being undone · enter the confessional · sabbatical · Uncategorized

A la recherche de temps perdu

I have been considering the phrase “making up for lost time.” I have been considering the nature of academic temporality, generally, and it strikes me we are often expressing overwhelm about the present, regret about the past, and a kind of desperate and yet hopeful anxiety about the future. We will somehow have time to write later because we are drowning in busyness right now and that later is going to allow us to make up for lost time.

Lost. time.

Lost academic time can take many forms: How am I supposed to read all these candidate files before Monday? How did I manage to only grade 6 papers today when I literally did nothing else? How is it 2pm and I haven’t had anything to eat since this morning? And then there is the temps perdu of research, where our sense of loss and bewilderment, often, runs pretty deep. The tenured and tenure-tack run a small version of this lost-time-loop every summer, where the endless acres of 16 weeks of research time is supposed to produce 2 full articles and a grant proposal and a tan and Fall syllabi and a sense of well-being, and somehow at the end of it, I’m at the photocopier on labour day, wan and regretful, with only 1/3 to 1/2 as much done as I wanted. Dissertation can be pretty awful for temps perdu syndrome: all we do through coursework and exams is complain about how much time we are spending on other people’s stuff and how all we want to do is finally work on our project and when we somehow don’t it starts a shame spiral that only seems solvable by self-loathing and secret binge-writing.

Gillian Anderson in "The X-Files - The Movie."
“But Mulder, time doesn’t just disappear. I’m a scientist, and I am going to write a peer reviewed paper about that during my sabbatical.”

I have, myself, a deep sense of lost time. Time that, like many, I imagine I can “make up for” on a sabbatical. Sabbatical time is magical! I will do all the things I have so far failed to do! I will catch up! And, more insidiously, I tell myself, during that time, I will live up to my promise, make up for lost time, lost ambition, lost to everyone’s glowing expectations of what I could do with my life, prove that I am not here by accident. One by one I will silence my regrets over missed opportunities and missed deadlines by doing all the work that over the years I feel bad about not getting done.

This is a good way to be miserable, and to burn out. We can’t turn back time. Hermione can’t do it in a sustainable way. It’s not clear that even Cher could do it, Bob Mackie dress or not.

All we have is right now. Right now does not care if you wish you had published a book five years ago: you can’t work 12 hours a day to make up for that regret. Worse, even trying to do so will ensure that you get nothing done in the right now, because you burn out. Regrets about the past, and the self-loathing that often accompanies these regrets, are heavy to carry and useless in the battle of today. Trying to “make up” for lost time just loses more time, and is exhausting. Maybe shame is not really a good productivity tool.

It can be really hard to let go of the past, even if thinking about it brings us nothing but negative feelings. Somehow, holding out some dim hope that once we get time to just work hard enough and long enough we can patch over all those holes in our CV, and in that way put all our regretful anxiety to rest seems easier than just … letting go. We’d almost rather keep hating ourselves right now because we imagine a future in which this self-loathing has fuelled some kind of productive burst that will get 10 years of work done in 1.

But time doesn’t work like that.

Better, maybe, to take some time to let go of the past, and just try to work right now. Work right now as if it brought us some sense of pride and accomplishment, not as if it were a desperate attempt to make up for an earlier failure. What would it feel like to sit down to an article, a syllabus, a dissertation, without the expectation of accomplishing all the ‘missed’ work at the same time?

That’s hard to do. (Ask me how I know.)

I’m trying each day when I sit down to work on this book project that I’ve been working on for [inaudible temporal mumbles] to just work on what’s in front of me, not get caught up in some internal narrative telling me it should have been finished years ago, trying to stop telling myself that if I don’t make up for that lost time by working ten times as hard right now it’ll be worth nothing. Every day I try anew. It’s sort of working, but it’s a practice I have to mindfully engage.

Here’s what I tell myself and here’s what I wish for you to tell yourselves. You are enough just as you are. Do the work in front of you just for what it is: a research problem, a new direction, a literature review. It’s not a referendum on your worth as a human, and it’s not some magical clock that’s already run out.

I’m enjoying my work a lot more, now that I’m not trying to get ten years of work done every day, now that I’ve given myself permission to try to get one day of work done each day. It’s not a punishment, and I’ve got nothing to prove to anyone that trying to write for 12 hours a day is going to prove. I’ll just keep chipping away at it, astonished at how much fun I’m having when I stop regretting the past, and just start living my todays, one at a time.