Year’s End

The other day, a family member asked me if I was planning to do a “year in review” post for 2013, a tradition I’ve kept up in the past few years. But you know?—I said—I don’t have a lot to say. What words I have in me, fewer these days, need to go to my thesis, my coursework, and my extracurricular contracted writing obligations; furthermore, I feel I know myself less well than I did a year ago. My ability to characterize what is interesting about my research has increased through a series of MPhil dissertation proposals and PhD applications, but my ability and my desire to tell the story of my own life has lessened. Lately, I’ve only been doing it in metaphors: how the homosocial environments in which the Victorian and Edwardian men I study grew up affected the forms of heterosocial interaction they pursued through marriage and an increasingly hetero professional and social world; how my love for the hills southwest of Oxford has grown upon me slowly and quietly and gently, not like the less mature rush of passion I first felt for the city centre’s dreaming spires three years ago. Those two statements, read closely, may tell you something about the tempest of emotions that has been the last twelve months, but suffice to say that this year I feel myself to have entered a new stage of life: one that has opened to me the capacity to understand books truly written for “grown-ups,” like Middlemarch; that has caused me to realize adulthood isn’t just budgeting and cooking but negotiating new ways of relating to people, a new level of responsibility for one’s thoughts, words and actions, new webs of personal and professional associations. When I was 18, I had friends who were grad students in their mid-twenties, and I do now the things I marvelled at them doing then: complaining about the worst hangovers of their lives, watching friends get married and have babies, having social interactions (carefully mediated, with clear boundaries and hierarchies in place, but social interactions nevertheless) with faculty in their department. Before, when I was invited to an older person’s house for a holiday meal or got to tag along for drinks after a seminar, I felt like the kid sister. Now, I’m a member of a college and a department. It makes for a certain degree of uncertainty about how to treat people—compounded by the many translation errors I’ve committed as an American abroad—and this year has not been without its deep anxieties and low moods at the difficulties inherent in finding a place at the seminar table. But things are different now, and by and large it feels good.

But academia is the easy part. There are boxes to tick, there are projects for which to lay plans, and at least for the next ten years the steps that I need to take to advance my career are relatively clear. The guidance I have from mentors could not be better. But I have realized that outside the classroom and the archive and the application form, no one can guide you, and that’s the trickier bit. Many times this year I have written emails that say, thank you for this advice, it makes a lot of sense, but I know I won’t be able to really feel the confidence in me that you express until I am middle-aged and can look back and see that my life has amounted to something. These days, it becomes harder to look back and take solace from making a shape out of my life up to this point, when what seems more pressing is how little sense I have of where my life is going to go. I spend a lot of time walking the side streets of Oxford trying to peek through the curtains in the front bay windows of terraced houses and imagining myself established, with a job and a partner and a cat, living in a two- or three-bedroom house with a little garden just like those ones. But there’s no reason to believe that will happen, and all the middle-aged people who kindly say that their lives haven’t turned out the way they thought when they were 23 but that this is perfectly all right, actually, can’t quell the forward-thinking existential angst that makes it hard to really tell the story of 2013, the year when living started to seem a great deal more difficult and more complicated, and when I became less certain that I could tell anyone who I am and what I believe.

For these reasons I have been following with great attention a fracas of a discussion that has erupted over the holidays in the pages of my favorite academic blogs, Tenured Radical and Historiann. In brief, it seems that a number of pseudonymous discussants projected upon a search committee’s late notification of its interview candidates for a tenure-track position in a literature department all their many anxieties about the present state of the academic job market as well as the social and economic position of young adults more generally. Even calls for civility and what I think people used to call “netiquette” have been interpreted as part and parcel of the grievances the young have against the complacent old. Nothing new, of course—isn’t this what student protesters were saying in the 1960s?—but the new medium does change matters, and it makes me wonder about age and adulthood and maturity. I hesitate to interrupt these social media conversations among senior academics just as much as I would hesitate to insinuate myself into a senior academic’s social circle in real life: what could I possibly have to offer, and why would they want to talk to me? The last time an established professional genuinely asked my opinion about something in a social setting (though in this case it was not an academic but a freelance writer with close ties to the academy), it was to ask how I, as a young person, thought she should have The Sex Talk with her teenage daughter. That I can do—but my thoughts on the job market are pretty irrelevant.

That’s what I think, anyway, when it comes to personalities like TR and Historiann who are respectful to others generally and would seem to be good mentors to their own graduate students. I was less certain of elder wisdom at a committee meeting earlier this year when a suggestion another master’s student and I presented for alteration of our course’s curriculum was literally laughed out of the meeting by a senior faculty member. While most of my interactions in academia since entering the profession as an apprentice have served to increase my faith in the system, if my first forays had only been met with the few instances I have encountered of disdain and belittling—and if advantage compounded upon advantage didn’t serve to ease my entrée into elite institutions—I would no doubt be filled with as much rage and desire to cut the pompous tenured down to size as some of the young people whose stories I’ve heard whose experience in academia was not kind to them. My good fortune may have insulated me from being eaten away by poisonous feelings of betrayal by the system, but I can kind of see where these people are coming from, because I am also young.

I have six months left in the master’s, and soon I will hear where my next, much longer and more momentous, posting will be, in one of three major US cities. At the moment, I am eager to start the next chapter of my academic life: while I have realized that the UK postgraduate education system doesn’t suit my immediate needs, I have become more confirmed in my vocation, and look forward to stepping up my training as a historian, meeting new mentors, having a cohort, having fresh ideas about a wider variety of subjects. And in fact, my academic progress this year has been a delight, and I have had some small successes that have made me proud.

But I struggle daily with the world outside the academic sphere: with being a good and generous person and a good friend and colleague, which is so hard; with being happy day-to-day, which is harder; with how to become the kind of person I want to be able to say I am in twenty or thirty years’ time. What’s more, all this tends towards solipsism, which is something I am also trying to avoid. Hence why I have been writing less here, and why explaining what has happened this year assumes less importance than does putting what energy I find that I have in these short, dark days to being the kind of adult who has the capacity to understand Middlemarch, who remembers what it was to be young and tempestuous and uncertain as much as she finds contentment in the more generous and worldly spirit brought on by maturity, and who prays that loving the world as hard as she can really is what it takes to find love in return.

Happy new year and all my very best for 2014.

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