Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Urbana Revisted (Or: Russia Seeks Warm Water Seaport)
History is at once a social science and a humanity. I suspect that the humanistic dimension of history is related to the mysterious nature of human existence. Historians marshal evidence about the past into order to make persuasive, plausible arguments about economic, political, or cultural causation. However, the laws of deduction never completely capture how people have behaved in the distant past. In fact, we can't always explain personal decision-making--not even when we've only just emerged from the process of choosing one path over another one.
Take for instance a bizarre decision I made two or three weeks ago to contact a few historians at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in order to reanimate my doctoral candidacy, now well over ten years out of date. If you had asked me one or two weeks prior to that decision, I would have told you that I had no intention whatsoever of seeking readmission. The very idea would have seemed implausible: I left the program of my own accord and hadn't ever regretted the decision. In fact, I can remember a string of unpleasant memories associated with my time in Urbana. But the past (even, or perhaps especially, or our own) is mysterious. Something changed and I made my first inquiries about returning to something I quit over a decade ago. How do I account for the change? Was it the encouragement of a new wife? Was it my interest in gaining a new job that requires a completed doctorate? Was it the fact that I have been accepted into another doctoral program and therefore had to clarify my thoughts about the old one? Was it this blog which, over the course of time, finally helped me to see how much value I place on formally connecting with a scholarly community? It might be any one of these things, or all of them. Who can tell?
As I say, I left the history program a very long time ago. The decision to leave was extremely difficult, but my years at Urbana-Champaign saddened me, or at least failed to cheer me up. One problem with life at the University of Illinois related to geography. I desperately missed seeing any physical differentiation in the landscape. I needed mountains, islands, forests, and coastlines--or at least a few very tall buildings. Instead, Urbana featured one very tiny creek. I wanted to see cities as grand as the ones I had lived in--Washington, D.C., Montreal, Los Angeles. Instead, I took day trips to Savoy to see a movie, or to Danville to visit a local park.
The second issue that confronted me was related to scarcity. Receiving about ten thousand dollars a year, year after year, I felt humiliated by my perpetual poverty. While I now admire the fact that people in Urbana-Champaign aren't snobs, at the time I hated the fact that I no longer had enough money to travel or purchase much of anything. Looking back at my life in the late 1990s, I realize how arbitrary consumer fantasies can be. When you have no money, you make due with minor acts of consumerism. In the end, it doesn't really matter what you buy, only that you do buy. The trick to feeling good is to purchase something, anything really, that you don't really need. I remember buying incense, Hindu icons, and CDs in the pursuit of consumer satisfaction.
The third issue I had was lack of structure. The faculty tried to help keep you on track, but ultimately doctoral work is up to you. The anarchic structure of my day drove me to despair. The irony of the flexible schedule is that you ultimately end up without any real sense of rest; although nobody expects anything of you on any given day, you know you could be doing something at every hour of the day, so you work late into the night, or you don't work late into the night but therefore feel perpetually guilty.
The freedom is so extreme that my fellow graduate students sometimes disappeared for months at a time without any obvious consequence. Once, a close friend dropped out of sight. When I saw him in the street and asked him how he was doing, he calmly noted that he had needed a break and had therefore "played video games" for a couple of semesters. When I eventually left the program by moving to Chicago, the lack of external oversight was so pronounced that friends called me several semesters later to say that my mailbox was getting full. Apparently, nobody had even noticed my disappearance. In this spirit, I'm only half joking when I say that rather than formally request readmission into my doctoral program, I ought to have pretended that I never left. Instead, I should have chosen a particularly busy faculty member and boldly requested an audience, saying something to this effect: "Excuse me, Dr. X, but I've been waiting quite some time to get your thought on my next moves. What do you mean you don't remember me? We've been working together for years now. Really, it's one thing to be ignored, but this level of insouciance is really too much. "
In the end, it's wasn't really the nature of graduate work that drove me to despair. I lacked confidence, direction, and, above all, an uncomplicated. (Read: At the time I couldn't reconcile my sexuality with Central Illinois.) All in all, I must admit that I was seriously depressed. Strangely, seminars in nostalgia, postcolonial theory, historiography, literary theory, STEM issues, and cultural studies didn't help. At any rate, Urbana wasn't really the problem: when you're depressed, the depression colors everything. Once I was left in charge of a cat when a colleague was away. I remember thinking that I couldn't leave the cat alone overnight because it would suffer terribly as a result of its loneliness. Apparently, I had lost track of where I left off and where domestic animals began.
Returning to the present, I find it strange to be reapplying to the department I left so willingly over a decade ago. This desire to repeat the past says something else about the past. The past repeats itself. As Viktor Shklovsky reminds us, it doesn't really have a choice. At the beginning of this post I talked about the mysterious nature of the past. But realizing that I am excited about the prospect of potentially returning to graduate school reminds me of the deep structure of history: we like to think that we are more complicated than we really are, but in reality we drive on toward the same essential goals. Whether in the 18th century or the 20th century, Russia always sought a warmwater seaport. And whether I'm 33 or 43, I have always wanted to engage with thinkers who I admire and, as this blog must surely suggest, I have always wanted to write for an audience.