Saturday, April 25, 2009

Post-tenure blues. Ennui. Depression. Melancholy. Or something like that

This is what it's like after tenure for some of us.

And these are the reasons (or collectively, the single reason) I haven't been blogging this semester. See, it's like this: I have no enthusiasm for anything I do right now, whether research, teaching, service, or blogging. I keep putting things off and then feeling them hang over my head. And what do I do instead? I Facebook. Why? Some might say it's for the instant gratification, and they're probably right. But it's also for the sheer mindless, time-wasting, numbness-inducing state it puts me in. Time slips away effortlessly when I piddle around on FB (or, my second favorite online place to be, the realtor in Neighboring State that lists all the 10+ acre estates and is searchable by county). And then, after the time has slipped away, I berate myself and work at a frantic pace to get a half-assed job done of my grading or reading or whatever. Or I work all weekend to punish myself, which is particularly stupid, because if I had a better handle on my time, I'd have weekends off for the first time in forever this semester, and I'd be able to enjoy my life and the unexpectedly large raise that came with tenure because of a newly negotiated contract that raised the tenure bumps. And have I mentioned that I haven't run since November? And that I've gained 20 pounds as a result?

I've rarely been in a state this bad for this long. It has pretty much lasted the entire semester (perhaps minus the first month and a half, when I had the euphoria of wining and dining job candidates to sustain me). I occassionaly experience brief bouts of this kind of inertia in my dissertating years, but not since having become a professor. I'm sure it doesn't help that our university is an annoyingly wacko place these days, but really, I think I'd be going through this just about anywhere.

You see, we push and push and push to reach certain goals, tenure being just about the biggest of them, but after tenure, the goals are less clear. There's a sense of deflation. All of a sudden you realize your job has some of the qualities of routine that any other job has. And it's -- gasp! -- a job. This is especially true if, like me, you teach a certain range of courses over and over and over. By now you've got them down, a little too down, and they start to feel stale.

Some smart people arrange for sabbatical for the year after they're tenured, and if I were on sabbatical I might find some rejuvenation. I'd actually like to work on my research, but I've been so poorly managing my time, that of course it's the thing that has really fallen by the wayside. But I went up for tenure a year early, and I'm also putting off sabbatical for yet another year because of a wonderful teaching opportunity that I'm seizing with a colleague in theater. And maybe doing that ununusual team-taught course will energize both my teaching and my research, since seeing someone else do it half the time will give me ideas and a fresh insight into the subject matter, which also happens to be an area part of my research interests are in.

None of this is to say that the life of a professor is hard. But there's a burden that's unique and peculiar to it and that can lead to the kind of inertia I'm talking about. Right now it's going to take every atom of will power in my body to make it through the semester (and to write my Kzoo paper -- ack!), and then it will take additional will to start my work up again in the summer (thank god there's a 10 day vacation -- not research! -- trip to the UK in a little over a month). I'll get there. Writing this helped.

In the meantime, if you've ever been in such a funk, especially as a faculty member, what got you out of it? How did you rejuvenate interest in your research and teaching?

18 comments:

Karl Steel said...

No tenure funk for me the next 5 or 6 years, BUT, from down here, just reading random medieval primary texts might help you. I know it's worked for me, since it's a good way to get surprised again.

Belle said...

Been there, did all that you describe. I found new stuff to energize me: I got into learning how to teach (vs what) which energized my teaching (I love teaching, yes I am a geek) and then wound its way into my life. I spent a couple of post-tenure years working on the teaching aspect, and when I took sabbatical that got me back excited about my research. Like you, I teach a predictable set of stuff all the time. To keep me from being bored out of my tiny little mind, I re-invent what I'm doing all the time. Like every semester. And I do four preps, invent new courses...

I hate being bored. Having the diss done and then only having 4/4 to teach I was going insane with boredom. So the tenure thing kept me busy, and then the habit had been established. More or less. Sabbatical got me refocused and more of a life. They need to be more than every 7 years.

The perfect name for the symptoms, courtesy of the word verif: snerms. You, Dr V, have the snerms.

Janice said...

