independent scholar? not so much

Over the last winter holidays, my son and husband went to Florida for a soccer tournament. I stayed home with Olivia, enjoying a week of rare quiet. The weather, with its curtains of grey, asked us to stay inside. My students, happy for a holiday break from tutoring, asked me to stay home. And Olivia, having just turned 12, asked me to give her some space.

By chance, I had just bought a book, The Renewal of Cultural Studies, edited by Paul Smith. It caught my eye first because the contributors include two of my former professors, but the subject also intrigued me. It addresses the apparent need for Cultural Studies scholars to regroup: to better walk the tightrope that would define the underlying assumptions of their discipline without succumbing to the rigidity of those assumptions. I wonder if a self-consciousness about that conundrum, set out so early in the work, isn’t itself the definition of how to do cultural studies, but regardless, for me, the work promised a review of the current state of the field. I was curious. What had transpired without me?

When I left the academy seven years ago, I did it with the intention of continuing my research. I thought maybe I’d even be an “independent scholar.” I wonder if we all tell ourselves we’ll do this, or if some people walk away with the intention of never looking back, never ever cracking another academic book. I thought I’d regularly browse the CHE; I’d subscribe to a few choice journals; I’d read selected texts.

Nada.

Well, I do read the Chronicle, but I admit there was a chunk of time where I couldn’t even manage that. I threw myself instead into researching dyslexia, ADHD, and anxiety so that I could better assist my kids as well as my students. I spent hours in the kitchen learning how to cook gluten/dairy/egg-free from scratch for Olivia. I found myself again writing into the wee hours of the morning, this time racing to meet grant (instead of academic) deadlines.

Depending on my mood, reading scholarly work felt laborious, frivolous, luxurious, or even ridiculous. I didn’t have time for any of that. Without the professional imperatives to publish or teach, I couldn’t make that kind of reading a priority.

What really surprised me, however: when I did try to engage with things academic, I found the reading to be painful and isolating. I had been trained to weigh in, either as a student, as a teacher, or as a writer. Without a classroom, a reading group, or a research project, I had no where in which to express myself.

I discovered that I had been silenced.

Yes, technically I could have written papers for journals and conferences, but realistically, for a mother of school-aged kids with two unrelated part-time jobs, that wasn’t happening. For all intents and purposes, I had lost my academic voice. The voices of others, ringing out in classrooms, in journals and in books, simply reminded me of that. Their ideas prompted questions I couldn’t ask, reactions I couldn’t offer, revelations I couldn’t share.

I couldn’t take it.

So I turned my back, happier to pretend those voices didn’t exist.

I don’t know what prompted me to do it, but I started poking around on the internet last fall to see if anything new and interesting popped out at me. That’s how I came across The Renewal. Soon after purchasing it, the circumstances randomly arose which gave me the time and quiet I needed to actually read it.

I sat, just as I always used to, curled in the corner of my couch with a cup of tea, and cracked the binding. I didn’t expect to have a voice anymore. I didn’t expect to weigh in. Instead, I read with the distance of the curious, a thing afforded me, I suppose, by the years that had passed.

I admit, however, that I cringed when I got to the chapter written by graduate students. I could so easily imagine their glee at the coup–their names would appear in an anthology! But really, my envy dissipated quickly into a sort of sickening feeling for them. Perhaps they will become professors who benefit from fair and satisfying working conditions. Perhaps they already have. Regardless, that’s not the case for most grad students, and I know all too well how quickly the victory of publication, which feels so momentous when it happens, can dissolve into irrelevance on a hypercompetitive job market.

So yes, I am still capable of these unhealthy feelings, but my gratitude that the JIL doesn’t concern me anymore ultimately won out. I shut the door on the weird combination of envy and pity that stood, arms folded, on my stoop and simply read their piece and others with a burning interest I hadn’t felt in a long time.

I didn’t get to hash over the essays with anyone. In fact, I didn’t even finish the book. The holiday passed, Steve and Gareth came home, schedules took over. Although The Renewal sits hopefully on my nightstand, it’s not the book I choose when I stumble into bed at midnight after helping Gareth with geometry homework or reading with Olivia for an English project due the next day.

No, I don’t choose it. But you know what? I don’t shelve it either.

I am no longer an academic. I have never been an independent scholar. But I am still an intellectual. I just live in the real world where these scholarly endeavors that can light me up so consistently, feel oh so much like a privilege I still cannot afford.

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5 thoughts on “independent scholar? not so much

  1. Thanks for this… I’m hoping one day I’ll be able to return to reading in my subject as an interested person, without having to wonder about my voice, as you so well describe.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I’m leaving academia after several post docs, too much adjuncting, too little money. Most important, I’ve been exhausted by a sub-field crowded with one-school super-names (not necessarily super-scholars, ahem) who have made it clear that they don’t want me in their clique (apparently, I never left high school). I have been “cleaning” my academic desk, finishing the articles and developing my manuscript to close off the last decade off my life, but your essay really hit home: some days I see myself continuing some kind of reduced research agenda as an “independent scholar” and, other times, I feel i can turn around and never deal with this stuff again.

    What about love of reading in general? Was it painful for you to read, too look at non-academic books (let alone the academic ones you talk about)?

    Anyhow, thanks for this essay. It nails exactly how I feel–and I haven’t even fully exited the academy!!

  3. Pingback: post-ac in a book club? | professor never

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