My ten-year high school reunion was in 2009. I traveled back to Charlotte, North Carolina eager to see my close friends, harboring only a few secret desires that the demigods of high school vengeance had punished those who deserved a comeuppance. But I was anxious about the possibility of being plummeted, immediately and this time by my own volition, back into the terrible, cafeteria-scented self-consciousness of adolescence.
I suspect many people feel that way heading to a reunion, but that year my nerves were strung a little tighter than usual. I hadn’t yet defended by dissertation, in part because I wasn’t done with my dissertation but mostly because defending meant leaping into the unfriendly void of unemployment — that place without pay, benefits, or university affiliation. I doubt anyone at the reunion cared; if my experience with casual acquaintances, hairdressers, or family friends is any indication, any mention of “graduate school” in a small talk situation is met with what can only be an internal prayer of “please don’t tell me about it” hidden behind dead lizard eyes. But I did. I cared. I couldn’t claim to my former classmates that, an entire decade after we’d tossed our mortarboards, I was finally done with school. To make matters worse, 2009 was what I call the “dark year” — the second year of my academic job search, in which both the number of available jobs in English departments and my self-confidence plummeted like a nightmarish roller coaster. (See Exhibit A. My stomach still hasn’t recovered. And the numbers have only dipped lower for current PhDs.)
While I listened to my classmates — people I associated with algebra class and awkward homecoming dances and senior superlatives — talk about kids and mortgages and all the markers that are supposed to signify Adulthood, I felt my unfinishedness like a sore tooth. My career wasn’t started yet. I still had an advisor (and not a financial one, because lordy knows I didn’t have enough money to “manage”). The couch in my apartment was a hand-me-down from my parents’ basement. I was holding a beer, but I was still at the kids’ table.*
Those markers of Adulthood are arbitrary, of course — heteronormativity! capitalism! the merciless gravity of HGTV! — and insecurities about meeting them aren’t reserved for graduate students. I’m sure many other alum of ’99 hid, beneath their carefully chosen “I’m successful!” or “I’m a grown person!” or “I got hot!” clothes a few nervous tics of their own. But I still believe that graduate school is a particular sort of extended adolescence. Many PhD students are in coursework and writing comprehensive exams and pitching dissertation projects at the very moment their peers are “settling down,” and while I know many who bought houses and started families pre-hooding ceremony — man, why does “hooding ceremony” sound so gross? — I know just as many (if not more) who wanted to and did not, or could not. Or who did, and still felt like teenagers in disguise.
So here I am almost another ten years later, and it turns out that — just like all of the other discomforts of graduate school, like impostor syndrome and a suspicion that you don’t really get Deleuze — the hobbledehoy feeling doesn’t go away with a job. (MAN. I just used hobbledehoy in a blog post! Do I get adult points for that? No? Just nerd points? Figures.) I think that’s because it’s not just the harrowing time-to-degree — the preprofessional training that spans your 20s and beyond — that makes academia feel like perpetual puberty. It’s also the very nature of our profession. We are required to meet benchmarks that, supposedly, indicate that we have Made It — present, publish, defend, and then start over again — and yet we never actually do. Make it, I mean. There are relatively few moments in your career when you are evaluated and found Up to Snuff.
And I speak as someone currently navigating one of those moments: my tenure file is being handed up the administrative ladder as we speak, and my first book is possibly being read by a reviewer somewhere. (Hello, dear reviewer. Would you like me to make you a sammich? Rub your feet while you read?) But it turns out that this process is rather anti-climactic — not because I’m not proud of my work (I am) or because those around me aren’t celebrating it (they are), but because it’s a pause, a respite, on a road that winds away into somewhere I can’t completely see.
That’s not to say that earning tenure doesn’t offer stability; I joke that if I get tenure, I am digging into UConn like a tick (an appropriate Connecticut simile). I WILL NOT LEAVE. IT TOOK FAR TOO MANY CRYING JAGS TO GET HERE. But I certainly don’t feel like a “grown up” in the profession, and maybe I never will. While researching a recent project — tracing the theorizations and debates that surround the idea of adulthood — I ran across a satisfying collection of words that signify that hovering at the threshold of grown. Adultolescent. Kidult.
Oh, dear god. Am I a kidult?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately — the impossibility of being a grown-up in academia — because my husband and I have been trying to build a house. (Not ourselves, mind you. I have trouble building an Ikea bookcase.) We delayed building a house for awhile because (at least to me), Connecticut didn’t seem quite real yet. Perhaps best to wait until it seemed likely that I would Make It. And then when we did decide to build a home here — that we are tired of sitting on a hand-me-down couch in a rented apartment… well, a lot of things have gone awry, for a lot of stupid reasons — some of which I will AVENGE. So we’re still trying to close on a piece of land, and it may or may not happen. Delays and delays and delays. Milestones we didn’t even know we’d have to meet. You think you’re there, but you’re not. Just like academia.
So I’m going to do this thing that I tell my students to do all the time. I’m going to turn this problem into a point. I’m going to identify and exploit the merits of being in the middle of things. Because here in the middle, I can be an emissary between what came before and what comes after. I can shout back to those behind me — yes, that’s a tricky part, but if you move in this direction there’s cake! — and remind those ahead of of the often circuitous and definitely awkward path that led them to their Current Station.**
But then again, they probably don’t feel like they’ve Made It either.
* I cannot let this opportunity pass to tell everyone to read Anna Mae Duane’s The Children’s Table: Childhood Studies and the Humanities, which has one of the best introductions I’ve ever read. The kids table is important!
** I pause here to consider that maybe this entire post is me displacing my anxiety about whether or not I should be Director of Graduate Studies.