A colleague suggested that I write a series of reflections of what I would say to my younger academic self. Hindsight, of course, allows me to tailor advice knowing what the outcome will be, but these reflections also allow me to think about my journey to academic to something else in a way that I haven’t before. Here’s my first in the series, Notes to a Younger Self, which starts at almost the beginning as it should.
On graduate school orientation
You are going to cry after graduate school orientation. You are going to cry A LOT. This is okay. After all, this is the first time you been gathered together with all the other smart kids. You are used to being one of the only smart kids in the classes at your big state university. Now, you are confronted with all the other students who are also used to being the only smart kids.
This is what I know about you, Kelly. You feel outgunned. You want to panic. I need you to take a deep breath.
Just breathe and listen.
I know what you are doing right now. You are looking around the seminar room at all those students sitting around the gray, awkward table. You listen attentively as they describe their training and their summer adventures. You are waiting for the inevitable moment when you have to explain why you should be here too. You don’t feel like you belong. You begin to question your decision to go to graduate school. You are pretty sure that you will fail melodramatically.
I know what you are thinking. All these students seem smarter, more eloquent, better trained, and more ready than you. Many of them described European vacations, summer research, and other things that seem forever out of your reach. I know one guy will tell the group that he got married and his truck got struck by lighting. I know that you’ll be hesitant to note that you’ve been married a mere eight months. What you don’t know is that this guy is a member of your cohort, and he’ll become a dear friend. His humor offers you brief respite. Continue reading →
“I faced myself that day with the nonplussed apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire with no crucifix in hand,” Joan Didion, “On Self-Respect,” 1961.
Recently, I had a low week (which turned into weeks), in which every bad decision, failing, and the general wrong turns weighed upon me. I was left unhappy, brittle, and shaken. In truth, these days/weeks come less frequently than they once did. After a year away from academia, I’m no longer constantly plagued by self-doubt and anxiety. They exist as a low hum rather than a blaring radio. I still doubt myself, but I’m mostly content. I’m not quite fearless, but I am less afraid.
I recognized this bad mood as it settled upon me. I even knew why it occurred. Yet that profound feeling of not liking one’s self lingered. It was a discomforting moment where I evaluated my life and my person. The only thing to find was shortcomings, doubt, and unease. I became angry at myself for giving into the existential funk. I know intellectually that my life contains much good and happiness, but it is hard to find my way to it once the funk sets in. My mood runs dark, and my confidence dissipates. Unruly affect trumps intellect every time.
Instead of mentally reciting all of my failings, I picked up Joan Didion’s short essay, “On Self-Respect.” I’ve read and reread it many times. Notes scrawl in the margins. Passages underlined in blue and black dominate the page. Didion’s prose is unflinching and brutal. Her stark honesty appeals to me. Her words pierce polite niceties as she forces to think about what happens when we face ourselves. “Innocence ends,” she writes, “when one is stripped of the delusion of liking one’s self” (142). What happens to us when we confront who we are not who we imagine ourselves to be? What are we left with when we inspect ourselves without the benefit of rosy visions but stark assessment? This moment when delusion dissipates is when she “lost the conviction that the lights would always turn green for me” (143).
Self-deception proves difficult. Didion explains:
The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others–who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without (143).
To lack self-respect, then, is to be subject to “an interminable documentary” of one’s failures (144). Failures emerge as our constant companions, and we stake our worth on fickle reputations and mercurial approval of others. This is no way to live. Didion relies upon a phrase that dominated my childhood: “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.” While adults wield the phrase as explanation for punishment, Didion notes that the only way to sleep in that bed is to have self-respect, which is our reconciliation with ourselves. Accepting responsibility for one’s own life is the first step to self-respect (145).
Didion convinces me that self-respect is not something we have or don’t have, but rather it is habit that we can develop through practice. We can train ourselves to recognize our intrinsic worth. It becomes discipline. Self worth gives us the ability “to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent” (147). We abandon those debilitating notions of self that rely solely on the opinions of others. The goal is “to give us back to ourselves” (148).
I find myself working at the habit of self-respect, trying to ignore the notions of who I am that others cling to and trying to find who exactly is inhabiting the bed I made. This process isn’t easy as much of my self-worth has been defined externally by the lines on my CV, the list of accomplishments I could point to, and the desire for people to be proud of me.
When the CV no longer mattered and the accomplishments have no currency outside of academia, I found myself lacking. I craved the external validation that I was used to. I was disquieted by the person I’d become.
In “Bathroom Sink,” Miranda Lambert captures how I feel (like she so often does):
It’s amazing the amount of rejection that I see In my reflection and I can’t get out of the way I’m lookin’ forward to the girl I wanna be But regret has a way of starin’ me right in the face So I try not to waste too much time at the bathroom sink
Here’s the thing: I’m tired of dodging the bathroom mirror. I’m tired of rejection and regret. I’m tired of judging myself by the standards of other people. I’m tired of my happiness being tied to what I have or haven’t accomplished. I’m done with the profound sense of failure that creeps up on me in my quiet moments.
I’m building my habit of self-respect, so doubts annoy me, not paralyze me. The lights might not turn green, but that doesn’t mean that they are always red either. I’m learning to sleep well in the bed I’ve made because it is mine alone.
“Writers are always selling somebody out,” Joan Didion explains in the opening pages of Slouching Toward Bethlehem. These words clawed at me days after reading them in December. Now months later, the words still scratch at me when I begin to write.
Didion’s words give me pause as I start new columns and projects. Do writers, implicitly or purposefully, sell out those we write about? Do we craft the stories of others for our own purposes whether it be fame, money, or bylines?
