Archive for the 'academia' Category


Mourning the loss of a friend


Last week, my friend Nancy Abelmann died. I am feeling this loss keenly and have wanted to write about but for a while wasn’t sure what to say or how to say.

Nancy was my advisor in graduate school and the first person who made me feel that I was a scholar with something important to say. She was an incredibly generous scholar and mentor who spent countless hours helping me hone my grant proposals to the National Science Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation, encouraged me during the dissertation-writing process (even after I moved far away), and was totally supportive of my decision not to finish my Ph.D. (and would have been equally supportive if I’d decided to complete it). As both a friend and a mentor, she was a huge influence in my life, and I’m sure I would not be the person I am today if I hadn’t known her.

I last saw Nancy in person right before I moved to Pennsylvania about a decade and a half ago. We kept in touch, though, especially during the past four years as first Bill (my friend and one of my committee members, and one of Nancy’s closest friends) and then she were struck by cancer. This past fall, she did not have much energy for extensive communication, so we exchanged haiku.

She had been very forthcoming about her illness and treatment, sending out updates via e-mail and Caring Bridge, so this final event in her journey doesn’t really come as a surprise. One small consolation is that she knew how much she was loved: she was incredibly supported by local friends and family, and her far-flung connections, too, reached out with whatever support they could offer from afar. (One former student—and friend and former colleague of mine—even flew in from Korea for three days to be with her at the end.)

But it’s still hard to accept that she’s no longer here. She was (as many people have described her) “a force of nature,” and I’m sure she will be long (and fondly) remembered both professionally and personally.

It has been amazing to read the tributes about her over the past week, from all corners of the world—universities, former students, colleagues, academic units, publishers, neighbors, friends.  She had a direct positive impact on so many people! She truly made the world a better place.

(This video was made by Nancy’s daughters and posted a few days ago.)


Dead or alive

When talking about luminaries in his field, my archaeology professor used to add verbal footnotes to their names as he said them: “That one’s dead” or “He’s still alive.” Sometimes he’d say, “He’s an asshole,” but most of the commentary was about the person’s life status.

As an academic I adopted a version of this practice myself, mentally noting whether a renowned scholar was still alive (and what his or her current academic affiliation was, if I knew it) whenever I encountered that name. Over the years it’s been interesting (for lack of a better word) to see so many famous names slide over into the “dead” column.

Every once in a while, though, I’m pleasantly surprised to discover that someone I’d thought no longer among the living is still very much alive (and often kicking). Today’s surprise: George Steiner.






…I would definitely have my students do something like this. It’s by no means a perfect experiment, but I think it’s a pretty effective way to drive home the concept of social norms.

A few days ago I wrote about my decision to stop being a graduate student.

I’ve since come across this article, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a year ago.

The author unpacks the reasons why many people go to (and stay in) graduate school, including their hopes for academic jobs. He’s writing about the humanities, but wow, everything he said applies also to the social sciences.

If the students happened to notice the increasing numbers of well-published, highly credentialed adjuncts teaching part time with no benefits, they would be told, “Don’t worry, massive retirements are coming soon, and then there will be plenty of positions available.”

This is exactly what I heard back in the early 1990s. It hasn’t happened. What I’ve seen instead is academic nomadism, increased emphasis on adjuncts who are hired for a few years then cast off when the tenure clock runs out (I read one article several years ago by one person who was in adjunct hell: teaching nine courses per semester at four different schools just to make ends meet), and plenty of brilliant people who can’t find jobs in their fields.

I remember one person who had finished a degree in English (19th-century American romanticism) who got a rejection letter from a very small, middle-of-nowhere, not-elite college in the Midwest that said something along the lines of, “Thanks very much for your application. You are obviously well qualified, but we got over 500 letters for the advertised position, and you didn’t make the cut.” At least five people I know from grad school finished their PhDs, spent a few years on the job market (and were willing to take anything), then went to library school and got an MLS degree.*

What almost no prospective graduate students can understand is the extent to which doctoral education in the humanities socializes idealistic, naïve, and psychologically vulnerable people into a profession with a very clear set of values. It teaches them that life outside of academe means failure, which explains the large numbers of graduates who labor for decades as adjuncts, just so they can stay on the periphery of academe.

Yeah, that’s something I struggled with for a very long time. That’s why I maintained my graduate student status longer than I should have. I kept thinking that academia was the only place for me, and when I finally realized that I could be perfectly happy and successful (however that is defined) outside of the academy, that was a pretty liberating moment for me.

But that’s behind me now. Onward and upward!
* But from what I hear from my librarian friends, there’s no longer any job security in that field, either…


Endings and beginnings

I have decided not to finish my dissertation. I enrolled in the doctoral program in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign immediately after college. I did all my coursework, taught undergraduates about kinship terminology and the postmodern moment, wrote my M.A. thesis, passed my preliminary exams, got a swanky grant, and spent a year in Oregon doing my doctoral fieldwork.

For many reasons, the writing of the dissertation didn’t work out for me. And so, with half of my chapters written, about a year ago I definitively called it quits and haven’t looked back since.

