I have returned from my conference, which was wonderful and enriching and inspiring and so productive. I have found the introduction to my book, as well as the path forward to completing a draft of the manuscript, I have been inspired by the work that my colleagues around the world are doing, and I am fuzzily contemplating a next book after this one is all done. All in all, I really, really needed what this last long weekend gave me. But it was also a weird weekend in many, many ways.
Why weird? Well, for the first time it was clear to me that I am officially well beyond “junior.” And that was a really bizarre feeling, but I realize that probably I have been that for a while, and yet I hadn’t realized it. My saying this might seem disingenuous, but I promise, I’m not being falsely modest here. Yes, I know that I’ve been an officer and president of an allied organization of the MLA, but I was pretty crappy at that, and it was a small organization. And yes, I published a book, but it was not with a fancy press at all. And yes, I have a good few essays published, but they are, for the most part, in non-fancy venues. I teach a 4-4 load, and my record reflects that. Seriously: I’m nobody special. I’m just a person who says yes to things and who tries, in what limited way she can, to contribute.
But anyway, this feeling that I’m this non-entity, this babe in the woods, stretches back a long ways. See, my whole life, I have always been on the “young” end of things. I started kindergarten as one of the youngest kids in my class (August birthday right before the kindergarten cut-off), and progressed in P-12 accordingly, as one of the youngest ones. That meant getting a job later and driving later than other people. And then I finished college in just 4 years, so the gap widened… by the time I graduated from college at my regional state university, I was running with a cohort that was 2-3 years older than I was (if not more – given the non-traditional student-friends I’d made). I didn’t take any time off between undergrad and grad school, and I went straight through to the PhD, so at that point the gap widened again, and my “peers” were typically 5-8 years older than I was, if not older, and I also went to my first conference when i was just 21 years old, and I was a TOTAL baby in that context, both to the advanced graddies there and to the proffie people whom I met. And then the gap became a giant chasm when I got my tenure-track job ABD, making the vast majority of my colleagues and people with whom I socialize a good 10 years older than I was at minimum. (Seriously: some of my colleagues, including the person who was my official pre-tenure “mentor,” have been at my institution longer than I’ve been alive.) In spite of the fact that we’ve done a lot of hiring in the past decade (for, in truth, I started this job a full decade ago this fall), I have just one colleague – who was only hired three years ago – who is younger than I am, and only by months. My point here is that I basically view myself as a little sister who is doing marginally important things, if they are important at all.
Combine with this the fact that I typically see myself as sort of an invisible scholarly entity, partly by virtue of the institution at which I work (which is fine, but it certainly is a Very Directional State type place that doesn’t have much, if any, of a reputation for scholarship, and which does virtually nothing to support scholarship in the humanities) and partly because I just don’t typically think much about myself as being super important in terms of the scholarly conversation in my discipline. Yes, I do scholarship, and I care a lot about it for my own reasons, but really, who else does?
It turns out, a fair few people care about it. And so that was my first weird thing of this conference. I would introduce myself to a new person, and that person would be like, “Oh, you’re DR. CRAZY.” And then they would either pause in awe (in a way that I vividly remember doing when I would meet people whom I’d cited in my own work as a graduate student – in a way that I still do when I meet people whose work is especially fancy in my brain) or, if they were less star-struck, they would start talking to me about one or the other of my publications, or, if they were VERY FANCY, they would just say they couldn’t believe they hadn’t met me yet, as they know my name, blah blah blah.
Now, I’m still pretty sure that some of this – especially the “I know your name” stuff – was politeness. But to be fair, there was no reason why anybody needed to pretend they knew my name if they didn’t, so maybe I should be a little more impressed by that? I don’t know. The point is, for the first time in my career, I’m apparently a Person of Note, which is super freaking weird. The most dramatic of these moments was at the conference’s opening reception, when I was chatting with a friend who, in the context of this conference, is infinitely more important than I am. A woman came up to us, and I didn’t know the woman. I just assumed she was coming to talk to Important Friend (as I suppose she shall now be named). But no! The woman interrupted to introduce herself to me! And she wanted to tell me that she thought that what I wrote in my book about Infamously Sexy Author (ISA) was the best thing she’d read about him, and she wanted to tell me that I must come to ITALY next summer to participate in a symposium about ISA! And then when I figured out who this stranger was, I realized she was a person whose work I admire greatly! And then later that night, while still hanging with IF, another person was all, “Oh, you are you! I am so glad to meet you! I am from Italy and I have cited you!” (Obviously I’m paraphrasing). The point is, apparently, I am a PERSON. What. The. Fuck.
And so this leads to the second weird thing. I have officially reached the point where I am “old” and “mid-career” to graduate students. This is profoundly weird to me, as I don’t think I’m far enough along to be that, though apparently I am. Now, part of my confusion about my status has to do with the way that I interact with my own students and former students. Yes, I kick my students’ asses, but I never see myself as very different from them, particularly once they have graduated. And I’ve befriended a fair few of my former students, so I don’t feel too far removed from them. But I am now officially the person at a conference who “gives advice” to the graddies, as opposed to socializing without hierarchy with them. WHAT?
You know what’s strange? The fact that other people think I’m important when I so decidedly don’t think that I am. What’s also weird is that I don’t see myself as an authority when the little graddies surely do. I think that this is what it means to age in this profession, especially when you’re not some Fancy Person at some Fancy Institution.
I have a lot to say, actually, about the aging of the profession and the casualization of academic labor, and the impact of that on scholarship, particularly feminist scholarship, things I’ve thought about because of my experiences this weekend. But now is not the time for that as I’m jet-lagged and I don’t have the energy for a big treatise on anything that isn’t totally self-absorbed. But seriously: can I finagle Italy next summer? Preceded (ideally) by The Netherlands, and preceded by that by Chicago? Indeed, that’s my goal. Even though all of that plus MLA (I was accepted for a special session), which is super expensive? Even though I’m at a regional institution that doesn’t support research even as it expects it? The good news is that I am done with my car payment next month, so I can save that money, but dude – who does three conferences in a month? (I really, really want to.)