a reckoning at the library

In an effort to save both trees in the forest and space in the house, I’ve been trying to borrow instead of buy my books. Unfortunately, the public library doesn’t always cut it, so I decided to renew my visitor library card at our local university. It’s a pretty familiar place. I earned my MA from this school and eventually worked there as an adjunct after the phd.

As an esteemed alumnus, I get a discount on the card. That’s a fair trade, right? A 50% discount ($50 annual savings) for me, in exchange for the thousands I spent taking their graduate classes–which, in turn, prepared me to teach GenEd English classes at a 75% discount for them. I wonder how many years of visiting-library-card-savings I’ll have to accumulate before I break even?

But really, I’m not here to gripe. It’s all about the library today. When I go in there, I remember why the university held me captive for so long. I can smell the ideas that linger on the shelves; I can hear them scratching at the dust that gathers like fleas about their necks. They’re waiting for me to come and collect them, I know it.

Of course, the time came during the phd when the library began to feel like a dungeon–a place where I sat hopeless, shackled, and plain old missing so many beautiful spring days. The sun beckoning on the back of my neck, the breeze wafting just so, the blue sky singing, and I’d disappear through those doors under the weight of some drummed up deadline. Why did I take it all so seriously!?

When I walk into the library now, it feels fresh and promising again, the way it did in my early graduate school days. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that I can ride up on my bike, drop off my books, and ride blissfully off into the dazzle. No deadlines. No obligations.

Well…there was one small obligation today. After I renewed my visitor’s account a few weeks ago, the librarian discovered a fine left over from my last account. She informed me of this today. It seems I owe late fees on the books I borrowed during the final weeks of dissertation writing…nine years ago! For a minute my heart stopped. How many thousands would I owe now? I prepared to run, lamenting my decision to lock up my bike.

Shockingly, the total came to only $25. That couldn’t be right, could it? Of course, I didn’t argue. I figured I would count it toward the years of “free” teaching I did for them.

I took out my wallet to pay, then thought to ask: “Could you tell me: what were the books?”

She printed out the list. And there they were, as if time hadn’t passed: Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Pictures of Innocence by Anne Higonnet, and Ronald Reagan the Movie: And Other Episodes in Political Demonology by Michael Rogin.

Michael Rogin. Once a name I muttered regularly through gritted teeth in my sleep, and I wouldn’t have remembered he existed if you’d asked me yesterday. I had used these books while finishing my introduction and conclusion (two chapters that I wrote at the same time – a great little trick if you’re still dissertating!).

Looking at the names now–so foreign, so familiar–I couldn’t figure out what I felt. Nothing? Nostalgia? Sadness? Anger? And how surreal to be standing here paying this fine so many years later. What would I have said if you’d told me when I dropped those books victoriously into the return bin that it would be nine years before I would return to this place that had been my home, my prison?

I think it would have been a devastating piece of news. In those weeks after my defense, I don’t think my feet ever touched the ground. I knew the job prospects were grim, but I let myself enjoy it anyway. I celebrated not only because I’d finished, but also because I really cared about my research on the trope of childhood innocence in American literature. Things had come together so well in the final weeks, and I believed I had written something that truly contributed to both American literary scholarship and to perceptions of national identity in the–

blah blah blah blah…

Yes, I really did feel those things, and maybe they were even true, or would have been if I’d contintued my career. But I didn’t, and perhaps nine years is enough time to come to terms with that, to recognize that things have turned out for the better. Perhaps nine years is enough time to be able to pay the fine with little more than a laugh, an eye roll, and the gumption to call it even.

Which leaves me alone in those stacks, so stuffed to brimming with words and theories and stories, to explore them at will, freed by the gift of nothing owed.

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it wasn’t a conference (thank goodness), it was ‘Listen to Your Mother’

I love the idea of an academic conference: like-minded folks gathered to feed off one another’s knowledge and enthusiasm. Great!

But the reality of it? Not so much.

In my first experience, I presented with a panel of fellow-students from a rhetoric class. Our session occurred on Friday afternoon, before the keynote. Three people attended. Had I really paid all that money for registration fees, lodging, and travel so that I could stand at a lonely podium and listen to the sound of my voice travel unfettered over the cheap and dirty carpet of an unpopulated hotel meeting-room?

I marveled at how nervous I’d been for what turned out to be an exercise in the ridiculous. To rub salt in the wound, a professor of mine presented my ideas as her own in a different session the next day. I listened in stunned silence as her lying cheating voice rang out over the thrumming of my heart.

