Place as Future: Revisited


Editor’s Note: It’s EHN two-year anniversary this week! We’re celebrating all week long by featuring pieces by both old and new friends. Today, Jessica M. DeWitt is back to round off what-is-now a trilogy of posts on Problems of Place. Her other two essays can be found here and here.

When I wrote my first essay on Problems of Place nearly two years ago, I didn’t fully realize that I was publicly chronicling my transition away from academia. I was in denial. If I think back in time to December 2018, the primary emotion that I remember is fear.

I was afraid to feel connected to this place. To Saskatoon. To the people. I was afraid to love my Canadian partner so deeply. I was afraid to prioritize my partners. I was afraid to lose the security that I gained. I was afraid to prioritize security. I was afraid that I was ruining everything. Everything that I worked so hard for. I was afraid this was the “big failure” my family said I needed. I was afraid that I was going to drown financially. I was afraid of letting people down. I was afraid of losing opportunities. I was afraid of being frozen in place.

I was afraid to be honest with myself.

Unknowingly, the first installment in what-is-now my Problems of Place trilogy was my first real step forward, away from this fear.

I have one goal: to preserve this calmness by any means necessary.

Jessica DeWitt, “Place As Present: Revisited

The Future Fear of the Collective

2020 is a time of collective fear about the future. Or maybe, more accurately, 2020 is a time in which we are hyper-aware of our collective fear about the future. We fear for our health and the health of friends, family, acquaintances. We fear for the climate. We fear for other species. We fear for the safety of BIPOC folks. We fear for our jobs. We fear for our livelihoods.

We fear the future because we can’t control it. We can’t predict it. Future events can’t be lulled into submission like past events. We as historians will try. We look to the past to hope to understand what will come. But even we can’t conjure that kind of magic.

Clarifying the Future

If there is no way to tell the future, then perhaps there is a way to make it feel more tangible. To even for a minute feel like we can wrap our minds around it. No, we can’t control the future, but we can exercise (at least some) agency over the present.

In a recent episode of her podcast You’ve Got This, Dr. Katie Linder discussed the way in which the small changes that we make today result in major changes down the road. Reflecting on a meme she stumbled upon, Linder explored the idea that the lives we lead to today are the result of decisions that we made three to five years ago. Linder invites listeners to look back in time. What decisions did we make several years ago that eventually culminated in today? What small changes can we make today that will snowball into significant developments in the future?

Looking back to look forward

When I look back three or five years, the present that I am currently experiencing no longer feels strange. The path that I took to get here emerges from my mind. My present is a logical step in a continuous journey.

What did I do to get here? Well, firstly, around five years ago I began to join activities and make friends in my community outside of my grad school clique. I started becoming a part of my community. I started allowing myself to put down roots. I exposed myself to life outside of academia and the possibilities that existed there.

I evaluated the kinds of relationships, platonic and romantic, I wanted in my life and began to pursue them unapologetically. I put up difficult, but healthy, boundaries with loved ones and stuck to them. I allowed myself to be vulnerable.

I pursued my career interests with zeal. I worked on skills and took on extra responsibilities that were outside the purview of my dissertation. I steadfastly ignored all requests from my superiors to quit the “extra” things I was doing. I dedicated myself to nurturing the online environmental history community. I unapologetically took up space in my professional community. I innovated. I took network and relationship building seriously.

The culmination of these decisions is today. The time that I took to take care of myself, to build skills, and foster relationships has brought me every opportunity that I now enjoy. It is because I did not listen to those who told me to only focus on my dissertation that I am now able to leave academia confident in knowing that I am marketable elsewhere.

While I hesitate to full-on advice grad students to ignore the advice of faculty members, I am admittedly tempted to do so (forgive me, I am an Aquarius). As I discussed with Sarah York-Bertram recently, one of the biggest takeaways from the grad school process is to learn that only you know what is best for you. You know how long you need to take. You know what you need to do to thrive. You know the realities of the job market that you will be entering.

What changes am I making now to create the life I want in three to five years time? Well, I’m focusing on developing a website for freelance writing and editing, contract research, and digital consulting work. I thrive on variety and freedom. I hope that in the future, this business and freelance work can serve as at least half of my income.

Another realization I’ve made over the past several years is that my heart is more like that of an artist or entrepreneur than of a traditional academic. Astrida Neimanis so eloquently stated, academia is one of my preferred mediums of expression and communication, rather than my true singular calling. Only time will tell if I can wield this medium on my own terms successfully.

“This pandemic calls on us to rethink how we define academic community and what collective care looks like within that community.”

Jessica DeWItt, “The Precarity That Binds Us

Planning for a Collective Future

In a recent article, I suggested that this pandemic is an opportunity to redefine the academic community, and to build tools for collective care within academia and beyond. Using Linder’s framework of three to five years is a helpful exercise for thinking about this work because it acknowledges that change will not be immediate. It allows us to focus on what we can realistically achieve in the present. What changes should we be making now to create the academic future that we want?

If in two years, the EHN community has grown and achieved this much, what is possible in the three to five years to come?

No, we may not be able to control the future, but we do have this place in time—and each other.

*Cover image: Marigolds. The fading flowers give way to seeds, suggesting a beautiful future to come. Photo by author.

[Cover image description: blooming flowers in varying hues of yellow, orange, and red mixed with fading ones.]

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