Back from sabbatical

Today I’m back to work from my fall sabbatical. It feels weird and complicated, as I miss my coworkers and the energy of the students but am less fond of other aspects of the job, as are all of us, I imagine.

It’s hard to resist the siren call of new year’s resolutions, and although I’m a bit weary of them, I’ve decided to set some goals for myself, not in a sense of renewal (after all, it’s a new year, same old me) but in a sense of gaining clarity and vision.

So I cranked out the old spreadsheet, put in the usual headings (health, professional, personal, kids) and what I would like to happen in each of those categories going forward, and how.

By far the thing I’ve resolved most often and failed at most often in the past years is starting a meditation practice. There is something about it that just doesn’t invite consistency from me. I get too caught up in SO many other things that I have to do on a daily basis, that meditation is not a priority. There are many benefits to it, and I for one have been persuaded by Sam Harris‘s eloquent descriptions of his practice – in fact, I subscribe to his podcast and Waking Up app.

But it appears that nothing happens after the first few weeks – I fail to establish a routine and…well…meditation is the last thing on my mind after that.

Perhaps if I announce my intention out here on the blog it will go better this time? So, let me declare: 2020 is the year of meditation for me. Ok, I’ve had a bit of, ahem, soft opening to 2020 (who hasn’t), but hey, it’s Monday, new week, old me, renewed meditating efforts.

I have spoken.

Grateful

I beat myself up a lot about what I should have accomplished, where I should be in my career, how much more I could have done if only x, y, and z (all internal causes: if I could have overcome this or that circumstance or rise to the occasion or simply be better, in all respects, every day). It is the definition of vacuous perfectionism and the solid basis to my robust impostor syndrome. All academics suffer of some form of it (or at least, 99% of the female academics I know, ahem–we all know about the gender imbalances accumulated under a patriarchal [scholarly] system in which mediocre men are supremely confident in their abilities and brilliant women are taught self doubt from a very early age).

Well, it’s time to turn this around. As a slew of good news rolled over me at the end of the year, perhaps it’s time to take stock and admit I’m nowhere near as incompetent as I once thought I was, and while brilliance remains elusive, solid accomplishment does not. In that spirit, here are some of the professional accomplishments I am proud of this year:

  • published two articles in two good journals, Medical Humanities and Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, and got a revise and resubmit on a third one (still working on it);
  • one of those articles (on orthorexia) got some major press (for me, at least) – I was interviewed and/or quoted in several international newspapers, including The Times (London) and others;
  • oh, I was also interviewed on NPR about the passing of Grumpy Cat (wild!) due to a paper on memes I published a couple of years ago;
  • presented at 1 international and 2 national conferences; a fourth one I had been accepted at was unfortunately canceled due to a hurricane, but the work was still done;
  • got a total of 3 book contracts (edited collections) (ouch, in terms of workload the coming year – fortunately, one is almost done, the other two have just been signed in December);
  • got a special issue editing gig for a journal in my field (work is underway);
  • initiated and have been working as co-PI for a sizable grant for a big project in my field (will submit in January 2020);
  • my first monograph (with Carol Berkenkotter) was finally printed this summer and we just got the first review on it (it’s good!);
  • related: one major (major!) figure in my field blurbed said monograph and wrote me separately to say how much she enjoyed it;
  • also related: a new dissertation copiously cites and builds on our work in the rhetoric of psychiatry/archival asylum work (proof of relevance!);
  • with my team, we won a significant teaching award at our university (article to come!);
  • final proofs are close to done for my scientific communication textbook with Kelleen Flaherty (OUP); the first blurb is in and SUPER-enthusiastic (they really loved it!), which made my heart sing;
  • I got a new gig as the new blog content editor for a major journal – won’t say which as I’m waiting to sign the final contract, but I’m pretty excited about it.

In non-professional memorable moments, I got to go to Barcelona, Crete, and Hawaii, in addition to my yearly trip to Romania, and I loved all these places SO MUCH. Must return!

There was bad, too, of course (but enough about my personal life). And those book proposals took a lot out of me, especially one, a labor of love, that went through multiple revisions and rejections that spanned almost the entire year, to the point that I was a millisecond away from giving up. Glad I didn’t! Overall, however, I’ll mark 2019 as a solid year of professional accomplishments that set me up with work for at least 2 years to come (oh, I’ve also got some articles in the pipeline just begging to get out, some of which were started/drafted this year as well).

