It's been an odd few months, professionally (and, by implication, personally). So, while I'm sitting here avoiding work (tis always thus on the first day back from vacation, right?), I think I'll finally pull my thoughts together ... as much for my own reflective benefit as anyone else's.
Disclaimer: this is long, introspective, and perhaps a bit whiny. Read on at your own risk.
Short version: I'm looking for something professionally that I can get passionate about.
Often, I make a blog entry in the February/March time frame, usually coinciding with my annual visit to the SIGCSE annual conference. This year, the event was held in Raleigh. And ... for me, this time around, it was odd. Usually, I come back from the meeting every year with some sort of inspiration. And this time ... nothing. So much so, in fact, that the nothing was actually something.
I went to a wide variety of sessions ... papers, panels, special sessions, whatever came along. And I think the thing that struck me the most was ... how passionate every presenter was about their topic. It wasn't just that they were presenting good work (and they were, of course). It was how much they believed in the importance of their work, and how excited they were about that work. You get the impression that they'd be doing the work even if they weren't getting rewarded for it.
And for me, what was my passion for the week? Spending every spare moment that I could walking around Raleigh, trying to find as many geocaches as I could. In particular, trying to see if I could find twenty, which would qualify me for a series of challenge caches back home. (And I did end up with 22 by the time I was done.)
See, my original research program --- the one that I was involved in while pursuing my Ph.D., and later while pursuing tenure --- is pretty much dead at this point. I don't have any collaborators working with me on any projects, and so any work on the project pretty much happened on my own initiative. And, with no-one asking me about my work, or wanting to help, or even caring if I did anything or not, I stopped caring about it too. And when something else comes along that demanded my attention, I'd let myself go work on the other thing --- often times more interesting --- and never quite get back to it.
("This is the way the world ends ... not with a bang, but a whimper.")
And so, when I look at my attempt at seeking promotion this year, which failed due to my inadequate research record, the first set of thoughts I naturally had were "well, let's get back to work on something so I can get some journal publications and get promoted". That is, of course, exactly the opposite way to think about doing research --- pursuing the publication count instead of doing good work. Of course, I'm self-aware enough to recognize that contradiction, but not aware enough to know what to do about it.
Because, if I'm completely honest, my primary motivation about getting back into the research racket is the pursuit of a title. There's this presumption in academia that "well, of course, you'll want to be promoted to full professor someday, right"? So, of course, I should be writing papers and getting grants and presenting at conferences and all the things that "real" professors do. Of course, none of that should take away time from teaching classes, sitting on committees, taking care of myself physically, being a good father, a good husband, and a good church member.
Sleep? Who needs sleep? :)
Anyways ... back to the story.
So, even though I came away from SIGCSE with "nothing" but the geocache finds, I did come away with something. I recognized the passion in others about their work as something that is lacking in me right now. It makes me jealous --- not always in the best ways, unfortunately. But I want to channel that discontent --- somehow --- into propelling me forward into finding useful and interesting work to do. Because if I find good work to do, the rest should take care of itself.
And even if it doesn't take care of itself, why should I care? I'm not sure why the title of full professor means so much to me. Having the title doesn't make me a better teacher or a better committee member or a better researcher. There are plenty of associate professors at Kettering that I respect more than their full professor counterparts. But that's the course that "everyone" pursues, so I should pursue it too, right?
Well, maybe not.
Since the death of Steve Jobs, I've been haunted by one of his quotes: "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life." The pursuit of titles like "full professor" is a goal dictated by others for me; it doesn't have to be a goal that I pursue. (I'm not sure I completely believe that as I write it, of course.)
A few weeks ago, I had another insight ... coming again from the world of geocaching. Yesterday, our family celebrated our one-year anniversary of finding our first geocache on our own (without my brother-in-law's guidance). In the last year, I've become utterly obsessed with this sport. In that first year, I found 623 geocaches ... and am constantly looking for ways to find more.
Part of my fascination with the sport of geocaching also comes from learning the culture of geocaching. There is a definite cultural vibe at play, watching other people's logs and reading the discussion forums. Some of the culture is codified into some bumper-sticker-esque catch phrases, which develop more meaning as you play the game longer.
One of them I've noticed a lot lately is this: "play the game your own way".
See, there are lots of opinions about how one should play the game of geocaching. Some people are just in it for the numbers ... trying to find and hide as many caches as possible. Others are more interested in the social aspects ... hunting with friends. Still others are interested more in the places you go to find the caches than in how many you find ... a cache that takes you all day to hike to and from can still be a marvelous experience.
And in the sport of geocaching, all of those experiences are valid. Different people play the game different ways. There are only two real "rules": sign the log when you find it, and if you find something in the cache that you like, trade something of yours of equal or better value for it. That's it. How you choose to turn those rules into more interesting games is up to you.
And so ... I'm an academic. There are a few rules to academia, too --- though I won't dare to try and enumerate them. But beyond that ... everyone plays the game their own way. Some folks pursue titles and promotions. Some pursue the affection of their students. Some look for a nice way to pass the time between golf matches.
I need to figure out what rules I want to play. Having tenure gives me that gracious gift to make that decision for myself, rather than having others make that decision for me.
So ... I'm looking for something to get passionate about at work --- so that I get excited to go into work, regardless of what other people might expect out of their day. I'd like it to be about research. But maybe, just maybe, I'm starting to realize that it doesn't have to be completely about that.
There's also a geocache on a gazebo in Fenton that's really annoying me. Anyone wanna help me find that, too? :)