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Shadow Narrative


Once every three years, professors are asked to gather everything we have accomplished into a portfolio. (For folks unfamiliar: think of each section of the curriculum vita as potentially a part of the portfolio where evidence or itemization is required.) The portfolio is capped off with three “narratives” – a Research Narrative, a Teaching Narrative, and a Service Narrative.

In some ways, the narratives are a pleasure to write. They are an opportunity to think about and frame our work. And, they provide a counterweight to the “soul-crushing” (to use a colleague’s very apt term) process of turning our intellectual labor into a set of measurable outcomes. But even the narratives, the most humanizing parts of the review, ask us to use the lens and logic of productivity. They present a managed self – the front stage of our professional lives.

As I wrote for the 2020-2023 period, I felt that something important was missing. The whole review process felt too… shiny? One night, around 3am (refer to #16 below), I got out of bed and started writing a “Shadow Narrative.” This is a kind of anti-review or un-review, a different way of thinking about my relationship with work.

I sent the Shadow Narrative to a small number of people I trusted, and they encouraged me to consider publishing or posting it somewhere. So, with the support of the Hub, I am sharing it here.

Please note, this piece includes references to deaths from COVID-19.

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Shadow Narrative

Associate Prof. Amy Brainer  |  3-Year Review  |  Written, But Not Submitted, May 2023

I remember thinking, when I returned to the US for college, that one of the very demoralizing parts of the culture is the forced bragging. American workplaces are punishing of modesty, or even frank admission of your own limits. Maybe this is why reviews are so draining.

This shadow narrative is a meditation on the ways I changed, found my edges, slowed down. It feels better to write about them than to tuck them under my accomplishments.

I understand why calling someone slow is so hurtful.
That’s how I feel. Slow.
I do everything slowly now. Answer emails. Grade. Think.

Some years back I read the Slow Professor. It made a good case for slowing down.
Arguably, slower thinking is more careful thinking.
But then you have to live with other people being a little disappointed in you.
No one really addresses that part.

Sometimes I forget in a scary way. There’s a blank white spot where there should be a word.
People tell me that’s normal. I don’t know if I’m explaining it correctly.

Pallavi says memory is thyroid related.
My thyroid, parathyroids, and 40 lymph nodes were completely encased in cancer when a surgeon removed them in 1999.
So maybe it’s that.

The thing that scared me most was long COVID. Before that, I mostly distanced for other people. But long COVID sounded too familiar – a close cousin to my current body.
“I feel like my body is trying to make energy but it can’t,” a long hauler told NPR.

In my research, teaching, and service narratives, I described all the things I want to do next.
Rereading them I feel happy – yes! These represent me.
I also feel like I am over promising.
Maybe I should have written: my next steps are to start returning graded work and emails in a more reasonable amount of time.

The three-year review asks me to account for 2020-2023. 
Here are some things I remember.

(1) I spent 2020-2021 mostly on the phone with my sister. I followed her COVID patients one by one from plummeting oxygen to the ventilator to comas and death. 
She shared little details. This one has pink nails. This one is building a deck.

(2) At the very beginning, while we were still calling it “corona,” a guest on a podcast said, “someone you know will die from this.” I kept thinking, please don’t let that person be Michelle. It wasn’t. 
But it was someone else’s Michelle.

(3) Sometimes it takes me a whole day to do one task.

(4) I tried making a minimalist version of my to-do list for the one task days. The result was, I ended up working on evenings and weekends to finish the rest.
How do you explain to people that this isn’t workaholism but the opposite? I’m slower, so it takes more time.

(5) In early 2022 I got married.
I surprised myself, going all in again.

(6) Some people would call this “remarried.” What a strange word. Like you’re repeating something, when every relationship is totally different.

(7) My mother loves my partner and this to me is everything I ever wanted.

(8) It hurt me unreasonably when someone criticized me in a way that felt unfair. By unreasonably, I mean, it shouldn’t have bothered me so much.

(9) In therapy you’re not really supposed to say “should” and “shouldn’t.” But that quickly becomes a weird circle – I shouldn’t have said “shouldn’t.”

(10) Here’s another should: There are some emails I should have answered but archived instead because so much time had passed, it was just embarrassing.

(11) A student told me she keeps missing class because on most days, she can’t get out of bed. I told her I only get out of bed because I am the instructor. We exchanged getting out of bed strategies.
As she was preparing to go, I said, “you’re going to be ok.”
She hugged me and said, “WE’RE going to be ok.”

(12) On the last day of the term I assigned Ocean Vuong’s poem “Someday I’ll love Ocean Vuong.” I asked my students, “what would it be like to write a poem titled ‘someday I’ll love [your name]’?”

(13) I feel more queer as the political climate turns on us. It makes sense I suppose: pressure on the community pushes the community together. Hate makes love necessary.

(14) Maybe for those of us who took a lot of shit, this feels more honest – at least people are admitting to the phobias we knew were there all along.

(15) Or maybe we just have PTSD.

(16) For several months in 2022 I spontaneously woke up very early, around 4am. Now in 2023 I struggle to fall asleep. Sometimes I see 4am from the other side.

(17) I switched from Zoloft to Lexapro. If you type Zoloft v. Lexapro into Google, a random site informs you: There are some differences in their side effects with Lexapro being more likely to cause sleep problems and taste disturbances, and Zoloft more likely to cause skin rash or diarrhea. There is some evidence that Lexapro may be more effective than other SSRIs, including Zoloft, in the treatment of depression.

(18) Every week I walk to the Ferndale Public Library and check out three novels. This is probably my favorite ritual.

(19) Jonathan Malesic finally put words to something that has been bothering me. That is: saying ‘no’ just shovels work from my plate onto someone else’s plate. This supposedly magical self-care tool just pushes the problem around. 
“The question, in the end, cannot just be, ‘how can I prevent my burnout?” Malesic writes. “It has to be, ‘how can I prevent yours?’”

(20) It seems to me self-care took off in the wrong direction. It builds a fortress around the individual. No toxic people! Only people who elevate me and help me achieve my goals!
But all the literature on longevity and wellness says that happy people are connected to others.

(21) We are all sometimes toxic. Maybe by eliminating toxic people, we are eliminating our selves.

(22) (Take #21 with a grain of salt. I’m way out of my lane.)

(23) What are the alternatives to pushing the problem around?
One idea Malesic’s research turned up is this: a lot of our box-ticking, bureaucratic work could simply stop. It needn’t be done by anyone at all.

(24) On most days I am ok with the new me. 
Maybe the three-year review wakes up my child self, the one who wants people to say: “wow, amazing.”

(25) But no, it’s not that.
Early in my career, I read a review of my favorite book. The reviewer said: “This book is beautifully written.” I thought, “One day I want someone to say my book is beautifully written.”
Then I wrote a book, and a reviewer said: “This book is beautifully written.”
And my inner critic metabolized the compliment and said: “Well, what are you going to do next?”

(26) I know. It’s not that I want someone else to say it. It’s me.
I want to look at something I wrote, imperfectly but with love, and say, “this is beautifully written.”

I want to look in the mirror at my lines and flaws and resilience and say: “wow, amazing.”

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