The Uncanny Valley

Elizabeth Bridges - Writer, Professor, Reviewer

The Upside-Down: My Very Queer Year, Part 2

The Upside-Down

This is the second of a two-part series detailing my very strange, harrowing, wonderful year starting in March 2016. You can find Part 1 here.

As you might know from that post, or from Twitter, or from somewhere, I ended up on the program at ClexaCon, like a lot. And you may have asked yourself, as I have many times: who is this random professor, and how did she end up in March 2017 speaking before a crowd in Las Vegas, at a media con featuring a bunch of famous stars and journalists with large followings? Keep in mind my usual crowds at your typical prof-style conferences are very specialized academics in some esoteric literary interest area (queer studies in the German novella, anyone?), usually about 5 of them, or like 20 on a good day. Needless to say, CC was not my typical venue.

But if you’d asked me in March of last year, I would’ve answered you with a blank stare and maybe, “What’s a ClexaCon?” I was home, on spring break with a back injury due to an unfortunate kettlebell incident. Like many of you, I was reeling from the 307 fallout, feeling the weight of every bit of homophobic bullying, harassment, condescension, or slight I’d ever experienced, every loss I’d ever felt in my life, teetering on the edge of a depressive episode like I hadn’t seen in years.

Let me stress again: This was not about a character on a show. 307 pointed towards so much more. I mean, here I finally thought that we as a culture had proven we knew better, what with the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage. I had thought this generation of kids would have a better time of it than my queer cohort did. Hadn’t we all come out and made ourselves visible for that? Fought for that with our very lives in some cases?

I now know what I experienced in those weeks was no less than actual grief. I poured that grief into this blogpost.

What ensued in the days and weeks that followed kind of turned my life upside down. In a year that also turned my life upside down in other ways, some good and some stressful, some wonderful and some painful. I think we all had a pretty tumultuous 2016, and mine was no exception.

A week after I published that post, I returned for my first Monday after spring break. My back felt a little better, and with some very minor tweet promotion, my blogpost had circulated a good bit. I minded my own business, taught my classes, graded papers, answered e-mails, the usual. A friend dinged me on Facebook that afternoon to let me know I’d been quoted in a Variety article, or what came to be known as The Variety Article by Mo Ryan, regarding “The 100 Mess.” Mo Ryan, queen of TV journalists, in Variety, the Hollywood trade publication.

The Article by Mo Ryan, March 14, 2016

My hands shook as I clicked the link. The world went all Salvador Dalí on me as I read the article. Clocks drooped from tree branches. Elephants grew tubas for faces.

Non-academic humans were reading something I wrote. The pissant, semi-professional blog I had created as sort of a fun hobby, recaps, review essays, a general warehouse for all my writing. I had maybe a couple dozen dedicated readers of my The 100 recaps, which had become a humorous, creative outlet for me. Very suddenly, the amount of people reading something my hands had typed, indeed anything I had ever written, increased by orders of magnitude.

Lemme put it this way. The amount of real, live separate people who have read posts on this blog, according to the stats, outstrip the number of people who have read everything I have written in my entire academic career – combined – by roughly fiftyfold to a hundredfold. I’m not even saying this is pathetic. It’s just normal. Academic writing isn’t that relevant.

To say that it felt rewarding to write something that actually resonated with people would be an understatement. A lot of young people reached out to me via Twitter and Tumblr and told me how much that post meant to them, how much they appreciated my work, that I had articulated something they hadn’t been able to put into words. A lot of readers even said they liked my writing. This feedback was nothing short of inspiring.

The only feedback you usually get in academia is negative. From seminar and term papers all the way to your dissertation and beyond, positivity is pretty rare. The vast majority of feedback is critical, and a good bit of that can be anywhere from brutal to excoriating. I swear this is no lie: in a one-on-one critique of my full dissertation draft with one of my committee members, I slipped into some kind of dissociative state wherein I fully believed he was tearing into someone else’s three years’ worth of meticulously researched, 250-page book. Your best mentors or reviewers will give you something to build on. Your worst will make you want to crawl into a hole and die. But make you feel good? Inspired? Never.

