“You know, the question isn’t whether we’re going to have to do hard, awful things, because we are. We all are. The question is whether we have to do them alone.”
Kate Braestrup, in Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living
This is a different sort of post, in which in which I am trying not to make myself do anything but instead to accommodate myself to the current situation, and to motivate myself to make as much of it as I can. It’s attempting what Tara Brach describes as the start of a process of recognition and acceptance, a moment of looking around and saying, “Oh, it’s like this.”
The situation is this: my left knee has been acting up for the last several months, mostly in a mid-grade way but at a couple of points acutely enough that I took to my bed with an ice pack, pretty worried that I might have actually damaged something. I finally persuaded myself to go see a sports medicine doctor and get it checked out. And of course, just like when you take your car to the mechanic, it wouldn’t make the noise. Or, rather, it did make the noise (“wow, that’s a lot of crackling,” my doctor said) but it didn’t hurt, it didn’t stick, it didn’t threaten to buckle. So she pushed and prodded and said that there didn’t appear to be anything structural wrong with it, and she sent me off for x-rays.
Which, as I should have known to expect, showed a bunch of arthritis. She sent me a prescription for physical therapy, and she advised me to lay off the high-impact exercise, at least for the time being. “I’m not saying you can’t run ever again,” she said. “But for now.”
My physical therapist, however, was a good bit more solidly in the running-is-over camp. And I’m finding myself there as well. It’s partially because the thing going on in my knee seems to be degenerative, and as the PT said, it can’t be reversed or even really stopped. But it’s also partially because it gives me permission to stop bashing my head against that particular wall. Deciding that running is over lets me stop feeling bad about not running, and about not wanting to run, and it opens up some space for me to focus on doing some other things.
So for the last few weeks I’ve been all about the stationary bikes at my gym, and I’ve even taken a few spinning classes. (I’ve also been advised to back off on those until we strengthen things around my knees a bit — but that feels like something to look forward to.) And I’m doing my PT and working with a personal trainer to try to strengthen more generally.
I wanted to write about this today because it feels a bit emblematic, capturing something about how I’ve been trying to approach change over the last few years, finding ways not to fight the things that can’t be fought, ways to hold onto the meaningful parts of the past and to let go of what cannot be. It’s a mode of being in the world that I’m trying to bring to my work as well: recognizing, for instance, that whatever writing I’m doing is likely to go way more slowly than I want it to, and that my wanting it to go faster won’t change that. And that recognition — “Oh, it’s like this” — is the first step toward figuring out how to make the most of the slowness.
I’ve been the grateful recipient of two Digital Humanities Startup Grants from the NEH, one of which enabled the colleagues I was working with to build MediaCommons, and the other of which supported a collaboration between the Modern Language Association and Columbia University Library’s Center for Digital Research and Scholarship in building CORE. What’s crucial about these projects, in my view, is that each focused not on the production and publication of a specific research project (though there is enormous value in and need for support of such work), but rather on developing the means of supporting many other scholars in doing the work that they want to do. I hope, in that way, that these two projects help further the endowment’s goals in, as President Obama phrases it, working to “shape a future of opportunity and creativity for all.”
What is also important to note, of course, is that both projects that I had the honor of being involved with were primarily social in their orientation — MediaCommons sought to create a community among scholars in media studies, and CORE now explores the possibilities that are created when an open-access repository is connected with a networked scholarly community. This community orientation is not at all incidental to the projects, or to the endowment: the NEH has sought from the outset to connect the humanities with the American public. I am honored to have had the opportunity to play a small role in that enormously important project.
And honestly, when don’t competing demands arise.
But I’m finding myself squarely in front of one of those moments when the world sends a no-kidding message: That “ought to”? You should maybe interpret as “must.”
Last week, right near the end of the DH conference, I started getting some pain in my left shoulder. I’ve got some kind recurrent tendonitis in both my shoulders, and with all the hauling of suitcases and carrying around of laptops, I figured I’d triggered it, which promised an aggravating few days ahead.
A week later, however, things had not gotten better. In fact, they were much worse: the pain was no longer localized in my shoulder, but was radiating both up my neck and down my arm. My small stash of Aleve was running out fast, and weirdly, given the range of things you can buy OTC here in Paris, naproxen is unavailable without a prescription. So R. talked me into seeing a doctor, and got a friend to make an appointment for me.
