What might have been & what has been

Yesterday, I defended my dissertation, and (pending paperwork being filed) am now qualified to call myself ‘Dr.,’ if I were so inclined (which I’m not, but that’s a story for another day!). I can’t help but be a little wistful; getting to and getting through grad school took up most of my 20s. I’ve pingponged around the globe, lost relationships, gained relationships, felt generally unsettled, and grown a lot. I’ve had a relatively charmed existence, as far as these things go: the things that usually get griped about by humanities grad students (and rightfully so) have been blessedly far from my grad school experience. Even in securing the first golden ring – a tenure-track job, one that I’m damn excited about – was done with a minimum of muss and fuss.

Which isn’t to say grad school was a walk in the park. I don’t know anyone who has genuinely coasted through grad school – even the most brilliant people I know have been gnawed at by insecurities or been busy whipping themselves over various hurdles. I arrived woefully underprepared; I was good enough to get into a good PhD program, but not really ready for its rigors. I was extraordinarily intimidated when I showed up at UCSD, where I was surrounded by incredibly smart, talented colleagues (many of whom had gone to prestigious schools and had MAs), shepherded intellectually by two giants of my field, and fumbling around trying to figure out how to be a grad student, never mind a Chinese historian. My natural inclination towards anxiety meant I spent my first year and a half in a more or less constant state of panic. For that first year and a half, I cried every time I had to go speak to one of my advisors. This wasn’t because he was mean, or horrible, or yelled at me. But I knew he was disappointed with me – with atrocious Chinese skills, a startling lack of breadth in my knowledge, defensive to the extreme, an “intense” conversationalist and a bit tone deaf at times – and I felt that keenly. So, for that first chunk of time, every time I went into his office, I would sit and talk to his filing cabinet, because I was too ashamed of myself to look him in the eyes. More precisely, I would cry at his filing cabinet. It was horrible. I can only imagine what the advisors must have thought – what had they gotten themselves into?

The fall quarter of my second year was a spectacularly bad period – I was having an existential crisis and semi-contained nervous breakdown. I went – often – to one of my favorite professors, who gave me the intellectual pat on the head I desperately wanted (‘You’re valuable to this field; you will go on and do something; you have value because of you‘), but also said something else that gave me a glimmer of hope: if you can make it through this, you’ll be able to do anything. He talked me off my metaphorical ledge when I was ready to crawl in and admit defeat to my advisor’s filing cabinet, and beg for letters of recommendation to programs in other fields. “Let’s not do anything hasty.” It didn’t stop my obsessive worrying, but that – along with a couple of other serendipitous events – at least help put me back on a semi-even keel. Things got better. I found a topic I adored; I trotted off to a summer program to improve my Chinese; I stuffed my schedule with extra courses I didn’t “need,” but really wanted to take; I made more friends at school. I nearly killed myself with an overly ambitious schedule, but it was so good for me.

As the denouement indicates, I got over my existential crisis eventually & didn’t totally crash and burn. I was not – have never been, still am not – a perfect grad student or academic, but I found topics I enjoyed and seemed good at. My Chinese improved, I got less defensive, I got better at teaching. I got that breadth I was so desperately missing my first year and a half. I am still a loud mouth, but I try hard to rein it in. I grew up a lot, largely because my professors didn’t lose faith in me. Even when it seemed I was skidding towards disaster (going on the market with only 2 dissertation chapters written was the last great example of that), my advisors counseled wisely and did everything (and then some) that good graduate advisors are supposed to do. I like to think it paid off, and I’m a reasonable credit to the program – or at least not actively besmirching its reputation.

Although our advisors usually get the lion’s share of credit for turning us into productive members of the academy (and indeed, they do deserve a lot of credit, to say the least) – I’ve always thought it a bit unfair. What about all those other, less exalted people who have had so much to do with our intellectual upbringing? I never would have found my way to UCSD had it not been for one person who took the time to give me blunt advice, but also encouragement.

The 'Burg (1862)

The ‘Burg (1862)

I am bizarrely linebred to the UCSD modern Chinese history program from an academic perspective, particularly since I graduated from a school that most people have never heard of & one that, while having some well-regarded programs in history & historic preservation, doesn’t have a great tradition of Asian history (University of Mary Washington, née Mary Washington College, in Fredericksburg, VA). One of the first history classes I took after transferring to Mary Wash was an intro to Asian history course (in another example of coming full circle, I am using a novel I read in that class in my first intro to East Asian history course). That professor actually left after that semester, taking up a position at UCSD, and is now one of our talented premodern Chinese historians. A gap year with a visiting professor, and then Sue Fernsebner arrived, having graduated a few years earlier from UCSD. I’m not exaggerating when I say the first seminar I had with her – in her first semester of teaching at Mary Wash – changed my life. In one of those weirdly poetic moments that life is peppered with, it almost wasn’t.