But these kind words urged me on to write a series of posts as the third season of The 100 dragged on to its whimper of a close. Although I’m not watching the fourth season, apparently a lot of what I said still resonates in terms of their shoddy treatment of gender and race (written with my colleague Jamele). And apparently Lexark is still going strong in comics and fan fiction.

The Televerse Podcast

The blogging led to other connections that I never would’ve made otherwise. Besides Mo Ryan, I got to know journalist Dany Roth, who interviewed me for this article in SyFy Wire. The folks at The Televerse podcast had me on their Wynonna Earp episode. Filmmaker Alexia Prichard interviewed me for her upcoming documentary Clexa Is Ours, and and and.

And all this while I continued to be a professor, under tenure review.

And helped plan my wedding.

And thank all deities, existent or otherwise, got granted tenure.

And conducted a study abroad program in Germany at the beginning of summer 2016, responsible for the souls of two dozen often high-spirited (aka unruly) nineteen-year-olds.

And twisted my ankle so severely I still feel it every day after 10 months and a full round of physiotherapy.

And got married. Legally. To my beautiful wife.

And went on my honeymoon. To Hawaii. With a twisted ankle. But Hawaii, so it was still beautiful.

And then began my sabbatical, a year to sort figure out who I am as a scholar and human.

And completed two academic articles.

And somewhere in there, I completely lost my mojo.

And then tumbled into a midlife / existential crisis, compounded by the election.

Funny, but not what tenure is actually like

For those not in academia, they often picture tenure as this sweet gig of old crusty professors wearing tweed, elbow-patched jackets, smoking pipes in musty offices, occasionally teaching a class, being really inaccessible to students, and then whisking off to picturesque Tuscan villages for the summer as soon as classes end. And doing this all with total job security, despite how doddering, irrelevant, and incompetent they grow by the decade.

That is some 1950s, old white hetero dude fantasy shit right there, by the way. It probably did exist at one time. In fact, I have known exactly one of these guys. It was Barcelona, not Tuscany, but same thing. That guy loved to brag about how he’d never published a thing in his life. Until approximately the 1970s, they would hand lifetime professoring jobs to every white dude with a Ph.D. who stumbled out of grad school.

But that’s not the reality now. I started grad school at age 24 in 1996 at a time when they told us that, “If you have a high GPA, work hard, publish your work, and present at conferences, there will be a tenure-track job waiting for you at the other end.” I did all those things. I also worked as a teaching assistant, as an editorial assistant, and earned fellowships. I was a Fulbright scholar in Berlin, completed a concentration in Film / Media Studies, held offices in national academic organizations, and was in an all-girl punk band called The Hussies…

…and during that time I also struggled with coming out, while dealing with a very religious and non-accepting family, as a diagnosed depressive who was totally ill-equipped to function in grown-up relationships (no practice, hello!), and oh yeah also an alcoholic. I ended up suicidal, in the hospital, and on a ton of medication for my depression. I got myself some counseling and help for the alcoholism. Both of those, as you might guess, stemmed at least in part from growing up queer and closeted in a fundamentalist religious household.

I somehow still managed to complete my Ph.D., was in fact awarded a departmental fellowship in my final year.

And while I completed my Ph.D. the academic job market gradually eroded into what we now call a precariat economy, unlike the fields of other comparably trained professionals.

So I was definitely not one of those 1950s style dudes who gets the perfect job right out the chute. I was a “Visiting Assistant Professor” (VAP) on three different contracts for five years. Better than an adjunct gig (they’re paid per-class, no benefits). But VAP is academic-ese for short-term contract hire. They can call you “professor” because you have a Ph.D., but you’re “visiting” because they can choose how short your “visit” turns out to be. It could be a semester, it could be four years. They dangle the carrot of tenure-track in your face all the time, “if you play your cards right.” You don’t know where you’ll live the next year, or if you’ll have a job that you spent seven to ten years training for. And if not, what then? My generation didn’t get exposure to any viable alternate-academic career paths.

