Apologies if this becomes a rambling post, but this weekend has given me cause for thought. In my last post, I wrote about what I thought would be my academic swansong - delivering the IMEMS - Blackfriars Public Lecture.
I thought that this would be the last talk I would give. And possibly the final academic thing I would do considering my last publication project was complete this February. I didn't have any more research planned and didn't know whether I wanted to continue to balance my professional and academic identities. I have talked frequently about how difficult and challenging it can be to work in academic environment for your day-job but be decidedly "not an academic" in the eyes of colleagues. Which is fair - my day-job is professional services - but I am still an academic and it is hard at times not be seen as such.
So I was ready to be done with academia, for all its toxicity, privilege, and exclusiveness. I was never going to be treated with the full respect of an academic with "real" academic affiliation so why was I still banging on the door or looking through the window? I didn't want a lectureship or to put myself through the academic rat race, so why was I still pushing myself?
For one, I didn't want to give up on my research, which I do really love. Plus my family invested so much for me to have the opportunity to do a PhD and potentially pursue an academic career. There is a sense of guilt that I haven't done that (that guilt being entirely self-imposed - my family are amazing!). In addition, I felt that I still have more to give in terms of furthering and advancing knowledge in my research area. I would feel guilty not continuing it because I do believe it is important and valuable research.
But with that desire to continue to work, research and publish, comes crippling imposter syndrome. I recently published a translation of the medieval text at the core of my research, along with two wonderful collaborators. This should be a cause for celebration and yet I shy away from wanting others to read it, assign it as reading, order it for their libraries, etc. Not that I am afraid of criticism - constructive criticism is always welcome. Rather, I do feel (rightly or wrongly) that it is easier to judge those on the outside who are still publishing. We don't have the same support networks, opportunities to share and collaborate, to bounce ideas of, to have those critical friends. And so I always preface myself by saying "oh it's not a perfect translation, it's just a first attempt", as a way to pre-empt imaginary criticism.
Imposter syndrome is exacerbated the longer you are out. The longer you are gone the more you feel that you won't belong when you re-renter that environment.
Before the lecture, I was in a low mood because someone said to me that I was wasted in my current role. Now, I have to say that I love my job in professional services where I manage a pastoral support service for students. It is very rewarding and one where I can see a real career and make a real difference. Nevertheless, I was left feeling that I wasn't doing enough with my academic skills and experience.
I was nervous before giving the lecture. As a public lecture, would I pitch it at the right level? It was a while since I talked about my research - what if I had forgotten about it all? As it was, I thoroughly enjoyed delivering the lecture and receiving positive feedback about the talk and my research. I was even feeling brave enough to have the lecture recorded, which if you know me is a huge step for me! Words urging me to continue the research, to not give up* and offers of future support all helped me to realise that this wasn't my swansong.
While it is true that I have no current desire to apply for academic jobs, to attend academic conferences, or even to pursue further academic publications, that does not mean that I have given up on my research. Rather, I will refocus my audience. Giving a public lecture freed me to have more fun with my material, to engage an audience in another way, and to remind me that I can enjoy my material if I do it on my own terms. And that it my current attitude - I will pursue academia and scholarly research but in my own way and on my own terms.
Next up will be an ambitious pitch for a popular history book. Because one thing I realised is that I do want my research to reach an audience, but not the niche insular audience of academia. I'm now thinking much bigger and much more inclusive. So thank you IMEMS Blackfriars Public Lecture - you've reinvigorated me and refocused me.
*Please note, I am in the right mindset to be receptive to calls for me not to give up. But it is important to be careful about how we say this to early career academics who would have many reasons to walk away from academic entirely and to cut off all ties. Keeping going involves financial and personal sacrifices that some - with absolute justification - simply cannot make.