Ever since I finished my dissertation, almost 5 years ago, I have been caught in a weird head space where I haven’t figured out my identity as an academic, a professional, and even as a person. I’ve had a few starts on blogging that usually stops after a couple of months. I get distracted by something else and totally lose interest. Why?
At first I thought it had to do with marathon training. Doing this is so time consuming and tiring that I would usually post about starting the process and then do nothing until the result. The fiction that I convinced myself was true is that I can’t write and train at the same time. If I am going to perform at my job, maintain my relationships, and be mentally healthy, I can either run, or write. I have told myself this even though I knew it was total bullshit. Great writers all have parallel obsessive habits from drinking and smoking to running. Telling myself lies to avoid doing something is a deep-seated character flaw. I’ve learned much about how this mechanism works, but this time it had me caught. The real question is not why I stopped writing, but what I was avoiding.
It was last night when I was catching up on Supergirl that a little sisterly advice hit me that freshly out of the closet Alex Danvers gave her sister Kara (Supergirl):
Look… sometimes, you know, in our life, when one part is really confusing, we will pour way more attention than necessary into another.
I started running for very good reasons that still hold. It was to improve mental and physical health. It is still the single best tool I have in my toolkit to maintain mental and physical health and stability and I can’t ever see myself stopping. However, I have poured a lot into it. Challenges are really effective to have in front of you to stay motivated. But at what point do you become obsessed with it to the point that you are avoiding something else? I went from at most running one marathon a year, and last year that was enough. This year I am not only running two marathons, but running 2017 miles which is about 700 more than the previous year, and I want to train to get a Boston Qualifying time which would shave about 5% off of my finishing time this past May. Have I crossed the tipping point where running has gone from healthy activity to obsession I am using to avoid something? I might be there.
I have struggled with my identity as an academic and as a professional since finishing my dissertation in 2013. For a very long time, my religious identity as a person of faith was my central obsession academically, emotionally, and socially. At the time I gave that up, a story I have not yet fully told, running filled the void. I traded one preoccupation with another. But my life as an academic sat hollow. If faith is no longer what I want to be doing, what should I be doing?
I have this theory that confidence in what we do is not something we are born with, but something we learn over time. As we become more competent in something we become more confident in our abilities and that alone builds our desire and drive to do it more. So, if I could just find out what I should be doing and become more competent in it, then I would resolve my confusion.
Well, it didn’t work. The experiment failed because my fundamentals beliefs were wrong. I believed I needed to become competent in what I believed others wanted to read. I focused on what others might find helpful like focusing on life hacks and self-help that I think works. How about something in my professional field that others find interesting? What about lessons I have learned in life that others might find useful? After a few tries, I got bored and stopped. None of that was very fulfilling. That material is all out there written by people who are singularly passionate about it. I am not one of those people. The entire theory of becoming competent got derailed by the one thing that all of these ideas has in common: doing what I think I should do based on what I believe others want. It’s like all that advice from successful writers went right through my head – do what inspires you, not what you think will inspire others.
If I should’t do what I believe I should do, what is it that inspires me or consistently interests me? That’s the real question. My answer has been that no one is interested in any of the stuff that interests me, so who cares? Another lie. Keep running. Today I’d rather run on truth than the bullshit I tell myself. Walking the dog last night, after that little moment from a cheesy TV show that struck me, I found an answer. The question was how these things were related. And they absolutely are.
My academic interests have always been first, in how to teach the whole human subject based on an understanding that it is the relationship between teacher and student that is the most revolutionary and fundamental aspect of human learning and progress. The second is related to it. My dissertation focused on secularization and higher education which is tied to patterns of belief in American society, the policies that both respond to and shape those patterns, and how historians tell that story. Both of these are looking at the dynamic relationship between faith, belief, and knowledge in society and in the student.
My professional interests are about how we can help college and university teachers be better teachers. What habits, programs, and behaviors can we improve as teachers to help students learn more effectively? Right now this is about designing a program of teacher formation through critical reflection to find areas of improvement and to experiment with different online classroom behaviors to help students learn more effectively.
My personal interests have to do with the connection between physical and mental health and supporting pragmatic behaviors that help improve health with scientific evidence. I have many friends who have been in long term recovery from addiction who have thrown themselves into physical activity as an integral part of how they manage their sobriety. I know of runners and other athletes who have traded their obsession for drugs, sex, and body dysmorphia for clean living, even without the aid of prescription drugs.
How are these tied together? Anyone can look at these three areas and find things in common: human progress, the nature of belief, evidence-based living, etc. But those aren’t what hit me as interesting. Instead, it’s this idea:
I am fundamentally interested in how groups of people form relationships that support and cultivate healthy patterns of belief, knowing, and action, and in relationships and ideas that do exactly the opposite.
So… that’s what really interests me and the three ways I look at it. With that, it’s time to stop thinking about what I should write for an imagined group of others out there, and just do what I find interesting. Someone out there has to be interested in this stuff too, right?