Ursula K. Le Guin, Marie Kondo, and moving on

A year ago today Ursula K. Le Guin died. I cannot overstate the importance of her work to my life. In her honor, I decided to spend a year reading works by women authors only (with an exception for work materials or other necessary texts).

Over the past year I have rediscovered and been introduced to so many amazing writers. I have soared through space, cities, deserts, and oceans buoyed by the prose of Nnedi Okorafor. Jodi Taylor made me laugh until I cried and then resume laughing until I fell off the couch. I have been embraced once again by the loving prose of Madeleine L’Engle, and I read every book N.K. Jemisin has published. And that is just to name a few.

I am so glad to have had these wise women as guides to my imagination in 2018. That was a year. The world has devolved from a trash fire to a receptacle for a never ending rain of trash fires. And my own life has been upended by my decision to leave the academy.

Yesterday I sat in my now-former office in the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton University and packed up my professional life. The hardest part was the books: dense with memories, freighted with meaning, and as my husband and I put them in bags and carried them to our car, so freaking heavy.

I didn’t take all my books. As a graduate student I often expanded my library through the generosity of emeritus professors, who left their office libraries in the lounge where we could pick through their scholarly detritus and find our own (often expensive) gems. I left about half of the books there, and wrote the History Subject Librarians (it’s Princeton, they have two) to let the grad students know it was free-for-all time.

As I sorted my books, I used the KonMari method of “Tidying Up,” made even more popular by Marie Kondo’s new Netflix sensation. Contrary to popular outcry, Kondo never said that you should only keep 30 books. When she is in people’s houses, she speaks about the importance of books as carriers of meaning and statements about who we are. She then taps the books to “wake them up,” and asks her clients to choose the ones they want to bring forward into this new stage of their lives. So that’s what I did.

I am a historian of power and communication, focusing on the eighteenth century. I love John Adams, whom I met through writing a sophomore paper on his wife, Abigail. I don’t need all the 20th century history I acquired in grad school. I don’t need any of my books on the US Civil War. I don’t need multiple copies of Aristotle’s Politics or de Tocqueville’s writings, just the one with the best translation and editorial apparatus. And I certainly don’t need the books with terrible prose or arguments too pathetic to even use as a straw man.

I am a database developer and designer. I don’t need out of date computer science reference books — and I look all that stuff up online anyway. 

And not only do I not need them, I don’t want them. I don’t want them cluttering up my two bedroom apartment, which now doubles as a home office for both my husband and myself. I don’t want them hanging around and reminding me that I will never teach the American history survey. I want the books that I want to read and reference. The ones that will make me feel loved and will help me write my own book on John Adams. I want the ones that will help me find my way to the next adventure.

I am a photographer, and I need all my photos and all my photography books. They spark joy.

Leaving the academy was rough. It still is; I’ve only been out for two days. I imagine the transition will not become easy overnight. But, over the course of 2018, I discovered that what I most want no longer aligns with my job. And I remembered that I did not always want to be in the academy. 

When I was five, I wanted to be James Herriot. Into middle school I wanted to be a veterinarian and live on a horse farm. In high school, my dream job was to work on Level 5 of the Center for Disease Control after I finished my two year stint as a member of their SWAT team, going all over the world to find the origins of new epidemics. I didn’t seriously consider history as a career until college, and as bewildered as my parents were, I know they were grateful I wouldn’t be handling the world’s most dangerous diseases on a daily basis. All of these memories reminded me that new hopes and new dreams happen all the time. 

Academic history put me on a very narrow path and told me that was the only way. It even told me that I couldn’t write the kind of history that drew me into grad school, because it wasn’t fashionable enough to land me a job. I jailbroke my grad program with Digital Humanities and spent my last years in grad school happily nestled in the Scholars’ Lab, until I was hired by Brown University as the first Digital Humanities Librarian in the country. And then I was headhunted to Princeton to start their Center for Digital Humanities. Last summer I became its first Research Director. It has been a good career.

But the reasons I went into the academy are now my reasons for leaving. I wanted to be a historian because I know the power of stories to awaken new thoughts and solutions to intractable problems. Nothing inspires or humbles like a well told story, and true stories have a depth and complexity all their own.

My audience was always the intelligent non-specialist. And so the problem began. I am also a generalist and quickly found the confines of academic history and its ever-narrowing, jargon-filled output to be the opposite of what I wanted to do. Digital Humanities felt like the obvious solution. I am a programmer and a photographer as well as a historian. Digital Humanities allowed me to bring all my skills to bear and to reach wider audiences than almost any academic monograph could hope for. But then I saw the precarious state of alternative academic employment: unbalanced workloads, minimal resources, lack of support, impossible requests, and precious little job security.

So I became a manager. I wanted to find great people, give them good jobs, and create a safe working environment where they could achieve amazing things. It was rarely easy, and I made plenty of first-time-manager mistakes, but I am proud of the team I hired at Princeton and of the incredible work they do. As the manager of a new organization, my model was George Washington’s presidency. I aimed to become unnecessary, and I succeeded. Any organization that cannot exist without its founder is doomed to failure. The CDH is going to do great things from now on, and I will be cheering from the sidelines. 

But I also found that I wanted to do more. I wanted to help people. And not just the people at Princeton who, while they may suffer from the deep stress and anxiety of academic life, are some of the most resourced academics in the world. As I explored more areas of digital humanities, including Public Humanities and Post-Colonial DH, I found that I wanted to move beyond critiquing widely-used technologies to actively making them better. I also discovered that I really want to write that book about John Adams, because in today’s political climate I am dismayed to find that my interest in diplomatic expertise and its relationship to the office of President of the United States is suddenly something people care about.

I don’t know where the path will lead. First I have to integrate all my office books back into my apartment. Then some freelance consulting while I write and look for a new job. After that, no idea.

I am excited for my next adventure. I hope you are excited for yours.


2 responses to “Ursula K. Le Guin, Marie Kondo, and moving on”

  1. Steve Flower Avatar
    Steve Flower

    This is beautiful. And it’s exactly what I needed to read today. The million-dollar quote, for me, was this: “But, over the course of 2018, I discovered that what I most want no longer aligns with my job.” In one sentence, you have distilled the last two years of my life. Thank you for taking the time to write and share this.

  2. Ned Quist Avatar
    Ned Quist

    Well done Jean. May your decision reward you over and over.

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