I haven’t been doing well at my plan to return to regular posting about my classes, and in fact today I don’t really have a lot to say about them, except that overall I think they are going okay—though not great. Gaudy Night fell pretty flat in Women & Detective Fiction this time around, which was disappointing, but In A Lonely Place has clearly caught their interest, so that’s encouraging. It’s unusual for discussion of Lady Audley’s Secret to be as sluggish as it was this time in 19th-Century Fiction, which makes me anxious about starting Middlemarch next week. Attendance in that class this term is also the worst I’ve ever seen it, but I think that is mostly due to COVID (infections and exposures), and of course I’m glad those students are staying away. I do worry that the strategies I put in place to mitigate the effects of those absences might be influencing other students; missing classes can have a snowball effect on their (dis)engagement. But all I can do myself is keep showing up and trying to make our class time worth it to all of us. I’m doing the best I can at this. Sometimes it’s a real struggle to get myself there, but once the class is underway I usually feel better. Task-oriented coping ftw!
The things I’ve been brooding on lately, more than these specific and quite familiar pedagogical ups and downs, have been work-related in a more general way. It turns out—unsurprisingly, I suppose—that going back to campus after everything that has happened in the last three years, and especially after Owen’s death, has prompted a lot of what I’ve been thinking about as “senior moments,” meaning not dithery forgetfulness (although I do experience those kinds of senior moments too!) but reflections on my career, on what it means to me, both personally and professionally, to be one of the most senior members of my department. Indeed, in just a couple of years I will be the most senior, in age and in years of service.
One factor is that I have come back to a changed department, one where many of the colleagues I was closest to or worked most closely with have recently retired. Thanks to previous retirements (and some departures for other reasons), our full-time complement had already shrunk by around 40%; we have been fortunate to be allowed to hire some great new full-time faculty, but there has been nothing like a 1 to 1 replacement rate. So before COVID struck we were already a much smaller community than we once were, and now in many ways the department feels like an unfamiliar community to me, one in which I don’t know many of my colleagues very well, much less my own place among them. I don’t feel well-equipped to be a mentor or a role model: my relationship with our discipline and with our institution is too equivocal, not to mention that I’m hardly a good example of professional success, on academic terms and perhaps on any terms. I’m not sure what I have to offer my newer colleagues, then, and I’m not sure they want or need anything from me—or if they do, whether it would be something I’m willing or able to give at this point. (I was asked about teaching a course on book reviewing, for example, something I have no interest in doing, for both petty and principled reasons.)
What do I want from my professional life now? As I stare down the remaining years towards my own retirement, what goals or hopes do I have for them? If you’d asked me where I stood in 2019, I would have described myself as mid-career: poised for what I hoped might be a period of expansion and flourishing as my family responsibilities lightened, as I recovered from the blow to my self-confidence and sense of purpose inflicted by my failed promotion bid, and as my years of experience began to really pay off in the classroom. I also had projects on the go I was excited about. Now here I am in 2022 feeling as if I have missed that phase and gone straight to the end game—and, in the shadow of Owen’s death, wondering what it has all been worth, and how or if or when to put that kind of energy in again. All those guilt-ridden years of trying to be both a good mother and a good academic, all the crises and compromises, all the books and paperwork and panics, about parenting, on the one hand, and productivity on the other—and before too long it will all come down to a giant recycling bin outside my office door and discovering nobody else wants my shelves of marked-up Victorian novels or my complete 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica. The writers of this article seriously underestimate the degree to which our department lounge, with its stacks and cartons of discarded books, is all the memento mori any of us really needs.
These are melancholy reflections, perhaps unduly so, both because my grief is still so raw and the reality of Owen’s death still so bewildering—its meaning and its impact both still unfolding every day—and because I have been on campus again for such a short time. Once, I imagined that a lot of the questions I have entertained about my life and my work since Fall 2020, when we first went online and I also got my first invitation to consider early retirement, would be answered by being back in the classroom. I knew then that it wasn’t the right time to decide: I didn’t feel ready to go (mid-career, remember?) and I didn’t think teaching online during a pandemic was the right context for deciding when I would be. Owen’s death raised more existential questions; I didn’t think returning to teaching in person would necessarily sort those out, but work—or teaching, anyway—has always given me a sense of purpose and accomplishment, so I thought it would at least help. It has helped, I guess, but the sensation of time travel I had over the summer as I tried to re-familiarize myself with campus has shaded into something different, something more like suspension between a past I can vividly imagine and a future that so far I can’t.
Your paragraph about being mid-career and then feeling you’ve gone right to the end game resonates with me. I love the way you capture this: “All those guilt-ridden years of trying to be both a good mother and a good academic, all the crises and compromises, all the books and paperwork and panics, about parenting, on the one hand, and productivity on the other.” Now that it’s over it packs into an amazingly small box.
I think in our hearts we know that our work itself resonates beyond these tangible leavings, but sometimes it’s harder than others to believe in that, isn’t it? But what else could we do except keep showing up and doing the best we could on both fronts.
This post is a remarkable picture of a work-in-progress, which I appreciate, and I hope you will not underestimate your capacity as a mentor, though perhaps in a less traditional, more informal way (because of how you’ve so admirably blazed your own trail as an academic, dared to be different). As a reader, thinker, and a critic, you’ve certainly fulfilled a mentor role for me and I am sure I’m not the only one.
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Thank you, Kerry; these are very generous things to say.