For months, I have been nervously anticipating the event I just went through. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I just resigned from my job as a full professor in history, after 13 years on the job and nearly two decades committed to a life in academia.
But sometime this past fall, when I’d already decided it was time for a major life change, I got an offer I couldn’t refuse. I was invited to present a paper at a small workshop on animals and empire in the History and Philosophy of Science department at Cambridge University in the U.K. Why, you ask, couldn’t I refuse this invitation when I’d just decided this wasn’t my life anymore? For so many reasons: first, I quit my university job, but that didn’t necessarily mean abandoning my scholarship. Second, the department that invited me is most near and dear to my heart (and you’ll soon understand why). Third, I had a paper mostly written already that was perfect for the conference. And finally, they offered to pay for my flight, hotel, and meals.
Yeah. Of COURSE I was going.
But then again, it made me incredibly anxious. The British academy is very “laddish,” an English way of saying it’s very male-oriented. How on earth were they going to understand — let alone support — my decision to give up the academic dream which we’d all worked so hard to attain, in order to pursue a full-time career in knitting, which definitely makes the short list of girliest and thereby lowest-status fields of endeavor?
Most of my friends in Austin who are academics — even most of the women — advised me not to mention my career change at all when I came to this conference. Yeah, that’s how far the perceived gulf is between the two worlds. But I can’t be that person: I have to be everything-out-on-my-sleeve. So I was back to being nervous about how it would all go.
Well, the conference just ended, and I’m happy to report that it went very well. Not only was my paper well received, but so was my news. Thinking back on it, I can count two men who seemed utterly baffled (one — a good friend — even said, “you are KIDDING, right?”). But everyone else — men and women alike — was unabashedly supportive. In fact, it evoked several heartfelt discussions about career choice and quality of life.
And then came a moment that literally moved me to tears. After telling one of my mentors here at Cambridge (Jim Secord, a full professor here and a major intellectual figure) about my news, a few hours later I sat down to listen to him present the wrap-up, summative comments on the conference papers. Jim proceeded to frame the entirety of his remarks around the metaphor of — wait for it — KNITTING. He described at length how knitting was the perfect image for understanding the relationship between animals and empire in history, and even made an informed pun about how SSK not only stood for the sociology of scientific knowledge (the term familiar to most people in the room), but also slip, slip, knit, a technique for rearranging a set of individuals into an integrated whole.
When I told him afterward how wonderful that was, he said, “Oh, yes, well I did that just for you, because I want you to know that no matter where you are, we always appreciate you and hope you’ll keep writing in history for as long as it feels rewarding to you.”
I mean, seriously, do you get more dear than that? No. No, you don’t.