professing,* one year in

*I use “professing” here in the US sense, where all instructors with a PhD at the university level are addressed as “Professor.” In the UK, “Professor” is reserved for those who have attained the rank of full professor; the appropriate form of address for everyone else is “Dr.” I hate “Dr.” for myself and much prefer “Professor,” but I cannot claim it in Notts. I take back “professing” as a signal of where I still feel most at home.

‘TIS I, a human who marks one-year anniversaries of major life events by comparing them to hikes she has gone on. (Yes, I’ve done this before.) I like being alone in wild, cold places and hauling my body around, which just so happens to work as a metaphor for doing challenging tasks. Recently I went to the Faroe Islands, an archipelago due east of Iceland that I’ve been dreaming about for at least three years. Virtually every activity one might do there is outdoors—seriously, there are like three museums and some are only open on weekends—and so I was set to fall in the mud a bunch, get blown around a mountainside, and be deliriously happy.

All of that did happen, in a way. Here is a story.

A year ago yesterday, I packed my entire life into three suitcases and a few boxes and shipped it across the ocean. As most of you know, I got hired at the University of Nottingham in June, defended my dissertation in July, and moved 3,870 miles from southern Wisconsin to the East Midlands in August. In retrospect, it seems ridiculous, but at the time the only option was to make a to-do list and work through it, to turn this massive change into a task to be tackled. This is a recipe for getting things done, and it closes off all avenues for processing what is going on. In November, I had a panic attack in my therapist’s office. I couldn’t breathe. I named sounds—the breeze, a car driving by—and came back to myself. A few weeks later, I told him I didn’t like the UK and immediately felt free.

I feel somewhat differently now. Most of what I didn’t like was being a flailing 30–year–old child. I should know how taxes work. I should know how my oven works. I should know whether the person on the phone means “building number” or “apartment number” when they say “door number.” (I still have no idea what this term means.) I should be able to pronounce my name in my natural accent such that others hear “Anna” and not “Emma.” (This has happened at least five times.) I should be able to function in a place that looks and sounds almost identical to my home country until I get to a crosswalk and traffic is coming from the wrong direction.

I should be able to climb this mountain.

Prior to the pandemic, I was in the best shape of my life. That is no longer true, and sometimes I forget or willfully misremember. The hikes I planned for my trip to the Faroes were me forgetting. Perhaps the most well-known mountain is Slaettaratindur, the highest peak on the islands, and to climb it you go 1,500 feet straight up. The drive to a small parking area about halfway up (otherwise it’d be 3,000 feet) is one of the most beautiful drives I have ever taken. The road winds through pristine green fjords of glistening water, switching back as you gain elevation and mountains stretch out before you. It’s like something out of a movie, but I can’t place a particular film—soon, I realize, because it is far too fantastical for the human limits of fiction.

Left unmentioned on most trail sites, but obvious if you look at literally any pictures, is that there are no trees, bushes, boulders, or chains on Slaettaratindur. In other words, all you have to keep yourself upright is your own balance. I have horrible balance. Other faculty members in my department ask me anxiously whether I have found the department friendly, as if any answer short of an enthusiastic affirmative would signify a personal failing on their part. And I do answer in the affirmative, but it’s the wrong question. Your coworkers can help you figure out university procedures and what software platform is for what task. They cannot help you figure out how to turn on an induction stove. They cannot acquire an entirely new set of cookware for you because none of the pots or pans you brought work with induction. They can, and do, comment on the lack of decoration in your office—comments that come, first, while all of your books are on a ship making their way across the ocean, and later while you have chosen to spend limited disposable income on bedding for your house rather than pretty things for a place where you spend comparatively less time. This is not a slight, and it is certainly meant in the spirit of conversation between relative strangers, but it at once underscores that you are off-balance here: your life does not look like what it should for someone at your age and career stage; you have not maintained the illusion of having your shit together in all spaces you regularly inhabit; you have not yet entered this job fully. (My therapist would note that I am depersonalizing to make it easier to talk about these things. Fine. I am out of place. I am wrong here. Everyone has such good intentions but I am not ready to accept friendliness fully because, mentally and emotionally and sometimes physically, I am trying to survive.)

