Academic Relapse, Part 1: Time Travel

Part 1: Time Travel

Over the past two years, I’ve been living in a painful limbo. Somewhere between the past and the unfathomable present. Which is why I had not wanted to climb into this time-machine, to venture to the past willingly in such an unreliable trap of remembrance. Its construction appears haphazard. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get back to the present in one piece. But tonight, I masochistically can’t resist the intoxicating allure of what once had been. My hands are unsteady. My heart is beating quickly. I shake this off and leave my apartment to meet my fellow time-travelers at the agreed upon site. Triggers abound. I know I am about to (re)lapse into the world of which I was once a part.

The edges of my memories of graduate school are razor sharp. They gleam brilliantly, perhaps even beautifully, but to touch one of them is to risk a violent rupture.  Such is the logic of loss and remembrance.

As I emerge from the subway, in the corner of my eye I see a silhouette that I recognize on a gut-level. My stomach tightens and I don’t look their way again until I am above ground, away from the fluorescent glare of the subway station and safely wrapped in the darkness of the sidewalk. I do not want to be seen. Surely it had not been her.  On top of everything else that this day has already dredged up from my past, surely I have not also just seen my ex.

I look suspiciously back at the subway entrance and realize it must have been an illusion. A slight glitch in the time machine. Or perhaps it’s just my brain’s way of processing that tonight, I will practice a form of time travel to 6 years ago. To a different life.  I know that to do so, I risk slipping back into that toxic mindset of academic competition. I feel dizzy at the prospect.

I shift back to earlier in the day, back to my sleepy morning. I roll over in my bed to check my phone. I see a text from a good friend, a fellow art historian. “Ooo girl, I’ve got some buzz for you! Call me!”

My stomach clinches. This past week has been the annual College Art Association Conference in New York, where art historians gather once a year to one-up each other, attend conference panels, and feign collegiality in the hopes of getting the latest gossip. Seeing as how 18 months ago I caused quite the stir when my blog was placed on list serves that sent my story far and wide, therefore causing multiple PR firms to be hired, defamation suits and counter-suits to be issued, and so on and so forth. You know, just another day in higher education. Without really anticipating it, I became an intensely polarizing figure. Usually graduate students aligned with me, while faculty aligned with each other. This all happened before the lawsuit. Before my life would descend into a living hell from which there would be no escape, except through bankruptcy.

I stagger out of bed to fix coffee and prepare for what my friend is about to tell me. Coffee in hand, I take a deep breath and call her. I learn that, apparently, people in academia are still talking about my blog. They are still sharing similar “me too” stories. They are wondering whatever did happen to me after all. I make a mental note that it’s finally time to post about it. I am surprised that I’m still a topic of conversation.

Despite everything, I moved on. I figured the rest of academia had too, and that my writing was for my people: alt-acs, fellow recovering academics.

It is a fairly warm winter night, and as always, the West Village buzzes with bros and queers alike. Everyone is en route to their next destination. I am en route to the past.  I pass Stone Wall and other familiar haunts. I see the coffee shop where I realized I had to leave my spouse. I see the spot where, surrounded by friends and in the glorious haze of Pride, I was truly happy. I see the apartment of an old friend from graduate school, with whom I have fallen out of touch. I think to myself: I am ok now. I made it. I survived. This is a victory march.

But as Leonard Cohen says, it’s not really a victory march, it’s much more like a cold and a broken hallelujah.

I take a deep breath and close my eyes. When I open them, I’m at my desk, earlier in the day. The afternoon sun is streaming in and I’m thinking about the proposal I need to get to a client. I check my email.  I stare at a one line email from my lawyer. I blink slowly. It’s over. I repeat over and over to myself: It’s over. You’re safe now. It really is over. I feel nothing when I say these words to myself. They do not feel real. I do not believe them.

And of all the days for this news to reach my inbox, but perhaps not my psyche, it is the same day that I learn that my old grad school cohort is in town for CAA. I read this email right after I muster up the courage to reach out to one of them, saying I’d love to catch up (after all, what are academics if not masochists?).

I realize that I do not know how to prepare for suddenly seeing my old graduate school friends. I can’t even begin to digest the bizarre reality that I am currently waiting on them to arrive from the formal department alumni party, to which I certainly was not invited. Nor did I have any desire to go. Except… except maybe to see the people who had been an intimate part of my life for six years. But now, they were coming to me in this precarious form of time travel.

Walking through the narrow streets of the West Village in a nostalgic haze,  I give in, just a little. If it really is over, what does that mean? Does anything change now? Nothing? Everything? I still feel so numb, so disassociated from the traumas of the past two years. I trust nothing except bad news. I turn the words over in my mouth, contemplating what they mean: The lawsuit is over. The defamation suit has been permanently dismissed. You get to keep your blog up. You get your words back. You finally have your writing back.

I don’t know what any of this means. I shove it out of my mind to instead go over exactly how I came to be here, on a damp sidewalk willfully headed towards my impending academic relapse.