Didion’s insight could just as easily be applied to academic writing as well. Do academics sell out the people we research, analyze, and write? Sometimes, I fear that we do. When we turn people into our objects of study, we stake a claim about what kind of people are studied and what kind of people do the studying. Those demarcations contain judgment that makes me uneasy because I’m complicit too.
Writing is always our crafting of their stories; the author/scholar decides what becomes significant, what we need to learn, and what is valuable. I, then, wonder about writing’s relationship with the telling the truth. With journalism, there’s an assumption of “just the facts, Ma’am” as a method to truth (of which I’m skeptical). Non-fiction writing seems to be about making the best of narratives that we are given. Familiar stories surface. They are repeated and sometimes contested. Certain narrative rhythms catch our attentions. They lull us into repetition, and repetition gives a ring of truth. Yet, we all lie too.
In May, I quit my job and moved to Florida. Both decisions might seem big (they were), but they were remarkably easy. My lecturer gig paid little, the teaching load was heavy, and my department was dysfunctional. Leaving behind students, friends, and colleagues was hard. Watching my daughter mourn the loss of her friends was harder.
The move to Florida was unexpected. Out of the blue, my husband was offered a new job with a tech company, which allowed him to telecommute. To my surprise, he took the job, and we decided to move to Florida to be closer to our families. We both walked away from academia, the careers we trained for. That surprised us both. He might go back. I find myself more ambivalent.
Except, I didn’t walk away. Not really. Instead, I embraced a safer option, a year hiatus from the academy. Reassess and figure things out, I tell myself, decide whether to stay or not. Delay the inevitable is probably more likely. It is more like a grace period (maybe). Am I going to pay my “debt” to my academic training? Or am I going to do something, anything, else? What I know is that now have time to breathe, to reflect, to dream, to recreate, and to mourn. I can decide if there is anything that I will miss about academic life. I can decide to take the parts I like (research and writing) and apply them to other careers. I can decide to walk away. The choice, for once, rests on my shoulders.
After six years on the job market, I found myself burned out. I’ve had conference interviews and campus visits. I’ve been a second choice for tenure track jobs multiple times. I applied for jobs while teaching three and four classes a semester. And I finished my first book, wrote articles and book reviews, received a contract for a new book, edited a journal, organized panels, and experimented with an ebook. The harder I worked, I thought naively, the more likely I was to get a job. Optimism is hard habit to kick.
During this past spring semester, something broke. My tireless drive to research and write dissipated. The latest round of rejections hit harder than previous rounds, and I was tired. Why make myself get up extra early to write if there was no tenure track job for me? Why spend the time researching when I would rather spend time with my daughter? Why kill myself for a job opportunity that would never materialize? I found that I couldn’t do the work I used to love. My motivation stalled. Something broke, and it seemed irreparable. This was compounded by my increasing frustration with my job as a lecturer. I liked my students, I enjoyed teaching, and I despised the undervaluing of teaching by my department head. I disliked the hierarchy of talents, in which tenure track and tenured faculty were valued more than those of us who just taught. Being a lecturer meant that my publications could be brushed aside, and that my experience and opinions mattered less. Frustrating doesn’t quite cover it.
The desire to throw up my hands and walk away chased me through the day. There must be more to academic life than this. I hoped for something that would make my training and efforts redeemable, and I struggled to find it. Why should I stay? That thought is a dangerous one. Once it roots, nothing makes it disappear. It remains and confronts. It pounces me in Florida now as I try to figure out what I am going to do next.
I mourn what my career could have been, and I struggle to redefine who I am now. Doubt, my old friend, bubbles to the surface as I ponder what I could do alongside what it is possible to do. The grace period is simultaneously too long and too short. Is it a transition? A reevaluation? A transformation? Is this a shedding of one vision of self to become a better version? Is it a loss of dreams? Is it a moment to dwell in the liminal?
Most days, it is hard to tell. But, I find myself mourning less as days go by. The loss of what could have been is less suffocating and distracting. A transition feels manageable and desirable. The possibilities for what could be are more and more exciting. I might not be an academic after my grace period, and that’s okay. I am more than my training. And so are all of you. It is best to never forget that.
Today in my #rest320 (Gender in Global Religions), I am teaching Donna Haraway’s “‘Gender’ for the Marxist Dictionary: The Sexual Politics of a Word” (1991).* The article provides a theoretical introduction to the complexity of “gender” as a term of life and analysis. Haraway pivots between the languages/constructions of gender and sex, theories/theorists of gender, and intersections of identity in the embodied lives of historical actors and modern selves. I assign this article for several reasons, but my primary goal is to demonstrate to students the complicated grammar of gender and many attempts to define gender and sex separately. What is at stake in the definitions of sex and gender? Why do the strict boundaries often enforced between the two tell us about the study of gender and/or sex? Does the bifurcation hinder more than it helps? What work (social, political, cultural) do definitions do for us? What might definitions hide?
I deeply love that Haraway engages the fraught politics of language and life in the attempted divisions between gender and sex in the English-speaking world. In rereading, I also become sorrowful as I ponder the resistance (still) to gender as a category of analysis in some subfields and disciplines. Or the more insidious response that gender no longer matters as an analytical tool (I have aired these complaints before). Her insights still resonate powerfully (at least to me) in 2013. Similar debates still rage about biological determinism and social construction. Discussions of gender somehow stall (in intriguingly different ways) around the tired bifurcation of sex and gender. As it always seems, there is still work to be done.