I make it maybe halfway up Slaettaratindur before I sit down on a small rock and think, this is silly. I could probably do the whole hike, but I am not enjoying myself. The level of exertion is such that I cannot appreciate the beauty around me because I am concentrating too much on not falling over. Coming back down—the worst part, always—may not be possible, technique-wise. It is for many people, as the hike is quite popular and there are many others on the mountain that day, but I have horrible balance and it is not for me. I take a moment to be present and realize that I am more grateful for the drive to the mountain than the mountainside itself. I started early enough that the road was deserted except for the deep hum of the islands, the energy of being one with a place without interference. Part of me thinks I should be more disappointed in myself, but I am not. I come back down and drive on.

Not pictured: 30 mph winds.

When I moved to Nottingham, I tried to remember what the first year of grad school did to me and how long it took me to come back to myself. I am a prolific journaler and so have records of exactly how I was feeling at the time. A theme from back then hits with familiarity: I felt that I was not wanted in my department, not really. I don’t know that this was true, but it’s how I felt. I also had no idea how anything worked—not in the sense of “I need to set up utilities but how do I do that here” but in the sense of not even knowing to ask about the academic equivalent of utilities in the first place. I did evince a drive to prove myself, which set up spite and a misdirected sense of vengeance as core features of my grad school experience. (Neither is recommended nor necessary, but unfortunately very common!!) I do not feel any desire to prove myself here at UoN—nor, objectively, do I think there is a need to—which is maybe growth. Maybe I’m just too tired.

A day after not finishing the Slaettaratindur hike, I feel re-energized because I listened to myself and what I needed, so I try again. This time I think things through. I go to Klakkur, another muddy uphill hike (all hikes in the Faroes are muddy and uphill) but one with a few flatter intervals. The sight lines up the mountain are also better, and there is more space to determine the best path. What I’m getting at is a metaphor for clarity and latitude. I tell myself when I start that I can turn around at any time, but I don’t feel the need to. At the top I can see to the ocean.

My journals tell me that I returned to campus for my second year of grad school feeling at home there. I knew what my day-to-day schedule would probably look like, what each task on the to-do list involved, and most importantly that I would not be flailing about while trying to do each of them. That’s the mental and emotional bit for me, and that’s the most important part. When you have horrible balance, what you want most is stability.

If I have any advice for new faculty members, it is that prescriptive advice is pretty useless. You will spend lots of time on things that you don’t actually have to do, but the only way to learn that is to do them. You will make many mistakes in deciding where to focus your energy. There is no real way to avoid this process, because your goals and priorities are different from your coworkers’, and also you are at a different place in your life than everyone around you. (Remind me to write another post about how fucking weird academia makes you feel about being unpartnered and uninterested in being partnered.) Someone else’s model, generously offered, might fit, but in the same way that a US English-speaker functions in British English: passably but uncomfortably. The actual advice is to be kind to yourself, and if that is too hard, to hold on, because you actually are learning things and when you start again tomorrow, or maybe a year from now, you will know better what you need and how to get it.

On the way down from Klakkur, I meet a couple who speak English. The woman insists on taking a picture of me sitting on the mountain. It is my favorite photo of myself in a while, maybe ever. A few days later, back in Nottingham, I have coffee with a new faculty member in my department and find that I can provide quick personality sketches of various coworkers. Afterwards, another coworker asks, unexpectedly, for advice on structuring lectures, and I find that I can give it. What I need is to feel capable, grounded, and not alone. In the mountains I have the hum to keep me company. There, being kind is effortless; there, I am most myself. Here, my balance is shakier. But I have a rhythm I am beginning to understand.

I didn’t catch your name because I suck, but thank you.

If you are curious about the Faroe Islands, welcome to my three-year obsession! Here are the websites I found most helpful when planning my trip:

I also got excellent recommendations from my friend Pauline, who is a PhD candidate at King’s College London studying trauma and peacebuilding. You should check out her work.

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