Saturday, August 22, 2020

Life out of balance and attempting to rebalance

A couple years ago, I wrote a couple posts that were in many respects confessional. They were painful posts to write, as I was in a great deal of pain at the time. With almost two years of hindsight, they hold up. I am not sure that's a good thing, but that's perhaps neither here nor there. In spite of what I think are heroic efforts by a number of individuals and organizations to find some sort of meaningful change, the academic system still seems to reward practices that are far from optimal, and imposes a sort of imbalance between work and the rest of one's life that is equally unhealthy. This is true for early career researchers (grad school, post-doc, assistant professor), as well as for those of us at more senior levels at obscure institutions who are still holding out hopes of moving up a level or two more. To succeed requires powerful allies, many of whom are indifferent to one's dreams or who may themselves (wittingly or unwittingly) harbor ulterior motives. All that is to say that in a position of less privilege, one is at something of a considerable disadvantage. It becomes easier to look the other way if ethical concerns emerge. It becomes easier to sell more and more pieces of one's soul until there is nothing left. One ends up with a name on articles that are supposed to be important, and yet one feels empty inside when re-reading them or seeing others' reactions to them. Friendships and family are abandoned in the pursuit of the almighty h-index. What's left? That's where I found myself in early April 2018. I was in a set of circumstances where if I continued status quo one more day, I would literally be dead. That is not hyperbole. I was burned out, facing a retraction that was entirely justified, and had little to show for a few years of an academic partnership that was supposed to put me where I thought I wanted to be at the time. I had developed some very unhealthy personal habits to cope with the loss, not only of some imagined opportunity, but a real loss of relationships with people I had loved. I developed some very unhealthy personal habits to cope with a situation that was beyond toxic (whether or not the toxicity was intended is beside the point). I may not be a victim, but I am someone figuring out how to survive.

In the interim, I have struggled to figure out a way forward. Professionally, my safe space will inevitably be the classroom. That in and of itself tells me I am in a situation that is ideal for me, and that I should treasure. Needless to say, that's the road I've been traveling. Otherwise, I am at a crossroads still. My identity is largely tied to a specific line of research, and one in which I am a very reluctant expert. I still have some loose ends to tie with regard to that area. My intention is to see that through. I have an encyclopedic chapter out toward the end of the year, and another pass at that meta-analytic database I need to make to put a few things to rest. I am doing so at a much more relaxed pace. I still have another data set or two to work with. Again, no real hurry. I just need to get them written up and see how they land. Beyond that? I am still figuring it out. If I can spot out a pattern that looks odd, I am up to some data sleuthing. That is thankless work, but when I've had some minor part in making my corner of the scientific record a bit better, I feel a sense of relief. That matters. I used to do a lot in the way of professional travel. The current pandemic ended that. My guess is that virtual conferences are how I will roll for the foreseeable future. Otherwise, I am content to grow sunflowers, and tend to my cats. The broken relationships? Those are all works in progress. Some burned bridges can be rebuilt. Others may not. That is now out of my hands.

In many respects, though, I still feel a bit shell-shocked, two or so years later. Some of the habits I developed to cope with a barrage of emailed demands and diatribes in the waning months of 2017 and then once more around April 2018 have been difficult to shake. Long after taking responsibility over whatever went down during that period, I still fret over letting people down. I was triggered again recently, as someone who mentored me many years ago came across a retraction notice. Once again, I've let someone down. I did what I could to make things right back then. At some point, although always part of my history, part of how I came to be who I am now, it is a done deal. Eventually those whom I have had casual contact over the years will need to accept that, email me or DM me to ask whatever questions need addressing, and move on. That would help me a lot. I may not be quite in the dark place I was in when I wrote those posts, but it's not clear I am quite recovering either. I don't like to leave a story on an ambiguous note. Yet here I am. If nothing else, I came to realize that what I had when I came to my current gig in 2010 was where I had needed to be all along. That's helped me get through a very rough patch. I'd advise anyone who gets into the academic life to land someplace, make it meaningful, and simply be grateful for the chance to contribute in some way to bettering a community - especially those communities that welcome you and your family in some significant capacity. I have that. Took me a while to appreciate that. That knowledge is what is keeping me going. In the meantime, my pain is my own. I will sort it. Or not. We'll see.

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