What hath been wrought

Saturday’s event at the Northshire. Photo by Susannah Swearingen.

Now that the book has been unleashed into the world, it’s no longer mine.

Every reader will now embark on her own project with it. Will tie it into her own experience, her own position, her own motives, her own goals. Will read things that aren’t on the page, as every reader does, creating a new story with this story as a partial frame.

The writer can’t possibly imagine everything that others will do with the text. I spent most of three years making it, but now I’ve relinquished control. It’s become a tool for others to use. And the thing that’s been the greatest surprise is that the work most often taken up so far has been emotional. Coming to terms with our own role in higher ed—the fear of parents who want their children to pursue an employable career, the despair of good scholars set aside, the good daily work and high aspirations of those still within the club—that emotional work has been the project at the center of almost all of the response to the book. We have a deep human need to make sense of the world, and that’s only partly a project of data and pattern. It’s more importantly a narrative project, an identity project. How did we come to be who we are? And what does that mean about who I am in the midst of it?

That’s the work we don’t talk often enough about. We get scared, or we take pleasure, or we need reassurance, or we celebrate. I participated in an hour-long podcast this morning, which I’ll link to once it goes up this coming weekend. I was upstairs talking into my computer microphone, and Nora was downstairs working. When I came down, she said that she hadn’t been listening closely, but that the general tone of the conversation sounded like pastoral counseling. That’s the work I think I’m best suited for, a kind of academic chaplaincy, someone who listens closely, who says “Your story is not isolated. You didn’t do it wrong. Let me show you another way to think about it.” That work, far more than advancing the cause of any particular discipline, has always been at the core of my interests, even if I couldn’t quite name it before.

I worked on this book for a long time in complete isolation. It’s fascinating, in ways that I’d never anticipated, to see what others do with it.