My experience of the French medical system is not the point of this post, but I should note how good it was: I got an appointment with a very good doctor for the very next day. She discussed the problem with me, did an examination, explained her diagnosis, and wrote me three prescriptions. The cost of the examination, for someone who was for all intents and purposes uninsured, was 50 euros. The cost of the three prescriptions, 15 euros. The doctor also said I should go get an x-ray, which I’m going to do while I’m here, both because I’m here for another three weeks and because it’ll be cheaper to pay out-of-pocket for it here than it will be to handle it through my insurance back home.1
What I need the x-ray for is more to the point of the post: the doctor diagnosed me with a pinched nerve in my neck, almost certainly produced by une arthrose — cervical osteoarthritis.2
My first response to this was annoyance. I am way too freaking young to have arthritis in my neck.
My second response was something much more akin to terror: if it feels like this in my mid-forties, what will it feel like in my sixties? My eighties?3
And following fairly quickly on the heels of that was a fairly predictable conviction: I have got to start taking better care of myself.
What this means, however, is turning all those ought tos into musts. In particular, I must make more time for more regular exercise, to become as strong as I can in preparation for whatever the coming years are going to bring my way. And this is going to require two things of me:
First, I must reprioritize. It’s useless to say “I have to get more exercise” when my calendar and my to-do list simply cannot take more being crammed in. Something, in other words, must go — and it can no longer be the things that have always seemed too (literally) self-centered. What that something will be, I’m not entirely sure — but I am starting to recognize that where ambition or accomplishment gets in the way of basic physical health and well-being, maybe it deserves a little more critical examination.4
And second, I need some kind of accountability, a means of ensuring that I actually follow through on what could turn out to be no more than a whole lot of good intentions, particularly once the pain fully recedes. So I’m hoping that maybe my internet friends will help hold me to these changes, and maybe even come along for the ride. If you use Runkeeper, I’m kfitz there. I’ll try to post some here about how I’m doing as well.
I’m determined to be that wiry little old lady still running in the park when I’m 80. And I’m weirdly grateful, I think, for this last week-plus, which has made abundantly clear that that absolutely is not going to happen without some really determined decision-making on my part.
This seems obvious, and yet what’s painful about it is all bound up in what Tim Parks and Corey Robin have lately written about: an increasing difficulty with actually doing the reading I set myself to do. I find myself lacking both for time (of which I seem to have precious little) and attention (of which I have less and less). Whatever the reason, it feels increasingly difficult to sit still and read much at all of late. I can’t tell how much of that difficulty is the technology-assisted monkey mind described by Parks — constantly looking for the next bit of incoming information, the next thing to click — or how much of it might be the distractions provided by other parts of my life, or (what I most fear) how much of it might simply be an aging brain. Would my attention span be shrinking even without all my surrounding technologies, in other words, or are the technologies interfering in my attention in the ways that I sometimes fear?
I’m working on some practices (a little meditation; a little bit of writing time in the early mornings) that I hope will help me better develop and maintain the ability to focus my attention on what’s in front of me, rather than constantly grasping for the next thing. But as I started pondering this problem in a bit of journaling this morning, it occurred to me that there’s another side to the question of attention that I hadn’t really connected here before. And it may be that they’re only connected by a sort of linguistic coincidence, but it nonetheless seemed significant.
As I started writing about my concerns about reading and my seemingly diminishing attention span, it hit me that this is the kind of thing that in the not-too-distant past I’d have written as a blog post, that I’d have shared almost reflexively. I felt little to no inclination to do that today, and so I started wondering what has changed. Is there something else different in my relationship to attention — not just the attention I pay, but the attention I seek, or more generously to myself, the attention I want to bear? One can read throughout my posts here since spring 2011 a series of not entirely successful attempts to work through my sense that my new position required (or seemed to require, at least) a reconfiguration of my public presence, my sense that I was at times a little more visible, a little more exposed, than might in the new order of things be ideal. There have also been, across that same period of time, some changes in the climate that have made working ideas out in the open feel a good bit less easy than it once was. But whether the changes are predominantly internal or external, the result is that I’ve become reticent about thinking in public — and that’s a not just a shame but in fact a pretty painful irony, given that thinking-in-public is both the source of whatever impact my work has had and the thing that I was hired to support.
