The Loneliness of the Middle Distance Scholar
or, "Between Estival and Autumnal"
Usually the appearance of composition notebooks and no. 2 pencils in stores disheartens me. They always come too early. I swore they put them up right after the Fourth of July decorations went down this year. They come when I am still dreaming of dipping my feet in the ocean. K-12 always starts before higher ed, so it’s both a trick of adrenaline but also a premonition of what is to come. I have to begin preparing for an end before it actually comes for me.
I spent much of my adult life outside of academia, but now the years are stacking up, and I’ve suddenly been a teacher longer than I’ve been all these other things that I thought once defined me. Which means, in a way, my new year doesn’t start in January—it starts when the campfires of summer turn to embers. It starts with the yearly return of a fall semester. I think Rosh Hashanah got it right, as far as new years are concerned. That breadth between August and September seems more fitting as a space for self-reflection and repentance. To ask for forgiveness, but also to imagine a clean slate for a period filled with sweetness….
Maybe, if I can also hype myself up by pretending that the oncoming year will be filled with the mystique and beauty of Dark Academia Tumblr posts, then it will make letting go of summer a little easier. Instead of commuting in rush hour traffic in my five-year-old H&M clothes, Dunkin in-hand, fighting my students for a parking space, and teaching sleepy freshmen in Greek Life hoodies… imagine if we all went around with our sweatervests and Burberry coats, [p]leather-bound poetry books, candlesticks in chiaroscuro-constrasted stone hallways, and elegant pour-over coffee….
I was listening to Belle & Sebastian the other day, and one of their songs begins with “I take a second of the day / to think about the things that we have done this year….” We’re two-thirds of the way through this one, and it seems like an opportune moment to examine the past eight month before the final four approach. I realize my previous newsletter was a bit of a downer, but at least I come here to say that life has been looking a little brighter.
In a second wind, I managed to put some “final” edits on this literary-fantasy project I began over six years ago. I also made some time to send some queries out about this manuscript. I truly don’t know what will happen with this project, but I do know that my PhD examination process will cast a shadow over this upcoming year, and I probably won’t have much time for creative writing until next summer at the very least. This is something I’ve made peace with. If I pass my comps, then I will begin to work on a creative dissertation novel project, which, I suppose, is the dessert of a doctorate.
I did a lot of volunteer/community work this summer that kept me busy, which in the past month has included coordinating a queer lit event and contributing to the efforts to put on an annual gala for a local nonprofit. I also worked what odd jobs I could to scrouge up rent money while I’m off-contract. There was also a lot of beautiful socializing, which adds a necessary novelty to much of the weeks of the year which are filled with work and school. Especially after the years spent in a pandemic, one doesn’t realize how much doing the same thing every day muddles your sense of time.
To be honest, even though letting go of summer means letting go of downtime, I’m also looking forward to the push that the stable semester schedule brings. I’ve been prepping a syllabus for a newer class at my university that is structured around protest literature. Even though the spirit of the PhD is to become a specialist, paradoxically I find my strong suit is actually in being a generalist. This is why I tend to enjoy teaching intro- or 100-level classes: because I can use a catholic approach and try to survey a topic from as many angles as possible.
So far, my everything-but-the-kitchen-sink syllabus is tackling land acknowledgments, the Zong massacre (including M. NourbeSe Philip’s poetry), Phyllis Wheatley (including Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ poetry), Frederick Douglass, slave narratives, W. E. B. Du Bois, Anna J. Cooper, women’s suffrage + “first-wave feminism” (Sui Sin Far, Kate Chopin…), immigration issues including the Chinese Exclusion Act, industrialization at the turn-of-the-century, Upton Sinclair, the subject of war (Stephen Crane, Wilfred Owen, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain…), Harlem Renaissance (McKay, Hughes, Georgia Douglas Johnson…), lynching in America (Angelina Weld Grimké, Billie Holiday…), Richard Wright, the Great Depression (Steinbeck), the years leading up to WWII, McCarthyism, Robert Lowell’s letter to FDR, mid-century & post-WWII writing about race & ethnicity (Baldwin, Fanon, Ellison, John Okada’s No-No Boy, Jewish-American writing on the Holocaust…), Civil Rights (MLK, Malcolm X, Black Panthers…), Women’s Lib (SCUM Manifesto, Adrienne Rich…), Gay Liberation, The Beats + San Francisco Renaissance, counterculture, hippies, Vietnam + anti-war protests, American Indian Movement, Stonewall, Harvey Milk, desegregation and anti-busing, the 1977 Section 504 protest in SF, Black Arts Movement(s) (Gil Scott-Heron, Morrison, Lorde, June Jordan, Umar Bin Hassan, Do The Right Thing…), spoken word + slam in the nineties, New York schools(s) + artist activism, Reaganomics + AIDS + ACT UP, the Capital Crawl, ecopoetics + environmentalism, genre fiction as forms of dissent and protest (fantasy, sci-fi, YA…), Postcolonialism + discussion of American colonization (PR, Hawaii…), American Imperialism in the 21st century, post-9/11 Islamophobia + anti-Arab sentiment, the justice system, the prison-industrial complex, gun violence, Latinidad + Chicano Feminism + Undocupoetics, classism in American + wealthy inequality, third/fourth-wave feminism + gender and womanhood in the 21st century, trans rights, fat studies & politics of the body, disability and sickness, comedy and satire as forms of dissent, Black Lives Matter, writing of the Asian-American diaspora + Stop AAPI Hate, Indigenous rights, and perhaps even ending the class with talk of social media, COVID, and looking toward the future of protest, outrage, and dissent.
I’m, uhhhh, probably going to have to cut some of the above, but in general I find something galvanizing about preparing a class for the first time. It pushes me to do research that might be slightly out of my comfort zone, and it forces me to do a type of condensed, acute type of reading and thinking within a short period. If you’re ever looking to cram for a subject you’d like to learn more about, I recommend trying to trick yourself that you have to teach a class about it in one week. I guarentee you’ll be surprised with how much knowledge you can accrue in such a short period. This is also probably a good activity for me to take part in as I’m on the cusp of having to read ~100 books over the next 5.5 months.
Anyway, that last sentence made me want to crawl into a hole a little bit, but maybe I just came here to say that despite everything, it’s been an OK year, and I’m looking forward to the four months that remain in the calendar year and the last few hours that remain in the academic one. Goodbye summer, hello fall (which technically doesn’t start until September 23rd).
Also, I’m supposed to be adopting two cats this weekend. Maybe my next newsletter will be about cats.
Until next time,