Terri Givens reflects on how a fellowship in Washington offered personal and professional renewal.

September 12, 2012

I’m back! I am at the end of my two-month stint at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, and I am happy to report that it has been a very productive time. I have to admit that the last year has been a tough one for writing columns.  It seemed like every time I turned around I was dealing with another crisis with a family member or friend. I was still dealing with the transition back into research and teaching after my stint in administration, and I thought that my feelings of being frustrated and disconnected from my research were unique. I must admit it was a relief to find out that I wasn’t alone in much of what I was feeling, I just had the added layer of losing several people who were close to me, including my mother, over the last two years.

I realize now that one of the things I needed was breathing room. Being in a different place gave me the opportunity to focus on myself for a while. In Austin I was surrounded by reminders of a difficult couple of years. Being in a shiny office with a great view in Washington, where they actually empty the garbage cans every night (it’s once a month at UT), interacting with new people with more of a policy-oriented focus, and just having my evenings to myself worked wonders for me.

Going out and running along the mall a few days a week, seeing all the monuments and edifices that mean so much to us as a country and even using Capital Bikeshare to get around — all were part of my therapy. In the evenings I went to various events around Washington, including a couple of concerts during the jazz festival, and a women’s leadership event. I was looking at one of the columns I had written after my mother died, and saw that I had written that I would like to be able to go on a retreat of some kind, to be able to regroup. This has been more of a working retreat, a time to get back to the books and articles that have taken a backseat to everything else over the last two years.

I have also found time to do some pleasure reading. I am doing some personal research into the African American “great migration,” particularly focused on blacks who moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles. Since my mother’s passing, I have wanted to learn more about her journey from Opelousas, Louisiana to California when she was only a teenager. My father’s family also migrated from Virginia and Georgia to Pittsburgh, where he grew up. Having the time to learn more about this important time in African American history makes me feel closer to my parents and gives me a greater appreciation of the difficult time in history that they lived through. It also puts life in perspective.

So, to add to the advice that has been coming from Kerry Ann Rockquemore, I would say that a change of scenery may be another tool to add to the arsenal for dealing with a mid-career slump. It doesn’t have to mean leaving town; it could mean working in a different environment, even a coffee shop, for a few days. Although I have managed to get some research and work done over the past two years, like getting out an edited volume, the work that was most important to me was put on the back burner. I can remember only one time during the fall semester that I managed to find a few hours to pull out my notes and start to work on a book project that is going on 10 years in the writing. I have finally made some good progress on it, pulled out some material that will go in a different book, and started another project that will be more policy-oriented.  In many ways, just getting it all organized gave me the space I needed to actually write.

Without the usual household demands, I feel less rushed, and I’m able to focus for hours at a time.  I’m back into a regular writing rhythm, and I have been able to get a good amount of writing done every day.  I’m planning to continue this rhythm when I get back to Austin, and try hard not to get too distracted by departmental politics, at least not until I get a couple of manuscripts under submission.

I wish I could have a full year to focus on my research, but that’s not in the cards between my husband’s demanding job and my kids.  However, if I ever reach the point of diminishing returns again, I would at least try to take a week during the winter break or summer to take some time to myself and get the research and writing flowing again.  I know that there will be many challenges ahead and many of the concerns that I have about academia and my role in it remain.  However, through my experience in Washington, I have added some news tools to my arsenal for getting through difficult times, and feel ready to face the year ahead.

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Terri Givens

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