My 2020: Using My Words

Wait.

Hold up.

It’s December already?

It’s the end of December already?

As in, tomorrow is January 1, 2021?

I don’t believe you.

Time flies when you’re having fun, they say, but the real secret is that time flies when you stay busy. Was 2020 every busy. I got off to a roaring start teaching five different classes at two different institutions while also writing and applying for jobs, and then COVID happened. It took my classes online over a weekend and managed to stay one jump ahead for the rest of the semester, but when I emerged I discovered not only that the sudden contraction of university budgets had axed the jobs I had applied for but also that the places where I had been picking up classes didn’t need my services.

Since there was a pandemic going on and I wasn’t in imminent danger of being cast out on the street, I resolved to give myself a couple weeks to recover and work on writing projects. Pretty soon I had a bead on various other employment: an online class in Australia that ended up falling through, reviewing a manuscript that came with a bit of pay, some freelance editorial work. Then the classes started trickling in: one class for a school I’d previously worked (I ended up not teaching this one), then a community college class, then three courses at a local college. Suddenly I was teaching five classes on three different academic calendars at three institutions. Three of the classes I’d never taught before.

Oh, and I took a six week course on online pedagogy in the middle of the fall semester.

What I’m saying is that I’m still waiting for that part of lockdown where I get bored because I’ve exhausted all of my entertainment options.

My year-end essays each of the past few years have largely echoed each other as I grasped for new words to say the same thing. Increasingly, I wrote about my professional experience—giving in to the gremlin telling me to work harder, my failures on the academic job market, the anxiety and exhaustion that comes with being a very contingent professor—concluding last year that I’ve been experiencing stagnation.

In some ways, 2020 was much the same, only with lower peaks and lower valleys. I was more anxious and more tired than ever, but I am as proud of any of the writing I did this year as anything I have done in the past, inclusive of both the work that came out and the material still working its way toward daylight.

Only in the past few weeks have I started coming to grips with how 2020 was different.

The isolation brought on by the pandemic was more annoying than debilitating at first. I’ve lived too far from most friends and family for regular visits for more than a decade so when restrictions pushed everyone online, it actually brought many loved ones closer to me than they had been for some time. Similarly, I suddenly found myself more able to sleep with neither a commute nor an available gym. (I’m still trying to figure out replacement work outs that work with what I have available, though.) Work took more time, sure, but I find working toward clear goals relaxing, so I could often put my head down and dig in.

Reader, this was neither healthy, nor sustainable.

Our decision to be responsible and stay home for the holidays caused the isolation to crash home anew, balancing whatever physical rest we get by avoiding holiday travel with emotional strain of not seeing family.

Much of my exhaustion can be traced to the usual suspects (work, anxiety, depression), but this year has also brought into relief another source of exhaustion: rage. I spent so much time angry this year, often whipping from one target to another. Any list of triggers would be inadequate, and perhaps the most infuriating part is how few of conditions were actually new. COVID didn’t so much create problems as lay bare the fundamental structures of a society where public infrastructure (let alone any pretense of a social safety net) has been dismantled and sold for parts.

Forget a lockdown, many places in the United States didn’t put in place a mask ordinance. There is a restaurant in Jefferson City, MO, about twenty miles south of me, that only started requiring masks a month ago, and then only from 3–5 PM as special “COVID-safe” hours.

I am numb at the fact that hundreds of thousands of Americans have died and millions more could have long-term health complications—maybe now a dreaded pre-existing condition, who knows!—with millions more out of work or with limited income and yet so many people seem to have simply given up anything more than token efforts. Not to let a good crisis go to waste, the profits of billionaires have soared, the families of congresspeople engaged in what seems like blatant insider-trading, and the people in charge of overseeing a pandemic response either treated a deadly disease like a hoax or a PR-stunt. If the stock market doesn’t crash and the carnage is confined to your political opponents, then everything is fine, right? We could feed people and stimulate the economy, but have you considered the deficit? It has been a full year since COVID started and nine months since it started racing through the United States and just today I read reports about doses of the COVID vaccine spoiling because its rollout has been so haphazard that the clinic didn’t have “eligible” recipients.

I can feel the bile rising writing the preceding paragraphs, and they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s the thing: none of things is going to change with the calendar flipping to 2021. Sure, a Biden administration will help a little given enough time to straighten out the official response and to take the mean edge off of some policies. But setting the goal at normalcy is tantamount to wanting to sweep everything that happened this year under the rug so that you don’t have to think about it anymore.

This is the point I keep coming back to as new year approaches. I have long maintained that teaching is what I can do to help make the world a better place, but my surety of that has been shaken over the past year. Doubts that began pre-COVID given the nature of contingent faculty work have only accelerated once the pandemic hit because it is almost impossible to do the sort of teaching I want to do while everyone involved was also coping with the pandemic. This may entail a career change, but I thought as much last year, too, so who knows.

If all of this sounds bleak, that is because I’ve spent my days recently cycling through rage and resignation. Compared to many people this year, I’m fine. I’m exhausted and little heavier than I’d like to be, but that’s what happens when you lose access to a gym and spend a lot of the year expanding your repertoire of baked goods. I am healthy, as are those closest to me, and I have a roof over my head and food on my plate. But this year has also made clear that we should not take these basic necessities for granted.

I might be ready to leave 2020 behind, but I have no intention of forgetting it anytime soon.

