The Spill

When I was a kid, I spilled everything. Liquids were my particular specialty, but my clumsiness knew no bounds. If it could splatter, then I could spill it.

Nowadays I take especial care to not let my butter fingers wreak havoc, and I navigate my surroundings less like a bull in a china shop. I’m more like a well-meaning giraffe in a china shop – I still knock things over, but I’m much more ginger and apologetic about it.  I have also stockpiled an arsenal of excuses so that, when I do spill something, I am prepared to explain why it was absolutely and without a shadow of doubt not my fault. I’m not sure how compelling Paul finds my “explanations” for the avalanche of granulated sugar cascading down to the kitchen floor or the pea soup oozing its way across the stove, but I am confident that my powers of persuasion will only improve with practice.

Truth be told, most of my “adult spills” occur because, despite my best intentions, I have a tendency to make my way around our cubicle-sized kitchen like an awkward oaf. They are small-scale disasters of which I am the sole perpetrator, and they signify nothing more than my regrettable lack of common sense.

Sometimes, though, the universe seems to take a cue from Hollywood and try its hand at a little dark metaphor. And as it turns out, the universe has a particular fondness for the symbolic potential of “the spill.”

On Tuesday morning, I dragged myself to campus after a positively miserable start to the week. I had spent a fitful night trying–and failing–to snag a few hours of sleep before my alarm summoned me at an ungodly hour to finish my lesson plans. When I staggered into my university’s coffee shop, I was feeling particularly weighed down by discouragement. And I was just tired – so, so tired. I ordered my usual: a grande mocha with an extra shot of espresso (I was lately shamed by a barista for ordering a flavored coffee – but, mercifully, it was not the one who took my order on Tuesday. I could not finish my dissertation if I was banned from the college coffee shop). Carefully–really, I mean it–I brought my steaming hot beverage over to the counter so that I could cover it with a lid.

Now, humor me for a moment while I tell you a bit about the coffee lids provided at the university coffee shop: they suck. You could construct a better, and less flimsy, coffee lid from a Dixie cup. They also barely fit around the circumference of the top of the to-go cup and thus require extremely delicate application. The slightest slip of the finger would result in a caffeine catastrophe. (The takeaway point? None of what follows was in any way my fault.)

I’ve been aware of the hazards surrounding coffee lid application since I began patronizing this particular establishment and, thus far, have largely avoided any mishaps. But as I have already intimated, the universe was feeling cinematic on Tuesday. “Universe,” it asked itself, “What frequently happens in a movie montage when someone is having a bad day?” The Universe paused to reflect, as a downtrodden Rachel fumbled with the coffee lids. But before long, inspiration struck. “Aha! In movies, when people are having a bad day, they…they…USUALLY SPILL THEIR COFFEE ALL OVER THEMSELVES! That gag NEVER gets old!”

And so, once I pressed the sides of my lid over the lip of my cup, the moment transformed into one of dark poetry, and I became the saddest of clichés. Before I had any opportunity to react, the lid popped off of my coffee cup, and the cup, filled to the brim, bounced off the counter and onto me. I was drenched in piping hot mocha latte from neck to foot.  The flood of self-pity and frustration coursing within me paralleled, in the most hackneyed, symbolic fashion, the coffee streaming down my person. A puddle formed rapidly at my feet as I stood, frozen with shock.

For a moment, I thought I might burst into tears. At 11 a.m. it seemed that it was already time to give up on Tuesday. I was now wearing the extra shot of espresso that I had so desperately needed, and, judging from the way my skin was tingling, a first degree burn did not seem out of the realm of possibilities. After alerting a barista to the coffee explosion (which, let’s be honest, had impacted me more than the coffee shop floor), I hightailed it to the restroom to bathe in the sink. I taught my class wearing a drenched-to-the-point-of-dripping cardigan, tank top, and jeans – like a timid contestant in a wet tee-shirt contest (or, as a friend called it, a wet cardigan contest). I explained the circumstances that had led to my soggy, disheveled state, likely solidifying any inklings my students may have had that I am a real-life incarnation of Liz Lemon.

