Friday, November 11, 2011

University life in all its stages

Time is collapsing all around me.

I am grading first year papers, and as I sometimes do, I dug out one of my papers from first year--from, holy crap, 1992! And I read it. And was transported back into that smart aleck self I was then, all piss and vinegar and not much knowledge at all. It was a paper on "To His Coy Mistress" wherein I expressed surprise that literature could be witty. (Yeah. I was that kid. Let me just apologize to all my teachers ...) The paper both sounded like me and did not sound like me ... and was in Courier font, because my prof didn't like computers. When I put the paper down and blinked up at the sunshine in my campus office I was totally discombobulated. The shift from 1992 to 2011 happened in that glance up from the paper. How did this happen to me?

We are hiring a new junior colleague in my field (digital media studies! Please apply!) and all of a sudden it occurred to me that I am not, actually, junior any more. I've been here seven and a half years; I got my PhD in 2004. I was imagining that we would be hiring ... I don't know, someone from my cohort? But I won't even be a generational peer of my new colleague. I'm not the fresh thinking any more; I am one of those who will benefit from the infusion of someone else's fresh blood into the body of the department. Amazing!

In my digital life writing class, my grad students have all had to produce personal blogs. As I read through those, the lives they articulate are both startlingly familiar and achingly remote. Grad student experiences are eternal and timeless, and while those experiences are part of my experiences, my history, it's not really my story any more. I'm mostly through my existential crises, my big moves to new cities, my basement apartments and groaning bookshelves whose tomes were assigned to me by others. How did 1998 get so far away from me without my really knowing it? Most of my friends are closer to 50 than they are to 30.

My oldest nephew is in grade 11: his mother and I are taking him back to our alma mater this weekend, for campus day. He spent the first two years of his life on that campus. We're going to retrace our steps, only this time instead of handing him in his slippery nylon snowsuit back and forth as we try to find a spot to eat that's not in the smoking section, he'll be busy fending off the hugs of my five year old daughter while his mother and I can't stop remarking on the things that have changed, and the things that haven't. My nephew is full of excitement, amazed to discover that university classes don't run every day, from 9:00 until 3:00, and that he gets to pick them all himself. That there will be classes with hundreds of people in them. The freedom and the responsibility.

One of my colleagues is retiring. There's going to be a party, with speeches. His kids have moved away, and he and his wife have sold their big old house with the beautiful gardens and the pocket doors and are renting something, until they figure out what they want to do next. He seems quite happy to be walking away. Amazing.

This is my twentieth year in university. More and more of my life is anchored to these places, these schedules, these routines. Orange and brown decor, brutalist architecture, the rhythms of academic semesters. Meal plans, parking woes, and backpacks. Thousands of 18 year olds, bookshelves everywhere, and hyper-literate conversation. This has all stayed mostly the same, but I guess I've been changing all along, right?

This is not a lament, no. I'm happier now and here than, really, I've ever been. I guess it's just that circumstances lately have brought home to me that even if I'm not going anywhere, everything is still moving forward. Amazing.

6 comments:

  1. I know exactly how you feel. This is my 30th year in university, and I've been a professor for 16 of them. Amazing. I haven't been "junior" for quite a long time. In fact, I'm part of the furniture.

    When I took this job I thought "I'll give it 10 years." I wasn't sure I wouldn't get bored. After all, every other job I've ever done lost its shine rather quickly. But this job brings new challenges every day, and I'm constantly pushing myself to know more. Just this morning I found an article in a journal that actually makes my heart beat faster. I'm that excited about it. I LOVE that about my job. As well as the flexible hours.

    We have much to be thankful for. And remembering that is a very good thing to do every day.

    Thanks for the reminder.

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  2. Ha! That part about being part of the furniture made me laugh. You don't wear enough orange to be part of the furniture. And you haven't accumulated quite enough dust to blend in to the dept. decor ;-)

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  3. What shocked me is when I went back to where I did my BA and all of my profs were in the process of retiring! I couldn't believe it. They didn't *seem* that old to me when I had them (I had a lot of young-at-heart profs) but at the same time, I forgot that I started my undergrad 15 years ago.

    And, yes, looking back at my old papers is distressing, hysterical, and only a little embarrassing. I have apologized so many times to my old profs. I don't know how many times I hear, if you'd just apply yourself...

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  4. Lee SB ... The profs ready to retire is one thing. Much worse is figuring out you're now the age of the profs you worked with in grad school. You know, the ones who seemed old and wise. So that's how I look to the *grad students*? How ancient do I look to the undergrads? 15 years as a prof didn't seem that long as it went by.

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  5. I've just completed my 25th year in the professoriate, and I'm delighted to say that one of MY undergraduate professors -- the remarkable Judith Herz at Concordia University in Montreal -- is still teaching and researching. One of my strongest memories from my undergraduate years is from her course in metaphysical poetry. She arrived in the classroom, sat on the desk. and said something like this: "While I was washing the dishes last night, I suddenly realized that this poem [by Donne] could be read like this." I thought: "Wow. Washing dishes and thinking about metaphysical poetry. I can do this. I can have a life and be a professor." Thank you, Judith!

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  6. Lee, three of my favourite professors from my undergrad have DIED. That's pretty sobering.

    ddvd, yeah, I think about that too. To my undergrads I understand I might seem hopeless ancient, but I held out some kind of hope that the older, wiser graduate students might still think ... I'm cool? Oh man, I am NOT cool.

    Jo-Ann, your reminiscence just made my entire day. I just read it out loud to my husband. That's the best story, ever.

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