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Sabbatical Diary: The Shadow of Self-Doubt

While previous entries in my sabbatical diary have been more like traditional ProfHacker posts offering a few bits of advice and asking for more, this one is more like a diary because it’s been in my head as I’ve been on fellowship. I think it might also get at some of the points mentioned in a comment to my last post from “an interdisciplinary scholar on a non-traditional career path with tremendous self-doubt.” I could have written that sentence–at least the interdisciplinary, self-doubt part–and I’m not sure if this post will help those of us who have those feelings, but I hope it might help those of us who relate to it feel less alone.

June 2006
I’m standing on the platform at the New Haven train station waiting for the commuter train to New York City where I will spend a month living on New York University’s campus and have absolutely nothing to do but my own work. It is the first time in my life I have ever been able to focus on my research. Throughout graduate school and my first years on the job, I have never really identified as a researcher. I applied for but never received research-based fellowships or grants. Publishing was a struggle for me. The first article I ever published was rejected by five journals all with some comment like, “This is well-written, but it’s not right for us.” Though I had an amazing, supportive dissertation director, another member of my committee grew more and more discouraging the more I showed her what I wrote. As a counter-balance, I began focusing more and more on my teaching, and that’s where I felt I shined. I won awards, and a major factor in my getting the job I had was my teaching experience.

Professors have to publish, though, and I wanted to publish. I liked my ideas, and I often liked writing, but I needed to focus and get it done. As the train rolled through southwestern Connecticut, tears actually welled in my eyes. I felt I had achieved something I never thought possible: someone believed enough in my research to give me time to focus entirely on it. An full month that I could spend in archives and libraries! That may not sound like much, but it was the most I’d ever had and more than I ever thought I’d get. I stopped myself from crying because it felt silly to do so, but I let myself revel in the joy. I was more than ready to dive in.

On the first day, all of us accepted into the program had to attend orientation meetings before they would cut us loose. After lunch, we had a tour of the library. As we rode up the elevator, the woman giving the tour said, “Nels, we’re now going to walk by the archives where you will probably be spending most of your time.” The doors opened, and we turned left. The glass double-doors of the archives were locked, and the lights were out. There was a sign taped to the door: “The archives are being remodeled during the month of June. They will reopen on July 5.” My heart sank. The woman leading the tour turned to me and mumbled, “Umm . . . okay . . . well . . . we’ll have to talk about options then!” I smiled, but I fell apart inside. The whole point of my being there was to get access to documents and files not available anywhere else. And the place was shut down for the entire time I would be there. That night alone in my dorm room, I did cry a bit, feeling like I had somehow failed again, that it might not have been my fault, but I was not going to be able to do anything I wanted. And I didn’t know what to do next.

September 2011
I m standing on the same train platform with the same duffel bag waiting for the same train to New York City. As I slide through southwestern Connecticut once again, the memories of five years earlier flood back. This time, though, my mind goes right back to the depression I experienced in that first visit. I did get some valuable work done that month including the foundational research for an article that found a place in a collection of essays a year later. But it wasn’t what I intended to do. And it wasn’t what I told everyone I’d do. The semester after, so many people asked about the fellowship, and I had to explain that I didn’t get the chance to do anything I said I’d do. True or not, it felt like some people looked at me thinking, “I knew he wasn’t really a scholar.”

For this trip, I had a list of places to visit and people to talk to, and I’d made contact with some of them before I left. But I also had a list of other projects I could work on if something in the city fell apart. The older and perhaps wiser version of myself felt a bit silly at my feelings during that first fellowship, both before and after I knew the archives were going to be closed. But I’ve also known myself for over forty years, and I was getting much better at accepting how I wore my emotions on my sleeve. Sometimes, I even saw it as one of the best parts of my personality.

On the train for this trip, I tried to relax a bit more. I reminded myself that the semester away was a great opportunity, but I could take advantage of it in multiple ways. Yes, I had said I was going to do X, but if I ended up doing Y, I would be just fine. Roadblocks were going to be inevitable. If I had learned anything in academia, it was certainly that. I reminded myself that I just had to put one foot in front of the other, literally and figuratively. That’s how I’d gotten this far in my career. One door closes, and another door opens, but the hallway between the two can be long and dark. Cliches do often have some basis in truth.

A month later, I would have finished an essay and sent it out to a journal. That right there would be an accomplishment. I also hit some smaller bumps that left me a bit unmoored for a few hours or even a day, but I now recognize the need to acknowledge those bumps and move on. It’s really all most professors want to do: get the work done and get it out. Then move on.

What about you? When has your self-doubt flared up, and how did you handle it? Have your coping methods changed over time? Let us know in the comments.

[Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user benjaminasmith]

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