In that support role, though, I’ve retreated somewhat behind-the-scenes, and I find myself somewhat reluctant to share the things I’m working on, in part because I get so very little time to work on them that all my ideas feel desperately under-baked. But the combination of what feels like my shrinking attention span and my reluctance to be public with my thinking have me more than a little worried about how (in fact whether) my work might proceed from here. I am hoping to find some strategies this summer to get myself past both of these hurdles, to work my brain in ways that help to grow my attention span again, and to re-develop my bravery about drawing attention to my work as it happens.
On the one hand, there’s a bit of a lament in this: the half-life of an idea seems desperately short today; the gap between “that’s just crazy talk” and “that’s a form of received wisdom that must be interrogated” feels vanishingly small. How nice it would be for us to linger in that gap a little longer, to find there some comfortable space between Radical Young Turk and Reactionary Old Guard. To get to be right, just a little bit longer, before those future generations discover to a certainty just how wrong we were.
On the other hand, there’s a perverse freedom in it, and the possibility of an interesting kind of growth. If everything you write today already bears within it a future anterior in which it will have been demonstrated to be wrong, there opens up the possibility of exploring a new path, one along which we develop not just our critical audacity but also a kind of critical humility.
The use of this critical humility, in which we acknowledge the mere possibility that we might not always be right, is in no small part the space it creates for genuinely listening to the ideas that others present, really considering their possibilities even when they contradict our own thoughts on the matter.
Critical humility, however, is neither selected for nor encouraged in grad school. Quite the opposite, at least in my experience: everything in the environment of, e.g., the seminar room made being wrong impossible. Wrongness was to be avoided at all costs; ideas had to be bulletproof. And the only way to ensure one’s own fundamental rightness was to demonstrate the flaws in all the alternatives.
As a result, we were too often trained (if only unconsciously) in a method that encouraged a leap from encountering an idea to dismissing it, without taking the time inbetween to really engage with it. It’s that engagement that a real critical humility can open up: the time to discover what we might learn if we are allowed to let go, just a tiny bit, of our investment in being right.
If time inevitably makes us all wrong, maybe slowing down enough to accept our future wrongness now can help us avoid feeling embittered later on. The position of critical humility is a generous one — not just generous to those other critics whose ideas we encounter (and want to contradict) today, but to our selves both present and future as well.
It’s no accident that I’m thinking about this today, on the cusp of a new year, as I try to imagine what’s ahead and look back on what’s gone by. It’s a moment of letting go of what’s already done and cannot be changed, and of opening up to new, as yet unimagined possibilities ahead. I wish for all of us the space and the willingness to linger in that moment, even knowing how wrong we will someday inevitably have been.
I hunted through the cabinets where I’ve stored the old family photos to find this one this morning. It’s probably my favorite Christmas picture.
There are so many things about this picture that I’m haunted by, my mother chief among them. She’s barely 23 here — quite mature, by the standards of the time, to have had her first baby, and yet I can never see this picture without focusing on how unbelievably young she is. I want so badly to reach back through the image and help.
I also can’t help but focus on how tired she looks: I’m about to be four months old, and it looks like it’s been a pretty eventful four months. Her wrists are so delicate, and her skin is so pale. And yet for all that superficial fragility, she would hold everything together a few years down the road, when it all must have seemed like it was falling apart.
Youth aside, exhaustion aside, in this picture is my most intense connection to my mother. But for a slightly different nose, the girl holding the baby could perfectly well be me. My life, just starting in this picture, could have circled around to this point with no effort at all.
So much of the path I’ve taken — that she helped me take — has been different, and yet it all for me starts here, in the open-mouthed wonder of it all. How did they get this thing in here? And what for?
Merry Christmas, and happy holidays.
A recent exchange, though, has changed my thinking about the subject in some interesting ways, ways that I’m not sure that the essay I’m working on can quite capture. I had just given a talk about some of the potential futures for digital scholarship in the humanities, which included a bit on open peer review, and was getting pretty intensively questioned by an attendee who felt that I was being naively utopian in my rendering of its potential. Why on earth would I want to do away with a peer review system that more or less works in favor of a new open system that brings with it all the problematic power dynamics that manifest in networked spaces?