I had needed to sign up for a senior seminar the previous spring, and all the hot classes in Euro and American history were going to fill up quickly, or had already. Languishing half empty was a course on “The Chinese Revolution”; my academic advisor said “Well, this one probably won’t be hard to get into. It’s listed as professor TBA, which usually scares people off, and it’s Asian history.” I signed up for it & gave it little more thought until registration reopened a few weeks before classes started in the fall. A visiting professor was offering a seminar in genocide; I thought that sounded interesting, and dropped the Chinese history seminar. 15 minutes later, after waffling internally, I flip-flopped back to the Chinese history seminar for some unknown reason.

I remember that first class. It all sounded wonderfully interesting. After class was over, I asked the professor – who had already made such an exotic topic seem so approachable! – a dumb question about footbinding. Not a particularly auspicious beginning, but I threw myself into this very foreign history. I fell in love with Lu Xun, was fascinated to discover clothing was for sure a valid way to investigate history, and read a lot about things I had never before had any experience with. I think I was probably much like a big, dumb, exuberant puppy: I gobbled up information, was boundlessly enthusiastic about it, didn’t always put as much time into homework as I should have, talked too much in seminar, was probably combative with some of my classmates, but was really interested in it all.

I made a calculated, rather mercenary decision in choosing Chinese history for grad school. This is perhaps why I don’t have as much patience as I should with the people who cry “But I just love [insert oversaturated field with 700 applicants for every position here] so much, I couldn’t do anything else!” The field was (and is) in pretty good shape overall, amazing shape compared to most fields & subfields in the humanities. It would have been much easier for me to go into, say, French history, or English history, or some subfield of American history – all things I enjoyed, and certainly things that would have required a lot less blood, sweat, and tears along the way based on my background. I have had many periods of cursing myself for following this path, but it has, on the whole, been a stimulating and productive journey – and one that’s been blessedly free of most humanities grad student pitfalls, as I’ve said.

Sue never painted an overly rosy picture; she told me quite clearly that I needed to be prepared for an eventuality that didn’t include a TT job. “You never know what the job market is going to look like when you finally get out.” She did everything to help get me on a path to a top program, but didn’t do so in a manner that encouraged unrealistic expectations. I read horror stories of undergraduate advisors encouraging their students to go into over-saturated fields, never letting them in on the open secret of horrible odds for landing a TT job. Who are these people, I wonder. And am always glad I had my mother (with her own grad school horror stories, and someone who left her own tippy-top history PhD program after getting an MA because – in the mid-1970s – the market had already collapsed) and Sue to advise me on the promises and pitfalls of life in the Ivory Tower.

My 2nd year of TAing, I was waylaid by an undergraduate vision of myself – it was 7 PM, after an early evening section. All I wanted to do after a very long day was crawl out to the parking lot, sip my coffee, suck down a cigarette, and get home so I could walk the dog, eat dinner, do some of my own work, and collapse. I was exhausted. But here was a freshman from that section bubbling over with enthusiasm for the Tale of Genji: what is one to do when presented with something like that? I did the only thing I could: stayed and talked and bubbled enthusiasm back at the student for half of a precious hour. But as I walked to my car, I had a realization: that was me, waylaying professors after class, gobbling up precious time they needed to do, well, anything related to their own work, go home, prep for next week’s seminar, whatever. I was ashamed of myself for not realizing that earlier.

Of course, part of what we’re supposed to be doing is teaching, and that extends outside the classroom. Would I have made it this far if, back in 2005, my beloved Chinese history professor had said (more politely, of course): “Sorry kid, have an essay to write/class to prep for/stuff to do that doesn’t include students – figure out moving to Taiwan for language training yourself.” Probably not, no. But even at a student-focused liberal arts college, she certainly didn’t have to extend herself as much as she did, as often as she did, as much as she has over the years (and still does!), for me. I have been really lucky in having an undergraduate professor who didn’t stop being a mentor when I graduated; she’s been a wellspring of excellent advice and wise counsel throughout the years, one I’m supremely grateful for. I’m proud to tell people I studied with her, just like I’m proud to have studied under our advisors. Everyone should have a teacher like her at least once in their lives.

For a long time after I transferred to Mary Wash, my mum was a bit put out that I had refused to apply to other, more prestigious schools. Oh, the missed opportunities! Why hadn’t I applied to UVa or William & Mary? She brought it up again a few months ago, a bit wistfully, but after a pause added: “But then, you wouldn’t have met Professor Fernsebner.” And while I’m sure I’d be doing something interesting that I enjoyed, I probably would not be a Chinese historian.

So – thanks, Sue. I really couldn’t – wouldn’t – have done any of it without you.

Leave a Reply