Sunday, July 31, 2016

The London season

I'm halfway through a two-week trip to England, and as I make plans--or intend and then fail to make plans--with the dozens of friends who are also here for a few weeks, it occurs to me that academics live out a less-glamorous but equally peripatetic version of the lives of the wealthy of previous centuries.

Like the Englishmen and women who descended on London en masse for "the season" and then moved on to Bath or Brighton before returning to their country homes; like early-twentieth century Americans who were similarly assured of finding friends and neighbors when they decamped to Palm Beach in March; or the rich of many nations who were never more than a couple of degrees of separation from the other passengers on the luxury ocean-liners chugging back and forth across the Atlantic, so we wind up moving around the globe more or less in tandem with people more or less like ourselves.

Conferences, of course, are one version of this, and they too have a season (I've sometimes done three conferences in three cities in three months, seeing basically the same people at every stop), but taken individually they're most akin to the ocean-liner experience: you're thrown together with all these people you know--and almost no one you couldn't--in a confined space for a set number of days. Visiting archives or rare book libraries is another version: I never know exactly who I'm going to see, but I always run into a friend who turns out to be a long- or short-term fellow, or who's just in town for spring break. This past week, I ran into several people at the British Library whom I'd last seen at the Folger. I didn't know they'd be at either place, but it's not really a surprise. There's a circuit.

But for those of us who study the history or literature of Great Britain, London is a special case, as I'm sure Paris, Berlin, and Rome are for those in other fields. At this age and stage of my career, I assume that pretty much everyone I know will be in London every couple of years: for a conference, to work in the archives, or at the front or back end of travels elsewhere. And the academic calendar being what it is, those trips usually happen in June and July, so we're all here at the same time. These days I come an average of every other year, usually for 10-15 days, but I have friends whose research or personal lives require a full annual decampment and who settle in for two or three months every summer.

It's delightful, and nothing that I could have predicted twenty years ago, when as a college student I made my first trip to England. Even ten or twelve years ago, when as a grad student or first-year faculty member I scraped together enough cash for a plane ticket and a week in the UCL dorms to hit a conference or squeeze in five days at the BL, I saw myself as traveling to do my own thing, making a strategic strike, furthering my research or my career--not functioning as part of a larger community. Now, though, it feels natural, expected, tribal. I come both because I need to, and because my people are here.

But as that phrasing suggests, there's something insular about it, too--that we do what others of our class-loosely-defined also do, that we expect to know people wherever we go (because we go to the kinds of places that our kind of people go). As screwball comedies teach us, it's always possible that the handsome gentleman you met on the Queen Mary or at the Breakers is a grifter, but more likely than not he knows the aunt of your neighbor back in Philadelphia and she can vouch for whether he'd be a good match for your unmarried daughter or the pretty widow who dines at the captain's table. Even the new faces are already, in some sense, known.

Still. When the academic job market flings us so far asunder and we're perpetually trying to build up new networks--and bloom where we're planted and all that jazz--there's something comforting about having a tribe and having a center and being so easily fitted into the social order. Back home we need to connect to our communities in a larger and deeper way, and it takes time and effort. Here in the tribal bubble, it's easy.

Except I'm still not sure I'm getting invitations to the right balls.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The cohort problem

We go through most events in life on the same time-table as our peers. Some of this is about biological development--what the human body and brain are capable of when--and some of it is about the way we're socialized, but we experience most major milestones at roughly the same time and in roughly the same sequence as our peers.

Because if we don't, we find new peers.

Finding new peers isn't about shunning those who aren't like us (though, okay: sometimes we do reject a particular life narrative), but about the fact that we depend upon others to help us understand and navigate our lives. We need the example and support of those who have made similar choices or have had similar bad or good luck. If you have kids early, you're going to need other parent-friends no matter how much you may cherish your old ones. And if you remain single or childless long past the majority of your peers, you're likewise going to need at least a few friends who can see the world through similar eyes.

Because it's not just about knowing people who have experienced the same thing (whatever that thing may be). It's about knowing people likely to have had the full range of emotions that go along with it: the fears, anxieties, and expectations; the way the rest of your life gets reshuffled and redefined around that event. Because just as there are things that people who have been bereaved can't talk about with people who haven't--no matter how well-intentioned--there are things that I can't say to my parent-friends about being childless, or to my single friends about being married, or my nonacademic friends about being an academic. Or rather: I can say some things about those topics, maybe even a lot, but I can't say everything, or expect the same level of immediate understanding, advice, or mutual interest that happens when I'm talking to someone who's been there and is equally as invested in figuring out What It All Means.

Grad school is an obvious example of a peer-group reshuffle: When I was twenty-five and twenty-eight and thirty, I felt as if I'd stepped off the conveyor belt that was delivering my college friends to their destinies: they were buying cars and houses and getting married and advancing in their careers when I didn't have so much as a cat (and the most expensive thing I owned was an aging laptop). But grad school gave me a new set of peers and a new narrative, a sense of what follows what, and people I could talk to about all of this--including our collective sense of having been left behind by adulthood.

