Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Reflections on Solitary Scholardom

Last week, Melissa shared with us an excellent summary of the things she wishes she'd been told during her PhD--a post that has become one of the most read in the history of Hook & Eye. Then, on Friday, Magrit asked us to consider our virtuosity as female academics, and challenged us to make a list of our own skills, something I think we grad students should be doing on a more frequent basis as we, as per Melissa's advice, expand the scope of our own professional identity and adjust to the notion that we may not be safely ensconced in the folds of academia forever.

I've been traveling for over four weeks now, and I've had a lot of time to think--about myself, about my mission or goals as a young academic in my late-twenties, about my place within an English department that, with its incomparable network of like-minded people, can also be a little bit stifling and inevitably competitive, as we constantly look over each other's shoulders (at Fordham, where teaching fellows have shared office space in open cubicles, this is often literally the case). I don't think I realized before I left the States just how much this tight-knit academic community was affecting my mental well-being--I was constantly comparing my progress with those around me, fearing I was falling behind, and feeling inadequate. During this blessed research trip, I've been reading and transcribing and searching and thinking and memorizing and seeing and absorbing. I've been doing all these academic things while remaining both geographically and mentally remote from the quotidian demands of academia. I haven't been keeping up with the current academic debates on Twitter, I've fallen behind on email, I haven't been teaching or grading, I've had very few interactions with anyone on my committee, and I've spent many long days in the library alone. Facebook and email keep me peripherally aware of the kinds of issues that are facing my department, but overall I've enjoyed somewhat of a solitary existence over here--a culture-filled, charmed scholarly existence (even despite my multitude of fears that I haven't accomplished nearly enough). It has been good to distance myself from departmental gossip, reevaluate what I love about the study of the Middle Ages, and contemplate my own strengths as a scholar, thinker, and person. I've encountered a number of people working in professions outside academia, thought more about what I might like to do if I weren't an academic. Hell, I even started drawing again--something I loved to do for years, and out of which I at one point thought I would make a career.  I'd like to think that overall, this trip has helped me listen to the advice that Melissa wishes she had heard a little sooner.

Yet I do miss community. In fact, while I've been very well trained as a paleographer and researcher, something my advisers never prepared me for as a single female traveler is the paralyzing loneliness and alienation that can sometimes descend when arriving in new places, alienation that has caused me considerable despair and many panicked Skype-calls to my partner. In reaction against this alienation, I become deeply attached to the places I frequent, people I meet, even food I eat while I'm over here--sort of carving out my own mobile sense of home, I guess--but those attachments make leaving these places even harder, and then I have to repeat the cycle of mourning, alienation, and attachment every time I move around. Research trips are hard, yo! I miss sympathetic interactions with colleagues in the department, I miss regular Monday lunches with a dear friend, I miss workshopping syllabi and works-in-progress over wine and cheese, I miss bitchingdiscussing the pros and cons of academia in pubs after hours. I miss students, I miss my cat, I miss my apartment, I miss being fully fluent in reading and understanding the place I'm in.

When I return to New York, then, I want to preserve and treasure my solitary hours in the library, getting up and out of the apartment early and regulating my access to social media and social ties a bit more, but also embracing the unique opportunity of working in a university department and trying to maintain balanced, supportive, generative relationships. I also want to remember that everyone works in different ways, and refuse the temptation to compare my work habits with those of my peers. I want to hold close the people who build me up, and distance myself from the people who cause me undue anxiety or ignite paralyzing feelings of competitiveness.

As the recent debates over trigger warnings on syllabi have reminded us*, academia may not and should not be a safe space but it must be an accountable one, though we shouldn't let that accountability mutate into a culture of competitiveness or the student-customer model that the trigger-warned syllabus seems to uphold. We need to embrace our own virtues and sensitivities while welcoming those of others, acknowledging that we are all in various states of becoming and unrest. Ideally I will be ready after this trip to face these kind of challenges in the classroom, invigorated and recharged by my solitary experiences but eager to maintain productive relationships and accountable spaces in the academic circles I've already built up. Here's hopin,' anyway.

*a serious and sensitive issue that I hope we can broach again in the future; for now I'd recommend this round-up post on The Nation, and would welcome any initial thoughts.

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