Thanks, Academia

[This is totally a backhanded compliment to academia. More backhand than compliment.]

No working during drinking hours.

Recently (and it’s a long, boring, and irrelevant story as to how it came about) I read a rant of someone desperate to meet another in person. The other person was uncomfortable with this, given the current pandemic situation. The rant was sent in response to a “Thanks but no thanks, I don’t want to meet” message, and started by almost demanding a meeting out of pity because they were so lonely and had had such a rough year. But there was a line in the rant that stuck with me: “I just don’t understand how you’re not going insane not seeing friends, or even having only online dates. Why isn’t it hard for you to avoid restaurants and bars—don’t you enjoy that?”

I don’t know why. It doesn’t really matter why. But that really resonated with me.

Because I’m not going insane, relatively-speaking, by not seeing friends. Because I am fine with the concept (and reality) of online dating. Because I enjoy restaurants and bars, but also it’s not been hard for me to avoid them. Why? Why I do I match perfectly with this blatant, wanted-but-detested, misunderstood anathema? I realized a LOT of why these are my truths is because of academia.

And so, here is my thank-you to academia for helping immensely in making quarantine and isolation not seem so bad.

Thank you, academia.

This year is the first time since 2014 I’ve had friends that aren’t colleagues that live in the same STATE, let alone general area, let alone time zone. Thanks to you, academia, I’ve had to live in five states in five years—I’ve gotten used to not having many connections, or having those connections not be local. I don’t miss having brewskis with my broskis because that’s not been a luxury of mine.

Thank you, academia.

I’m used to not seeing my friends in person. My closest non-academic friend I talk to 1-2 times a week on the phone, but I only see him maybe once a year and always when I’ve come home for some holiday because he doesn’t really travel. I’m in an online bookclub with about half a dozen friends from undergrad—but we live in four different time zones, so we have zero intention of actually seeing each other ever. Thanks to you, academia, from 2012-2020 I was in almost nothing but long-distance relationships and with other academics to boot—I’m used to not getting a hug or a kiss everyday. I’ve gone weeks without any physical human contact. I’m used to feeling LUCKY to see significant others in the flesh once a month. I’m long past the time of missing date nights because I can’t remember the last time I had regular date nights.

Thank you, academia.

I’m used to having holidays regularly ruined. Quals would be in January. The JMM would be in January and I’d be on the market. I’d have a first-round phone interview right before Christmas. I’d be depressed all of those years regardless because of the reality of those situations. And forget about Christmas. I can’t tell you how many Mother’s Days I missed because of conferences or “required” faculty commencements (and my mother was only 1-4 hours away at the time). And so over the years I’ve had to learn to make holidays whenever I can. I’ve had to accept it’s not about the date but it’s about the people and simply being around them and appreciating them. It could be the 25th of December, or it could be the 19th of August or 23rd of June.

Thank you, academia.

Because subsequently Thanksgiving alone honestly wasn’t that bad. I Zoomed with friends. I Zoomed with family. And that was more than I’ve had many non-pandemic years. It actually was a calm day with good food, good wine, and good conversation.

Thank you, academia.

I have had to develop a determination of putting up with short-term discomfort and inconvenience for the hope of a calmer and better future. That’s how I at least got through what people would call the hazing that is grad school, the misogyny and sexism and ageism and pettiness that is rampant in our community. That is how I put up with moving so much—all of those postdocs and visiting positions, all of those times on the market…to hope that one day I’d get a tenure-track at a place I love that loves me back. That is how I put up with renting a bug-infested, heat-less room in a dilapidated bed and breakfast where the grounds were so well-kept a tree fell on my car and totaled it. That was how I put up with college-owned housing with zero privacy, no insulation, and black mold. That was how I put up with a 400 square foot efficiency studio with a toilet literally manufactured in the Truman administration and with wood floors so out of whack I had to put duct tape down to prevent getting splinters.

Thank you, academia.

Because now the idea of staying inside my quiet apartment with in-unit laundry and a balcony overlooking the water hazard of a golf course does not seem too terribly taxing.

Maybe my life before the pandemic seemed pretty pitiful. Not seeing loved ones. Not seeing friends. Moving constantly. “Living” in less than ideal places. Having holidays ruined emotionally and mentally if not also geographically. Certainly many non-academic friends have expressed concern in the past about my career choice.

The one thing I suppose I have not addressed is why it’s been so easy for me to stay away from restaurants and bars. Because, honestly, academics do a nontrivial amount of eating out after colloquiums and during conferences and a lot of the JMM (for instance) is socializing. What makes this easy isn’t directly a result of academia, though it is a direct result of where I currently work (which is academia…and not…at the same time).

So a half-thanks on this.

At least a third of my colleagues and all of my students are active military. Many are used to and/or anticipate spending months at a time submerged under water in a submarine. My military colleagues absolutely love their jobs here because they get to go home every night and see their kids—many have talked about missing the first x years of their kids’ lives due to deployment.

Finals (before times)

For many of the civilians, including myself, working at a place like this holds special familial meaning. My grandfather was forced due to the Depression to turn down his appointment to West Point. While he later enlisted and retired as a colonel, he only ever wanted to go to a service academy and I am the only other relative to have been “accepted” to one. And to remind myself of what this means to my family, and to also show my students a military connection as a very obvious civilian, prominently displayed in my office is one of his bronze stars with the certificate highlighting how it was awarded for “heroism in ground combat” in France in 1944. To remind myself even at home why I leave for work at 0630 and sometimes don’t get home until 1700, I have by my front door one of his legions of merit earned for exceptional services executed during the Korean War.

What do you have by YOUR front door?

My colleagues and my grandfather have made unbelievable sacrifices to try actively to ensure the safety of others. They have missed seeing their own families for years. They have missed holidays. They have lived in sub-standard situations. Moreover: they have been shot at. They have seen friends and comrades die gruesome deaths. They have seen horrors like battle and liberation of concentration camps and other events that I wouldn’t even want to begin to imagine. Again, all in a quest to try to keep others safe; all in an attempt to do “the right thing.”

And what am I being asked to do to help my fellow man right now? What am I being told is “the right thing”? Literally all I have to do is Netflix and chill until further notice.

So thank you, academia, for getting me where I am now and for helping me realize how easy even you have been. Thank you for making me recognize and even angered at how pitiful people are for feeling sorry for themselves, for feeling antsy for not being able to go out and see their friends. Thank you for making me capable of “dropping the mic” with colleagues in truthfully saying “I have not been to a grocery store since March” and having their eyebrows rise and, despite the face masks I’m sure, their jaws drop.

I’d say I owe you, academia, but we both know that’s not exactly true.

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