Not bad, 2019, not bad. Onward!

Academic Timelines

I’m currently in the midst of more projects than I’ve ever been involved with in my life. Academic velocity: light speed and beyond. In short, I’m trying to:

  • finish a book manuscript
  • revise and resubmit an article (encouraging feedback but needs some work)
  • edit 14 chapters of an edited collection
  • revise and resubmit a book proposal for an(other) edited collection
  • start a new proposal for a major handbook (also edited)
  • write a major grant for an editorial project
  • edit a special issue
  • …plus “minor” tasks such as eventually turning that presentation into an article, finish another article that’s now in the hands of a very slow collaborator, write a book review, prep courses, complete page proof of my textbook, and other odds and ends

“…Complete page proofs of my textbook” is at the bottom of the list because it just entered production so it will be some time (possibly a couple of months) until my co-author and I get those proofs, one the final steps in a long, very very loooooooong, protracted process. Which made me think of academic timelines and how slowly things move in the publishing world sometimes (academic publishing world; we’re not talking Trump administration exposes here).

I had the textbook idea in 2010, and a rep for a Prestigious Publishing House (PPH) encouraged me to submit a proposal. I did, that year, which resulted in a contract. I ended up coopting a colleague (who no longer works for my university, btw) in the project.

Co-writing a textbook has been tough. My co-author has a different writing voice and pushed for a light, slightly humorous treatment of the topic (not my forte, but hers); she was adamant that that’s what undergrads needed, especially as the topic could be, otherwise, boring. We produced drafts upon drafts of chapters, which were sent periodically for peer review by the PPH (a different rep this time); at one point we got 11 (eleven!) stacks of reviews from 11 people, all with their very different opinions about the book. The bad ones stood out–I still remember the one in particular who insisted that we couldn’t write IN ENGLISH and how is it possible that we’re writing a textbook. I can only assume the light/slighly humorous tone threw that reviewer off. We had to respond to all the points raised and make a revision plan.

We were delayed, inevitably. This ended up being a 500+ page, 17-chapter project, and we sent chapter drafts to various colleagues for feedback, so yeah, it took a while. Both of us also experienced life changing events during this time, which further stretched our deadlines. Then, in 2014, our contract was rescinded–excuse me, terminated by PPH, not necessarily because of the delay in writing it (we only started in earnest in 2011, and 3 years may a bit long but not so unusual), but because PPH decided to either go in a different direction or terminate the series; the supervising editor also went to work elsewhere. That was a DEVASTATING blow, needless to say, to our ego and to my tenure prospects. I had heard of projects like these that had gone sideways (textbooks that were written only to be rejected by the publisher for whatever reason), so I knew we were not alone, but still, it stung.

Then my co-author met another rep at another conference, and after some negotiations, multiple peer reviews of 6 of our chapters, revisions, adjustments, and so forth, we got another contract with Prestigious Publishing House #2, signed in 2016. This time, we submitted the whole manuscript on time in February 2017.

And then we waited. And waited. And waited some more.

We got some thin feedback on the first 4 chapters by May of that year, and then it was radio silence for nearly a year after; it took us another 1/2 year to complete our revisions, and by then it was the end of 2018. We then had to deal with verifying copyright issues again (surprisingly, PPH #2 was no help here), securing new forms and permissions, commissioning cover art we liked, and so forth.

It is now the end of 2019 and the book FINALLY got into production (outsourced to another company); we will be getting page proofs in….a few months, perhaps? No sooner than the end of the year, for sure.

Which means that the book will finally be out in 2020 (well, fingers crossed), 10 full years after I first submitted the proposal.

I think this is a little longer than most books take from idea to print, but also illustrative of the type of delays and roadblocks that plague most long-form academic projects. What makes it worse is that I’m not a patient person. But, let this be a lesson in NOT despairing or losing hope: most projects, if they are well thought out, will eventually find a home and come to life in print. Don’t despair: persist. In conclusion:

  • academic projects take more time than you think
  • delays are unavoidable – even under the best of circumstances; don’t beat yourself up
  • don’t give up–there is a home, somewhere, for your project
  • give writing the time and space they deserve to minimize the inevitable obstacles life will throw at you.

The Precarity of Knowledge

I have a ton of books, many of them unread. (Admit it, you do, too.) A lot of them are heavy with knowledge and highfalutin writing, having something important to say, to contribute.