The academic job search cycle in my discipline is a four-month melee from September to December every year, culminating at the Modern Language Association convention in January (formerly December, conveniently during the holiday break). I went through that wringer six times: meticulously compiled application packets, each school requesting different documents and painstakingly crafted cover letters. So then you wait, you spend your own money booking a flight and hotel in a strange city, and you hope you get interviews. Those take place either in a hotel suite (sometimes sitting on a bed), or in “The Pit,” amongst fifty of your best friends and their corresponding interview gauntlets.

I finally got a tenure-track job on what I determined to be my last roll of the dice. The year the bottom fell out of the market completely, the year there were a total of nineteen (19!) jobs in my field in the entire U.S. and Canada.

“You deserved it,” my cousin told me recently when I gave her that stat.  “So did the other 150-200 people who applied to every one of those jobs,” I responded. I was lucky. I remind myself of that every day. I was lucky. I never forget that. We were all qualified.

And yet academia, as they say, is like a pie-eating contest where the prize is… more pie. That’s what the tenure track is. More pie, in the form of a six-year contingent contract – contingent upon performance, that is. In my institution, you can get cut at year two (for teaching), year four (for teaching or research) or year six (for teaching, research, or service).

And of course at any of these years you can get cut for that mystifying, ill-defined non-category “collegiality.” Aka smiling and saying good morning, ingratiating oneself – as genuinely as possible – to the correct people, for not pissing anyone off, for keeping certain opinions to oneself, for having a distinct personality but not too much of one, for having flair but not too much, and in my case for being queer but still, you know, relatable.

My actual tenure “dossier”

Year six is the tenure review, the review when everything counts. The year you are in your mid-late 30s or early 40s and can lose the life you’ve built for the past six years. The year you might have to face starting over somewhere else, assuming you can get another academic job (unlikely). The year you have to distill your entire career into a series of carefully compiled binders containing all your publications, course syllabi, student evaluations, everything down to flyers from extracurricular events you’ve hosted. The year when every Tweet or post might be unofficially scrutinized. The year when you look back at every interaction in every meeting over the past six years and wonder if you spoke your mind too much or not enough. The year of utter paranoia. It’s harrowing. After fifteen to twenty years of harrowing.

Just the books, please.

I just wanted a life of reading books and talking about them to a bunch of younger people who like books. I wanted to be creative, to travel, to get to write, to get to use my language skills. I wanted to have health insurance, own a car and a modest house. I don’t think I truly understood what I would have to go through to get there via academia. If I had, I’m honestly not sure I would gone through it.

There’s this German saying I like to quote sometimes: “Der Neid sieht nur das Blumenbeet, aber nicht den Spaten.” (Envy only sees the flowerbed, but not the spade.) In other words, we often see the results of people’s work and envy it, but we don’t think about the struggle that might’ve gone into those results.

Yeah I was lucky. Damn lucky. But I also struggled for twenty years. I’m lucky my grad school TA work came with health insurance that included mental health care. I’m lucky my current institution gave me a chance show them what I can do. I’m lucky they decided to keep me even though I’m a little bit of a goofball. And when I say “they decided to keep me,” it’s no coincidence that it probably sounds a little like my dog felt when I gave her a forever home. That’s kinda how I feel about it after being buffeted about so much: 6 cities, 10 different residences, teaching at 4 different institutions.

I’m damn lucky, but I’ve also struggled personally, and professionally, and it was hard. And although I’ve had a year with many things to celebrate, I’ve spent a good bit of it shellshocked.

We got hitched.