And then, my class went well. My students had great insights about the novel we are reading, and I remembered that I am a good teacher. And I realized that, while I was soaked and sticky and smelled of wet wool and coffee, what had happened was actually pretty hilarious. I even felt slightly grateful for the absurdist climax to what had been a particularly unpleasant twenty-four hours and an aggravating several weeks. It seemed like a rather heavy-handed sign that I was taking everything way too seriously and needed to lighten the heck up. When it comes to setbacks and disappointments, that is not easy for me to do. It can be hard to shake the feeling that each time I try for something–anything–I am inviting a tidal wave of rejection to wash me away in waves of humiliation and frustration. But at the same time, I am so much stronger than I was when I began graduate school, and I will become stronger still. If nothing else, it helps to know that sometimes the world is a ridiculous and stupid place – a place where freak coffee accidents lead to teaching Stone Butch Blues while standing in a puddle of coffee-tinted water.

It’s a healthy little reminder that not everything is about me.

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This is the Academia I Want

This evening, I read a wonderful blog post called “It’s Not on the Syllabus: Cultivating Collegiality as a Graduate Student.” If you’re an academic or considering pursuing an academic life, I strongly urge you to read it. The author is Melissa Ridley Elmes, a doctoral student in English and Women’s and Gender Studies.

(Link: http://melissaridleyelmes.wordpress.com/2014/03/16/its-not-on-the-syllabus-cultivating-collegiality-as-a-graduate-student/)

Ridley Elmes makes a number of brilliant remarks over the course of her piece, but one that really sticks is her assertion that academic conferences should be safe spaces. I want to take this even further and argue that academia should, in all of its different facets, be a safe space. I do not, of course, mean that academia should cease to be a venue for provocation, intellectual stimulation, and debate. But it should be a space where we can share–and challenge–ideas without diminishing one another.

As is probably evident by the above, Ridley Elmes has inspired me to do a bit of thinking about the academic world that I would like to see. I pointedly do not refer to this as my “ideal” academia. All that I want–and hope for–is attainable if we navigate the field with empathy and intellectual generosity as guiding principles.

So, without further ado, here are some key aspects of The Academia I Want:

1. I want an academia where expressing vulnerability does not come at the cost of seeming less professional or competent. (I wrote about this topic briefly in my BWD post: https://positiveandpromise.wordpress.com/2013/09/02/the-bwd/)

2. I want an academia where we are encouraged–and encourage each other–to live varied and full lives.

3. As such, I want an academia where we support parents–especially mothers–who are striving to both raise a family and succeed in the field.

4. I want an academia that is aware, as Ian McEwan writes in Atonement, that we are all every bit as real as each another. Behind a professional demeanor there is always, always a vibrant and complex inner life. Behind a professional demeanor there is often suffering. When we remember these things, I believe that we are kinder to one another.

5. I want an academia that WANTS to be guided by kindness.

6. I want an academia where we discuss our ideas more than we discuss departmental gossip or politics.

7. I want an academia where the humanities are valued and supported financially. (Okay, here I might be drifting into idealism…unfortunately.)

8. I want an academia where our pedagogy is shaped by feminism.

9. Hell, I want a feminist, sex-positive, queer-friendly, diverse academia.

10. I want an academia where we are comfortable sharing in the successes of others because we are not encouraged, however implicitly, to compare ourselves to one another.

11. I want an academia that is always mindful of the ways it can shape the world at large and eager to do exactly that. We can all of us be activists – and we should be.

In composing this list, I do not mean to say that all of these things are currently nonexistent in the academic world. I am fortunate to know so many kind-hearted and intellectually generous people, both within and outside of my field. I know people who fight actively for animal rights, and others who inspire me as working mothers. I am a fortunate woman if I can make a career in a field where so many brilliant, warm, and charitable people exist.

But we can do better. I can do better. And as I work on my dissertation and think more concretely about the sort of life I want as a professional–a life that includes being a mother and a creative writer as well as an academic–I feel a greater urgency to help reshape academia’s less collegial dimensions. It is doable, of that I am certain. I hope that readers will respond in the comments with their thoughts on this topic. What sort of academia do you want?