In responding, I tried to suggest, first, that I wasn’t trying to do away with anything, but rather to open us to the possibility that open review might be beneficial, especially for scholarship that’s being published online. And second, that yes, scholarly engagements in social networks do often play out a range of problematic behaviors, but that at least those behaviors get flushed out into the open, where they’re visible and can be called out; those same behaviors can and do take place in conventional review practices under cover of various kinds of protection.
It was at this point that my colleague Dan O’Donnell intervened; by way of more or less agreeing with me, Dan said that the problem with most thinking about peer review began with considering it to be a system (and thus singular, complex, and difficult to change), when in fact peer review is a tool. Just a tool. “Sometimes you need a screwdriver,” he said, “and when you do, a hammer isn’t going to help.”
Something in the simplicity of that analogy caught me up short. I have been told, in ways both positive and negative, that I am a systems-builder at heart, and so to hear that I might be making things unnecessarily complicated didn’t come as a great shock. But it became clear in that moment that the unnecessary complications might be preventing me from seeing something extremely useful: if we want to transform peer review into something that works reliably, on a wide variety of kinds of scholarship, for an array of different scholarly communities, within a broad range of networks and platforms, we need a greatly expanded toolkit.
This is a much cleaner, clearer way of framing the conclusions to which the MediaCommons/NYU Press study came: each publication, and each community of practice, is likely to have different purposes and expectations for peer review, and so each must develop a mode of conducting review that best serves those purposes and expectations. The key thing is the right tool for the right purpose.
This exchange, though, has affected my thinking in areas far beyond the future of peer review. In order to select the right tool, after all, we really have to be able to articulate our purposes, which first requires understanding them — and understanding them in a way that goes deeper than the surface-level outcomes we’re seeking. In the case of peer review, this means thinking beyond the goal of producing good work; it means considering the kind of community we want to build and support around the work, as well as the things we hope the work might bring to the community and beyond.
In other words, it’s not just about purposes, but also about values: not just reaching a goal, but creating the best conditions for everyone engaged in the process. It’s both simpler and more complex, and it requires really stopping to think not just about what we’re doing, but what’s important to us, and why.
If you’ll forgive a bit of a tangent: I mentioned in my last post that I’d been reading Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s The Power of Full Engagement, which focuses on developing practices for renewing one’s energy in order to be able to focus on and genuinely be present for the important stuff in life. I only posted to Twitter, however, the line from the book that most haunted me: “Is the life I am living worth what I am giving up to have it?”
At first brush, the line produces something not too far off from despair: we are always giving up something, and we frequently find ourselves where we are, having given up way too much, without any sense of how we got there or whether it’s even possible to get back to where we’d hoped to be.
But I’ve been working on thinking of that line in a more positive way, understanding that each choice that I make — to work on this rather than that; to work here rather than there; whathaveyou — entails not just giving up the path not taken, but the opportunity to consider why I’m choosing what I’m choosing, and to try to align the choice as closely as possible with what’s most important.
In the crush of the day-to-day, with a stack of work that’s got to be done RIGHT NOW, it can be hard to put an ideal like that into practice. And needless to say, the opportunity to stop and make such choices is an extraordinary privilege; thinking about “values” in the airy sense that I’m using it here becomes a lot easier once things like comfort, much less survival, are already ensured.
But this is precisely why, I think, those of us in the position to do things like create new programs, or publications, or processes, need to take the time to consider what it is we’re doing and why. To think about the full range of tools at our disposal, and to select — or even design — the ones that best suit the work that is actually at hand, rather than reflexively grabbing for the hammer because everything in front of us has always looked like a nail.
So, an open question: if peer review is genuinely to work toward supporting our deeper goals — not just getting the work done, but building the future for scholarship we want to see — what tools do we need to have at our disposal? What of those tools do we already have available, even if we’ve never used them for this purpose before, and what new tools might we need to imagine?
If that sentence is an exaggeration, it’s not by much. A few friends who had the dubious pleasure of talking with me just after I arrived at THATCamp Leadership last week can attest that I showed up with an attitude that was in need of a little adjustment. Whenever I was asked how I was, I’d find myself starting out by saying “things are great,” which I meant, but which gradually gave way to a Five-Minute Complaint. I kept trying to stop myself, but it kept bubbling over. I’d hit some kind of limit, and my self-censor was just gone.