But such shuffles aren't necessarily permanent. Indeed, the big discovery of my thirties and forties has that both "cohort" and "life stage" are less rigid than they'd seemed. In high school and even in college it's a big fucking deal to do anything even a year or two before or after everyone else. But now, at age 41, I'm in roughly the same place as most of my age peers--whether I met them in high school or college, grad school or after: most of us are married and with mortgages; most of us have had some career successes and some career failures; and most of us have suffered at least one major loss. Those things didn't all come at the same time or in the same sequence, but in their outlines our lives look more similar than different.

Because even if the parameters expand, age remains central to how we define our cohort. Not everyone who's forty is my professional peer (some entered graduate school much later or advanced much more rapidly than I), and my cohort includes people half a dozen years older or half a dozen years younger. But I still have a very real sense that my cohort encompasses people of roughly my age and roughly my professional stage, because the two intersect.

But the problem with bonding so strongly with those of our cohort is that the next life or career stage remains perpetually mysterious and difficult to imagine. This is why we sometimes reshuffle our peer groups--to find a narrative that fits better or has greater explanatory power--and it's the reason for many midlife or midcareer crises: not so much the inability to see what's next (at a certain point, we know the major likely moves) as the inability to know how we'll feel about or be able to live inside those events when they come.

Sometimes when I feel angsty about the future I have to remind myself that people have actually done this before. People I know! Whom I see at work or at conferences, some of whom I even know well enough to gossip and get drunk with. Nothing my peers and I are going through is completely new (though the conditions of the profession may have made certain things easier or harder). But I don't generally have deeper and more existential conversations with those I feel are in a cohort above mine; the sense that we're at different life stages and that such conversations couldn't possibly be reciprocal is hard for me to overcome.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t value knowing that my seniors have gone through whatever I'm currently confronting. In my early years in the profession I'd feel a sort of electric shock whenever someone a decade ahead of me would say something kind and off-hand--and I'd suddenly realize that, holy shit! She gets it. She was here. (And she survived.)

I hope I do the same with my juniors, but I also realize that I, too, am not exactly who they need. I may think I understand what they're going through, and maybe I even do (though the temptation of the senior party is always to assume that nothing's changed and that our experiences remain exactly relevant), but they're at earlier professional and life stages. What they need, most of all, is the support of their peers. And I'm not that.

Or at least not yet. Cohorts don't retain their boundaries; both our seniors and our juniors may someday be our peers.

And then, perhaps, all will be known.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Bludgeoned into meaning

Not so long ago, a scholar I admire asked where I was in my book project. I made a face and said something about its still being early days: I had two decent chapter drafts, one messy chapter draft, and one REALLY messy chapter draft. I paused, surprised. "So I guess it's about half drafted."

Put like that, it sounds like I'm well on my way. Put like that, I could have a complete draft in eighteen months.

Of course, I wrote the first draft of my first book (a/k/a "my dissertation") in three and a half years, and it still took another six or seven to revise. Drafts are drafts, no matter how tidy or how smoothly they read. At the moment, only one of my chapters has a big take-away; the others have local arguments and interesting bits sprinkled throughout, but they don't amount to a larger whole. And getting to that point will be neither easy nor speedy.

Still. I'm a better reviser than I am a writer, and having matter to work with, however shapeless and unformed, is always a comfort. The idea that I might have all the pieces, relatively soon, is itself exciting and an incentive to keep going.

If each of us has some underlying writerly neurosis, something that drives all our decompensatory behaviors (procrastination, avoidance, despair), mine is the fear of stalling out: not moving forward, not having ideas, literally not being able to fill the page. Even at this stage in my career, I'm never convinced that I have enough to fill a ten-page conference paper, much less a 20-page essay or a 40-page chapter. But once I've made length, pages swollen with my shapeless blather, the anxiety lifts. Experience tells me I can always take a formless mass and bludgeon it into meaning. I can always gut it out. Maybe it'll take longer than I want and parts will be excruciating, but I know I can do it.

I don't want to speak too soon, because I do, after all, only have drafts of four chapters, two of which have large passages of incoherence. I don't really know what my remaining two chapters are going to be about, beyond a gimmicky gambit or two. And I have other major writing deadlines that will take my focus away from the book. But I drafted two not-totally-shitty chapters this year by working with only intermittent focus and averaging only some 1,000 words a week. Shooting for a complete draft by the end of 2017 (and settling for 2018) seems reasonable.

More importantly, I'm starting to see Book Two as something other than an amorphous project in which I'll be flailing about for a decade. It may still take a decade, but a ten-year project with discrete stages and goals is a whole 'nother thing, a thing I can get my head around.

Gut. It. Out.