Last week, in passing, I discovered that one of the professors on my dissertation committee -- and someone I considered an institution unto himself -- had been pushed into retirement in the wake of sexual harassment allegations.
Although we didn’t have the term then, he would have been an exemplar of the problematic fave. A brilliant scholar and teacher -- even folks who didn’t like him admitted that his lectures could be spellbinding -- he was also, well, let’s just say that my response upon hearing the news was “yeah, that sounds right.” I remember a party a few years into grad school at which I warned one of his new recruits about his reputation with women students; she rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, that? He already tried. I blew him off.” So, yeah. That was a few years after the Anita Hill hearings, so the concept of harassment was already very much in the air.
Circumstances of his departure aside, though, I did a quick count and realized that every professor in my area of the discipline who was there when I was will be gone by the end of this year, whether by death, retirement or relocation. The program as I knew it is gone.
That’s not an occasion for mourning; as decades pass, the circle of life does what it does. Some of that is supposed to happen, even if preferably not quite in this way. The most prominent figures have died; the others just aren’t (or won’t be) there anymore. But it was still striking.
In a conversation on campus last week, I mentioned that you never get a memo when your status in the informal hierarchy changes. It just does, and you slowly figure it out. Early in my career, I was frequently the youngest person in the room. That hasn’t happened in a while, and it probably won’t again except in very rare cases. The professor who left under a cloud was considered a rock star and an institution when I was there; I did the math and discovered that he was younger then than I am now.
Although age is a linear function, psychologically it feels more quantum. You’re one age for a while, and then, abruptly, you’re an older one. Rereading a post I wrote in 2007, the argument about quantum aging still strikes me as true. But in the spirit of quantum aging, I noticed two arguments for “counting backward” that I would make differently now. One was about allaying self-doubt; at this point, I feel like I know pretty well what I can do. Yes, there are surprises still, and no, abilities are not fixed, but experience can bring greater self-awareness. The other was the idea that counting backward can “make the vast expanse of forever somehow more legible.” At this point, I don’t feel a vast expanse of forever. I feel a clock ticking. There’s a reason that my favorite line in Hamilton is “why do you write like you’re running out of time?”
That shift in perspective -- from an infinite future to a finite one -- is a sign of having jumped a level. That comes with obligations of its own.
I learned a lot in grad school, for good and ill. One nugget I picked up was about the choices we make in how we use the past. We can imitate it blindly or try to recreate it or try to ignore it or try to destroy it. Or we can learn from it. He used to like to teach Hegel’s master/slave dialectic as an allegory of historical progress. The tl;dr version is that Crusoe and Friday are stuck on a desert island. They immediately fight for dominance. Crusoe gets Friday in a choke hold and threatens to kill him if he doesn’t gather all the coconuts. Fearing for his life, Friday agrees. But over time, Crusoe gets lazy and Friday gets fit; eventually Friday rebels and gets Crusoe in a choke hold, and the relationship flips. The cycle repeats a few times until, at some point, the lightbulb goes on over Friday’s head: while he’s gasping for breath, he manages to tell Crusoe, “You’re bluffing. You can’t kill me. You need me. If you kill me, then you have to gather the coconuts yourself.” And thus begins a relationship based on reciprocity, rather than domination. Progress happens when someone makes a conscious choice to break the cycle.
We have only so much time. In that time, much of what will matter will come from how we treat other people. I admired my professor’s intellect but rejected his example. As his generation leaves the stage, mine is tasked with setting the tone. We have only so long to do it. That’s why I write like I’m running out of time.