31 July 2009

How we become

For some reason, I'm brimming with ideas for posts lately. Stay tuned for more on writing, class planning, Basement Cat, personality types, scheduling, and motivation. But for the last week I've been thinking about this post of Fencing Bear's, about the way our youthful selves make decisions for our older selves, and I think it's time to try to voice some of those thoughts.

When did things fall into place for me? When did I make the decisions that led to becoming the person I wanted to be at 25 or so? I wanted to be a professor before I wanted to be medievalist: I may have been afraid of leaving the university, but I did like the idea of spending my life thinking, researching, teaching. And yet when I changed my major, I did not choose the option recommended for people planning to go to graduate school; I was sure, at that point, that I would not do that. Then a graduate course I took in my senior year changed my mind.

But even in graduate school, my focus shifted around a bit. Which languages would I study, what department would I prepare to teach in? I think I was 26 before all that got settled. I do interdisciplinary work partly because my younger self wasn't very focused.

And then I dashed through my dissertation and, like FB, started my first and only job at 29. The job certainly defines me in some people's minds: if you teach at a Large Regional University, you are not Somebody in the standard academic hierarchies. At the same time, having a job at LRU means that in some ways I have more freedom than I would have had at an Ivy or Wannabe Ivy. I didn't have to write a book for tenure. I could continue to be unfocused, to put it less kindly: an article on this, an essay on that, a conference paper on the other thing—and if the idea falls flat, well, no need to develop that paper further. I could let it go.

So I have continued to make decisions about who I am, and who I want to be, as a scholar. I'm not where I'd like to be. In particular, I wish I had a longer CV. I wish I had already written a book. I wish I had already achieved some version of the medievalist's Trifecta. But just as it took me awhile to settle on an undergraduate major, it has taken me awhile to figure out what sort of scholar I am.

And that sounds as if those tasks are different: as if you choose a major from a menu, while you get to know yourself as a scholar. In some ways yes, in some ways, no. I did choose a major from a menu, and it didn’t suit me. I probably could have forced my way through it. I needed only four more courses in it to graduate. But I couldn’t stand it any longer. I changed to the one subject I had lower-division pre-requisites in, which is even more a forced choice, but it did suit me better. I was finding out who I was.

Similarly, I could have simply said, "I’m going to be this kind of a scholar," and forced my way through the sort of work required. In a way, I did just that, in graduate school and early in my career. But just as with my undergraduate work, it became harder, and I started to feel that my heart wasn’t in it, that I wasn’t doing it very well, and that I needed something else. (And both my undergrad work and my scholarly career were interrupted, just before a significant change in focus, by illness. This should probably be another post.)

About five years ago, I was part of an NEH Institute that made me say, "Oh. Yes! This!" And ever since I’ve been working on re-inventing myself as a manuscript scholar. This is uphill work. I was trained as a literary critic, though with a fairly heavy dose of paleography and linguistics. In grad school, our advisors thought that although editing a text was in many ways ideal training, we would not (at that time) get jobs if we did editions as our dissertations. So now, absent classes and a close relationship with senior advisors, I’m working on topics I wish I’d studied (or studied more carefully) twenty years ago, when I wasn’t teaching 125 students a year and sitting on committees, when someone else would give me assignments, check my work, answer questions, and tell me when I’d done enough.

For the essay I'm currently working on, I still need to finish the analysis of corrections, write the paragraphs, put the pieces together, and add the secondary references; but when I finish it, when it gets published, then I will feel that I have marked my transition into this territory. In the meantime, I do live the life of a textual scholar: I go to the libraries with manuscripts, I pore over the appropriate reference works, I present at suitable conferences, some of the people I want to talk to now recognize me. And this makes me happy. In a general sense, I have become the person I wanted to be when I was 25; but in the details, I have become the person I wanted to be when I was 40. Or close to her: it will probably take three to five years more to finish the process.