I went up for tenure when I had a newborn, was tenured that next summer and a few months later, went on maternity leave with #2.

Frankly, I'm still amazed that I was able to come back after tenure and do much of anything, but it took a new door opening (consulting for a dotcom) to give me a new sense of post-tenure purpose. Of course, I also ended up with more holes in my CV than I'd like between childcare, special needs diagnosis of one and all sorts of other things.

Suffice it to say, I know whereof you speak and finding something new, even if it's in a radically different direction to previous research or teaching, can be just the ticket to clear the funk!

Susan said...

I had a stretch after I finished my first book and was denied tenure when I was depressed. And finally I got excited about something else. So I think that's what it takes. People do talk about post-partum depression for books as well as babies for a reason.

Prof. de Breeze said...

What's weird is that you can experience this same phenomenon even at a school that doesn't offer tenure. After about six years at my current gig, I went into a serious funk, inspired perhaps by the prospect of the next thirty or so stretching out in front of me and looking much the same as what had passed. So yeah, I get it. And the good news is that it passes. Change definitely helps. What did I do? I stepped down from a department chair position, finished a dissertation that had been languishing for six years, had a kid, bought a house, shaved a beard. I don't necessarily recommend any of those measures for you (you'd probably look right nice in a beard), but you get the idea.

And who knows, maybe a long weekend with 3000 or so medievalists will help. Wishing you luck.

undine said...

Maybe a break from all things academic for a few weeks this summer? Maybe the trip to the UK? I didn't get the tenure funk but have had plenty of other assorted funks (funki, like fungi?) and a change of scene works wonders.

Sisyphus said...

Oh no! I hope playing scrabble with you helps rather than deepens the funk (or the snerms, as Belle has it).

Maybe a cool vacation and some travel somewhere? Maybe some new pedagogical thing, like digital medievalism or something?

A new hobby of some sort? I've always wanted to learn pottery.

Whatever avenue you try, be good to yourself!

medieval woman said...

Ugh - post-tenure-partum depression sounds yucky - I hope it gets better soon - but I'm glad to hear from you again! And I can't wait to see you at K'zoo - maybe we can meet for a drink in addition to the insanely early blog meet-up, the time for which I'm completely responsible for?

Think of it this way, having tenure to get depressed about for a few months is better than NOT having tenure and being depressed in that way, eh? That's not very helpful...

vaginaphilosophy said...

(warning: this got kinda long. i'm sorry).

i can't speak to post-tenure funk (or snerms--i like that!), but i think as many have commented above, post-tenured funked or not, it seems par for the course in academe after major milestones. i've kinda been suffering the same since getting a job--i know there's more to do, but everything i've been working for up to this point has gotten me to a job. so now what? i'm elated, rather was elated, but i'm going through an identity crisis. my weight loss has slowed down since getting the job. my eating habits have gone south since getting the job, which it seems like it should be opposite. i know there are things i should be doing, but i don't know how to go about them or really what to do.

okay, this is not about me. i'm trying to sympathize and empathize with you. i think that you need to just let this semester go. don't teach this summer (i don't think you had plans to). don't worry about having gained 20 pounds. look forward to the summer as the time to rethink your teaching (like belle suggested), to rethink your work and where you want to go with it (let k'zoo inspire you but don't pressure yourself into something immediate), to set running goals (wanna do virtual marathon training with me? come hell or high water, i'm running one this fall, somewhere).

for now though, just be and don't feel bad about it. it's okay. you WILL snap out of it. it takes a lot to get to tenure. let yourself heal.

<3,
maude

Thoroughly Educated said...

Dr. V., I'm sorry you're feeling this way but glad you're blogging it - not only for your own processing purposes, but because I think the midcareer "now what?!" is the Next Great Thing Nobody Tells You About. I started my old blog by posting about post-tenure depression and I got a LOT of hits from people googling that very thing.