In this process of becoming nerd-infamous I lost a lot of friends. Magically, academic friends dropped off my radar. Failed to return texts. This sudden and abrupt ghosting was not entirely evident to me at first. Over the course of the past year, I’ve had a lot of reckoning to do. And a lot of time in which to do it. Eventually, I began to notice distancing of friends after news of the lawsuit broke. Friends who had even lauded my decision to be a whistle-blower initially, friends who personally voiced unequivocal support of me. The same friends who, just as suddenly, posted cryptic Facebook messages about how wonderful our department had been to them, how it had supported and ensured their success. Talk about fake news.

Slowly, but surely, support of me waned. I was fine with that, in fact, I hardly noticed it because I had the very real work of surviving to do.

To be clear: I do not blame anyone who had to distance themselves from me. They are still dependent upon rec letters, still in academia, still applying. I am napalm for them. I also represent their worst fears come to life, and the very real fact that your words can and will be used against you in academia. To get anywhere near me, or associated with me, is to risk the assumption that you are on my side. In our tiny world of art history, still largely structured as an old gentlemen’s connoisseur club, to side with a whistle blower whose words have been cast into doubt through a defamation suit is a form of self-exile. As one friend remarked to me: “the only thing you lost with your whole blog thing was your dignity.”

As I mention in my last post, I am trying to stay academically sober. I no longer want to participate in academia’s petty, back-stabbing, and elitist culture that got me to where I am now. Because I’m trying to be better. Because I’m committed to my recovery and becoming a kinder, more empathetic person than I was in academia.

I mull all of this over listening to my three top favorite songs of late on repeat. Over my headphones I hear sirens, ambulances, cars honking. New York is so very loud. I wonder if my sobriety will survive my impending academic (re)lapse into the past. Then, I wonder how much time I have left to kill, even though I am used to waiting.

And like that, I get a text. It is time to go in. To go back to where it all started. 

-—

I will not be silenced. I will not have to remove my posts. Nor will I have to  issue a public retraction for telling the truth. My words will no longer be used against me. I say all of this to mean: buckle up, academia. I’m back.

Click here for part 2 of this story, where I continue to unfurl as clearly as possible the legal quagmire from which I am now released So, stay tuned. I’ll be doing this process in parts, because, well, this just happened. I’m still writing the ending.

As you can probably imagine, I now have a lot to say. And a lot of it is gonna take aim at academia, but not my own story per se. I have bigger fish to fry (weirdly, the song that keeps popping up into my head as I write this is Carly Simon’s song “You’re so Vain,” so weird right?). Which is to say, this song isn’t about ‘you.’ It’s about the erasure of faculty, human dignity, and pride in education from academia.

I’d like to thank the support of everyone over the past year or so. Y’all saw me through some dark times. I will always be grateful for the kindness of strangers-turned-friends. And of course, my IRL friends and family. I’m beyond blessed to have you all.

 And, as always, I’m listening. Get in touch*

If you want to keep track, subscribe to my newsletter to get updates about new posts delivered to your inbox. In this week’s newsletter, I talk about Eva Hagberg Fisher’s new book How to Be Loved and Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger.

*By ‘get in touch,’ I mean let’s have a great conversation. If you have ever contacted me, you know I read each and every email and then take the time to chew on it before I reply. This usually results in some amazing insights for both of us. But, if you feel the need to contact me for any of the following reasons, I won’t even finish reading your email and you may be subject to a twitter drag:

-You are angered by my personal attributes

            -You are upset with my grammar**

            -You do not like what you read

The solutions to the above problems are simple: stop reading me! Don’t think I’m intelligent? Then don’t bother with reading my blog anymore! I won’t notice your departure, and you’ll be free to focus your trolling on other matters.

Not to generalize, but the reality is the only trolls I get are men. Most of whom email me from fake email addresses to criticize my reading list, my intelligence, my sanity, my grammar, and/or to paternalistically say things like “I really want to like your blog, but…”

 Dear Sirs: I do not have time for you. And because one of your kind took the time to wage a farcical attack on my intelligence because of a grammatical mistake, but did not give a real email address so I could reply, I have decided to post below what would have been a private email.  Which is to say, I will drag you publicly. You have been warned.***

Dear ‘Ted,’

Thank you for pointing out a typo/ grammatical mistake and using it to somehow repudiate my intelligence. I live for productive and thought-provoking conversations such as these.

You are correct in assuming that I am not intelligent because I dared use a Southern colloquialism in my writing.

Sorry not sorry for offending you so deeply that you felt motivated to write this email.

There are times when I feel those who focus only on grammatical errors are not intellectually nuanced enough to spot what really bothered them in the text, much less engage in a meaningful debate about its content. But who am I to judge? I’m certainly not you.

Do you have your own blog that you maintain, for free, because you know it’s important to keep these critical conversations going? If not, I’m sure that if you did you would never stoop so low as to make a grammatical mistake. I’m sure you’re far too intellectually advanced to do that.  

Lastly, I’m genuinely sorry that you said you would never hire me to write for you as a result of my grievous grammatical offenses. I’m sure you’d be a respectful client who paid on time and was a pleasure to work with. (and yeah, I ended that sentence with a preposition, just for you buddy).

 Peace,

Allison

 

 **please note I am only human, doing this in my free time, in-between teaching 2 classes, writing a book, and writing for clients. I’d say sue me for my grammatical/spelling woes, but it’s still too soon

***want to see if you’ve already been the subject of a twitter drag? Follow me @postphdtheblog!