For what it’s worth

Social expectations to women scholars have been driving me crazy for about 10 years now (my daughter is 9 years old). It has been a daily fight to work, then run errands, pick up the kids from school, do laundry, cook, bring the kids to bed and reopen the laptop at 8 P.M. every single evening, for years. But that, I have become used to, even if it still makes me angry (an anger that I consider as a sign of good mental health). I can’t see anything illegitimate in raising one’s kids while doing research.

Something has become worse in the last year though, because now, on top of the daily craziness, I seem to be unable to assess of the quality of my own scholarly production. Something broke somewhere in my own understanding of evaluation, and I have turned incapable of judging if what I write is of good or poor scholarly quality. I suppose this is partly the downside of the predominant discourse on excellence. There are excellent publication forms (monographs, print journal articles), excellent methods (history of science, materiality inquiries), excellent institutes, excellent schools of thought. If you don’t belong there, it is not that you are average: you are nothing. If you don’t adore the right idols, you are doomed. Interestingly, this does not affect my evaluation competence towards the works of others, which I think I can still discriminate pretty accurately. It concerns only my own work.

But it would be too easy to say that because I am not sure of being excellent any more, I don’t know if I am doing my job properly. In fact, my job ends in December, which means that the question is not about my job, but about my vocation (if this post were in German, you would notice the beauty of the fact that there is one single word to name both job and vocation in German – but let’s operate a clean cut here). I have always felt research as being my vocation. After reading many articles of people stating just the same, I have come to the conclusion that this is just a way of not accepting to do something else than what you have done for years. But although this consideration helps me come to terms with the fact that scholarship will very likely not be my job forever, it does not help me cope with the feeling that my scholarly production is worthless. And this is a terrible feeling.

None of the scholarly endeavors I envisioned a few months ago seems worth the effort. The more I am sure that what I am doing is useful for future scholars, the more it feels like I could just as well have kept it in my head. I have completely lost interest in fighting for my convictions, I am not even sure they are worth something for someone else than me. I have been procrastinating (still am while writing this post) on opening the files of the papers I urgently want to finish writing.

What is a scholarly path about? What makes you do research 20 years long, what makes you think about the things that fascinate you, what animates you to make the beauty of them audible and understandable to others? Nothing but a selfish, childish pleasure, I suppose. Maybe the reason why I can’t tell the worth of my work anymore is that I want it to be a pleasure again, and not a race up the Academic ladder – at the risk of tumbling down said ladder.


2 Replies to “For what it’s worth”

  1. “Nothing but a selfish, childish pleasure, I suppose.” Thanks for sharing your thoughts Anne !

  2. Hi Anne.
    I see myself in so much of what you have written here, though if I’m lucky I actually get to sit down to work (again) at 19:30 instead of 20:00 every evening, since my kids go to bed right after the Sandmännchen.
    My scholarship incurs costs, not least in terms of my time. Even when I am paid to do research and write, that work has non-economic costs for my family as well. (Opportunity costs owing to relatively low pay and lack of job security, evenings and weekends spent at the computer instead of pursuing family pastimes, and so on). But I accept those costs because of the satisfaction I draw from the work and from the respect I (think I) receive for it. But my employment situation (also in Germany) is precarious and it seems more or less clear to me now (not least because of the term limits of the Hochschulrahmengesetz, among other things) that I will not be permanently (let alone fully!) employed as a scholar in Germany (alt-ac may be a different story, but also fraught in its own way).
    This is painful to me for some of the reasons you describe, but I see it a little bit differently. I see it not as a race up a career ladder, but rather as the crumbling of the ladder under my feet; there is nothing left to climb up, no height from which I can fall down. The quality of my scholarship matters to those in charge not. at. all. I take pleasure in research and writing but I don’t accept the characterization of it as selfish. I think it only seems so because it is not recognized by an institution in terms of economic value (i.e. with a salary). If you were paid lots for it, it would not seem selfish at all. That’s the trouble with the idea of a “vocation” (Berufung) – people (especially women) will accept a lot of disadvantages in the name of a vocation that they wouldn’t take under other circumstances. Those who work in traditionally female occupations (teaching, nursing) often fall victim to this: “Low pay? Insecurity? Long years of training with high opportunity costs followed by a negative return on investment? Sure, I don’t mind, as long as I can do what I love!”

    I don’t know if this applies to you but I think this is a mistake that many of us (women and/or academics) make. We fail to recognize the value of our work precisely because we fear (or know) that that work is undervalued or misunderstood by others (e.g. university hiring committees, or by the world outside the ivory tower, respectively). But when we are excluded from the academy in employment terms, we cannot hide the fact that our sacrifices was probably for naught, and that what we love doesn’t love us back enough to give us what we need. Or, to put it differently, it was never about love, never really about vocation. It’s really about work, work we happen to be good at, but work which nevertheless actually does cost us in terms of time, money, intellectual and emotional exertion, opportunity costs, and family sacrifices. And that work – especially if done to high quality – deserves reward, economic and otherwise.
    When reward is not forthcoming, despite the platitudes, it’s heartbreaking. I think it is fair to feel strung along by an academy which offers praise and bits of funding and smaller rewards but then closes the door to apparently excellent scholars (and workers!) a bit further down the line – once we’re well and truly invested — with no recourse whatsoever. The problem is absolutely political and structural (and, most likely, gendered), but its effects are absolutely personal, and I feel them too – not least in a culture that defines people so strictly by their education and training. If I am not employed as a historian and am not currently researching and writing history, am I still a historian? I still think like one, after all…

    You asked (rhetorically, I suppose), “What is a scholarly path?”; my suspicion is that for many of us it is quite different from a career path, despite our best laid plans and ambitions. I envy those for whom the scholarly path and the career path coincide, those whose love of scholarship is requited, reciprocated, and remunerated, but there are too many scholars – including me and those far better than me – for whom that is simply not the case.

    I started writing meaning to offer you comfort but I suppose all I’ve managed is commiseration! In any case I wish you all the best.

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