Years ago, when I was working in academic technology and faculty development, I teamed up with a group of extraordinary women—Laura Blankenship, Barbara Sawhill, Barbara Ganley, and Martha Burtis—to present in various ed tech venues about a phenomenon we termed Fear 2.0, the constellation of fear-mongering around the use of social media in higher education, student-created media shared publicly, and born-digital, non-peer-reviewed scholarship.
Recently, I’ve been thinking again about fear.
Several weeks ago, a friend told me that when she heard several loud booming noises on her block, she retreated to the basement, opened her gun safe, retrieved her handgun, and began loading magazines in the dark, lining them up just under the windowsill, all while peering through the mini-blinds to scout for threats.
Two senior colleagues whom I also consider good friends reminded me that I should be careful what I post on social media, particularly when it’s about Boise State. (So did my mother, repeatedly, though she has never been on social media to see what I post.)
Every few weeks at his Taekwondo studio, along with Taekwondo techniques and forms, my son learns a new self-defense method to geared explicitly to protect him against strangers who mean him harm.
A month ago, two older women tried to make me feel anxious about dressing appropriately for a job interview for a relatively senior, high-profile position.
Another friend told me it takes several days for her to open readers’ reports on the articles she has submitted to academic journals. She fears the commenters will be abusive (as they sometimes are; in fact, just this week I received feedback on an article from three readers, all of whom offered great suggestions for revision, but one of whom couched it in the form of ad hominem attacks).
The common thread here, of course, is anxiety, paranoia, and fear.
I’m not going to say I don’t feel fear.
Reading the #YesAllWomen thread on Twitter last week, I was reminded that as a woman, I live an imperiled existence relative to men.
And of course, as a parent, as one therapist pointed out to me, it’s normal to always feel “a low-level terror.”
Plus, even my work duties can inspire fear. For example, this week I have to provide the names of eight potential external reviewers for my tenure case. The very thought gives me palpitations, as my work is deeply interdisciplinary and I’ve neither focused my publishing in traditional journals nor have I shopped around a book manuscript.
To list particular scholars for my tenure case is to constitute a new tribe rather than to delineate an existing subfield to which I belong. And that’s a frightening thing, as I’m asking these people I’ve never met to say Yes, this is an established scholarly community and yes, Leslie belongs, even though that community (which must comprise only tenured faculty, not alt-ac folks or museum professionals) does not in fact exist in any form these people would recognize. In fact, the people on my list might never have heard of one another, so diverse are my interests and publications.
But there are other options.
I returned last week from the Berkshire Conference on Women’s History. There, I reconnected with Cathy Kudlick, a mentor and former colleague who embodies (for me, at least) fearlessness, who in turn introduced me to the absolutely amazing Katherine Ott, a deeply generous and insightful soul who also struck me as fearless.
In talking with Katherine, I was reminded of my Fear 2.0 days, and I expressed to her the belief that, though I may be on the job market now or in the future, I’m at a point in my life where I worry very little about what people will think of what I say on my blog or in social media. Rather, I want to be relatively transparent; I don’t want to work for or with anyone who would reject me outright because of what I write here. Katherine made clear that was an obvious conclusion, but it’s taken me a while to get here.
Thank you, digital world, for making it easy for folks to discern that I am not the right person for them—and conversely, for me to discern that they might not be the best colleagues for me.
Once again I’m at an inflection point.
The last few years have been full of them.
I interviewed a month ago for a terrific staff position at a phenomenal institution, and I felt I nailed the campus interview, really connecting with the students and faculty—but at this point I’m guessing the job has been offered to someone else.
At about that same time, I realized my antidepressant had stopped working. It’s not a big deal in the long run; it happens, and I know intellectually how to deal with it, even if emotionally I feel like a wreck. I am fortunate, as I’ve said before here, to be an exceptionally high-functioning depressive, so I was able to show up for work and get things done; doing so just took more energy than usual.
But the combination of high (a strong interview) and low (transitioning to a new antidepressant) kicked me back into a deeply self-reflective mode in which I asked myself, yet again, what I really want to do with my life.
Today is my 39th birthday, you see, and I’m finally feeling that time is not unlimited—nor is my energy.
The answer? Beyond being able to support my family—a dicey proposition at best at the moment—I want to be in a place where I can be professionally fearless, where I can admit I’m still learning, where no one is going to try (even with my own best interests in mind) to shame me or frighten me into silence.
Also, about that supporting-my-family thing: I want to shift my perspective.
I’ve been helping a family member with a job application this week, and the application requires a salary history. Twenty-four years ago, this woman, working as an entry-level public high school administrator, was making 10% more than I earn today.
If I have one fear, it’s financial insolvency. I have expressed my concerns about salary and cost of living to a few colleagues, and while many of my junior colleagues understand exactly what the challenge is in living on my salary, a senior colleague recently pointed out to me that (more than 10 years ago) another colleague (whose life context is entirely different from mine) managed to make the salary work with two kids instead of one.
I don’t need that kind of comparison and subtle shaming.
I don’t need to be told it’s more expensive to live in California than it is in Idaho. Because here’s the deal: it was cheaper to live in Davis than it is to live in Boise. Really. No one believes me, but my bank statements don’t lie.
I especially don’t need people who own houses to tell me my rent is unreasonable (it’s not), when they haven’t looked at rental prices in a decade or more.
And yes, I realize some parts of California are exceptionally expensive places to live. Salaries in those cities also often are commensurate with the cost of living, unlike my salary here.
Confessing about professing
I admit it: I take a good deal of pride in being able to say I’m a professor. I love being called “professor.” I’ve worked toward this title my entire adult life. And many of the people I’ve most admired over the past 20 years have been my professors. To be counted among them is a joy. To give it up would cause me great sadness.
Yet I’m not yet convinced the profession is sustainable for me, either financially or emotionally.
I really had hoped that by the time I turn 40, I would be able to support my family without fear of not being able to pay the bills. That’s looking less likely with each passing year because of career choices I’ve made and because of a lack of state and public support for higher education, especially here in Idaho.
Dancing with fear
Seth Godin emphasizes that the process of building a professional life and forging an individual identity requires a good deal of dancing with fear. He’s absolutely right, and since my internship with Seth last summer, I’ve been more serious than ever about identifying points of resistance and dancing with the fears that underlie that resistance.
For me at this moment, this dance is about balancing progress toward tenure (playing the game) with a desire to experiment in new fields (breaking the rules), about bringing home a paycheck while also seeking more remunerative work, whether that be a different job or launching a freelance/consulting endeavor that I hope will provide me with a comfortable income—all while living in a context (academia) where I’m supposed to do the work because I love it (which I do), because I’m supposed to eschew material reward because only the uncultured value money.
I want to be fearless professionally, but there it is, laid bare:
I’m so tired of the fear that comes with living paycheck to paycheck.
I’m weary of the fear-mongering around work I enjoy but which other people deem professionally risky.
I want to do new, exciting things, but sometimes doing them—thanks to an academic culture that rewards conformity over risk—jeopardizes my ability to put food on the table.
Still, I’m off-contract in the summer. Summer is, then, the best time to embrace fearlessness, to break new ground, to embrace the advice a spectral James Joyce gave to Seamus Heaney:
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,
so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.