Failure, but not the worst kind

March 25, 2013

I’ve been worrying about my tenure decision for months – the air seemed full of omens, the suspense stretched on and on. I was too afraid to write about it here and possibly jinx something even though I know that is silly.

I worried, and fretted, and had bad dreams, and then the shoe dropped. On March 4, I received news that my application for tenure had been denied. There was no explanation given, but it’s clear to me that more was expected of me in terms of my writing. I am still struggling with self-doubt and self-blame. Research and writing is something I’m good at. It’s not something I should have this kind of trouble with, and not something that should be holding me back.

But this is what happened. The counselor I have seen a few times has pointed out that I very likely have been dealing with post traumatic stress disorder, and that I’ve been working with an over-reactive fight or flight response for years when it comes to my professional “you must publish!” work. It helps to hear this from someone who knows what they are talking about and it helps to look at everything I have gone through since Teddy was diagnosed with CDH and realize that I really have had fairly normal reactions to abnormal circumstances. I am working hard to not beat myself up over this.

I’m writing an appeal, which for self-preservation purposes I’m assuming will be unsuccessful, and I’m trying to move forward with my last year of work at this place I’ve come to love. I am letting go of dreams of buying a house and living here forever, of planting a garden here. I will miss this town, and many of the people I work with, so damned much. So much has happened here.

But maybe that’s a good reason to move away as part of moving on? More tears have been cried in my poor office than any room should see; I’ve loved it here, yes, but I’ve also never been so stressed out as I have been these past few years. And, as part of my appeal-writing, I’ve been reading ballots my colleagues wrote about me. My “no” votes are a mix of thoughtful, reasoned opinions (which I can respect) and vitriol that I have to wonder about – how did I earn that? One ballot, in particular, was very surprising and hurtful – it was written by someone I really did consider a friend, who’d never hinted to me that any part of my work was lacking, but who apparently finds just about everything I do and have done here pretty meaningless. I’ve covered last-minute morning classes for this person, have watched her pets when she’s traveled, have sat next to her in boring meetings, writing notes back and forth. She helped me choose my wedding dress. It’s not that I have any right to her good opinion of me or my work, but as a colleague and a friend (or at least someone who happily wore the trappings of friendship) I think I did have some right to her honesty.

My external review letters were all good, which is both helpful for my ego and mystifying. The people I work with know much more about the personal circumstances I’ve been battling than these strangers, yet five strangers judged my work and potential very differently (and to my biased eyes, more fairly) than some of my own colleagues. I think of Elizabeth McCracken’s “Grief lasts longer than sympathy” and wonder if it might go even further than that, if sympathy’s end makes way for more impatience and resentment than there might otherwise be? Purest speculation, but I can’t help thinking that it would be a relief to work in a place where not everyone knew about Teddy, where I could pick and choose who I told about my beautiful boy, where I wouldn’t ask for anyone’s sympathy or inadvertently offend anyone who might think that I expected sympathy even if I didn’t ask for it.

Maybe it will be good to go someplace new, to start fresh, to make (very carefully) new friends. Maybe when I’m further away from all of these places I’ve saturated with tears and memories I’ll be able to move more lightly on my feet.

I am lucky in many ways. I am losing my job, a job I’ve loved. But it’s just a job. No one is dead. No one is chronically ill. I haven’t lost my marriage, which is a scarily common side-effect of baby loss. Nathan is sober and I don’t have to worry so much about hiding my stress from him, and that is a  huge weight off my shoulders. Added to all of this, over the past year especially, I really have moved forward with my writing and with having more energy for my work. Which makes the tenure decision ironic, but also means that I get to carry this renewed energy and focus with me wherever I end up next.



  1. I’m so sorry to hear this. My institution doesn’t have a tenure program–a result of working at a non-prestigious school. There are drawbacks, certainly, to working at such a place, but the publish-or-perish pressure isn’t there. And that was fortunate for me, because I couldn’t write anything for months and months after Eliza died. I’ve just submitted an article for publication this year after months of nothingness in terms of professional writing. I felt so depleted for so long, I just didn’t have it in me.

    I think this brings up so many complicated issues about the expectations of academia, grief, motherhood, feminism, friendship, and priorities. Professional productivity is in no way a measure of self-worth, but it’s so easy to hold ourselves to arbitrary standards and truly feel that words like “failure” apply even when, as you said, you had a completely normal reaction to abnormal circumstances.

    I wish you luck with your appeal, but I also wish you luck with a new start, if that’s what’s in store for you. It is scary to forge new paths, but there are so many ways to have a happy life.

  2. Erica, I’m sorry. I remember when you were getting everything ready for you tenure application (is that the right word?). In another life, I might have said that these things happen for a reason. I’m sorry you won’t be able to put down roots, but literally in a garden and figuratively.

    You may be on to something with this: if sympathy’s end makes way for more impatience and resentment than there might otherwise be.

  3. Oh Erica. I am really very sorry to read this. I think that they losing someone very talented and who has so much knowledge and passion. I’m so sorry that the house and the garden that your dreamt of might not come to pass.

    It must have been extremely painful to read some of those ballots, particularly those from people who you have helped out and might have expected to support you rather than stab you in the back. Rather melodramatic turn of phrase (all mine!) but, honestly, what a nasty kind of person that ‘friend’ turned out to be.

    It’s interesting. I think that people take me a lot less seriously at work now. About 20% of people know that I had a baby who died, about 10% probably ever remember.

    I don’t work in academia but, annoyingly, statistics is a field that requires you to concentrate and pay attention to lots of niggly details and that is something that I’m not particularly good at since Georgina died. I feel like I’m being eased out but it is hard to know for sure. Office politics can be rather opaque and I dread to think of the equivalent in academia.

    I’m sorry that this happened just as you felt you were beginning to hit your stride again. I’m sure that their loss will be somebody else’s gain and I hope that you find another position that is right for you and where you are appreciated (and perhaps I can even sling in a wish for nicer, less two-faced colleagues?!)

  4. Wow. Do they know that the tenure candidate reads their ballots?
    And that ‘friend’. Yes, honesty and guidance in your career is what older professors are for – not surprising you when it is too late. Is there some space for her to advance in some way if you are gone?

    Good luck finding something better – maybe even something outside the box. Step away from it all or freelance for a brief time if you can.

    Moving to a new city did change things for me. It was hard, but we knew it would be and had a plan for making new community.

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