The Long Farewell To Grad School Friends

Last weekend, my spouse and I took a trip back to Grad School Town.  Since moving hundreds of miles away from campus a few years ago, we’ve made a few such visits so that I could meet with advisers and see the good friends we made during the two years we lived in town.  But those trips have become increasingly less frequent: about six in the first year away and two last year.  And this trip was, in all likelihood, our last.  It’s getting to that stage in the graduate school journey, and it’s more than a little sad.

Of course, it shouldn’t be unexpected.  You go into graduate school knowing that you and the rest of your cohort won’t be there forever — or shouldn’t be.  But you make friends, anyway, because you’re human and because these people are weird just like you.  You can talk about Marx and your funding anxieties and your love-hate relationship with your adviser and your dreams for yourself and for the profession.  And these people get it in a way that your family, your non-academic friends, and sometimes even your significant other, just don’t understand.  It’s a precious and, I think, unique relationship.  My friendship with my teaching colleagues is similar, I suppose, but there are other dynamics at work — families at home, professional aspirations, the need to put up appearances of expertise and confidence.  The great thing about graduate school friendships — when they’re good friendships — is that you can all be vulnerable and naive together.

And it’s sad when the inevitable break-up begins.  My cohort is entering year five, and while no one (I think!) is actually going to finish in what is supposed to be our last year, we’re slowly trickling away towards our own destinies.  My departure was a bit on the early side, but others have since followed: for extended research stays outside the country, for the opportunity to be close to a far-away spouse, etc..  And the process is now accelerating; a dear friend in the department is leaving for South America for at least two years, while other friends are applying for fellowships and grants that will take them away for a long time, if not for good.  Soon, we will have all scattered to the four winds.

It’s not the end of our friendships, of course.  I’ll see people at conferences, stay in touch with e-mail and the BookFace, and probably schedule vacations around friends (sunny South America is January sounds pretty good…).  My spouse and I have even talked about some day, 8-10 years down the line when I have tenure (!) and a sabbatical, we’ll load the kids in an RV and cruise around the hemisphere, staying with grad school friends at various idyllic college towns.  And I, in fact, do think that will happen.

But we probably won’t be all in the same room again.  Which is why I’ll always remember last weekend.  Everybody came out for one last round of beers together, one last chance to laugh about the ridiculousness of grad school together, one last time to encourage each other to stay after it, no matter how hard.  That’s what makes grad school so great, and what makes it so hard to leave.

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The Story of America (as told in 1889)

Friends, I present to you…

A few years ago, I salvaged this book from a box that my grandparents were sending off to the dump.  It sat on the shelf until last night, when I pulled it down just for fun.  And what fun it is!  First of all, there’s the author, Elia Peattie, who has her very own Wikipedia page and digital archive put together by Dr. Susanne George Bloomfield.  And for good reason: Peattie wrote this 754 page tome when she was 27 years old.  She was also the first female reporter at the Chicago Tribune and did all sorts of other things that underscore the utter futility and worthlessness of my own life.  Amazing.

And there’s the text itself.  Meant as a history for “young people,” (know any young people willing to read 754 pages?  Thought not), The Story of America looks pretty strong on the story part — a cracking yarn, they might have said in 1889 when Peattie wrote the book (WHEN SHE WAS 27!).  I’m excited to read it, for a few reasons.  First, I think we historians might learn a little something from young Peattie and her focus on telling a good story; if I could write half of what she did in such a way that “young people” would want to read it, I’d be pretty pleased.  Second, I’m fascinated by the potential differences in Peattie’s pre-20th century reading of the past and the dominant narrative(s) of our day–more on that in a moment.  And third, there are some great images in here, all hand-drawn, of course.  I’ll be sharing those as I go along, too.

Just flipping through the table of contents, you get a sense of the different era in which Peattie wrote.  The American Revolution doesn’t wrap up until page 408–well after half-way through the book.  Which is to say: for Peattie and her readers, most of American history happened before the United States even came into being.  Which is still true, after all; even if you start with 1492, the pre-Revolutionary period is still longer than everything since (283 years to 234 years, by my count).  There is stuff in here that I doubt even some of my colonial Americanist colleagues would know about, like the association of Bacon’s Rebellion with the call “Hey, for St. Mary’s!” (I’ll let you know when I find out–that’s in chapter XXIV).  And I can’t wait to get Peattie’s take on Haymarket, which happened just three years before Peattie wrote The Story and which she very well may have seen or even reported about (probably not, but what the hell).

Of course, one of the great temptations of a book like this is to say “Wow, wasn’t she stupid! We historians today know so much more.”  And this is true in some ways; in the first chapter, “Mastodons and Mystery,” Peattie writes that, “The monkey was here in what we call United States, and the camel and rhinoceros,” which seem to be tru-ish but not quite on the mark.  On the other hand, this seems like an opportunity to examine more closely my own beliefs about the past.  Would I be able to convince Peattie that she’s wrong and I’m right?  If not, I’m probably not worth two salts as a historian.  On a grander scale, this can serve as an experiment in postmodernism and the subjectivity of narratives.  Will I discover more or fewer truths while reading this book?