On the one hand: I am a tenured professor now. I am married. Legally. To my wife, whom I love to the ends of the earth. I also have dear friends I love. I have a blog that people read, and I get to write about things that actually interest me. I managed to stumble into a secure job doing The Thing I wanted to do. I finally get to have the visible tattoos I’ve wanted since my 20s. I have a house and a car. I live around the corner from a comic store. Everything about this is great. My fourteen-year-old self is high-fiving me every single day.

Me, in the Upside Down. Note the waffles.

On the other hand: The Fucking Election. I slid into a weeks-long depression after that, the likes of which post-307 was a mere preview. I was sick for all of January and February with The Pestilence we thought was pneumonia but luckily (?) it was just really bad bronchitis. I still cough on occasion. At one point I was on ten different prescriptions to tame it. I’m still getting nickeled-and-dimed by various labs and doctors from this. I still feel the back and ankle injuries. I started working out again, but I hurt my back again. I got a career coach to help me sort out where to go as a scholar because, oh yeah…

Here’s my big discovery, which I can tell you now – and I’m not being even a little bit facetious: I don’t enjoy scholarly writing. It’s not that I’m bad at it. I mean, look at my publications list. I’ve done enough, of enough quality, in the right subjects and venues to get myself tenured. But… I’ve never liked doing it. I was never allowed to say this because it would make me look like a bad professor – Bad professor! Bad! – but I love teaching and literature and film. I do not love the months-long process of writing twentysomething-page, punctiliously cited journal articles that a worldwide community of maybe twenty people will care about. There, I said it.

Not to say I won’t continue to publish the scholarly stuff, but only when I feel inspired and only when I feel I can contribute something that matters.

Ultimately, this year has been about figuring out what matters to me, in terms of my “work,” or whatever you want to call it. And here’s what that is:

  • utilizing language and literature and film to yank students out of their own viewpoint and plop them down into someone else’s because everybody can only ever gain from that
  • writing things that matter to me, and only things that matter to me (also that I actually want to spend my time writing)
  • promoting queer culture and positive LGBTQ/POC representation and voices, especially in film, TV, and comics
  • doing what little bit I can to make larger audiences aware of the positive or negative effects that media representation (or lack thereof) can have on marginalized groups

I think ClexaCon really brought a lot of this year together for me, particularly when I gave the “Where Do We Go From Here?” talk on queer film history,  BYG, and the movement that sprung up post-307.

This is my tattoo. The NC is for “non-compliant” from Bitch Planet comics.

That talk wasn’t just about where do we go. For me, as I’ve been dealing with this whole year, it was also about where do I go? In that one event, I got to draw on my entire scholarly background and personal history all at once: in literature, German studies, film, and sci-fi – and present to a mostly-queer audience about something that truly matters. Never in my life have I gotten to do something where so many areas of my life coincided in one moment.

So whatever whim led me to create this blog, and the anguish that led me to write that post last March? Well, at least I got to meet some great people, and it showed me that my writing really can matter. So many younger people came up to me at CC and said, “Your posts really helped me.” That felt far more gratifying than just another line on my C.V.

Every once in a while, we all get rewarded with a moment where we can look at our work and say, “This is what I’m here for. This is what I was born for.”

Maybe it’s work you’re getting paid to do, maybe it isn’t. That’s not entirely important. But whatever it is, find it, do it, and keep doing it. That’s what I’ll be doing.

Thanks for reading. And thanks for your kindness and encouragement.

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6 Comments

  1. I needed to hear this. Thank you for your perspective – I feel better for knowing that I’m not the only academic who’d rather be writing for a non-academic audience.

    Much love!

    Heike.

    • EB

      April 4, 2017 at 10:28 am

      I think that’s a lot of us, to be honest. Or we’d rather write in a way that both audiences could get something out of it. I’ve never been in favor of a bunch of jargon when the same thing could be expressed in a way that an educated non-academic audience could read and follow what I write, and – gasp – maybe even find it useful?

  2. Aw, ya big softie! 💕

  3. Congratulations on surviving, thriving, and achieving! Gives me hope….

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