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What Counts

There has been a series of conversations of late, both here and elsewhere, about the nature of academic work, whether sparked by anxieties about the impending end of the summer, or by the perception that we in the academy have the luxury of having summers “off”, or by the conviction that many, both inside and outside the academy, neither understand what a scholar does or how an English department works.

To a certain extent, I think these posts and conversations have been driven by something inculcated into all of us in grad school, something I first noticed while working on my dissertation. For a group of people who are constantly besieged by the mistaken perception that we work very little (“you’re in the classroom for what, like six hours a week? Sounds cushy”), we have a damned hard time stopping work when we need to. And, even more insidiously, we have a very circumscribed set of notions about what counts as “work.”

There are things that I know count: teaching, preparing to teach, administrative duties, and research.

But that last is more specific, at least as we unconsciously understand it, than it would seem. “Research,” when we want it to count, really refers to the act of writing, producing ideas that are at least semi-original and turning them into pages of new, original text.

There’s a whole cluster of things that don’t seem to count, for whatever reason, at least not to my academic superego. For instance: I’m working on an anthology project this summer, and have been madly editing texts and writing headnotes and annotations. Despite the production of new, original text, this doesn’t count, to some part of me, because the ideas aren’t really my own.

But there are more extreme cases. I came to this whole realization about the ridiculousness of our “counting” mechanisms when I was writing my dissertation, because the only days I felt like I’d accomplished something were the days I’d produced pages of text. The interminable weeks of reading and thinking required to gather the ideas to produce those pages somehow didn’t count, as though I’d spent those weeks sitting in my underwear watching the all-Law-and-Order, all-the-time channel. Even now, reading doesn’t seem to me to count as work, and particularly not the reading of novels, and particularly not the reading of new novels, which is as wrong-headed as it can be, given that my appointment is specifically in the field of Contemporary American Fiction.

(Actually, I’m jointly appointed in Media Studies, and don’t get me started on the anxieties involved in thinking about my film and television watching as work.)

My goal this summer, and continuing on into this first year of my post-tenure life, is to liberate myself from this utterly repressive academic superego, to say — reading the new Neal Stephenson novel COUNTS. My bloody anthology COUNTS. And, most importantly to me, yes, dammit, writing this blog entry COUNTS. And reading other blogs COUNTS. All of these things are necessary to stimulate the thinking that can produce the ideas that might someday result in new original text in peer-reviewed journal article or book form by yours truly. The latter cannot happen without the former, and thus the former must be made to count.


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