Summer is here, and that's not always a good thing for me, since it can give me too much time alone with my thoughts. The birth of my twin girls has been a distraction, but in the last week or so I've had some nagging episodes of self-doubt related to my scholarship. In case you don't know, a year ago I left an assistant professorship in history in Texas for teaching at a private high school in Manhattan. My wife and I had been separated by 1500 miles, and I was living and working in a place that I could not bear to endure any longer. (Here are the details, if you're interested.) When I left academia I knew I was making the right decision, but I also knew that I wanted to continue being a historian. The director of my school (now sadly departed for a job on the West coast) had an academic background herself, and she talked of me becoming a "teacher-scholar." That's what I came into my current position aspiring to be.
However, two things kept me from pursuing my scholarship that deeply during the last academic year. On the negative side, last August I received a message from my publisher, with whom I had signed an advance book contract a year and a half earlier, that they were dropping me. One of the outside reviewers of my manuscript was particularly scathing, to the point where I felt like the victim of an intellectual mugging. That embarrassing setback killed my confidence as a scholar, since it felt like the biggest thing I had produced was now worthless. On the positive side, once I started at my new job in September, I really threw myself into it. This was easy, since I get to work in a uniquely wonderful environment with the kind of dedicated, creative students teachers dream of having. At my current job, I feel like my work is being rewarded and appreciated in ways I haven't felt in years. In many respects, the last year has felt like awakening from a long and horrible nightmare.
In the academic world, I had felt mostly rejection. It took three years on the job market for me to get my tenure track job, and it took three more years of rejection after trying to move to a different university before I switched gears and looked for a different career. My last year on the market I had piles of great teaching evaluations, three articles published in top journals and a book contract, and I got zero AHA interviews. It feels good to be working in an environment where I don't feel like my best is never good enough. That's certainly how academia felt to me.
I intended to get a lot of scholarly work done this summer, and I guess I've done a decent amount. That said, there are times when I feel a paralyzing sense of self-doubt. For example I finished an article manuscript last summer, and sent it to a journal way out of my league that rejected it. This article is on a topic different from my dissertation project, but related to my speciality in nineteenth-century German history. I had thought about making it a book-length project, but since I am no longer at a university, the time and money I would need to complete it -especially to travel to Europe for archival research- are out of reach. I need to submit the article somewhere, but I am having a hard time facing up to the prospect of yet another damning rejection. I am also very self-conscious about the fact that since I am no longer a professor, I am wearing the infamous scarlet "I" as an independent scholar. I often wonder if my lack of a university affiliation means that my work just won't be taken seriously. Just the thought of it makes me not want to submit anything, since I can't bear the thought of being judged in such a fashion.
I also haven't touched my book manuscript based on my dissertation project, which I have pretty much given up for dead. I got a couple of highly placed articles out of it, so I guess it served its purpose. However, just thinking about it makes my chest tight with anxiety and regret. I cannot escape a voice in the back of my head that is telling me that if I do not ever manage to publish a book, I will be an embarrassing failure. After all, a lot of my friends in the academic world have done so, and any historian worth her/his salt has at least one book of their own. Even worse, more and more I think deep down that I deserved the smack down I got from my publisher. The manuscript was rushed, since I was pushing hard to get a book contract to make myself more attractive on the job market, and in a perfect world would it have had two more years to gestate and be more fully formed. Even if it had, I had chosen a topic that I found to be particularly interesting and rich, but one that no one else has really written about, meaning that I wasted my time pouring my blood, sweat, and tears into something that hardly anybody, even in the narrow confines of Germanists who study the nineteenth century, cares about. I am beginning to think that my specialization was a huge mistake to begin with, since I find myself much more passionate about other areas of study. At the worst moments, I wonder whether I am like a perennial minor-league baseball player, making myself crazy by trying to be something I am just plain not good enough at to be.
Instead of trying to revive the corpse of my first project, I have been throwing myself into a different book project, one related to recent American history and which has nothing to do with nineteenth century Germany. It has similar thematic elements as my dissertation project, but I feel much more connected to it. Equally important, unlike my old project, it has the kind of broad popular appeal that might get me a contract amidst the publishing industry's current contractions. I spent a lot of last summer and my breaks during the school year researching it, which has allowed me to start writing bits and pieces of what I hope will be a cohesive whole. So far I've got about 55 pages, with thirty in a chapter I hope to be done with before the school year starts. Yet every time I sit down to write, I get that same tightness in my chest. I fear that I may be repeating myself by spending years of my life creating something that no one will want. Since I do not have bona fides as an Americanist, I wonder whether anyone would even have a reason to take me seriously. For that reason I hope to get it published by a popular, rather than academic press, but in the current economic climate that's quite a long shot.
What I increasingly tell myself is that this project allows me to continue to do the work of a historian, which I really take great pleasure from. Even if I write a book that goes nowhere, I can at least enjoy the process of putting it together and the knowledge I will gain along the way. But let's not kid ourselves, that's pretty thin spiritual gruel. Sometimes I wish I could turn off the part of me that wants to be a scholar, since I could be perfectly happy in my teaching career without the added aggro. Faced with the choice of giving up or going for broke, I've chosen the latter for the time being. I'm not sure I'll feel the same way in a couple of years.