I started writing this post on New Year's Eve, at the end of a decade that started with Y2K panic and only got weirder from there. I'm not going to write a year-in-review post, much less a decade-in-review one, and I'll post a longer wrap-up of the highlights of MLA 2009 in a day or two. For now, I just wanted to share a thought (in the way that I used to do on this blog all the time; New Year's resolution #1, stop neglecting the blog). Here goes:
MLA got me to thinking—particularly after some very interesting comments by Laura Mandell, in the "Collaboration in the Digital Humanities" panel, about how Renaissance people don't really fit in the modern university—about a not-quite-paradox of academic life. When you decide to be an academic, you choose a discipline and a field and a specialty, and chances are you stick with it for the rest of your working life. You may branch out into related specialties, but plenty of scholars' research interests stay remarkably stable over the course of their careers.
At the same time, you can expect your personal life to be profoundly unstable: no settled place to live until you get tenure somewhere you want to be, which, nowadays, is looking vanishingly unlikely for most people pursuing academic careers (at least in the humanities). You may adjunct in multiple places at once. You may migrate from job to job for years, picking up and moving every time you start to settle, keeping up with the people you're closest to only long-distance.
What I realized was that I want precisely the opposite: a reasonably settled personal life, in a place of my own choosing, with a community of friends and neighbors who aren't perpetually transient, and whom I can invite over for dinner. And I also want the freedom to move from one research area to another without the pressure to devote my entire career to becoming one of the world's foremost experts in early modern British lyric. I've had serial research obsessions ever since I was a child; in retrospect, I'm not sure why I ever thought a life of specialization in a single area would suit me. In short, I'm a Renaissance person still in search of my 18th-century salon.
I'm immensely grateful to have found a job that allows for the pursuit of serial research obsessions. There are few better places than a library for a curious Renaissance person to wind up. As for the other half of the picture, I'm working on it. As I said to a friend (who, alas, lives too far away to come over for dinner) at MLA, I'm making the settled personal life part of my five-year plan for the first half of the new decade. By the time I hit 40, I want to be rooted among people and places I love.