on leaving Madison

This needed writing almost two years ago, shortly after I defended my Ph.D., but I haven’t been able to summon the guts for the task because, truth be told, I did not want it to be quite so true yet. This is a lingering character flaw from childhood, because I just hate leaving beloved places and people (and I’m not all that happy when they leave me, either), but its roots go deeper in this last departure. I am finally leaving Madison, Wis. for good, and to do that I need to write some sort of tribute that is rooted in a reckoning.

Back in 1993, I had the extraordinary good luck—while in headlong flight from what it seemed the postmodernists I adored in undergrad theory had done to my first scholarly discipline (anthropology)—to land in the capital of Wisconsin to pursue a graduate degree in history. I’d never been there before when I pitched up with two young teenagers in a Ford Bronco II towing a little UHaul with all our worldly possessions. From the flatlands of Champaign-Urbana (IL), we rolled into Madison during the weekend when undergrads were showing up for the semester, and it took over 35 minutes to drive the ten miles to our first apartment. But this small meandering, green city tucked between two lakes and more world-class libraries than you can shake a stick at? Greeted us with wide-open arms and we hurried out on our feet to meet it.

From Picnic Point along Lake Mendota up to Bascom Hill and down State Street to the capitol building, angling over to Willy Street and then along the Monona lakeshore and back down Mifflin and then Drake toward the Vilas Zoo: my, how we walked and walked! And then the semester began in earnest and I began haunting the libraries (Memorial, State Historical Society, Steenbock, Helen C. White) and working on this new, rather daunting field.

Nobody could have had better or kinder advisers, faculty, and support staff than our department provided: without exception, people went out of their way for all of us: as a first-generation college student and single mom of two teens with a fairly complicated life already, I found the collegiality most welcome and swiftly made Madison into more than a place, more than a mere campus or career training ground. To me it became early on a fair-sized icon of what was still possible when thoughtful people were allowed to congregate in a system devoted to learning and teaching and critical thinking and conversation. Aspects of the city and campus were hard to handle, yes—how race and inequalities are dealt with were perhaps the toughest for me—but places with people in them are bound to have issues and anyway we were supposed to be there to deal with such things, no?

The campus itself (aside from the libraries and the reading room in the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Sunroom or the Mediterranean Cafe on State Street) was not the draw for me, nor was the bleak Humanities building: I handled the latter by vowing, prior to every entry barring one (the first), never to commit a crime serious enough to send me to prison, for the building itself fairly exulted in how incompatible I was with brutalist architecture, bad air, and tall windows that developed thick inner sheets of ice during winter . . . which then had the unnerving tendency to get warm suddenly and crash down on our desks. The famed terrace with its brightly hued chairs along Lake Mendota was not one of my haunts: although I loved the sight of it, especially during intersessions (fewer people), I can count on one hand the times I ate there with others. The town with its famously always-orange-barreled-and-under-construction streets or its farmer’s market and street fairs almost never felt like home: congenial for a white person, even me perhaps, but not home.


None of that had much to do with the place or its activities, however: I was a first-generation college student raising and home-schooling two teens alone, commuting most semesters from 40 miles away, and to do that and cover the costs of our life prior to grad school (medical and legal bills) and in it, I had to work a 20-hour position on campus during the week and hold down full-time night jobs from Thursdays to Sundays (7 to 7 or longer, with a few 11-7 shifts on weekdays sprinkled in for good measure): the things people do to make a place home were thus far afield for me. When my peers met for drinks on the Terrace or potlucks, I couldn’t go. When they went to ball games together or Rhythm and Booms (annual fireworks), I had to work. Work and study formed the legs of my existence: that’s no way to sidle up to a place. This is, I thought then, okay, for everybody knows we’ll all have to leave here to find jobs in the end, so best not to get too attached to the physical place. Plus I am fatally, genetically unfit for the mingling and schmoozing that is de rigueur for the academy anyway, so my plan was to make it on the strength of my work. Which, of course, required a great deal more work than was even being required of us (not the best match for an already sleep-deprived noggin).

