Getting Lost in Academia
Updated: Aug 5
My response to being lost is generally to be angry. How did I get here and why didn’t I know better? People will be disappointed in me. How embarrassing, to be lost.
The most recent version of lost I experienced looked more like shouting, ‘have you seen my glasses?’ while scrolling through a shattered phone screen as I hurried out the door to work. That evening as I found my glasses (while looking for my lost slippers) I had to laugh at my cascading RAM failure. Alright, message received: time to defrag.
In her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost Rebecca Solnit writes:
Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about familiar falling away, getting lost is about the familiar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or passion; you lose your bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar expect that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control.
Starting this job in academia was very much me walking into a world larger than my knowledge where I was
lost in a new marking system.
lost in a new city without phone reception. *
lost in a new currency.
lost in how to say no to colleagues. **
lost in the inability to trust job security.***
lost deciding who to talk to about it.
lost in a new country (countries).
lost at so suddenly being the mentor.
lost about how to talk to my mom who is refusing to get the vaccine.
lost in a new history.
lost waiting for a university to put our health first in a pandemic. ****
lost in answering the question ‘where are you from?’
lost trying to dial a phone number with so many digits.
lost finding the meetings (where weirdly there are no women’s meetings).
lost living alone in staff accommodations. *****
lost figuring out where to refill the seltzer canister.
lost in deciding when to fail.
lost with this new identity in a new community.
lost not knowing where to put care in the university.
lost in the zero-sum reality of word count.******
Last winter I started reading lots of nature books. A book about rewilding. A book about walking the Salt Path. A book about foraging. Books about birds. These words were so comforting as was simply going for a walk in the woods, in a locked down world. I found comfort in people who walked out the door and ended up somewhere else, somehow found.
It wasn’t until a few months ago, sitting quietly in the dark of our living room I realized with a shock the biggest loss I was sitting with was the loss of myself as a writer. Amid thousands and thousands of words, dozens of projects, ever more commitments and opportunities, my ability to be with my writing for me was lost. I cried, sitting with the mourning but also with the relief of understanding what was underneath this persistent aching,
Solnit continues: And then everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.
Of course, sometimes being lost is pleasant. Lost in the bookshelves of a charity shop. Losing track of time with a friend. Being lost in thought looking out a train window. The comfort felt after finally just losing it and reaching out for the support you need.
Longer colder nights ahead still, but with a new patience I now befriend the unfamiliar.
I do trust this loss isn’t forever, even if I am lost as to how or when it will change. Importantly this realization has brought with it the ability to let go into some of this loss. I'm letting go of the idea of being lost as an embarrassment, something to be angry about. Instead, I see arriving here in this new world inevitably means arriving lost.
*This went on for months. I didn’t want to get rid of my Sprint phone number, so I just bought a new phone. I got that 646 number with my dad in Kentucky right before I transferred to Hunter College. I remember turning back to look at my dad before getting into his car after we got my red Palm Pixie. He was so proud of me, off to NYC. How nervous could I be when I knew I could always Dial-A-Dad? Anyway, my first year in Belfast I charged both phones. I messaged people on both, still living in two time zones.
**And so I didn’t (couldn’t?), even while constantly openly asking if my workload was normal and being told it wasn’t. Now when anyone asks me about anything related to their workload, I am aggressively transparent about my experience. It feels good to support others with this information.
*** As a way forward, I decided I would prioritize all things I know the university wanted from me so I could then be confirmed in post. This meant I was confirmed early, after two years, but it also often made me feel very small.
****Standing on the picket-line in March 2020 waiting for the decision to be made about moving our classes online I went home to be with Margaret in Providence anyway. It felt so sneaky getting on the bus to the airport, without guidance from the university. I took photos on my way out the door, not knowing when I would be back, wanting to remember the calm and quiet of making the decision to go anyway, put myself first.
*****The only staff accommodation available was a two bedroom where I lived alone. My partner stayed back in Providence for a year to sort out moving our whole lives and to care for our three cats.
******More words here mean less words there. And the here of where words go in academia includes but is not limited to the following: marking, emails, grants, articles, article revisions, articles rejected, book proposals, writing blogs, tweeting across multiple Twitter accounts, module moderation, WhatsApp conversations about projects, letters in applications for progression, letters of recommendation, updating my Pure account, writing my module guide, updating my module guide, writing my PGCHET assignments (9000 words in all!), web content, making my Canvas pages, reviewing articles, writing policy briefs. This frustrating calculation of watching where your words go as an academic is something I was able to talk to my friend Roxani Krystalli about recently, and for that I am grateful.