The beginning of the calendar year can be a traditional time for people to write about What Will Come Next. I find myself, after a nice chunk of time disconnected from work and some social media places, thinking about What Has Come Before, for me. And reflecting on how I got here.
Recently, I’ve had conversations with colleagues during which I realize that they don’t know how it is that I came to the work that I have. And while it’s not mandatory that anyone in particular know my story, I personally find it valuable to know how people got to where they are (See: “An anthropologist for as long as I can remember, I just can’t help myself.” ). Making transparent all of the mess and backtracking and accidental connections that can go into people’s current work and lives feels important. Very few things are as simple as deciding to do something and then it coming to pass.
So, prompted by those conversations, and also by the memory of Andrew Asher’s blogpost about his alt-ac career, I’d like to tell my story so far. I have told it in bits and pieces in talks, in conversations, but not on this blog.
In 1999 I was finishing my dissertation and looking to file. My anthropology and folklore fieldwork was in Northern Ireland, with primary school children, so I was looking at a job market of folklore, anthropology of Europe, anthropology of Childhood, and 4-fields anthropology jobs. The latter was going to be a difficult sell because it’s still the case that socio-cultural anthropologists tend to get stereotyped as not-proficient in teaching intro courses on anything but their own subfield. My background in archaeology and enthusiasm for intro physical anthropology might have saved me. Who knows.
As I was finishing my dissertation, my husband got a full time job as a lab manager in an academic research unit at UC Berkeley. We finally had grown-up style health insurance! So we thought we’d try to have a kid. We had no house, or what we thought of as permanent jobs, but health insurance felt more stable than anything we’d had in our seven or so years thus far in grad school, so this felt like a good decision. And, we wanted children.
I assumed, because I’d seen it happen all around me, that I’d have the baby, go on the market, something would happen, and I’d figure out how to be a junior faculty member with a partner and a newborn.
Lily was born on October 9, 1999.
Lily died on October 29, 1999.
The world I thought I was building shattered and disappeared.
I filed my dissertation in December and was handed a See’s lollipop, with a “Congratulations” label on it (I think, I don’t actually remember what the little tag said) by the smiling woman with her ruler (to check the margins) at the Graduate Division office, and then I went home and cried.
The thing is, in my grief, I actually applied for more jobs. I remember the tears in my advisor’s eyes as he read my cover letters that started to suggest that my next project might be around themes of child loss in folklore. I was never short-listed. It was probably just as well. My assumptions that I would have full time academic work faded. I figured I’d just have to do something else, but at that point, I didn’t have the energy to figure out what.
My husband continued to work as an archaeologist and build his CV. We had two subsequent children, and they are still with us, now 15 and 12 years old. I published my dissertation as a book just before the birth of our younger child. The kid was 2 1/2 years old when their older sibling entered public school (as we had no money for preschool before then), when a friend needed someone to substitute teach her college archaeology class, and contacted me. So I found part time daycare for my younger child that would not cost all of what I was being paid, and did that. And that led to being invited to teach a January term class on the anthropology of childhood.
And then we picked up and moved to my husband’s tenure track job at UNC Charlotte. Please note: he had been on the job market for six years. He had his own path through grief. Neither of us were living the post-dissertation life we thought we would have, before Lily died.
Our new university home found adjunct work for me, the trailing spouse, and we were lucky that we had landed in a city that was livable on one salary. I assumed that this was going to be my life–part time anthro teaching to supplement my husband’s full time work. My CV was out of date. Had I not had recent teaching experiences courtesy of my friend who was both aware of and valued my anthropology experience, despite the big hole in my CV, I wonder if I would have been hired even as an adjunct.
In 2009, UNC Charlotte hired a new university librarian, and he created a job for an anthropologist. Several of us with anthropology degrees were employed part-time by the anthropology department, and I was not the only one who interviewed for the library job. When I was hired, it was clear that it was not because I had ever had great ambitions to work in libraries, or to study higher education, but because I was an anthropologist, and was trained to study people.
I was 39 years old, and I had landed my first and (to date) only full time academic job. 10 years after filing my dissertation I had found my second field site: Academia.
That was the start of the Anthropologist in the Stacks. That space, a space created for me to do anthropology in a library context, started everything that came next. When I was hired, I was asked to do work at the university, in the library building. I found, in the course of my work, opportunities to collaborate across campus, because staff and students who use the library live and work other areas of the campus too. Serendipity and a good friend from a previous part of my life invited me to do work at University College, London. A conversation with a guest speaker at UNC Charlotte led to my being invited to be a part of the Visitors and Residents research team. The agenda I have now, the one I cite in my bio, the broad-ranging, international work around information, digital and physical places in higher and further education, leadership and policy, and the nature of academic work, none of that existed until about 3 years ago. It’s only in the past year or so that I feel I’m truly building something, something of value, something that will have an impact.
I can still vividly remember the time when I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have the chance to contribute anything to anthropology or academia ever again.
My point is not that that non-academic path not taken would have been meaningless (of course there is meaning outside of academia!), but that this path I find myself on is in many ways happenstance. I’m being as mindful and purposeful (and frankly, ambitious) as I can be while realizing that this was not really ever part of some Grand Plan.
The life and work I have is a direct result of the derailment of the life I thought I would have. My satisfaction in the work I have and the colleagues I get to enjoy now is impossible to disentangle from the persistent absence of my child who died just as I finished graduate school.
Through it all I am lucky. I am lucky. This is how I am here.
I didn’t start this off intending to give advice, or to offer myself as any kind of lesson. I am not a lesson. My life and such career as I have are examples of just how little plans can have to do with how things unfold.
I do want to point out that part of my luck was to have trust, friends, and opportunities. At key moments I was offered opportunities and people trusted that I would not only take the chance, but do well enough to make the risk of me worthwhile. I have taken opportunities, and run with them. And then been further fortunate that people around me agreed that it is worthwhile, what I had done, and continue to do.
So if you want to take anything away from this, here’s what I suggest:
Collect colleagues and friends, not followers and minions.
Pay attention to what is being offered you.
Offer people opportunities. Be part of someone else’s happenstance narrative.
You cannot know what will happen. It is worth finding out.
Happy New Year.