None of the academic books I have were written more than 50 years ago, with perhaps one exception (Kenneth Burke’s oeuvre). I wonder how they will fare 50 years from now. 100. 300? I know, I know, we can’t think that far ahead.

I look at my meager academic output–a couple of books, some chapters, some articles. How many of them will be read, or be important in some way, in 50, 100, 300 years? One, if I’m very very lucky. Zero, if I’m being realistic.

The truth is that we are awash in precarious knowledge–not that its foundations are shaky, but that its shelf life is, in the grand scheme of things, extremely short. Not all of us can be Plato, Aristotle, Descartes. The percentage of cultural critics that endure/have stood the test of time is fairly low (that’s partly because it’s sort of a newer profession, perhaps).

I guess our consolation prize is that we add something now without which future scholarship would not be possible, in overt or covert ways. In the grand scheme of things, other things will have enduring power, rather than my analyses of asylum archives. But perhaps the future understanding of those archives (and of life in the asylum) will be slightly so ever influenced by my efforts, today. Maybe, just maybe, someone out there, now or in the near future, finds what I write useful. I don’t think we are entitled to hope for more than this.

I don’t have a proper ending for this. I keep seeing libraries of a dystopian future burned for heat by climate crisis refugees. Or if we can somehow prevent that, a dusty corner on a shelf somewhere.

Also, the climate crisis makes every bit of knowledge precarious, together with our entire race. Something to think about in the very near future.

Book Proposal review

I received a request to review a book proposal (my first!) from a well-known academic press–commercial, not university-affiliated, but instantly recognizable nevertheless (you have about 3-4 guesses total here).

I said yes. The subject matter greatly interests me and I think it’s in general a good idea. Looking at the proposal, it’s rather skimpy for now (for my taste)–for example, it does not have chapter synopses (and this is supposed to be sort of a big, encyclopedic book spanning multiple disciplines and with multiple authors). I know of the proposal author/editor–truly, the best qualified person to be putting this together–but I feel more can be done to whip this into shape. I have a couple of weeks to put that into words.

But wait, there’s more: I have a book proposal with the same Well-Known Academic Press, also an edited collection, on a closely related topic (albeit from just one disciplinary perspective, and for a different series). I’ve been in talks with the series editors for months, since May, and it finally went out to external reviewers beginning of July, more than 2 months ago (I am expected to follow a much tighter deadline, myself, for this review). I’ve already changed that proposal multiple times, and worked hard with the contributors to get the abstracts in shape–to say nothing of my own revisions of the body of the proposal. I inquired about the status of the proposal last week, and the editorial manager is on vacation until tomorrow; apparently I am to hear about the reviewers’ comments any day after that.

As I await those comments with trepidation, I realize how serious and delicate my own job is. My proposal had already been rejected after being in review for months with another academic press, after getting actually fairly good reviewer reports–the series editor decided to nix it for various reasons. I shopped it around after that, with one serious prospect (with a fussy initial review, though), but then Well-Known Academic Press swooped in, super-interested (we’re talking Skype calls, lots of back and forth, and a super-complimentary email exchange regarding the last iteration of the proposal). But–it ain’t over until they discuss the reviews and probably put me through the ringer a little more. I can’t complain, this is the academic publishing game, but it makes me super-sensitive to what I will actually put in my report without allowing my own idiosyncrasies, pet-peeves, biases, and narrow interests to take over.

Do unto others, right? I’ll do my best to be a fair reviewer, and hope my proposal will also be treated fairly.

Sabbatical

Because it’s important to declare your intentions, here are mine for this one-semester sabbatical.

Sabbatical Intentions

I will write that book
and a couple of articles on the side – 
definitely the revise and resubmit—
and also
meditate every day
go to the gym
lose 20 pounds
get involved in the PTA
take the dogs to at least 5 state parks
go on a tropical vacation
clean the garage
and all the closets for that matter—
at any rate, the house will be spotless; 
go to the theater
rise early for morning yoga
read all the novels I wanted to catch up with—
binge watch All The Things,
learn to bake bread,
write my novel, 
learn a new language
also how to skate, and knit—
ponder deep questions
take up a hobby
redo the garden
go out with friends
reconnect with family,
do happy hour twice a week
go on hikes
and apple-picking trips,
daydream
finish that confounding puzzle
and that edited collection
and the 5 new course proposals
and a grant or two,
revamp all syllabi
and the personal website,
start a blog,
and, of course, 
rest.