I have dreaded the approach of 2016 for quite some time. I had a nagging feeling about turning 40 in 2016 and having achieved nothing. But something changed, somehow, at some point. While I spent the whole Christmas break working on copy-editing a volume and improving my introduction to it (an activity that has become my personal Christmas ritual over the last few years), I did not feel the weight of results to be achieved – fast – or else – be condemned to doom on whatever Academic doomsday is deciding about our destinies. This is how the previous years ended: not having done all the work, additional work coming, expectations rising higher, and still feeling like having achieved close to nothing. New Year’s Eve was a climax of unachieved things and even more expectations piling up.
The notion of achievement is an interesting social construction. It should evolve much faster than it does. In the Academic world, the standards of “having achieved something” still are strongly marked by what Academic achievement was 20, 30 years ago. According to those standards, I have achieved almost nothing, since I don’t have a permanent position and two or three books to be quoted by. These are standards from another age, but they are still painfully valid if you don’t make a deliberate effort to free yourself from them (which is hardly compatible with the explicit pursuit of a traditional Academic career). Since the people in hiring positions have made their career based on such criteria, the inertia in making them evolve is strong. What kind of publications, what kind of positions, but also what kind of activities should really count today to measure a scientist’s impact? This should not just be about books and permanent positions. But still, “measure” and “impact” are not really my favorite concepts either. So, what is scholarly achievement about?
When I think of researchers I admire, I quote, I am inspired by, what counts to me most is their intellectual evolution and the solidity of the concepts they deploy. It does not really matter whether the key ideas are expressed in a monograph or in an oral presentation – what matters is the content itself. I like to be inspired by various scholars, by the way they let their thinking grow into an intellectual trajectory. When concepts and analyses allow to read texts and events in a clearer way than you did before: this it what good science in the Humanities is about. So I have decided to measure my own achievements to this ell. How does the research I envision for next year make sense in connection to what I did before, how can I go further than what I have already done on the topics that interest me or that I consider relevant? These are my thought on this New Year’s Eve. And of course, not everything will get finished in this one year. But the point is to pursue constructively what your deep research interest is. No other inner compass is bearable in a world where bitter concurrence, short money and low consideration are too often at the core of the definition of Academic achievement – standards which are simply too violent for someone like me.
And with my daughter turning 10 and my grand-mother turning 80 in this new year, it is only fair that I turn 40. It had to happen, and it probably is not that bad.