As you know, I responded to my own case of the post-tenure blues by moving, flailing, and then - now - quitting the profession. So I am not advocating my path as the one to follow. Personally, I tend to get my back up when people tell me to find another interest to distract me from the fact that my life is now condemned to be the same for the next 30 years or so, but, as you can hear from that tone, that's an unhelpful attitude, though it be mine own. What I'm thinking now is that, if you're in a place where you can't muster enthusiasm or energy for intellectual work, it makes sense to take up - or take on - something where there's concrete work to be done. Maybe the idea of buying a country place is just the right thing for the moment? It would undoubtedly entail restorative (for both you and the house) physical work, and it would give you a chance to explore routedness in your life in a way that's a little bit separate from what you experience in the city where you're actually tenured.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Take the summer off. Just say the hell with everything, and do what you feel like doing for awhile. The key is "what you feel like"---in the quest to achieve tenure or other major goals, sometimes we totally lose track of what we enjoy, and get numb with Facebook-equivalents. Maybe you'd actually rather read a novel, scrub the floor, take the dog out, or make and eat a whole batch of cookies. If you can figure out the thing you really want to do, rather than the thing you have to do but don't want to, other stuff starts to sort itself out.

If it helps, you have my permission to do this!

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

It happens to everyone, if it helps to hear that. Mine passed with time. Having a kid also helped for refocusing.

It is hard on the psyche to achieve your goals! But it does pass, Dr. V: new goals arrive, some academic, some not.

meteechart said...

You're not condemned to do the same thing over and over until you retire.

Tenure just means that you no longer have any pressure to make other people happy. It's freedom. Go do what you want.

Rohan Maitzen said...

I agree with those who say this is a familiar phenomenon. For myself, I'd say that the "it's just a job!" realization is complicated by realizing it is a sort of peculiar job, one in which you might labour for years on something that would strike many people--perhaps even including yourself--as quite marginal to the rest of life. Without the external incentive of tenure or promotion, some of our research can suddenly seem quite futile. At any rate, I took advantage of the luxury of tenure to reconsider my research priorities. I was influenced also by being a new mother. I wanted to feel I was working on something that I thought mattered more than the interesting but fairly academic area I'd been working in before. It took several years to work up to anything publishable in a new field, which is not a risk I could have afforded before tenure. But I'm glad I did it!

Another aspect of this job that can sometimes be difficult, I find, is the eternal youth of our students and the sense that while I am staying relatively still, and also getting older, they are always fresh and always in constantly flux, moving on both literally and figuratively. That's part of the excitement, of course--the steady stream of new faces and enthusiasms. But it creates a kind of wistfulness in me sometimes!

Stephanie Trigg said...

And ... er ... why have you not been running? Just a reminder, because we all forget at times like these, that exercise produces endorphins, and is a great way to start countering depression. You can make yourself meet a deadline or teach a class; can you not also make yourself put on your running shoes?

I don't think there are any easy or quick fixes, though, to renewing enthusiasm for teaching and research. You sound exhausted. The summer will give you a rest from teaching... and if the thought of writing your Kzoo paper makes you feel ill, then don't write it. I mean, try something different like talking from notes. You are an award-winning teacher; everyone will love it; and the adrenaline will be exciting, if nothing else!

For me, it was the realisation that I had to grow up; that once I had done the things that gave me the pats on the head from the university, that I really had to start setting my own targets and measures of success. And that was hard.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Oy! meant to post earlier. I have also not been exercising, and also don't know if it's the snerms (since I've been listening to people tell me it was a dead cert for months now). But I seriously think a discussion over drinks is in order, because I can feel myself slipping into this and am scared.

Steve Muhlberger said...

Well, I have no advice for you on this issue because the last time I needed something, I handled it by starting a blog!

Janet Croft said...

I'd suggest reading Ms. Mentor's books of advice for women (and men) in academia. Not only are they funny, which is good when you're down, but you'll find out that lots and lots of folks in academia have the same problem. (And you can get fore-warned about the next problems down the road, like promotion :)) I didn't run out of steam right away when I got tenure, but I'm finding it hard to work steadily during my hard-fought-for sabbatical -- I'll do a good spurt of work then spend the rest of the morning reading blogs or messing about in the garden. But I hope K'zoo helps -- one of these days I'll get there!