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Spirit/Health Last Updated: Sep 14th, 2012 - 13:50:10

Notes from the #ProfGrind
By Mark Anthony Neal--NewBlackMan
Aug 3, 2012, 11:20

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Like many of my professorial contemporaries, I was raised on the mantra of “publish or perish.” For the earliest part of my career, when I was teaching at an HBCU and later at one of the university centers in one of the largest public university systems in the United States, the added mantra was that I had to “write my way out” of those institutions to get somewhere that possessed the kinds of resources I thought my career trajectory deserved.

And write I did; my first three books were published within seven years of earning my degree, with a fourth book under contract and a co-edited volume in-production. As I’ve told emerging scholars on many occasions, the writing was always the easy part, and in those early days of my career it was nothing for me to knock out three or four-thousand words on a daily basis (and believe me, I kept count). I can’t necessarily speak for the quality of the work, but I was damn sure productive—and took great pride in that fact.

Even with the birth of my oldest daughter, I still believed I had control of the #ProfGrind. In fact my daughter’s birth made me more productive, allowing me to be focused on those free blocks of time that I possessed, when I wasn’t trying to be a dutiful parent. “Three-a-days,” I called them, blocking out four hours in the morning on days that I wasn’t teaching, three hours in the afternoon between lunch and email breaks (this in the days before wireless laptops and Blackberrys) and daycare pickup, and two hours in the evening after I had put the baby down—more on Fridays and Saturdays when the local Starbucks was open until midnight.

The pace continued with the birth of my youngest daughter, who unlike her older sister (who was interactive), would sit in her detachable car seat for hours while I punched the keys on the second of my five Toshibas. In addition to my traditional scholarship, I began to write regular reviews and long thought pieces for fledgling on-line magazines like Popmatters and latter I had my career all planned out—knew what the next four-to-five books were going to be, and knew that I had the passion and the speed to turn them around quickly.

I remember the day in the spring of 2006, just at the paperback edition of New Black Man was being published, that my editor at NYU Press called to tell me that the press was offering me a contract for my next book (at that time, titled The TNIMixtape). There was no reason for me to think, given my track record, that I wouldn’t be turning in the finished manuscript later that summer; indeed I had already began to script the next two projects. That was then.

I have another vivid memory—five years later—of receiving an email from that same editor at NYU, encouraging me (strongly) to finally turn in that same damn manuscript (now titled Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities). The book had been largely finished for months—a fact that the editor knew since he had read it—but I told him and myself, that I had to cross some more Ts and dot some more Is, or so I thought at least. In many ways I was afraid to let go of the book, because its eventually publication would only publically mark the time that had passed since I published my last book.

And while I never stopped writing—have truthfully never suffered through writer’s block—and have long understood that the physical act of writing is what likely separates me from a deep clinical depression (I literally, to remix a phrase from the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, “write to live), I was also the product of a culture that often measured our worth as scholars in terms of books. And when some of the scholars you most admired and who you considered treasured mentors were knocking out a-book-a-year, it couldn’t help but think that somehow I had fallen behind the #ProfGrind.

It wasn’t until earlier this spring, as I prepared Looking for Leroy for copyediting that I finally came to terms with what had happened over the past seven years. The full accounting took place as I wrote the book’s preface and acknowledgements (always the last phase in my process).

When I published NewBlackMan, my oldest daughter was a doe-eyed, curious third-grader, stuck in a school that had little patience for all the questions that she deemed relevant. The #ProfGrind would never take in account the endless hours I spent with her, sitting in the minivan or at Starbucks, answering her questions and following her logic. The #ProfGrind would never consider the hours devoted to driving across the state of North Carolina to day-long swim meets, and the hours of chlorine fumed practices in a YMCA with suspect wireless and even worse ventilation. What is the use of the #ProfGrind, if it can’t be used in the service of allowing your 13-year-old daughter to not simply dream of participating in the 2016 Olympic Trials, but to, in fact, prepare for the inevitability of it.

The #ProfGrind would never take into account that my youngest daughter, who in 2005 as a toddler, was already a rambunctious, independent spirit, who would only prove more challenging and demanding as she got older; the one, who among her sister and a devoted partner of more than twenty years, is always the first to raise questions about my regular presence, or lack of, in the daily life of our family. She finds little value in the #ProfGrind.

The #ProfGrind wouldn’t take into account that I would bury two parents within 18-months of each other; the mother who would never recover from the death of her mother and her husband within a month of each other. The #ProfGrind provided no solace for the nights that I woke up in tears, because I had no choice but to put my mother in a nursing home during the last year of her life, some four hundred miles away from me, and the guilt that I still carry that I should have done more; always understanding that the hands-on caretaking of my mother was antithetical to the #ProfGrind. The #ProfGrind offers no explanation for the regular dreams that I have that I am 16-years-old again and back in the apartment that I shared with my parents for some many years

The #ProfGrind didn’t care, about the years of sleep deprivation that nearly killed me, though the #ProfGrind was indeed an enabler of my debilitating and unhealthy lifestyle. The #ProfGrind never quite prepared me for the fact that an elite University might not always treat you as an elite scholar no matter how productive you might be.


The #ProfGrind, perhaps, became most clear to me a week or two ago. While editors asked for updates on projects that I owe them, and the deadlines to a half-dozen tenure and promotion cases loom in the immediate future, I took time from the #ProfGrind to sit in the drizzle and watch my youngest daughter strikeout two times in a softball game (“wait for your pitch; stop swinging at those high ones if you can’t handle them”); drove three hours to Charlotte with my oldest daughter riding shotgun, as we listened to Frank Ocean’s ChannelOrange and talked about the politics of Love, as she mentally prepared for what would be her greatest achievement thus far as a competitive swimmer. In between those two events I spent a few hours, with two-dozen undergraduate future professor, talking, ironically, about the #ProfGrind. It was the happiest I had been in some time.

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