I’ll conclude by sharing with you Peattie’s preface.  We “professional historians” might not agree with all of Peattie’s goals, but some would serve us well:

The desire throughout, in the writing of this history, has been to record the heroic adventures and celebrate the picturesque incidents that make our history romantic and memorable. Such incidents as awaken patriotism and enthusiasm are those which are most worthy of preservation, and the influences they have upon the imaginative and generous minds of the young are incalculable. If some of the duller pages of the congressional debate and ineffectual law making have been neglected for these more brilliant chapters, it is not the young who will reproach us.

For the minds of the young select with unerring instinct those things which are of actual importance. They read with passionate tears of the martyrdom of the devoted; they are fired with heroism and lofty pride at the accomplishments of the heroic, and they condemn with bitter contempt the intrigues of the mean, and the cowardice of the time-serving. To arouse the noble impulse, and keep alive the love for patriotism, fidelity, bravery, and true holiness, has been the aim of the book.

It contains little that is new; but it has been sifted from the best histories, and the latest ones. It is, however, the first book to record the events of the last ten years, and these events it has tried to deal with impartially, unblinded by the conflict of parties, sects, or factions. If injustice has been done in any way, it has been unwitting. If it conveys, in understandable language, the most memorable occasions of our national history, condemning and praising where condemnation and praise are due, then it has accomplished all that it aimed to for its young readers.

Academics Are Spoiled Parents

As a sophisticate, I read New York magazine front-to-back whenever my postman delivers it to my townhouse.*  And I was, like other people, intrigued by Jennifer Senior’s article on parenting, “All Joy and No Fun.” Senior observes that many studies show that parents are unhappy, and she tries to figure out why that is.  The answer is something along the lines of: middle class American parents of today have too much on their plates (work, social life, and the kiddies).  I’d like to propose that being an academic puts one in the enviable position of reducing some of this stress, and therefore, might increase one’s happiness quotient.

Before I get to that, I need to express my utter disagreement with the starting conceit of the article: “Most people assume that having children will make them happier.”  I sure as shit hope that’s not the reason people have kids.  First, it’s obvious that raising kids takes a lot of time, stress, money, and  misery.  If you think kids will make you happy, you’re a moron who should not be procreating.  Out of the gene pool, dumbass.  Second, and waaay more importantly, you should have kids because you want them to be happy, because you want to share with your children all of the amazing things that this world has to offer and that your super-kid could do with it.  Hiking, art, music, food–this stuff is just too damn good to keep to yourself.  Parenting is, or should be, an inherently selfless, or better said, gratuitous act.  That, of course, yields its own rewards–as Jimmy Durante sang–and Senior, to her credit, gets to that towards the end of the article, with an interesting discussion of “existential matters” and measuring happiness by “our own sense of agency and meaning.”

Okay, with that out of the way, on to my suggestion that being an academic provides some opportunities for minimizing the amount of stress, etc. that children bring.   The academy, for all of its shit, is relatively more flexible and less stressful than proper work.  Academic work provides a flexibility that might make parenting a bit easier.  A lot of the challenges of parenting seem to involve timing: getting the kids ready for school in time that they can catch the bus while you also get ready for work so you can be there by 8:00am, or picking them up from school to get them to soccer practice and still have time to make dinner.  Academic work, if you so choose, does not require an 8a-5p schedule, so that helps.  Add to that our off-times at holidays, summers, and sabbatical, and there’s a lot of flex to help figure out the balancing act.   And, let’s be honest, being an academic is not, in fact, hard work.  Yeah, it’s challenging, but it’s also relatively un-stressful.  We don’t have performance reviews or even proper bosses, even at the grad school level.  And if you can get on tenure-track, that’s even more security and less stress.  And don’t complain to me about the pressures of publishing or grading or managing your own schedule.  Try a real job, where the boss is on your back all the time or the make-or-break presentation is coming up on Monday morning.

Which is all to say that academics are pretty lucky when it comes to parenting.  Or at least that’s what I tell myself as my spouse and I start down the road to kids.

*Check that: what I meant was, “As a low-brow, I read the back of the soap container while sitting on the shitter.”

Reasons I Love This Gig #3: Weltmeisterschaft

World Cup Opener, Zotero, Coffee.  More wages of graduate school.

Thanks to my beloved $pou$e, we have high-def and DVR for the next month of the World Cup, so I’ll be able so sit on my arse and watch most of the games.  I’m making a token gesture at doing “research” during the games (hence my computer and Zotero).  But, like Tenured Radical* (oohh, how I’ve wanted to say those words!), much of my other work (including the blog) will have to work around the weltmesisterschaft schedule.  Unlike Tenured Radical (that one hurts me a little bit), I will, in fact, be cheering on the US squad.  It’d be nice if US victories translated into more interest in the MLS and more opportunities for Yanks like us to see good soccer in person without flying abroad.  And I should probably be ashamed of this, but there’s a bit of patriotism mixed in there, too.  To quote Team America: “America! Fuck Yeah!

*Speaking of whom, you should really be reading her blog.  Really.  Especially the linked post on the World Cup, in which TR gives the low-down on SA sexuality and history.  Awesome.