Monday, November 11, 2013

Rewriting the past

I'm just back from a week of research at the rare books library at my alma mater, which was a complicated experience. The research end of things was great: I put in six to eight hours every day, got through a ton of material, and feel I now have a firmer grasp on some of the background material for my second book project.

When nonspecialists ask me about my research, I usually say that it's about how we deal with the past: how people find a language to describe experiences or identities that the culture doesn't recognize; how they narrate events that even they may not understand; how they reimagine the past to cope with traumatic change. That's the big take-away and what animates both of my book projects (and no one wants to hear me talk about Early Modern religious prose for longer than it takes me to say "Early Modern religious prose").

But as I spent my week thinking about the ways sixteenth and seventeenth century ecclesiastical histories narrate the past to bring it into alignment with the present, I had a disorienting sense of going through a similar process myself.

The thing is, I don't know what my relationship to my alma mater or its city is anymore, or why I keep going back. It's surely not a city I'd think to visit if I didn't have any prior relationship to it, but given that I know the rare books library inside and out (literally, since it was one of my work-study jobs in college) and it's the major collection closest to my home, it makes sense to regard it as my default rare books library. I also have lots of friends who live or work in Grad School City or its immediate environs, as well as a deep attachment to many of the city's shops, restaurants, museums, and theatres.

But although I like going back and I'm always eager for an excuse to visit, I'm not really sure why. I was unhappy almost the entire time I lived in that city in grad school and I fled after my fourth year. (Indeed, I was so unhappy, so early, that I started saving money in my second year because I needed to believe that I'd be able to leave.) And although I say that I loved my college experience, the reality is more complex. I loved my friends, my classes, my extra-curricular activities. I believe that who I am today is profoundly shaped by that institution. But on an actual, day-to-day basis? I was anxious and stressed and often mildly depressed.

So being back is strange, although it's not as fraught these days as it was several years back, when I had a month-long research fellowship and felt I was continually running into all my past selves. Once in a while, though, I was still taken by surprise. Looking for street parking one morning I got caught in a long loop of one-way streets and found myself a couple of miles from campus alongside a building that a guy from my cohort had briefly inhabited. All at once I was thrust back to September 1999: he'd thrown a party there, that first month of grad school. There was nothing remarkable about the party; we'd only just met one another, and the ten or twelve of us sat around in a circle chatting and drinking wine out of plastic cups. I remember it as a pleasant evening. But seeing that building I felt, hard in my gut, what the rest of that year was like, and the year after.

Flashbacks like that happened a few times. More bizarre were the actual live people I stumbled across whom I'd known in grad school but had no reason to suspect were in Gradschoolandia these days--like the guy whose voice I heard from another room of a coffee shop and instantly recognized, or the woman I saw from across the library, still wearing a coat I remembered. I didn't love either of them and I don't think they loved me, and seeing them, similarly, returned me to the reasons I'd been dying to leave that town in the first place: so small, so insular, so hard to escape. What were they doing there?

For that matter, what was I doing there? Why do we all keep coming back?

I think, sometimes, that it's because I can't quite get my head around the fact that I was so unhappy somewhere I should have been happy. I don't really understand who I was in grad school, or what it says about who I am now. That's old news to long-time readers of this blog--or anyone who has perused the vast archive of posts tagged "grad school trauma." But on this visit, in an unexpected twist, I wound up talking about some of these things with my dissertation director.

We had lunch one afternoon, which was the first time we'd seen each other in perhaps three years. It was lovely from start to finish. At some point she mentioned that she was proud of my successes, and added that she was especially proud because I'd managed them without--she suspected--having gotten much support from her in the early years. I said that I wasn't going to disagree with that statement. . . but that I understood, now that I advised undergrad and M.A. theses, how complicated the advising relationship was and how prone to mismatches or misunderstandings due to different emotional and personal styles. I added that I felt I'd been a very different person in grad school, radically different not only from who I am now, but not much like who I was before grad school, either: that I saw myself as a mostly optimistic and self-assured person who for some reason had been a disaster of insecurity and timidity for most of six years.