It wasn’t that I was unhappy about being where I was; I was very pleased to be back at George Mason, to be seeing my friends, to be participating in an event that promised to be both important and energizing.
It wasn’t that I was unhappy about where I’d just come from; I’d had an excellent, if action-packed, visit to talk with faculty and administrators at an institution thinking seriously about its digital initiatives in the humanities.
It was more that where I was and where I’d just come from were on the tail end of five solid weeks of travel and committee meetings, involving eight cities (not counting New York) and more planes, trains, and automobiles (and one unexpected van) than I can count.
It was thirteen nights in eight hotels over a five-week period, capped off with a musty room with two double beds (rather than one king) on a low floor (rather than a high one) with an industrial rooftop right outside my window (rather than pretty much any other view possible from that building).
Something about that room was the last straw, the thing that sent me right over the edge into a bitter litany of complaint aimed at anyone who would listen. But it wasn’t the room, and it wasn’t the trip: it was everything I’d gotten myself into over the previous month and a half, and — especially — knowing full well that I’d done it to myself. That no one was responsible for where I was, or for the mood I was in, except me.
I’ve spent the week-plus since trying to how to rectify this situation, how to pull myself back from the edge of complete flaming disaster.1 Because, of course, my major projects did not grind to a halt in the office while I was traveling. Nor did the deadlines for the writing I’ve promised people this fall get any further away. It has become painfully clear that something has got to give — or that something will be me. And so, after a lot of thought, I think I’ve figured out what I need to do in order to make things better.
I need to do less.
You would be fully justified in rolling your eyes at this point. Because, yeah, duh. But this is a lesson that I have had to teach myself over and over.
I can read about the importance of significant downtime and totally get it. I can even go so far as to write about the degree to which stress has become the contemporary sign of our salvation or about the role of goofing off in the most important, most creative work that I do.
But I somehow cannot internalize it all enough to refrain from over-scheduling myself. Or at least I have not done so. And even when I think I’ve done a good job of protecting myself, of determining what’s enough and trying not to go beyond it, I manage to cram enough tiny things in around the edges that I end up just as over-scheduled and exhausted as ever.
If I’m going to be completely honest with myself — and this is hard — a huge percentage of this over-scheduling is about ego. People like my work enough to want me to come talk to them, and they’re nice to me when I get there, and that feels awfully, awfully good.2 There’s of course also a general people-pleasing aspect to the difficulties I have turning down requests. And as long as I’m at it I’ll acknowledge that I’ve also fallen under the spell of competitive busyness; every time somebody says “I don’t know how you do it” about my travel schedule I get a sad little boost.
Ha, I don’t know how I do it either.
I feel as though I’ve been able to do some good out there in my travels — as though I’ve been able to help some departments and institutions jumpstart some much-needed conversations, and as though I’ve been able to help demonstrate some of the possibilities for the academy’s future. But I also know, when I’m willing to look at it squarely, that I’ve gotten a lot out of just feeling important. But that’s finally wearing thin, and the toll is beginning to make itself known.
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that during this same period I’ve found myself withdrawing from the various venues where I engage with colleagues and other folks online. I haven’t been very present on Twitter, and I certainly haven’t posted here. Some of that withdrawal has been about not having enough time or space or whatever to devote to figuring out whether I had anything worth saying. Some of it has been about a level of conflict of late that I haven’t had the energy to face.
In any case, for someone whose job is focused on fostering productive online engagements, this withdrawal has not seemed to me a Good Sign, and it’s been one more thing that’s had me worried.
But I’m now thinking that the withdrawal is in part about the conservation of energy, and as such may not have been such a bad thing after all. Total disengagement would be a problem. But disengaging enough to restore oneself, in order to be better prepared to re-engage, is utterly, utterly necessary.
It’s like sleep. It’s cyclical. And you’ll go crazy without it.
I’ve been reading a fair bit of self-help type stuff of late, partially3 because I’m interested in the genre, in how it can describe and shape lived experience, and in the purposes it might serve in a scholarly context, and in part because I have felt myself in need of something that might help me personally figure out a better path. A more manageable way of being in the world.