In significant ways I didn’t fit easily with U.S. history either, coming from anthropology and a life that begged all sorts of questions about methods and narrative practices and ethics that everyone else had already answered satisfactorily for themselves. But it didn’t matter to me: none of this mattered. More than anything else, Madison was the people for me. From the first week I arrived, I wanted that family of scholars to become my home in this world. Academics can argue about angels on pin heads and fight tooth and nail for things the rest of the world cares little and knows nothing about; they may well not be able to dance or cotton to doings that others easily do: but they contribute deep understandings to wells of human cognition of our species that are impossible to quantify. If you doubt this, check out what happens when a senior scholar dies: people show up for the tribute because they know how much it means. They know how much heart and work goes into doing this for a living—into meeting students year after year, trying to figure out how best to connect and create the magic that can only happen in good classrooms because the teacher puts in the time and resources to make it happen no matter what. They know the intense pressures that scholars face, on the tenure track and beyond it: the ferocity of academic politics, the constant jockeying for basic resources like the time and space to research and write, the ease with which people who dislike learning in the larger society can dismiss what is happening in such places as trivial, subversive, and corrupting of youth and business and culture. They know the price of admission and, if they’re teaching in a place like Madison, they have paid it. And then some. These are people worth joining one’s wagon to, I thought (then and now), and set about putting together the skills for teaching and doing research so I might become one of them. But life always has a zinger or two left up its ragged sleeves.

On the heels of my son’s unplanned brain tumor, which came on the heels of my first book being adapted into a movie just as I was moving toward prelims—all of which occurred in the year from hell or heaven alike, take your pick—with the quality of my work faltering, I took time off. I taught and got better at it; I wrote and got better at that; I saw both my children start their adult lives; and I met and married someone who wouldn’t hit or stalk me or harm my son or daughter if his own life depended on it (which was a real step up for my little brood). Everything—even the hard parts—was good. But I missed Madison.

I missed the libraries, I missed the earnest and brilliant people and their amazing projects, I missed history itself being served in the daily patterns of a community, I missed the pursuit of that big ol’ goal: the doctorate that would make me employable for life among similarly high-quality, thoughtful people . . . so that I could provide for my children’s futures and ensure that I could have health care and a living wage doing something I loved and could do well, fitting in somewhere and making a little, steady contribution to my own community for the last thirty years before I died. Maybe it’s a small way of looking at things, maybe I’ll always be from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’, as one person put it, and thus have too narrow and pragmatic a perspective, but it made sense to my first-generation college head. So why not? I thought, clinging stubbornly to the faith that belonging to the world of scholarship and teaching was a viable future.

Returning in 2004 was nerve-wracking, but I was a better fit than before and the three hours of my preliminary exams were the high point of my graduate career—all that I find most invigorating about intellectual endeavor—and then I won a campus-wide award for excellence in undergrad teaching and, I kid you not, it looked as if all the hell was going to culminate in me belonging to a vocation I had chosen and prepared myself diligently for. And then two of my committee members died within months of each other, and I took a chance on another full-time job to fund my final research and writing.

Much of those final years passed in a blur, me a grief-stricken wreck, working more than full-time as always and trying to wrangle a dissertation into the corral while far away from Madison and the libraries on which I depended like a newling colt does on the milk that reliably comes after a good head-butting of its mother’s bag. Days after major surgery in February of 2012 and with my thesis due in less than two months, I looked at my draft and, hating it and all that it had become (predictable, safe, and addressing precisely none of the theoretical or ethical concerns that had so enlivened my work before), I undertook a 40-day round-the-clock rewrite from whole cloth (with the exception of two sections which I re-used), turned it in on time but massively too long and unwieldy and problematic as all-get-out in many ways, prepared for the defense (complete with music that I thought was needed to break the iron-fisted hold that written narratives have on historical analysis), did it (sans music!), and earned my degree. I adored the project still and loved the ms. for all the right and wrong reasons (including the simple fact that it was done), but I knew I was in trouble on the departure thing a couple weeks later when an administrator on campus happened upon At Sea in the course of his duties and contacted me to say how much he had enjoyed reading it and how it had drawn him in so much and how he hoped I would write it so a general audience could have access to it and so on.

I wept as this stranger spoke and long after, grateful for his take on the pages that were the culmination of all that effort (especially from someone outside the department who sees so many of these things every year), yet knowing how far from the mark that draft had actually landed and how much remained to be done, knowing that the job market was worsening by the day, knowing that I finally, really had to leave Madison and that maybe it would be for good and in all ways and that maybe after all I’d just taken too long to get through and it didn’t matter what kind of skills I had as a teacher or historian or colleague. Maybe there never would be a place like this one that would claim me as a colleague. Nothing else would slow down—student loans, living expenses, those big ol’ medical bills, finding some way to make some kind of steady living—but my scholarship most assuredly would.

My concerns proved prescient. The economic downturn provided a good excuse for more cost-cutting measures in a society that devalues education more every year I’m alive (and the bar was not very high when I was born either), and the bottom has fallen clear out of the academic job market in many fields. I did one intensive year of job searching and applied selectively the second year and then took the writing on the wall at face value: and met the same fate as thousands of other newly minted PhDs. I am now a part-time adjunct instructor of online courses for a good university, with no job security beyond the upcoming two semesters and earning an hourly wage that is less than what I earned as an answering service operator in Wyoming in 1984. In this I am luckier than most but by no means alone: 70 percent of all college classes now are taught by people like me who are considered (with good reason and data) to be among the new “working poor,” and many of them endure far worse working conditions than I do.

