Monday, January 22, 2007

A day like today

Today, the weather was fine, a typical spring-like day in my memory, warm, dry, quiet: the kind of day that never fails to raise in me a certain kind of nostalgia. Weather at times has great effect on me. Endless rain induces a deep lethargy. But days like today normally put me at a distance from myself, granting me the ability to observe.

The Rocket Scientist is out of town today, and tomorrow, in the city where we met. She's there for work. The au pair went to the gym before dinner. It was me, and the boys, alone in the house. Quite a pleasant evening all around. I love those boys.

I got to thinking a bit this afternoon as I sat in my office, settling into my routine, what is my routine, and why? What is my work? I've never been a religious person, I question too much, never able to let go and accept, to rely on faith, or the wisdom of others, tradition. Sometimes, I wish it were otherwise, for I think there is great strength in belonging, in believing; strength that lies ever just out of my grasp, like the grapes of Tantalus.

My father taught me (in the great tradition of my people, known as Tikkun Olam) that my job in life (quite simple really) is to leave the world a better place for my having lived. It's a nice lesson (a burden when you it take it seriously), but in the end a bit hollow, like the cavity of a barrel, wanting wine to fill it. The shape is clear, only its fulfillment remains obscure. In faith, or religion, I suppose there is an acceptance that we might not know the contents of the barrel, but it is ours to carry or store nonetheless. If I were Lot... I'd have turned to salt, just for a peek inside, like Dorothy unmasking the Wizard.

So what is my work? If I am to leave the world a better place for my having lived, what means will be mine to accomplish that end? Without faith or religion, there is always work, the hustle-bustle of involvement. One might not need a deeper answer, if time is occupied, full, proscribed. But mine, just at this moment, is free, wide-open, like the vistas of Montana.

On Friday, I received a rather innocuous email from Inge, the acquisitions editor who is considering my dissertation-to-book project:
Dear Articulate,

I'm just looking at your proposal again, and before I send it off for review, I wonder if you could put together fuller abstracts of your sections: at least 500 words each if at all possible. Because your sample material is not from the actual book, it is important that reviewers receive as much information as possible about the proposed book itself.

Many thanks,

You know, there's really not much to it. She is still interested in the project; One might argue that her intention in fact is to strengthen the case. A good editor would do that. It's not too much for me to do. But, I've yet to respond. Perhaps tomorrow I will.

For a moment, however, I've chosen to pause, to hesitate, to question, like my friend WhatNow?. I wonder what my motivation is in this project. To write the dissertation was clearly motivated, as that task stood between me and a PhD. But what will this add to my life, transforming the diss into a book? For an academic, the answer again is rather clear: we must publish to gain tenure. Ah... but there is the rub. I can't get tenure without a job.

So, I wonder: will writing this get me closer to that goal? Putting that aside, for I no longer define myself according to that standard: What end would be served by such a book? It's not that I reject or devalue my dissertation research. No. But such a book, despite my arguments in the proposal, would likely have a narrow audience, the same audience perhaps that has so far failed to hire me into their club. And I wonder, will they really care? If it's for them... do I really care?

Put another way, is my time well spent in the effort this project would consume? If not for them, what will I gain through the process? In part, it is my aversion to start something I may not finish that stays my hand. Before I start, I must be sure I wish to end.


What Now? said...

As someone who is religious, let me say that I have similar questions.

In fact, this question of leaving the world a better place than I found it has been one of my questions about my academic career. Honestly, I think that my teaching leaves the world a better place, but I just don't think my research does. And that isn't an anti-intellectual stance at all. It's just that my particular work, interesting though it is (to a few people), doesn't seem to me to add much to the world. This is making it easier to contemplate walking away. At the same time, this is a high standard, so it's not as though every other job out there on the street will fulfill this requirement of doing good in the world either.

I like the questions that the career coach asked you (in one of your later blog posts).

Lilian said...

These questions sound so familiar! I could have written them myself, or, to be more precise,I actually have, in a different context, months ago.

This: "we must publish to gain tenure. Ah... but there is the rub. I can't get tenure without a job." is constantly in my mind. Researching, publishing without being "in" -- what good will it really do, since the audience is so restricted? Scholarship does sound like "vanity" (in Solomon's writings sense) sometimes, doesn't it?