Truth or Dare, Academic Edition: Writing

“Let me know what I can do to help you.”

My department head has asked me this at least three times in the last few months. He knows that I’m struggling with balancing my teaching load, research and writing, LIVE Lab duties, academic and community service, and personal life. (Do I have a personal life?) When push comes to shove, my research and writing takes the back seat to my other duties, especially to teaching. Folks keep telling me that it’s normal for a full-time professor to “not produce much” during their first year, as if it’s going to make me feel better about not revisiting my research since submitting my dissertation in February 2015.

Hey, don’t get me wrong: I’ve presented my research on art education and printing technology at least twice in 2016. I even tried submitting one of my papers to a prestigious on-line journal only to have the editor physically hand it back to me over lunch. Her criticisms echoed those of the art department’s executive committee as they denied my dissertation proposal over and over and over, constantly changing their criticisms with the hopes that I would give up and leave the program. She never even sent it out to be peer reviewed, which I thought was unprofessional. Sure, editors make the final decision, but aren’t they also biased?

I have to admit, I’ve been sitting on this paper because I’m terrified. I’m terrified that it will never be published because “it’s not art history,” even though it deals with art and aesthetic education in 19th century America. I’ve read the paper over and I think it’s good. Am I missing something? I must be. I’ve presented it in a shorter form at SECAC and folks thought that I should publish it. So why am I sitting on it?

Making matter worse is the emphasis my school places on “citations.” At many research-driven universities where you publish is just as important as how much you publish. For someone like me, this is a problem. You see, I’m an art historian by academic degree; however, my research breaks with the canon and that means it’s often difficult for me to get papers into the high muckily-muck academic journals and the art history conference: CAA. I’ve actually had a session chair from CAA tell me that research on “the doodles” in a children’s magazine isn’t real scholarship. Yup.

People tell me to turn off the critics, to grow a thick skin, to set aside time to write every day, to trust myself, to wake up super early to work, to work deep into the night. Do this. Do that. But what if the problem is that I’m terrified of failure and that’s the core of my so-called “juggling issue?” What if I sit at my computer every day and waste my time on social media just so that I don’t have to face my fears of publishing?

Let’s be truthful folks, I struggle. I’m constantly trying to do something — ANYTHING — that will get me excited for my research and writing, teaching, academic service … whatever. I’m terrified of failure. I’m terrified of this emphasis on “citations.” I’m terrified that someone will find out that my main problem isn’t my inability to juggle, but this debilitating fear. I’ve searched for other answers: maybe I’m still mourning Mom? Maybe I’m in the two year rut after depositing my dissertation? Maybe it’s my first year struggle? Maybe I suffer from acute anxiety? Maybe I’m burnt out and exhausted from my Mom, the move, etc?

Or maybe — and more truthfully — I avoid my writing and research because I’m terrified of failure and rejection, again. I don’t even ask folks to eyeball my writing because I’m terrified of what they’ll say. I keep my research close to my heart and pray that no one steals it. Stupid, I know. But what can I do? Find a support group on campus? Ask a trusted friend to look at my writing? Academic rejection is horrible because we have so much of ourselves wrapped up in our research and writing. Rejection of our research is a rejection of us as academics.

What now? How can my department head help? I haven’t a clue.

2 comments

  1. Do you trust the dept head enough to tell them what you’ve just written on here, to see if they have any positive feedback they can give you? I’m not an academic by any stretch but they obviously like you and are keen to support you in both your own role and your own academic pursuits? I may be oversimplifying the process – and tell me if I am – but as a fledgling writer I know how much the constant rejection and returning of work can corrode confidence – especially when you believe your work actually has some value to give to specific argument or field. I hope as I type this you are feeling a bit better, a bit less anxious. Take care. From everything I’ve read of yours, you’re pretty brilliant.

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  2. As a lowly MA student I haven’t had these exact experiences — other than fear of failure and rejection, of course — but I have benefited from a peer writing group, and my adviser speaks glowingly of her experiences in similar groups over the years. I wonder if you can write a more “conventional” article to get that high mucky-muck journal box checked for tenure, and find a good home for your less conventional article. (I know, you’ll write that article in all your spare time….) It might be a compromise you need to make to achieve one goal (tenure) while waiting a little on your other goal (your beloved research). Your department must in truth support your work to a large degree — they hired you, after all! So they know you are unconventional/interdisciplinary. Maybe you could also approach this as needing to educate them on how your subdiscipline’s journals ARE prestigious enough? Do art historians even know about MAPACA, for example? I think your fear might be coming from all of the above: fear itself, anxiety, mourning, rut/burnout from the PhD process, moving … but none of that is *stupid*. it’s all quite natural.

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