For one thing, I know that my department values my contribution—they are unfailingly collegial and supportive—but they cannot make my position permanent or stable. For another two (and these are huge, relevant factors), I know that the university values my work because staff and faculty members have taken the time to say so, and also because they have health insurance plans available for anyone who holds a half-time or higher position. (This is in sharp contrast to many of the buy-a-degree programs that politicians and educational ‘reformers’  are trying to steer us all toward, most of which pay considerably less and limit the number of courses adjuncts can teach so that they can’t qualify for ACA-required employer-provided healthcare plans!) I am merely one of the tens of thousands of highly skilled professional teachers and scholars who are casualties of the late capitalist corporatization/ privatization of not just the university but the society. It’s a war in all but name and the kindness and speed that actual bullets would provide, but all any of us have to offer is our best teaching and writing and serving when we get the chance. And even when we don’t.

For too long now that has been a bitter pill, not just for me personally, but because I believe that it means the end of the university as I knew it. This breaks my heart, and I feel it as a physical ache some days. So for too long now, too, I have been leaving Madison under duress, exiled from its libraries (or at least the access that on-campus students, staff, and faculty get) and its healthcare and the hope that one day I would fit into a community of scholars and teachers like this and get to work alongside them for the rest of my working life. For too long, I looked at the closing door and did not see all those that are open for me. Some have been standing so open and so wide for so long that their hinges have gone hank for lack of swinging.

And yet others are hank for continued overuse for, as I wrote in a recent post (“on obstinate devotion and dwelling in the lively arts”), I am luckier than most of us who leave for parts unknown, for I write and thus have potential income streams not available to many of my peers. Writing has long served me well, and I am now serving it more diligently than ever, making up for lost and squandered time, with some modest results. I am exceedingly fortunate, too, to still be able to teach some, for now anyway, and I find enormous satisfaction in creating a space where students can work alongside to make the past present live and listen to our questions now, hear our sometimes tone-deaf pleas, provide insights for our struggles and blind spots.

I understand better now, too, that belonging to a place is aided by being able to really be present in it, not simply scrabbling for a seat at the table on no sleep for the last 32 hours for years on end, and this helps me be of more assistance to my students, many of whom carry heavy course- and work-loads similar to my own and are amassing debts that will burden them for what may well be the rest of their lives (unless we adopt Elizabeth Warren’s plan to treat students at least as well as the banks who broke the economy on purpose get treated, with better interest rates and income-adjusted payments!). The security of employment once offered in the academy and businesses (large and small alike in my youth) belongs to fewer and fewer U.S. citizens, as the values of the decision-making classes turn ever more deliberately to “Me First” privatization schemes (gobbling up massive resources and exploiting ever more workers to turn profits for a very few) and lop-sided balances between administrative and faculty/staff sides of the houses. I wonder sometimes if anyone has a clue anymore about how to build a workable world. I wonder sometimes if higher ed is not intensifying inequalities—not on purpose, no, but as a side effect of losing sight of the core values of learning and building communities in favor of building stadiums and swanky buildings that may not have tall inner ice sheets in winter but that have gone to winter in their souls. I wonder about schools that pay administrators and coaches and consultants stunning salaries for less actual work than many of their lowest-paid support staff or adjuncts put in every day. I wonder about nearly everything at this point and know very little for sure. But I know this: I finally know how to leave Madison.

I will carry it—all of it, every last jot I can remember—not as ballast, but as cargo in my heart. For the people there give me reason to hope that all cannot be lost. Not yet. Not while they live and work.


 With deep gratitude to the UW-Madison Department of History and all of its people, but in particular that small core group who advised and worked with and alongside me: this little reckoning is for them in appreciation for all that each has taught me about being a better human and teacher: Bill Cronon, Jeanne Boydston, Judy Cochran, Jane Williams, Steve Stern, Florencia Mallon, Tom Spear,  Jean B. Lee, Susan Johnson, Jim Schlender, Leslie Abadie, Carrie Tobin, Scott Burkhardt, and Steve Hahn. And for Greg Dening, who—from all the way in Australia, by his own work and cheerful assistance and greetings (“Ka’oha, Hannah!” from the outset)—made the first years of my At Sea project feel both doable and worthwhile. As to my peers—both sets of cohorts, nearly all of whom (like my children) graduated before I did? You are far too numerous to name here, and naming’s a risky business as well, working from memory alone, since I might forget someone. If we took or taught a class together or met for study and prep or just crossed paths in the halls on our way somewhere else: thank you.