Well, I did have one backward glance over my shoulder: early last month, when I got together with some friends from grad school when they were in town for the 2009 American Anthropological Association meetings. I hadn’t seen most of them in the decade since I moved away from school. It was great to see them, and doing so brought back memories of how fun and exciting it was to live in an intellectually stimulating community (though I have to admit that I don’t miss reading Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak* and discussing structuralism). I miss the camaraderie, but I no longer feel that academia is my home.**

So now that I’ve completely divested myself of graduate student-ness, I need to plot a new course for myself. I have a long history in publishing (my in-house and freelance careers in editing were launched during my second year of grad school) but have not had much luck lately in finding work. (For example, the area where I live is rife with medical and pharmaceutical publishers, but I have no experience in those fields. The few jobs that come up are quickly nabbed by people who’ve been doing that sort of work for a very long time.) Publishing is no longer the place for me, and now I’m struggling to find a new answer to the question “What do I want to do when I grow up?”

I’m exploring a few ideas; maybe I’ll write about them here some time. I’ve never been interested in making New Year’s resolutions and don’t intend to start now. But my mind has already cast 2010 as The Year of Possibilities.***

This is it! Moving onward!

* The Wik entry on her points out “Spivak’s writing has been described by some as opaque.” That’s putting it politely.

** Especially when you consider that job prospects in my area of specialization are nonexistent. This is compounded by increasing academic nomadism and my unwillingness to relocate to any place to find a job.

*** I was going to call it The Year I Figure My Shit Out, but that lacks panache.


Staying put

My mother-in-law lives three hours (mostly) north of me, and about one hour from the Dutchess County Fairgrounds, where the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival is taking place this weekend. You know, Rhinebeck–the fiberfest whose name is spoken in hushed, reverential tones.

I first heard about Rhinebeck last fall–when knitting blogs were teeming with post-Rhinebeck reports, “you’ll never guess what famous person I saw there” sightings, and “look at my yarn haul” photos. I felt like I’d missed the boat on something all the popular kids already knew about. And now that I knew about it (but still wasn’t one of the popular kids), I resolved to attend the next Rhinebeck.

So I hatched a plan: Jan, Sylvia, and I would drive up to his mom’s place on Friday, spend the night there, and get to the festival bright and early the next morning. We’d all get a kick out of seeing the animals and participating in the hustle-bustle of a big festival, and I could pet and maybe even purchase some can’t-get-this-stuff-anywhere-else yarn. The plan expanded to include our friend Gina, who decided to come with us, leaving her uninterested-in-yarn husband, Todd, home to look after their six (yes, six cats). (And yes, they are nuts. “They” being both the humans and the cats.)

But a few weeks ago, I looked at my stash (not huge by any means, but there’s enough in it to keep me busy for a while) and my bank account (not huge by any means, but there’s enough to pay the bills–but not enough to take a big hit from festival-euphoria-induced yarn purchases) and decided to stay home. If Rhinebeck were an hour away from me, yeah, I’d probably go. But four hours there plus an overnight plus four hours back add up to far too much time and effort to make a trip just to look at yarn (but not purchase) and other nice stuff worthwhile.

(There are several wool/knitting festivals in my part of the country, but I’ve yet to attend one. This reminds me of my experience with academic conferences: many of my fellow graduate students were barely scraping together funds or sometimes even going into debt in order to go to academic conferences, but I didn’t attend one until late in my grad school career, when there was one close to my university and I could actually afford to go to it.)

Gina took the news well, thankfully, and I’ve decided to start saving my pennies now for next fall’s Rhinebeck. Or maybe I’ll try Maryland Sheep and Wool* in May (which I’ve not attended because my daughter’s birthday has fallen on the same weekend) or Knitters Day Out in September (which I’ve not attended because my anniversary has fallen on the same weekend). Next year, all those weekends are free of other events (thank you, Leap Year!), and I’ll be ready for them!

(* Take a look at the URLs for the NYS Sheep and Wool and Maryland Sheep and Wool websites. Think there were any fisticuffs over who got which one?)


School days

Today’s Booking through Thursday:

Since school is out for the summer (in most places, at least), here’s a school-themed question for the week:

  1. Do you have any old school books? Did you keep yours from college? Old textbooks from garage sales? Old workbooks from classes gone by?
  2. How about your old notes, exams, papers? Do you save them? Or have they long since gone to the great Locker-in-the-sky?

Oh yes indeed! My books and papers from high school and college didn’t stay with me much past graduation, with the exception of my anthropology stuff. Most of that is destined for the recycling bin the next time the basement gets cleaned out. There’s really no point in keeping that stuff–especially the physical anthropology books and papers, which are so old that they probably cite Bishop Ussher as a leader in the field. (Okay, they’re not that old. But still…)

I do still have all of my books, notes, exams, papers, etc., from graduate school. All of them. Included are fairly extensive files of photocopied articles on sense of place, social movements, tourism, ethnic minorities in China, environmentalism, Gastarbeiten in Switzerland, forestry, life narratives, social class, and lots of other topics that were either briefly considered for my doctoral research or actually did make it into my preliminary exams. These articles are all in carefully labeled manila folders–a nice bit of organization that I accomplished during the summer when I was supposed to be writing grant proposals, studying for prelims, and writing my master’s thesis. Ah, the siren call of procrastination…