What about other adult decisions? The real estate decisions, so far, were made in my 30s (one on my own, one with Sir John). Unlike many people, though, I don't put real estate in the category of Major Life Decisions. Now, moving, that's a Major Life Hassle; but property, well, it's like other kinds of shopping, with the difference that land or a house holds its value much better than a car or clothes. I can't say I like house shopping much more than I like shopping in general, but in my family, first properties may be acquired in one's teens. I came late to real estate, because I went to graduate school instead of entering the property market.

Where shall we categorize Sir John? I married, for the first time, at 40; but our courtship was of Biblical length. For the sake of argument, let's put marriage as a decision of my 40s. One advantage to marrying late is that you have plenty of time to get over the youthful fantasy that marriage changes people. Sir John and I knew quite well what we were getting into. A friend about my age, who married young, recently said to me, "I want to choose my marriage every day." That sounds exhausting to me. I chose to be married several years ago, when we stood in front of a commissioner, and that's a decision made that I don't want to revisit, ever. But unlike my friend, I had two decades of worrying about men (will he call, what does he think of me, when will I see him . . .) behind me, and I was very ready to clear out that portion of my brain and use it for something more interesting.

In short, I feel that I have made a fair number of Adult Decisions relatively late in life. Maybe too late: can I achieve my new scholarly goals before my eyes or my brain give out? Will I get much beyond a silver wedding anniversary? But at the same time, I can't help thinking that my younger self got me into things I wish she hadn't. Mainly, she was way too adult. I wish she'd taken a few years off to do wild and crazy things. I wish she'd moved a couple of places for a year each, just to see what they were like. I wish she'd had the courage to dump a useless boyfriend. I wish she'd studied in Europe during graduate school, instead of thriftily staying on campus and getting a Ph.D. in a fairly brisk six years. I've been sensible all my days, and where has it got me? To a practical and responsible middle age, in which I wish I'd had a bit more of my world in my time.


Fencing Bear said...

Sounds like it's time to stop being so sensible! But seriously, it's something I'm struggling with as well, even though it sounds like my younger self got into a bit more mischief than yours did (e.g. I'm married to my second husband now--as I said, long story!). The thing I was meditating on in my post is what a big effect those decisions we made back in our youth have on us now. I by no means meant to suggest that we should necessarily have our lives entirely in place by the time we're 30, but I do wonder about how much it is actually possible for us to change. I've been trying for years now to reinvent myself as a scholar (my last leave before this one was even specifically to do just that) and yet I keep coming back to the same big questions that were driving me in college and graduate school. I don't seem to be able to escape them. But I should not go on about that here; I think there's another blog post in this for me now--thanks for the thoughtful response!

moria said...

This is very useful for on-the-cusp-of-26-year-old me. I like to spend some time with my younger selves as I accrue them, but it's also useful to think about being a younger self in the present.

I don't think it's possible to game this system: what's useful about this post is not, in other words, that it makes me frantic to be careful about the choices I make. (Some of the best moves made by one of my younger selves could also be called very bad decisions.) What's useful is your description of the malleability of career choices - it's easy to get roped in to the idea that we're each only allowed one professional identity, forever. That if you deviate from the path you choose at twenty-six, you're doing something wrong. That's dangerous thinking and it can only produce unhappy scholars (if not, simply, bad scholars).

So thanks. And mad props for your determination and intellectual resilience.

Susan said...

I think the thing that resonates with this for me is the way that in our 20s we often do what we think we're supposed to do, and by our 40s we find we are temperamentally suited to a particular way of thinking/approaching issues/ working. While I have ongoing "big questions", I have made peace with the fact that no one (least of all myself) will predict where I'll take those next.

And really, I had to comment when my WV was uphot. Which is what scholarship is.

Anonymous said...

Dame E,

The last paragraph of your post resonates with me.

I've found your blog a bit after this posting, but can't help but say "thanks" for articulating these thoughts so nicely.

Z said...

Hm, I didn't see this originally, don't know how I got to it, and don't know that you'll see this comment.

But. I was very very focused, was supposed to stick that way until tenure but went into mega rebellion after 4th year review instead, could not resist somehow.

I didn't understand it because it seemed or was so self destructive and I couldn't believe I was doing it.

However, had I owned it differently it coulda been good.

Meanwhile, thank God I have longevity genes to make some of that time up in.