Part of the reason, it occurs to me, why I've felt so unproductive lately is that a lot of my work has been reading, rather than writing; and not the whole-books sort of reading that we often ask our students to do to feel productive. It's been a bunch of other stuff.
Today, I read two chapters in a book I'm thinking about using for an article I'm revising, and skimmed another that I want to keep to read as the semester approaches, as I think it may come in handy as I design writing assignments. I re-read a play and the critical companion paper written by one of my grad students for his final project (though I've yet to write comments on it). I've read a few sections of another article, and then decided that while, yes, this article is phenomenally smart and maybe even a little revolutionary, that I don't want to rework a large section of an almost-completely-polished article just to accommodate it.
Of course, I've read some blogs, and I've read some news online, and I re-read a draft of something I'm radically revising, and I'm reading a student paper that needs to be sent off in its SASE before, you know, the student is actually back on campus... And at home I've got two novels going (Julian Barnes's History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters and Sadegh Hedayat's The Blind Owl) both of which have teaching implications.
But it really is hard to think about all of this reading as "being productive." Which is ridiculous, of course. This brings me to mind of the idea of our work being inserted more and more persistently into a capitalist logic wherein everything is measured in terms of its exchange value, where its quantifiability is most tangible and its value is clearest when it can be reproduced, or exchanged for capital.
Teaching generally has this problem--in fact, one of the chapters I read today from Elizabeth's Ellsworth's excellent Teaching Positions notes, "Pedagogy, when it 'works,' is unrepeatable and cannot be copied, sold or exchanged--it's 'worthless' to the economy of educational accountability." That may be the truest thing I've read about teaching in months, and it resonates so deeply with me that I struggle to make real sense of the reproducible artifacts of my work (writing) as even remotely approaching the value of that teaching, which, even at its best, is hard to quantify.
In fact, it's the worst part of teaching--grading--that is easiest to quantify, and which inserts student learning into that same quantifiable economy of learning and accountability--for what do students yearn most acutely? Would they exchange good grades for actual learning? Vice versa? Which one do they most often think of as the path to a paying job?
All that said, as much as I can bespeak the inherent worth and importance of the unquantifiable (even that which calls quantifiability and exchange value into question), I can say honestly that in the last 24 hours, I felt most professionally proud when looking at a list of things I had accomplished (produced in preparation for my annual report--my own accountability to the system that trades economic capital for this very labor). And much of my early summer malaise has to do with an absence of clear-cut product (be it written product or even as my weight-loss and gym activities have produced, bodily product).
I have heard the lament of many critics of the direction of higher ed about the disappearance of a certain kind of 'life of the mind," one that creates space and time for contemplation, for reading, for batting about ideas. We often tie it to the corporatization of higher ed, and I think this is among the most insidious connections: that reading is not, in and of itself, productive, or at the very least, it has no direct product. Reading, as a crucial component of this mind-life, doesn't have anything to show for itself at the end of the day. And forget about contemplation.
As for me personally, I need to think about how to imagine my reading as a thing in-and-of-itself, reading as its own value--it's why I got into this field, I'd like to think. perhaps I can preserve it. To begin, I have to find ways not to feel like reading days are ones in which I've accomplished nothing, and even more so, to imagine days in which no real reading has occurred (even if writing has) as lacking. Such a change in mindset may be dangerous, perhaps for my career, but the alternative may be just as dangerous in other ways.