Finding a Balance

My job is weird. It’s a hard job to explain in a sentence. I’ve gotten it down to “I’m a feminist media scholar who studies the industrial labor behind music’s mediation,” as such portable declarations are necessary in professional settings. You still have to know what “mediation” means, however. And “industrial” might make certain people think of Skinny Puppy instead of booking agents. More to the point, answering the question “What do you do?” is difficult. I do a lot of things that I can break down easily. I write. I teach. I do service work.

Those short sentences neatly contain and obscure a messy, constantly generative circuit of activity. I draw boundaries around my time so that I can maintain a certain level of productivity. I keep prioritized lists of goals for myself each semester and extended holiday, which always involves drawing up itemized lists of smaller tasks I need to complete. I rotate between various responsibilities in anticipation of the series of deadlines that always shadow the margins of my day, week, month, semester, or year. I try to remember to look up from my screen to let in the larger world and its people, even if I have to write it into my day planner.

For me, writing is what I love most about my job. I enjoy teaching. It’s immediately gratifying, particularly in those moments where I help students “get it” (by “it,” I mean “power”). I enjoy service work. Currently, I am the press liaison for The Velvet Light Trap and I’ve learned so much by putting an issue together. I am also about to serve a two-year term as the graduate representative of the women’s caucus for the Society of Cinema and Media Studies and I am particularly invigorated for what the future holds with that endeavor. But writing is where I feel, to borrow a lovely phrase from a talented musician, like a room without a roof.

By “writing,” I don’t mean “research” or “editing.” I’m fine with editing, particularly because I’m at peace with the faultiness of language. Any chance you are given to write a sentence is a chance to rewrite that sentence. As a scholar, I tend to tread water when it comes to research. I’ve always been more comfortable writing the idea rather than letting the findings determine the argument. This is a bad habit. I realized the consequence of this over winter break when I read my first scholarly publication—a competent anthology chapter in a great edited collection—and felt like I was entering into an unfurnished room. I bracket writing and research off as two separate activities. I write at least one hour per day, and give myself one day at the end of the week to blog. I’ve taken to researching five hours a week, or roughly one hour per day per work week. By “research,” I mean scouring the trades, search engines, and my university’s library and archival data bases. I may take notes, but any other scholarly writing I do is kept separate.

Writing is when I’m at my happiest as a scholar. The integrity of my writing and its reception are different concerns. I leave that to editing. I’m referring to the deceptively simple, solitary act of constructing sentences and grouping them into sequences and paragraphs. No one can touch me when I’m in that place. Any insecurity or anxiety I have about being a graduate student, instructor, minor Internet presence, or human being falls away when I give myself over to writing.

It’s hard to find that place. It takes time to get there, which is why I have to guarantee myself the hour and sacrifice other things to protect it. It’s also hard to maintain this level of productivity. It’s hard to carve out your days into time-bound increments. It’s also hard to maintain the level of energy required of ceaselessly generating work. This week, I had difficulty with it. I felt the struggle on the page, where it matters most to me. Specifically, I felt it in the page’s absence from my week, because I didn’t get as much writing done as I would have liked and worried that my words would never live up to the potential I hope for them in my head.

Being far away from the writing process is usually what causes these feelings for me. So does being alive sometimes. Because it’s hard to write when you have doubts that crowd your mind and eclipse the observations you’re trying to make, the theories you’re trying to apply and invent, the analysis you’re trying to construct, and the arguments and issues upon which you’re trying to intervene. How do you write when you’re tried? How do you write when you’re sad? How do you write when you’re certain that your words don’t matter? These are real concerns. I always struggle with them. Today, I got two hours of sustained writing done. Now I’m taking two hours to commit this post to record. Here, I’ll acknowledge three key contributors to my insecurities and how I work with them.

Last spring, I participated in a panel at SCMS that was coordinated by Maureen Ryan at Northwestern and fellow MCS friend and colleague, Sarah Murray. Ryan gave a presentation about performances of failure in lifestyle blogs. It had a wickedly perceptive title: “Comparison is The Thief of Joy.” Girl, truth. As a woman, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t negatively compare myself to my perceptions of other people’s success. This affliction stymied me when I entered into the media studies master’s program at UT Austin. I still struggle with it. My PhD program is peopled by phenomenally talented graduate students and faculty members. This is inspiring. It also can make me feel bad about myself if I choose to let it. I often believe that any modicum of success I’ll achieve in school and perhaps later in my career will result simply from trying to keep up with the other two staggeringly bright and intellectually rigorous people with whom I share a cohort. I have to remember what I’m bringing to the table. This can be a challenge or an uncertainty.

