Someone asked me recently what the best thing about being a professor is for me. I had to think about it: not because I don’t love my work but actually because there truly are so many good things about the work I am privileged to do each day.
I feel blessed to have made a career choice that lets me write and think and teach for a living. Being with my students of all ages, across race, ability, geography and other identity markers challenges me to stretch myself as a pedagogue and scholar. This is a life that for me, requires a commitment to one’s own personal and professional development. To do this well and in a manner that I find pleasing, I can’t let myself get too comfortable in “teaching as I was taught” or “thinking what I’ve always thought.” Despite my demonstrable expertise, there is no room in my life to be a “know it all.” Being aware of and open to what I don’t know seems critical to my ability to work effectively with students and continue exploring new frontiers in my scholarship because it allows me to continue pressing out, up and beyond whatever I think I know for sure. And I am glad about this.
At least on most days, I’m glad about it. Then…there are the other days.
For me, the best and worst thing about being a professor is that I am acutely aware of what I don’t know and how necessary it is to continue challenging and growing myself. When you read and write for a living, it becomes clear that there is so much more for you to read, write and consider. Making this career choice has meant standing always at the growing edge of my awareness. I am very clear and confident in the areas of mastery that I possess - which only exposes acutely (at least to me) all the things I have yet to ponder, analyze, evaluate or otherwise thoughtfully consider.
This sense -- this knowing that there is such a vast sea of knowledge and understanding that stretches before me is at once exhausting and exciting. It is the best thing and the worst thing about being a professor because it keeps me curious, engaged, hungry and excited at the same time that every intellectual insecurity I have ever felt is bubbling just beneath the surface of my consciousness at any given moment.
On a good day, I can handle this. And I can channel this simultaneity of experience into research, writing and teaching. On a not-so-good day, the depth of insecurity I feel is almost paralyzing and has, on more then one occasion, kept me on the couch. As someone who deals with chronic anxiety the debilitating nature of these insecurities can’t be overstated. It’s only recently that I have been able to be honest with myself about the fact that in order for me to do my work, it’s really important that I am feeling good about myself and about my life. Understanding that has been really helpful, in so much as this has helped me guard against toxicity and negative persons, places and things. But the demons in my own head? They can be big and mean and scary.
Frankly, sometimes, I am tired. I get bogged down by living on the precipice, stretching toward the horizon of various bodies of knowledge only to find it elusive. Who can walk on the edge of a cliff all the time? I long for moments where I can be centered in what I do know and dwell in that comfort. Yet, there is a part of me - the never satisfied part - that keeps me moving forward in the quest to be better, teach better, write better...
Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert noted in a TED Talk given in March of 2014, that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.” Perhaps I have lingered far too long in the opposite direction of this idea, focusing so much on the “not done-ness” of my awareness as to deny myself any peace. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this, as I continue the ebb and flow of managing this best of times, this worst of times…