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The Long Way to the Lighthouse

In the car, on my way to a presentation on the keys to success in academe, I quietly and firmly said to myself, “I am not going to talk about my parents.” Instead, I tried to think of three general themes I could cover with the undergrads who’d be in attendance, seeking advice on how to get into and survive graduate school. “Just give them the standard narrative,” I reminded myself, “a narrative of a life that progressed in as neat and orderly a fashion as the mind of Mr. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.”

But, I ended up talking about my parents.

As I began, the students who were gathered in a circle to hear my talk fell eerily intent and wistful. Others, who were working at the computer stations around the room, stopped what they were doing to listen because it was a sad story. Yet, having spent years witnessing the anxiety, desperation, insecurity, and meanness that set the stage for the work so many do as graduate students and academics, I couldn’t sugarcoat this life. I had to tell the students the truth — that life in the academy is hard. As one of the most competitive professions in the country, academe has a tendency, like other highly competitive professions, to draw out the very worst qualities in people. I let students know that they would meet fellow students and colleagues who would lie, cheat, steal, and hurt others all in the name of ideas. And I shared the story of a friend, a graduate student on the job market, who with intense pain in her eyes, had asked me only a few days before, “When will the desperation end? I am so tired of the desperation.” A former successful fundraiser for an international non-profit, she had been struggling to maintain her sense of self-worth in a world that makes so many feel insignificant and invisible.

Seeing some of the students swallow hard at these sobering revelations, I changed course, asking, “So how do you cope? How does one survive this world?” There were some practical tips: exercise, spend time with your friends (the ones who will stand by you in the bad times and celebrate with you in the good ones), and take time to do something fun at least once a week (if not once a day!). And then there were the metaphysical tips, the ones that led to the story about my parents — “My parents died when I was young. They both died of cancer, eight years apart. They were both young when they died. I was 17 when my mom died. When my father died, I was in graduate school. Indeed, I left graduate school to take care of my father in Korea. And when I came back, I realized that I myself had been left for dead by many classmates who saw me fall behind in my studies — saw me as one less competitor with whom they would have to contend. I thought they were friends; I was proved wrong.”

As the room became even more silent — the students who had been eating lunch stopped eating, I continued awkwardly, “I know it sounds like a cliché but when you go through an experience like this, it changes you. Losing both of my parents when I was young — and when they were young — changed me. And one of the things I remember — I remember at age 25, after my dad had died — telling myself that I was going to live my life differently than I had before. I wasn’t going to live in the constant state of anxiety, desperation, and insecurity that suffused the life of my fellow graduate students. I distinctly remember telling myself that I was going to make a choice — to never live a life of desperation and to pursue things — activities and people — that brought me meaning and joy.”

That choice explains my completely non-linear career path — Mr. Ramsay would likely say that I was completely derailed from the alphabet altogether at about letter “E”! I’ve left academia a few times. I’ve given myself a chance to explore careers that piqued my interest since childhood. On returning to the academy, I was often reminded that I wasn’t doing things in the proper order or in a more expeditious time frame — why wasn’t I at such-and-such a conference, why didn’t I talk up such-and-such a famous scholar when he visited campus, why didn’t I self-promote more, and why wasn’t I publishing a billion articles a year?

The answer, I told the students, went back to the decision that I made years ago — to not let so many external pressures and voices drown out my own — my own interests and my own passions. I specifically said, “All I knew was that I had a vision of what I wanted my book to sound like and why it mattered. I knew and know all the criticisms of the book; I know that moving forward I want to rectify some of its weaknesses and grow as a writer and thinker. But, in the years since I’ve returned to academia, that certain vision of what I wanted to do with my book and the challenge of trying to achieve that vision carried me through the hardships of this career.” Simply put, working on the book made me happy. And the book, despite having traveled with me on my bumpy journey to and from academia and back again, turned out okay.

It’s taken me months to write this story — mostly because it’s not easy to tell. But I’ve been wanting to write it down and share it for the grad students and others here who might be struggling, especially in this terrible job market. In the midst of difficult circumstances, it’s very hard to feel and see that one has choices. But you do and I know from experience that making those choices does make a difference.

Marin County, CA, December 28, 2018