When I was a young professional (honestly, with not enough life experience to do the job I was doing), I went to a church that was pretty big, and though I was very involved, the minister could never remember my name. He always greeted me warmly at the door and called me Samantha. (My name is not Samantha.)
It’s fine. Names were not his strong point.
I remember one time he gave a sermon on Ecclesiastes, and he said the key to Ecclesiastes was that you couldn’t read it in bits and pieces because it would be too overwhelming. Too much for the soul. You would need to read it in its entirety so that you wouldn’t be bowled over with despair and you could see the big picture of things.
I think that advice should also apply to faculty annual review processes. Goodness. My institution changed its system for doing this process, and I am on sabbatical but still need to complete one and between this new system and my general lack of desire to do things right now….it feels overwhelming. I just spent a couple of hours trying to familiarize myself with the interface, and tomorrow I am doing the whole thing in one sitting. What doesn’t get done tomorrow will not get done. (This is both my threat and my promise.)
As I was looking at what had been “imported” from the old system to the new system, I was reminded of why I am tired and also why I love my work. There were presentations from 2015 listed, beside things I wrote in 2019, next to service work I had done in 2018 and a panel series I did in 2016, and this and that….and though the chronology of this “imported” document was a mess, it was an 8-point font look at what I have been doing since joining my current university in 2013. And it was fun to look at an remember those sessions, the talks, the collaborations. And it was exhausting.
And then, because I couldn’t see any other way to do it, I had to go in and delete all these past entries because they don’t belong on my current year report. As I saw the list of my work grow shorter and shorter, I was reminded of the oft repeated refrain in Ecclesiastes, “this too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind”. I am doubtful that most of those activities had lasting meaning and impact, in and of themselves.
And the thing is, I love the work I do. I absolutely love the core of what I do: teaching, engaging in the community, mentoring students. But when looking at the nitty gritty of activities (committees, proposals to a conference so that I have something to “count” in a certain year, etc), I see a lot of things that feel pretty meaningless if you take a look at it in isolation from the bigger picture.
I think back to the minister who could never remember my name and I remember his words about reading Ecclesiastes in one sitting. You read it in one sitting so that you can see the light at the end, and have peace about the promise that life does have meaning and purpose.
This fits with my experience of academic life. I will never find joy in documenting student advising notes. But in advising, and hanging out with students in office hours, I build relationships with them, where I find a lot of joy in hearing about their dreams for the future and their everyday lives. I don’t anticipate I will be finding joy in sitting on a search committee and screening applicants the next time my turn comes to do so. But I do find so much joy in my colleagues themselves and in the ways we work together. Like, I miss them so much on sabbatical. I wish I could have them over for coffee every day, or perhaps a post work margarita.
Since COVID, semesters have felt more like a slog and something to get through rather than something to look forward to. One of my biggest hopes for returning after sabbatical is that I can recognize the less glamorous parts for what they are: part of the bigger picture. I won’t find joy in every single task, but I don’t want to forget the bigger picture. There is meaning in what I do, and I feel privileged to get to do it.
If you are in the miry pit of a semester right now and you don’t know how you will survive, hang on as best you can and look around for who can speak a little life and purpose to you. If you don’t have someone to do that for you, reach out to me and I will fill in the gap. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “two are better than one”.