My 2019: Using Words

Judging solely on the resolutions I made for 2019, this was a year of best intentions come up short. At least two failures mirrored even minor successes, and, on the cusp of 2020, I mostly feel exhausted.

However, this assessment is colored by the fatigue I still feel from a particularly grueling semester. This year was broadly similar to the last, which was broadly similar to the one before that and the one before that. I had a few more professional successes in the past years, but I also had significantly fewer teaching responsibilities and more research support. Plus ça change.

Add in that I have now been in Columbia, MO for a decade and am currently without prospects for a permanent job in the area, and what I am feeling might be more appropriately described as stagnation.

All the same, I managed to deliver a paper on bread baking in ancient Greece last spring at the CAMWS meeting in Lincoln, NE, wrote a book review, and drafted two article-length pieces, one for an edited collection, and one I want to submit to a journal. Frustratingly, only the conference paper saw the light of day this year and I was once again unable to complete my first book manuscript (though I did make progress on it). I need to remember that this hardly counts for nothing when also teaching seven classes of my own (five new), picking up additional grading to make ends meet, and applying for academic jobs, all while also setting ambitious reading and exercise goals, and aiming to maintain a healthy relationship

I wrote last year about my recent struggles with anxiety and again earlier this year about struggling to write while depressed. These two emotional states dominated my year to the point that I tried to find a therapist in early September before the semester spun out of control. I received an initial evaluation and was prepared to spend quite a lot of money before my insurance would cover visits, but ended up not following through after being told the wait for start appointments.

Beyond simply the anxiety of the semester, I was (and am) particularly concerned about my career. The academic job market is the stuff of campfire horror stories for many reasons, but the long and the short of it is that most universities remain under regimes of austerity and those that aren’t are not generally not investing in full-time ancient historians. Add in a decade’s worth of accumulated PhDs and you have a recipe for, in some cases, hundreds of applicants and dozens of perfectly qualified candidates for every open position.

Nothing about these realities softens the notification that the job went to someone else.

My application materials are competitive and I have been receiving interviews, but I can’t help but wonder whether this will be the last year I get to do this job that I genuinely love, which, in turn, creates a negative feedback loop on my academic projects. For the work that I have been doing recently, this lack of stability is at least as much of an impediment as is the lack of research support. I have a long and growing list of things I want to do, but I have found myself in a position where I am disinclined to aggressively pursue the most ambitious ones without some promise of stability on the other side because the emotional toll and the cost to my personal relationships is too great. Perhaps I should take more risks, perhaps it wouldn’t matter. But, when combined with the significant amount time spent securing employment, often semester by semester, these issues create a contingent faculty Catch-22.

Professional anxiety was omnipresent last year, but it is worth remembering that there is more to life than this. I was able to reconnect with old friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in more than a decade, I spent time learning how bake things like croissants, and I remain in a long-term committed relationship with an amazing woman who helps keep me grounded.

I don’t know what 2020 has in store for me, but the new year is upon us so I guess I am about to find out.

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My year-in-review series is running behind, but this essay trying to make sense of my year is the penultimate entry. It follows a collection of my best* posts, a list of statistics, and a listicle.

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

My 2018 – using words

This is the penultimate post of my year-in-review series, an essay trying to make sense of my year that was. It follows a collection of my best* posts, a list of statistics, and a listicle. A post containing 2019 resolutions concludes the series tomorrow.

Past entries in this series: 2017, 2016, 2015.

ΔΔΔ

On the precipice of 2019 I am in a good place. By definition this should mean that I had a good 2018, and, compared to many, that is true. I had some measure of professional success; I published two articles, submitted a book proposal to an academic press (along with five revised chapters), taught five classes, and scored multiple interviews in the cutthroat arena of the academic job market. In a bonus victory, each of the academic successes brought me closer to articulating my larger research agenda. 2018 passed me as a blur of activity with steady, but not stable employment and whirlwind travel, but I was not burdened by toxic relationships or flattened by the trauma of loss.

Just writing these words twisted my stomach into knots.

Reading over the past versions of this essay, I realize that I have written something to this effect each of the past three years. In this sense, 2018 was more of the same, except that the highs were higher and the lows lower.

This year marked the first time in my adult life where I suffered health complications worse than the flu that were not sports injuries. All of them were related to anxiety. Last spring I experienced the first round, which included GERD and at one point breaking out in hives. The digestive issues meant that I had to give up first chocolate and then coffee. By the end of the fall semester a new wave of symptoms developed that, thankfully, have largely disappeared after I gave myself several days entirely off over the holiday.

I have coped with anxiety in various forms for quite a few years now, but an overlapping series of issues have caused the symptoms to grow progressively worse.

One is the brutal academic job market, where there are dozens or hundreds of qualified candidates for every open position and the number of positions overall in decline because of cuts to education funding. For me this meant working on short-term contracts to teach individual courses without the security of knowing whether I would teach again the following term and, simultaneously, feeling pressure to research and publish without compensation in the hope that someday it will be part of my job.

Teaching history at the college level is something I deeply believe in. There are other career paths out there and graduate study in history should do a better job of creating pathways for students to get those jobs, but when I look at myself in the mirror it is hard to give up on this dream that I have now spent almost a decade pursuing.

Another issue is the gremlin who has long sat on my shoulder telling me that I should be working harder. When I was young I could ignore him, perhaps too well, but in the crucible of academia he has grown strong indeed.

I gave in to that gremlin more often than not in 2018, sacrificing my weekends, my evenings, and much of the time that would have been spent just being outdoors, much to my detriment. By the end of the year, my partner started saying that even my hobbies started to look like work.

Self-care taken to its extreme becomes hedonism, but self-care itself is necessary. My much belated revelation at the end of 2018 is that things like self-care that I admire and encourage in others are also things that I need to allow myself.

But, like I stated at the outset, 2018 was a successful year by many metrics. I remain in a healthy relationship with an amazing woman and read a lot of breathtaking books. I was a little bit ambitious in my writing goals, which always ends up going slower than intended. Teaching new courses (four of the five I taught for the first time) consumes more time than I estimate, and most of my writing time was given over to “old” work, between editing chapters to submit with my book proposal and rounds of edits and proofs. Still, I am pleased with how my courses went for the most part and am pleased with the work that I put out into the world in 2018. I also saw progress in the long-term process of self-improvement, which provided hope even in bad moments.

As much as my year was defined by struggles with anxiety, I want to take time to reflect on those things that were good.

My universal resolutions every year revolve around mindfulness and happiness. Anecdotally and superficially, at least, I smiled more and laughed more easily in 2018 than I did in past years, but also with the impression that this was grim laughter going out into unrelenting darkness.