The Rearview Mirror and the Road Ahead, One Year After My Dissertation

Written by Bryna R. Campbell

Almost exactly one year ago, I finished my dissertation in the field of art history. Not the final version, but the draft that would I would submit for my oral defense. For me, that’s the draft that counts the most because it’s the one that I used to jump through that last major grad school hoop. Few moments have sparked as many disparate emotions as when I hit send on that email to my committee members – satisfaction for having achieved such a monumental task, but also no little amount of anxiety about the impending defense, plus a large dose of impatience to just get on with it and get out. Most of all, I remember worrying and wondering about life on the other side of the defense – when I no longer had a dissertation to write and worry and obsess over, and I’d need to figure the rest of my life out.

It’s not just that I didn’t know where I was going. Looking back to last year, I realize that I wasn’t completely sure who I actually was. I mean, I’ve always known who I am in the broadest sense, but I had spent the last several years as “graduate student and budding art historian,” and that moment, a year ago, I dreaded the idea of being just another PhD without a full-time job (read: adjunct), or worse – an unemployed PhD who had to explain to non-academics why I just spent years without more than fellowship pay working on a book-length project for grad school.

I had also grown weary of the culture of the Ivory Tower, or what Jessica Langer has recently summed up as the  “climate of constant and unrelenting criticism” – that sense that you’re never quite good enough, even if you’re an award-winning scholar, just finished your PhD from an Ivy League school, or received the highest scores on teaching evaluations. Then there’s the work culture – the obscene work hours – that I had come to know too well. Let’s just say, I’d still be doing that dissertation if not for a spouse that took on the role of lead parent for most of my grad school life (we have a 6-year-old son). Every time I got an obscenely late email from a tenured professor (many of whom also had kids!), it felt like an omen of an overworked future that I dreaded. And did I mention I was also burned out on my dissertation topic and had no interest in turning it into a book? (For those of you not in academia, that’s what is expected.)

But I think I could have navigated all of those particular challenges if it weren’t for the additional fact that no matter how much I had tried throughout my years of graduate school, I never could shake a nagging feeling that I didn’t quite fit in.

I grew upon on a farm in Iowa. When I was 18, I had been very happy to leave. One of the reasons I’d been attracted to art history as a field of study was because I saw it as a means to escape my rural background and move toward something I imagined to be more worldly. I was drawn to its transportive powers when I took my first class my freshmen year. When I studied art works from the past, and got to know them well – and grew fond of the artists making them too – I felt like I could escape temporarily into another world. That was (and is) one of the discipline’s most liberating aspects.

And yet.

As much as I wanted to leave the farm, the farm is still very much of who I am, and as I became more involved in art history and academia, I began to feel torn. I felt constrained and managed. I grew frustrated with unwritten rules that are often challenged, but rarely rewritten.

My frustrations show themselves in my research interests over the past several years – my interest in working-class artists, my publications on politically leftist regional artists who take up farming as their subjects (love them!), my ongoing engagement with feminist issues because even to this day, women and people of color play second fiddle in the major stories of art history. I also grew tired of always talking about the “discourse” whenever we talked art history (“contributing to the discourse,” “expanding the discourse,” “challenging the discourse,” and so on and so on).  What I longed for was something less like a discourse, and more like a community. I longed for outreach and connection, dialogue and listening, and thinking about how creativity has played a role in all kinds of aspects of society.

Because of these frustrations, there were many occasions during all of that discourse talk that I felt like I was turning my back on my rural background. By the time I turned in that penultimate dissertation draft last year, I had come to feel a bit like an unhappy performer in a play that demanded my character reject her rural identity. I’m not saying that anyone told me explicitly to reject it.  Some of my mentors even nudged me to explore rural themes further. But there were also judgmental comments about rural America, stereotypes that colleagues and professors seemed to accept without question, and assumptions that made me uncomfortable.

And also – art history is also not just a discipline; it’s a culture built very much on notions of sophistication, and sophistication and rural culture don’t intersect comfortably in any way deeper than a bohemian wedding or farm-to-table dinner.

Last year when I turned in that draft, I began the journey that would lead me where I am today, writing this blog that confronts this discomfort, getting settled into the idea of being in flux, exploring that flux. I had no idea I’d be here, but here I am. I still engage closely with the arts (I do, in fact, currently work as an adjunct and like it). But I’ve also been involved in community arts projects, and I co-created and am founding editor of a blog focused on the arts and its relationship to place. My brother and I talk frequently about the aspects of our backgrounds that comfort us, puzzle us, or encourage us to ask broader questions.

I am also working on another writing project almost monumental as my dissertation. I am working on a book that springs from a need to reconnect with the very aspects of my identity that I feel like I’d turned my back on in graduate school. This project of mine (and I like calling it mine) is a conversation of sorts (through tapes left behind) with a grandpa who grew up rural and poor in the hills of southern Missouri.  I’ll no doubt be talking more about this project as it unfolds. But for now this book is my path from the dissertation forward, into the great unknown.

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2 Comments

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  1. Bryna, this is lovely. I experenced similar issues in 2009-10 when I finished my dissertation. Ikeep in touch with many of my grad school friends, many of whom have received tenure at this point, and I wonder if I made the wrong decision in moving away from academia. But, I have a very fulfilling, low-stress life. And I’m charting it on my own. Good luck to you on your journey!

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