Among the things I’ve read lately is Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s The Power of Full Engagement, which, if they’ll forgive me, is a rotten title for a very important book.4 The key lesson in the book — heck, it’s in the subtitle, but if you’re interested, read farther than that — is that our belief that the resource we are shortest on, the thing that if only we had more of we could do what we need to do, is time, is dead wrong. In fact, the resource we are shortest on is energy, and we resist many of the things we need to do in order to conserve and restore our energy because they look to us like enormous wastes of time.
However, it’s clear that those wastes of time are precisely the things that allow us to step out of the barrage of the urgent long enough to discover, focus on, and make room for the important. In order to be genuinely engaged where it most matters, in other words, you have to find regular, routine ways to disengage. And to somebody as completely inculcated into our always-on, more more more culture as I am, that disengagement does not come easily.
Or at least it doesn’t come easily in a productive form. But it’s becoming clear that if I don’t figure out some better strategies for managing productive disengagement, a few much more damaging modes of disengagement are lurking just around the corner.
So, doing less. It’s not just a matter of saying no to more things. I keep trying to find some quantitative limit for how much I can do — no more than one trip every two weeks! no more than three major service commitments! — and yet it keeps not working. The over-extendedness just gets worse.
I finally realized something about why last week. In talking with my coach5 about the issue, it suddenly became clear that the problem is the nature of the quantitative itself. If I set a limit of four trips per semester, it becomes very hard to distinguish between four trips and four with one little add-on. Or five, for that matter. With maybe one small side thing tucked in there too. And something local, because that’s not really a trip. And next thing you know, I have a calendar filled with five solid weeks of three-city trips and am railing at my friends over cocktails.
It’s the nature of the more more more culture: if you can run two miles, isn’t it better to run five? If you can write an article about something, isn’t it better to turn it into a book? If you can speak in four places this semester, isn’t it better to add on just… one… more…?
The quantitative will do you in every time, precisely because so much of how we operate is all about finding our limits and pushing past them. So it’s becoming clear to me that I’ve got to turn my attention to the qualitative, if I’m going to change anything, even if it’s not entirely clear what in this context the qualitative might mean.
One key to the qualitative, I think, is figuring out how to determine what’s important, and how to separate it from what’s just nice, or ego-gratifying, or adding to the frequent-flyer record. But the real challenge in that is that I don’t mean “important” in some externally-defined sense: what’s best going to further my career goals, or promote my organization, or what have you. I mean what is most important in a very personal sense: what’s most in line with the things I value, the things I want to be, the ways I want to live. What’s going to support me not just in getting more done, but in doing what I most want to do, and doing it better.
What am I doing it all for, is the question I keep asking myself.
As I’ve been working on this post, I’ve been hoping that some conclusion would present itself to me, some anecdote that would cheerily illustrate everything I’m pondering here. I’m not sure that anything can; I’m not sure that concluding, in fact, is the right way to end this line of thought. As the links above might suggest, I’ve written too many times before about the need to recalibrate and reshape the way I’m living, and yet. Here I am. Again.
I had, however, a near-perfect day yesterday. I did a bit of work in the morning, and then went and got a fantastic haircut, and had a great lunch with a friend I haven’t seen in eons, and then headed back home. And on a whim, I told R. that I wanted to take a walk in the park. Rather than push it, though, in the ways that I usually do (surely you can go a little faster!), I let myself just… walk. A bit faster than a stroll. Kind of an amble. It only took about five minutes longer than usual to make the loop of the park, and in the process, I got to do two really important things. I got to spend the hour really talking with R., and I got to look around.
And the trees. If it’s not peak leaf around here yet, at least a few of the trees are there: flaming reds and yellows mixed in amongst the still-rich greens. It was absolutely gorgeous, the best moment of my favorite season.
It’s uncomfortably obvious (see footnote 5 above) to point out that it will all be gone in the blink of an eye. But it will be. And I’m grateful, really really grateful, not to have missed it.
That’s what I’m doing it for. That’s what I want to keep my eye on. How the things I elect to do can better contribute to my ability to engage with the here and now, and, when I need to recover, can let me gently disengage.
I do not know how. But I do know why. And that’s at least a start.