I am clinging to academia by the case of a very jaded laptop battery. A laptop that moves from institution to institution, coffee shop to coffee shop, awaiting students and marking and upfront teaching, whilst trying to ignore the pile of research papers that lurk menacingly on its desktop. I should have been written months ago.
This clinging means that I have just marked a set of fairly abysmal essays on the topic of optical illusions. Illusions like the Ponzo illusion where two identically-sized objects appear different sizes, because we are so used to viewing the world in 3-D.
Reflecting this week, I realize that my relation to academia has shifted some in recent months. Before, I had an illusion of perspective. I knew, at some level, that taking 18 months away from research wasn’t going to end my career. That people are worth much more than the sum of their working life and professional identity. I would be the first person to tell someone else to take a break for the sake of their health, if they needed to do so.
But, at the same time, that didn’t apply to me. I needed to stay linked in, to write papers in the background, to have contact with students; otherwise my career would fade away. That’s why other colleagues on breaks were staying in touch with their role. And, unlike them, I am utterly dislikable, so I really would be forgotten if I stopped being useful and cooperative.
The papers became true monsters. Publish or perish. Publish or perish. Publish or perish. So much of my interview feedback was about not having published my recent research findings. If I didn’t do so soon, I really would dissolve. The greater the stress I felt, the less I felt able to write. Colleagues were moving miles ahead of me; I was falling further and further behind. I was failing, and it was all my fault. I was being lazy, lazy, lazy.
Until, I let go. Until, I accepted that I was simply no longer able to apply myself academically with the same force as I did before, and that things would have to be slower, because therapy is hard, hard work. Until, I took another step back, and started to think about the things that I love about academia, and started to focus more on those things: the things that I wanted to be doing, rather than those that I was told I should be doing.
And, I started to feel more motivated again. Not just to do the things that I am contracted to do (for the sake of a sense of mastery, when faced with a pile of essays to mark) but the things that before were terrifying me, for the not doing them. And, as contracts have ended, I have not actively sought to replace them, but rather to focus on the bits of academia I can engage with, in the spaces in between therapy. I am writing a little, again.
And that feels – OK. It feels OK not to be actively pursuing academic opportunities, but to muddle along with the ones that I have. And it feels OK to say to myself that this is precious time – time when I am working – just that I am working on other things:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
Ecclesiastes 3 (NIV)
This is time that is a gift from God. A time to allow others to work with me, to work with myself at a different level. A time for healing. And that feels OK.