self-reflexivity and appreciation of its ironies. For me, the temptation would be to drown all logics unrelated to the bottom line. With the plan of resuscitating them after tenure. Probably a BS plan, but I think it does work that way for some, perhaps including the ecologist you mention…

  4. wombat Says:

    I’m sitting on campus watching a pair of stray cats (one looks like Feynman, one looks like Oliver, both now on their 10th lives) awaiting a meeting with my Dean to discuss my status and preparation as probationary faculty (as H said, they call you that?! Yup.). I go up in a year.

    I’m feeling better about the impending meeting after talking to a colleague yesterday. She gave the advice that is hard to avoid: play the game for now, and you can do what you want later. She also gave me more confidence that my file looks ok.

    The panic ebbs and flows. Somedays gripping me, other days releasing me, content to know that I do what I can and if that’s not enough, then ok. Ebb and flow. Grip and release. Perhaps Shinzen would have something to say about that and the state of things. This too shall pass. Practice helps.