Spirits from my academic past

I promise, an overdue post about gender is coming soon — I keep editing and tinkering. But in the meantime… 

This past week, I visited the school where my advisor now teaches. My husband was on a program, and several grad school friends were there, so the whole family went along. It was great to see these people who meant so much to me for so many years, but also a little awkward, and in my own thoughts at least, a little bittersweet. It was, in a way, as if my own spirits of my academic past had visited, a-la-Dickens and Scrooge, to remind me of what was. I talked about pursuing altac positions with my friends, and while they understood from a general perspective, I think they were also a little sad. It became clear that they thought well of me as not just a person, but as a scholar and an academic, and thought I’d been doing great work. My advisor, who I told I was pursuing alternative academic employment, was understanding of not wanting the exploitation of adjunction, but also assumed I’d still be pursuing/”working on” intellectual questions that interest me. He, too, valued the work I had done, and I don’t think he realized what a separation from the life I’d once pursued I am now trying to make.

The return journey home got me thinking about why this was all so bittersweet, of course, and several things occurred to me. Not only do I:

  1. like to work with people on specific projects and 
  2. like to organize information into a coherent story or narrative, but also
  3. I want to feel that what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis is helpful and relevant, and therefore meaningful. 

And researching those very specific questions of intellectual interest felt helpful, relevant, and meaningful when surrounded by people who felt the same way and could pat me on the back, and I on theirs, and we could tell each other how great we all were. It even, at the time, felt like work (although I did have moment when I’d think about how odd it was to say “I’m working on these people living in this time, doing these things,” rather than actual work like writing, or teaching, or making things, or managing, or whatever else counts as work outside of academia). But now that it’s been several years (!) since I defended the dissertation and conversed regularly on those questions, they came to feel less helpful, relevant, and eventually, not as meaningful.

This is what makes me feel the most bittersweet of all, since it was the pursuit of a very particular set of research questions and interests that drove me to graduate school in the first place. For those to have lost some of their driving force does indeed make me feel like I’ve perhaps lost something precious.

Yes, teaching at times felt relevant and helpful (especially with my online seminarian students, not so much with my undergrads taking introductory classes), but more often than not, the balance was on the less helpful, rather than the more. To be told just this week by these colleagues and friends that the work I had done was valuable and meaningful to them makes me feel very sad I’m no longer contributing to those conversations that once meant so much.

If I think pragmatically, though, I know I need more than a hypothetical audience of a few scholars who are interested in similar questions. One of my mentors once said to a circle of graduate students, after a panel honoring her recent book, “after so many years, it feels so good to have all that I’ve worked on be validated like this.” I remember feeling boggled that she’d persisted with so little positive reinforcement (as her words implied). I don’t know that I can do that. I think I need my day-to-day work to actually feel helpful to the people I’m with, not a hypothetical audience years down the line. I know it’ll get easier, but I didn’t know how much this visit was going to stir up some of the messier side of life in the trenches of leaving academia.

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