julia foulkes

Mid

I have reached a certain age and a certain status: mid-career, mid-life. No more hoops to jump through—but still quite some years before I can retire—I have some freedom to decide what to concentrate on in my research and what modes of outcome for that research are appealing (book? website? exhibition? regular writing in an online magazine?). But how to be deliberate and intentional about what next, when I am long past the point of having a mentor? Over the last few months I undertook a mentoring project, with friends and colleagues, asking for their help in determining next steps.

I came up with what I called “mid-career questions,” some for myself, some for others. For myself, I pondered:

What has been my proudest achievement?
What do I want to be remembered for?
Who do I want to work with?
How do I like to spend my work day?
What goals have I not yet accomplished?

I asked others:

What can I do that others can’t? (What do others value about me?)
At The New School?
In research?
More generally in the profession?
How do you envision the later part of your career? What accomplishments do you hope to have?
If you are close to retirement, what principles or paths or accomplishments seem most important to you?
Anything to be wary of? (Obstacles that you hadn’t thought of, etc.)

One colleague synthesized these questions into three more concrete questions:

Do you want to pursue an administrative path, or not?
Do you want to continue doing the same kind of research or begin something quite different?
Do you want to do this work at The New School or elsewhere?

I appreciated people’s willingness to focus on me and my work, something that I don’t think many of us are comfortable asking of others, particularly at this stage in our career when we are more devoted to mentoring students or junior colleagues. Putting personal questions alongside professional ones also created different conversations than I typically have with some colleagues. But we live so much of our lives in and at work, why are we not doing this more often? (In my experience, this happens more often woman-to-woman.)

There are some pitfalls in this approach in that it can be hard for the person in the mentor position to see a path for another that is markedly different from their own. It’s also hard for the mentor not to be praiseworthy, I think, and that really is not something I was seeking. (Although I must say it was quite nice.) But I was fortunate to be asked some tough questions that really jolted me about some long-held practices and beliefs. Such as: why do so few people at The New School know about my research, and do I really not care about that? Is my inclination to see my record as “odd” just another way to undercut my accomplishments?

And there were some decisions made. No administrative path for me, at least for now. I write books but I can take a different path to the book. Rather than journal articles and conference papers, why not shorter writings in more public venues? An exhibition? A collaboration with a colleague of some kind? I love research and value the insights that archival digging can uncover. So start there. Return there. Figure out the story from there. I still don’t know exactly what the next book will be, but I’ve begun to schedule my archival trips, and I’m revved up.

The process confirmed what I already probably knew but, because of the care of others, it feels more sure and more shared. The conversations also make it easier to check-in again. It will be fun to hear what people will say when I decide that I want to write a musical.