She, in turn, did not dispute that statement. But we wound up having a nice conversation about how hard it is to predict future results--our own or anyone else's--and how interesting it is to watch and see how life turns out.

The past is a problem that can't be solved. But it can be reintegrated, renarrated, and reimagined.


Comradde PhysioProffe said...

After years of guided introspection that started in my mid-twenties, I came to the realization that it is crucial for the present self to be gentle and accepting of past selves. This can be particularly difficult for scholars, as we prize our ability to ferret out the truth and frequently glorify a harsh and judgmental analytical stance.

Flavia said...



Susan said...

What's charming is that you haven't let go of the idea that you should have been *happy* in grad school. Intellectually challenged, yes; but happy? (And as someone who attended an elite university that everyone loves and had a mixed experience, some good, some bad, I think we need to be able to admit that we were who we were -- and, as CPP said, be kind to that person.)

The turnover at universities means that you don't go back to your place: it changes. And that allows you to just be there. It's great that you and your diss director were able to talk about the whole process in a conversation that was about figuring it out, not blaming...

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Ye gads was I miserable in graduate school. My masters school was a great fit for me, and I was happy there, but my doctoral studies really took a turn toward the dark side. I was at a school that immediately made me feel like an outsider. It was a strong contrast to the warm feeling I had at my masters school. I didn't really get along with the professors I should have been working with. It was a mess.

I had gotten in to another school that was much bigger and would have been better for my work, but I didn't get an assistantship there, so I didn't go there. I should have.

Oh well. No sense questioning those decisions. But I have only been back to grad city once since I left there to move to CA. I returned to walk through graduation and I haven't been back. Grad school left a icky taste in my mouth. Maybe a lot of people get PTSD from grad school. I feel like I did.

Tony Grafton said...

It's so cool that you're working on ecclesiastical historians. Please tell us more some time. And oh yes, graduate school was hell (in my case, at Chicago, the Dante version, which freezes over, as a UC t shirt points out). Every return to campus brings misery, not mitigated by how much I enjoyed being there as an undergraduate.

Bardiac said...

I sometimes wonder if grad school isn't a bit like junior high, where everyone really felt pretty miserable and out of place, but thinks that other people aren't miserable, until later, you find out that yes, pretty much everyone was as miserable as you were.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I loved grad school, but maybe junior high was miserable enough that I would have loved ANYTHING after that.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

What the Porpentine said. Actually, I was both happy AND unhappy in grad school. Although my personal life was a disaster, I loved school and had good relationships with my professors. Work kept me going through the personal messes. All the same, when I go back I start feeling claustrophobic within 24 hours. Present self just doesn't fit in that place any longer.

Flavia said...


Well, at least someone finds it charming!

Upon reflection, I don't think I really believe that I should have been happy in grad school, despite knowing people who (like Fretful and Dame Eleanor) mostly were. I think what I meant is that perhaps I keep going back in order to have a different kind of experience there, one more like the one I wish I could have had with a city that I do mysteriously love despite never having been happy there.

Bardiac (and Fie):

That sounds true to my experience. Rather recently, I mentioned to someone a few years behind me in our program (and a Friend of The Blog) that although I'd met people who really liked grad school--or who at least really missed aspects of the experience--I didn't miss a single second of it. I wondered aloud whether it had been different for other people in the program, or maybe those in other years. "Flavia," he said, as if speaking to a small child, "We went to INRU. NO ONE was happy there."


I'd happily bend the ear of anyone who's interested. . . but I'm not sure there's a wild demand for that sort of thing among my readership! But bits and pieces may leak out occasionally.

Susan said...

I don't think it's odd that you love your grad school city: I do too.

And I fell in love with my husband in grad school -- and it was an intellectual romance -- but otherwise the "school" part was not great fun. At a recent conference a classmate and I tried to explain to others the abuse we'd witnessed in one seminar, and it was hard to even begin to describe...