She didn’t look at me once.

I made three additional conference presentations in my esteemed career. The others were better attended, but still, I’d say I never had more than 30-40 people in a session. Regardless, I’m not sure that it matters. Academic presentations, with their poor delivery and dense verbiage, don’t really aim to inform. Where are the visual aids and the eye contact? Where are the PowerPoints people?

The academy cheapens conferences by emphasizing quantity over quality. Like the imperative to publish, the imperative to present funnels scholars into the conference circuit like Sneetches lined up for a turn in the star-on machine. They come, in large part, to get their bellies stamped.

I actually have no complaint about the jargon, or the theory, or the nit-picky citations of the scholarly work I did. I loved all that stuff. The problem isn’t the work itself, it’s the perpetual isolation of the scholar–the fact that this work so rarely gets translated to the mainstream. The imperative to publish and present keeps scholars from participating in less formal venues.  It also creates a glut of scholarly work–more than the scholars themselves could ever consume.

So who’s it all for?

Certainly not the public. Ironically, unfair university hiring practices could help to blur these hard-drawn lines between academics and the mainstream. As universities shed new Ph.Ds. like so many flakes of old skin, they force intellectuals out into the real world where they have no choice but to mingle and work–in numbers. That is interesting!

Of course, I’m one of those folks.

I’m happy to say I haven’t given a conference presentation in something close to ten years, but I did get up in front of an audience to make a very different kind of presentation this past weekend. I read a four-minute piece called the boys next door in the DC production of a show called, Listen to Your Mother. It recounts a conversation I had with my teen son about rape culture, college parties, and friendship.

I didn’t need a bibliography or the Chicago Manual of Style to pull it off. I didn’t use any jargon. I didn’t cite Foucault, Derrida or even Freud in the telling. But I’ll say that even with years of scholarly untraining in the art of public speaking, I did make eye-contact, and I did invoke my audience (no PowerPoint, however!). I wish I could say I was spectacular, but before long, a video will emerge. I’m afraid it will tell its own story, whatever that may be.

Despite having rejected so much else about academia, however, you can bet that when formulating my ideas about this piece, I drew on the things I learned in graduate school. Theories about discipline, the gaze, the unconscious, and a healthy understanding of oppressive binaries such as good/bad, male/female, virgin/whore and agent/object.

I hope that doesn’t surprise you. Although university life serves up its fair share of humiliations, the departure doesn’t happen like a layoff. The provost doesn’t force you to leave your files locked in cabinets while he/she escorts you out of the building like a criminal. You get to take the knowledge with you!  In fact, you can’t help but do so, right?

Nearly 300 people attended this year’s Listen to Your Mother Show. That means I addressed more people in those few minutes than I did in all four of my conference presentations combined (and I’m pretty sure we could throw in my scholarly readership as well). Not only did I get to share my ideas with this much broader audience, but I also had the chance to learn from them and my fellow cast members.

Motherhood has long been the thorn in the side of feminism–the thing we have forever struggled to reconcile with our ideals of equality and independence. We can theorize, expound, and pontificate about this dilemma at feminist theory conferences and in feminist journals, but that won’t be enough. We’d also be wise to round out our research and “listen to [our] mother[s].”

I felt so privileged to share the stage with a group of people brought together, not by our varying degrees or professional credentials, but by our desire to share our thoughts about motherhood (thoughts that are surely also informed by our varying degrees and professional credentials). From stories of what happens to the body of a childbearing or breastfeeding woman, to what happens to the heart and soul of a parent who loses a child, to struggles with the race and gender stereotypes our kids face, to the recognition of the humanity, vulnerability and power of our own mothers, to struggles with anxiety, the “empty nest,” the shape of the family, and the gender of the “mom,” to the downright hilarity of the mundane, this show brought not just the joy and pain of motherhood to life, but the very philosophical and intellectual aspects of parenting fully into light.

If we want mothers to enjoy equity, respect and independence in our society, then our first step should be to truly understand what motherhood means.  “Giving Mother’s Day a microphone,” as Listen to Your Mother aims to do, takes a big step in that direction, and I was so honored to be part of it (and not cloistered in a conference room somewhere reading monotonously for 25 whole pages to nobody but a blank wall!).

Listen to Your Mother shows occur in cities across the country every spring.  Check out their main page for a show near you!