A Life of Letters
I have spent the entire month of shedding ending up having more work and the only shedding that has been on mind is how I might “shed” academia. I have been filled with ambivalence about that decision even though it is clear to me that something must give if I am to sustain the creative and intellectual life I wish to lead.
Last week I was in Madrid and had several opportunities to experience the art, letters and culture of Madrid in ways that were intensely personal. I was given a private tour of the National Library that contains every volume, film, recording and periodical ever published in Spain. Every year the country celebrates a writer who then gets to choose an artist who is commissioned to create a portrait as directed by the author. This collaborative approach to portraiture makes it one of the more fascinating galleries I have had the pleasure to explore. Later I wandered the streets of the “writer’s district” and sat for a spell in Lope de Vega’s garden. I read many of his plays in my senior year of high school. I was inspired then to write a play myself, completely in Spanish.
As we came into the research room where scholars and students were laboring I was overcome with an intense feeling of sadness and grief. It took me a moment to understand why. As I have been thinking of leaving academia I realized that I have been feeling a terrible loss of the notions I had of what it means to be a scholar and an intellectual. Seeing Ph.D. students at work in this inspiring space, I was reminded of the joy and anticipation I felt when researching and reading at that time in my life. When I wanted to conduct critical research and represent “performances” of women in the world of child welfare. When I could have told the real stories of myself and them. I hear myself recently saying words like, “I have a very performative relationship with clothes” within which is encoded numerous theories and philosophies, echoing that time.
Following right on the heels of that is the terrible disappointment that came with the realization that similar to my practice life, I entered and labored in yet another bureaucratic institution. I am reminded of all the concessions that were made about what I would research, how I would research it, how I would represent it and finally in these last years what I must teach, what assignments I must give, what learning outcomes I must measure. The endless meetings that produce nothing.
In my work in this newer digital life I am still always drawn to those activities and experiences that are creative and support a scholarly and collaborative approach. Students from fashion, art, performance and design schools contact me with projects such as being interviewed for ethnodramas a la Anna Deaveare Smith, graphic novels, magazines, 3D characters or just other academic projects about social media and representation. Interestingly, most come from outside the US, although Parsons still seems to be producing critically thinking scholars. I find these transactions endlessly interesting and fascinating. I wish I had the time to deeply engage with all of them. What’s making it hard to leave academia I realize is accepting the loss of my desired, never realized, scholarly life.
At the very same time I am inhaling the odors of ancient books and spaces, I receive an email from a professor in Barcelona asking if I would be interested in writing a short book about fashion for an immersion series. I see the inquiry when I leave to go to lunch. This excites me. Like the young people in my classes or around me in the digital world, I suddenly realize I do not have to do what I want to do within the structures of obsolete institutions. I can write, I can perform, I can research, I can study and perhaps even teach in other spaces, in fact I have already been doing so. My Ph.D. is mine and completely transportable. I am going to dig out my old notebooks filled with thoughts about performance studies and postmodern theories. I am going to keep “performing” my life as the one I have been sharing with all of you. My performances will become even more experimental and thus more fun and alive. Oh and by the way...just got a bunch of wigs when I got home.
Have you ever had a moment when you realized that you only needed yourself to do what you wanted to do? Inspire me please with your stories!