By the time I was in a history PhD program as a middle-aged woman, I knew I had the chops to do the academics. Writing and teaching were central to my work, and I had published general articles and literary short fiction that had received awards. Professors Annelise Orleck in my undergrad history major and Melanie Gustafson, Mark Stoler, and Denise Youngblood in my master’s program had encouraged my research pursuits.
I didn’t feel like an impostor. There were no consuming doubts about my skills or accomplishments loading me with the “persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.” Instead, as a first-generation graduate student, I had the shaky sensation of being out on a limb, on my own, on a dark night with no moon. And too many missed signals would mean not a hard painful fall, but years of moving around through the branches without ever hitting solid ground. Surges of disorientation and anxiety hit when I had an awareness that some custom, gesture, and especially mediated benefaction was passing me by and I did not know what to do. Should I ask a question, comment on my research, how do I insert myself into that conversation, is this how people get on a panel, what do I write for this grant or that fellowship to distinguish myself but not appear presumptuous? Do all these protocols feel odd and uncomfortable to anyone else? Why do the young men seem to get more funding, more easily? The questions involved the nuances of tone and culture with insider power, not simply the next procedural step.
I was doing my PhD for one reason: a scarce tenure-track faculty position. Unlike younger doctoral history students, I had already worked in “alt ac,” the unfortunate term invented by senior scholars to denote the majority of jobs in the United States – in my case high school teacher, freelance writer, adult basic education instructor, and transition to college coordinator. Teaching was not a side gig to my academic life, it had been the core of my career. But I wanted more time and some funding to research and write – and to talk about writing projects. So I stayed upright on that unfamiliar limb and edged onto its most precarious branches, able to teeter with my head up because I had a sense my work was solid. But each inch further out brought with it strange sensations to which I had to acclimate.
I didn’t understand the behind-the-scenes system of academia, with its arcane unarticulated conventions, elitist habits that contradicted its public narratives of merit and access (as well as much of the faculties’ research interests), and ageism that could give Hollywood studios a run for their money. The constant appeals and applications for funding required ritualistic side conversations and closed-door referrals. Each year, I observed and pushed forward, shimmying my feet out on the limb. Other first-gen academics got me through the program and the years of job searches. We broke down the unspoken rules and the challenges of navigating practices and personalities that have been insulated (and often inflated). We talked about the initial discomfiture of enacting the unspoken theater of academia. I regularly think of another first-gen grad student who was also in singular pursuit of a tenure-track position. He grew up in Puerto Rico and told me he approached conversations with senior scholars or editors at conferences con una cara de lechuga, with bold innocence, without hesitance or arrogance. This concept gave me some insightful affective advice, more than just a basic instruction on what-to-do-next.
But just as I succeeded at one step, another would appear, imbued with that vague impression there was something more to it. The sense of being on my own, balancing under a vast dark sky, continued. My family and friends thought it was great that I was going for it. Professors in the department asked about my work and discussed further reading. For first-gen students and students in historically marginalized groups, however, family praise, friendly approval, and positive comments on academic work are not often enough. Telling them their scholarship is interesting is not enough. Even telling them to make a community of their peers is not enough, when most first-gen students do not know the larger etiquette and rituals.
Now I am in my first year of a tenure-track position. I became one of the few non-elite, first-gen history PhDs who hit the right convergence of hard work, white privilege assistance with access, conference encounters, and job postings. I landed – it seems my feet might be on semi-solid ground. I’m beginning to feel like I have some collegial backing, some understanding of how people navigate behind the scenes in departments and across campuses. I made it to the other side of something invisible but tangible, I got inside the cloister. There’s an appeal to leaving behind the whole out-on-a-limb syndrome, especially as service and scholarly demands pile up on me within a shrinking tenure-stream faculty. But then I wouldn’t remember to invite another first-gen scholar to share what they find disorienting or odd about academia, to let them know someone sees them balancing the best they can.