Ann Friedman thinks women should befriend their formidably accomplished peers as a feminist act. I agree. My way out of comparison is collaboration. I take as many opportunities as I can to work with smart, driven people. I don’t do this to vampire their success. I do this because collaborating on a lecture, article, panel presentation, journal issue, or some other project might result in something greater in combination than in isolation. In doing so, I’ve cultivated fulfilling relationships with amazing women because I recognize them as complicated people instead of objectify them as a tidy series of CV items. Of course, I’m mindful of how collaboration can exclude others or when collaboration isn’t mutually beneficial. But when I see a powerful woman wrestle with something heavy, I don’t just marvel at her strength and distance myself from it. I ask if she needs help shouldering the weight.

Part of why I love writing is because it gives me a tremendous excuse to disengage with the world outside and burrow inward. Being an only child equipped me well for hours of solitary play and invention. The song lyric that best captures my childhood is the line in the Pet Shop Boys’ “Left to My Own Devices” when Neil Tennant sings about being a lonely boy in a world of his own imagining. My only real use for nature was as a stage for my childhood fictions. I was 25 before I felt comfortable meeting strangers in my peer group. Writing is often a retreat for me because it’s easier to express myself on the page than in person. This becomes an untenable scholarly position when your research questions necessitate that you talk to people.

I recently defended my dissertation proposal and now have roughly two years to research and write a project about how industry professionals like booking agents, licensors, supervisors, and promoters bring music to television and how identity shapes their perceptions of their work. I have five case studies in place. I have trade discourse and other traces of industrial self-disclosure to look at. But I need to ask people questions and that can be a little scary. It’s scary for two reasons. First, it’s hard to create a set of questions that are open-ended and don’t presume particular answers yet can yield usable data. I can be good at it, perhaps in part because I only like to ask big questions with answers I can’t predict. But it’s also difficult to create an instant rapport with a stranger or acquaintance.

My partner interviews hip-hop artists for his zine, Scratched Vinyl. He argues that creative people love talking about their work. One thing I am recognizing as I begin the process of ethnographic research and qualitative interviews is that ostensibly, my research subjects and I are there for the music. In Pink Noises, Tara Rodgers applies Lisa M. Tillmann-Healy’s concept, friendship as a method, to explain how interviewing female electronic musicians and composers represents “mutual efforts to build friendships and cultivate professional support” (3). As a media scholar, most of my critical interest in many television programs and films originates in its music. And much of my interest in music revolves around labor practices and claims to authorship. I’m a fan who’s interested in music as a space for work as much as it opens up sites for affect and performance. Perhaps the people I interview feel similarly.

Finally, my job can feel infinite. That usually sounds really exciting to me. I hope that there will always be a place for me in the academy as long as I have ideas I am able to research and refine into publication. I don’t worry about having those ideas, because music will always be a tremendous site for asking questions about gender, labor, and identity. I am also confident I can continue to commit those ideas to writing and share them with people. But I do worry that immersion could lead to burnout. That’s why I have to disengage. I have to get off the Internet. I have to go outside. I have to preserve my connections with friends, whether it’s over the phone or surrounding a pitcher. I have to pursue other projects that could feed into my research but are not directly in the service of my academic life. Right now, I’m completing deejay training at WSUM because I missed having a radio show. The show I pitched focuses on women’s contributions in soul, hip-hop, and R&B. I anticipate moving “Queens” to college radio will fuel my research somehow, at least on back-up singers. But I don’t have larger intellectual ambitions. I just have some records I wanna play.

And with that, I have to go. There’s a world out there tonight and I plan to engage with some part of it. The writing will be waiting when I get home.

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One comment

  1. Maureen E Ryan

    girl, truth!

    you touch on all the subtly interrelated issues about academic practice: and how to work well, how to be fulfilled, and how to stride ahead as the kind of scholar/author/feminist/colleague you want to be. you’re doing it right. <3

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