Guess what? You're good enough:
Are you wondering where September went? Me too. So it seems like a good time to revisit something I was thinking about over the summer: the Good Enough Professor. It came up for me when an interview with Adam Phillips was floating through my FB networks. The interviewer, Paul Holdengräber, notes at one point: “In Winnicott’s essay ‘On the Capacity to Be Alone,’ he writes that the goal for the child is to be alone in the presence of the mother. For a long time this has seemed to me the single best definition of reading.” Being someone who loves to be alone, and a newish mother, and reader, I thought, ding, ding, ding, ding… I really should read that essay again. So I did. And that lead me to a few other biggies in the Winnicott archive and I found lots there to think about in terms of aloneness, parenting, and reading, but I also was especially struck by his brief discussion of “the good enough mother” in Playing and Reality. The idea of being “good enough” really got me.
I’m not the only one. There’s this Good Enough Professor. And this one. And this one. The idea of being good enough at anything, including being a professor, is both seductive and useful. It gives us a chance to stop and think about letting go of our perfectionism. It asks us to think about what it really means to be good enough.
The first thing that jumps out for me is the literal idea of being good enough. For example, there’s Erin's incredibly useful call to be strategic and efficient about course prep. For those of us who are lucky enough to be full-time faculty members, it might mean taking seriously the 40-40-20 split between research, teaching, and administrative work that our jobs usually demand. For me, taking on a lowly admin gig as my department’s Undergraduate Program Director, it has also meant trying to figure out how to keep this part of the job from taking up all of my work time when it is only supposed to take up part of it (so that I can, you know, teach and get that thing called research done). Before I took on the UPD gig, it was true that my research never knocked on my door, or sent me middle of the night panicked emails. Now, it is even more true.
So figuring out how to be a Good Enough Professor has something to do with embracing your inner slacker and, maybe more crucially, figuring out boundaries like: not looking at email after dinner; or setting aside one day of the week as a research day and making it an inviolable part of the schedule; or collaborating with others on research so that your research actually does knock on your door, or email you with stuff that has to get done, or call you for a meeting (huge shout out here to my crew at the Toronto Photography Seminar). I do all of these things and they work for me.
But, looking back at Winnicott, there’s another way of thinking about being a Good Enough Professor. For me, it’s really useful to remember that Winnicott’s theory of being good enough was first and foremost a way of thinking about parenting and the specifically gendered form of parenting (notably, he’s not writing about the good enough father). He talks a lot about illusion and disillusion – how the mother should give the infant the illusion of her constant presence and attendance to the child’s needs, only to slowly disillusion the child of that unfettered availability. Hello, transitional objects! What might this have to do with being a professor? Well, a lot, I think.
First, let’s tackle the (often unspoken) myth of the professor-as-parent. There’s this discussion about how the best professors resemble parents from a man who also refers to some of his brilliant undergrads as “excellent sheep” (sheep or child? I wouldn’t want to choose). Although it might be tempting, even obvious, to connect the professor with the parent, I think we have to shy (or run screaming at the top of our lungs) away from that connection for all kinds of reasons. For one thing, the student-professor relationship often already risks over-infantilizing students. Instinctively, and maybe because I actually have a child, I find the idea of thinking of my students as anything like children to be kind of awful no matter how persuasive Mr. Excellent Sheep might be. The student-professor dyad is not the only relation that marks this job. What’s more, profs are not merely teachers. Our jobs involve a lot of other duties.
So, what if we put the institution, the university, where Winnicott put the infant? Most of the institutions that I have been at always seem to be in a state of perpetual re-birth. Hello, sigh, cyclical program reviews. Hello, huge sigh, strategic plans. Hello, huge, huge sigh, prioritization exercises. But also, hello to the wonderful kind of questioning on the part of students, faculty, and administrators that is always breaking the university down even as the ivy on the walls or the concrete breezeblock in my office might just hold the thing up for a little bit longer. Putting the institution in the place of the child in Winnicott’s theory would make it so that the professor’s job would be to provide the institution with the illusion of constant availability, of an unwavering commitment to respond to all of its demands and needs, only to slowly engineer that disillusionment.
We move from being academics doing something purely because of our love for the job to a more detached relationship where labour relations are more visible. We come to the university as providers of an illusion of our love for this work, but this illusion can only be sustained temporarily. Ultimately, we have to disillusion the institution. We can only love our work within limits and with boundaries.
What does that look like? I really don’t know. Maybe, just maybe, for me it might involve not doing things that make me feel important when don’t actually help anyone else. It’s a tiny shift. I plan to resist the urge to copyedit my students’ papers and actually evaluate them; to only write constructive peer review reports; to agree to book reviews only when I know that I have something to say; to go to fewer conferences but to make them really count; to write more slowly and take more care with what I write. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I’m figuring it out. But I can’t help feeling that it’s important to keep in mind that, for Winnicott, being good enough was not about doing less, but about detaching in ways that actually sustain relationships, and that allow that relationship to thrive. For anyone navigating their place in the academy, it seems like a good idea to keep this idea handy.
How do you think you could be a Good Enough Professor?