ΔΔΔ

This is the penultimate entry in my end-of-year wrap up series. The rest of the 2020 series includes: Best* Posts, By the Numbers, Lists of Note, and will be followed by resolutions.

Past essays in this series: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.

My 2017 – Using words

In the spirit of routines and trying to buck some of the frustration that comes with this season, I am again putting out a series of reflection and planning posts, including this reflective essay, by the numbers listicle, and best of 2017.

Last year, and 2015.

I am in a bind to start this post. How can I write about 2017 without sounding like a knock-off version of Dickens? It was the best of years, it was the…yeah.

The past year was busy, both because I took on (and accomplished) a lot and because it felt like the world careened from one potential catastrophe to another. Things are still holding together, but the ride was draining. I have written and called my elected officials and turned out to protest more than at any time in my life (I also had the unpleasant feeling of insignificance that comes with the impression that your representatives are not listening), and much the way that fire consumes all available oxygen, I discovered for the first time in my adult life that I did not have the energy to really keep up with the “news,” let alone to follow much international news. This is not the only reason that I am coming into the New Year exhausted, but it is a contributing factor.

But 2017 was not all bad. I finished my degree, and I have an unopened cylindrical mailer that (I think) contains a diploma to prove it. I’ve had pieces of academic writing, including an article and a book review, accepted for publication, with more under review and I have made progress on a book proposal to try to sell my dissertation as as book. And this is before counting the half dozen talks that I gave, proposed, or prepared in the past calendar year to go along with the dozens of job applications.

I am proud of the work I did this year, but there were also less visible changes taking place. In the second half of 2017 I renewed my focus on PROCESS. For instance, I joined two writing groups, one in person and one online, and used these as an excuse to build good habits. I started waking up early so that I can dedicate an hour of writing first thing in the morning and keeping a log of the time I spent writing distraction-free, and had the pleasure of watching a steady increase. Setting weekly goals has helped me learn how to keep things realistic, and learning to share works in progress has helped strengthen the things I write. Similarly, between reading about writing and working on book proposal, I have been thinking a lot about writing for audiences rather than writing simply to make my argument. One of those is a lot easier to read. I won’t claim expertise in any of these things and I don’t know that these practices have necessarily increased the speed at which I work, but they have improved my writing and should serve me well going forward.

This past fall I also taught my first college course as a PhD. I had a lot of fun teaching the course and think that I would only change about a third of it for the next iteration. In brief, with a lot of people who were history majors but without much knowledge about ancient Greece, I sought a balance between content, historical practice through engagement with primary sources, and interactive, student-driven learning. The results were uneven, with the distinct feeling that trying to do all three meant that none of them was done quite to my satisfaction. I also felt that I learned as a teacher last semester, particularly in terms of ceding power as the instructor in order to give the students the tools and the agency to learn in ways beyond rote memorization. I know this material, but learning is more than playing a game of telephone through the students to an exam. I witnessed exceptional growth in a number of my students, which has me excited all over again for the two courses I am teaching next semester.

My non-academic reading pace took a step back last year, finishing just fifty books, though several took a lot of investment and I gave more time to reading things for professional use, so it comes out about in a wash. The big change was a breakthrough in terms of diversity, with 38% of the books I read last year being by women. I would still like to read a little more non-fiction and some more African and/or African American literature, but I read more books by women in 2017 than in the previous four years combined(!) and discovered some of my favorite authors along the way.

I continue to live with a wonderful and supportive person, I learned some new recipes for baking, continued to learn languages with Duo Lingo and stayed physically active, including lifting weights and playing basketball. I still had periods of extreme anxiety and wore down at the end of semesters, both of which too often result in snapping at people close to me, but I also felt like I was willing to smile and laugh just a little bit more easily while taking the time to appreciate a view…though the latter might be a side effect of looking for the next picture to post on Instagram. Despite a high level of uncertainty about the world at large and about my future in particular, I am in a good place right now. Going into 2018 I am taking a moment to reflect on this fact, to appreciate steps that got me there, and then to get back to work.

But first, some goals for 2018.

The eternal, nebulous, unquantifiable

  • Continue learning to let go of things that are beyond my control. Most things are.
  • Be more patient and charitable with people I know and tolerant of distraction (while working to limit them)
  • Smile more often.
  • Continue to exercise, maintain or improve health, flexibility and fitness.
  • Take more time for mindfulness exercises

The concrete and quantifiable

  • Write more often, here, there, and beyond. Some specific (but not a complete list of) quantifiable goals:
    • Sell my first academic book, based on my dissertation
    • Finish a draft of my novel….which would mean working on it
    • Complete and send off (3) articles to academic journals
    • Apply to review (1) academic books
    • Find one non-blog, non-academic site to publish a piece of writing, either fiction or non-fiction

    • Keep up my non-academic reading, but continue to expand my horizons, meaning:
      • Read at least (52) nonacademic books. I fell just short of this last year.
      • I crushed my goal of (10) and the revised goal of (25%) with almost 40% being by women in 2017. In 2018, my target is at least (33%).
      • I read (7) non-fiction books (not for academic purposes) again in 2017; in 2018 I want to hit (10).
      • I added a category of “professional development” non-fiction books in 2017, reading (3) titles. In 2018 I would like to read (6). Right now this is a separate list, but I may merge them this year.