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  • Lijing Cobb

Full circle

When I was getting my doctorate degree in comparative literature, I often felt like a charlatan. Looking around me, the majority of my fellow graduate students seemed like they knew exactly what they were doing, where they were heading, and how they were getting there. I, on the other hand, blundered a lot. I never read much of anything other than textbooks when I was growing up because we had no money for or access to books, so when I got into graduate school to study, of all things, literature, I felt light years behind all those well-read and eloquent intellectuals who, like my kids today, probably grew up glued to books and devoured anything they laid their hands on, 5 times over. Attending lectures and seminars was sometimes an ordeal. Not only was I not well read, I also struggled to understand the spoken language, English being my second language and all. For these two reasons, and maybe a few more others, I felt that some of my teachers really didn’t dig me that much. They saw right through me. They called me a charlatan without saying these words. And I had no choice but to agree with them.


So for a long time, while I busied myself reading, researching, writing, and trying to publish my writing, I often felt that I was pretending. When others all seemed to agree that an author or a piece of writing was excellent, I failed to appreciate what they see. But I nodded and kept silent. I just didn’t understand enough. I had to wait, read more, think more, be more, before I could possibly say anything worthy.


I squeezed my brain hard and wrote many research papers that I thought talked about things of significance. I copied the ways a real academic is supposed to write and quoted many writers in my papers. I read my papers in conferences, and heard others read theirs. Honestly I could never really get into about 90% of what I heard in these conferences. They spoke a language that was… well, incomprehensible to me. Yet they all seemed to understand each other. The more I tried to fit in, the more conspicuously unfit I felt.


I never really admitted to anyone, including myself, until today, in these words. I gave up my career as an academic because it was not something that really interested me. Enough of scrambling to find topics that were relevant to the cutting edge research in my field (what was it and why did it matter? I was clueless and couldn’t bring myself to care), spending countless hours gathering materials that had anything to do with that topic, stuffing all of it down my throat to the choking point, remembering one tenth of it at the best, and never to revisit the same topic again in the future. As soon as I was done with a research paper, I was mentally and physically divorced from it. Throw it in the garbage can, that’s where it belongs.


I wasted oodles of my precious golden years reading things that did not register with me. I couldn’t see the relevance of what I was doing to my real life. So when an opportunity rose, I grabbed it and gave up my hard-earned tenure track job as a college professor. Afterwards, when I had occasion to fill out forms of any kind that asked for my profession, it felt strange to not write what I was used to writing anymore, but I did not once mourn the “loss.” Although I kept telling people that it was a hard decision and I chose family over career, it wasn’t that at all. It wasn’t hard giving up a career where I had to pretend to be someone I wasn’t. Not yet.


When I started writing again 3 months ago, an interesting phenomenon occurred. I did research again. Yes, on a very modest scale, but research nevertheless, so that I knew what I was talking about. I started buying books whose topics interested me immensely because they had everything to do with what I was thinking and writing about. I read with a purpose, and such purpose bore more offsprings. Before long I was thinking of maybe writing a grant request to write a book on a certain topic, which had never organically happened for me when I was a bona fide academic. After leaving academia for 9 years, I’ve finally come full circle. I finally understand why I would want to read book after book on a certain topic and write about it. I can now appreciate why I might even want to go through the scrutinies of a publishing process. I would have written something of importance to my life, of relevance to us as a human species, of significance to moms, women, daughters, bosses, the ambitious and the cynical, the powerful and the powerless… I would have cared about how my writing is received, because I would believe in the value of it to society, to anyone who wants to be good, or be better.


So, being an academic is not so shabby after all. But first, I had to learn who I was and what I wanted to be. What I’m writing cannot just be for the sake of publication and promotion. I want to write because I have things to say, and because I believe in the value of my words, the mind and heart behind them, and the spirt that guides them.


For 6 years after I earned my doctoral degree, I rented a regalia for commencements and graduations. Just before I resigned from my position, I finally bought a set of my own. I never got to wear it. Ironic, isn't it? Once I questioned the sanity of the people who came up with the idea of the heavy regalia in North America. End of May and beginning of September, 2 potentially scorching times of the year (graduation and commencement time), and all the professors wrap themselves in their fancy robes and roast in the stultifying heat. What sense did it make?


So many years later, with the addition of kids, the loss of parents, and change of career, my life is taking the shape it’s meant to take, and this shape is taking me back to the beginning, where I fussed over words and what connections I could make of them to my life. With the blessing of time and experience I can see myself walking into any career and classroom without losing who I am anymore. I’m finally like those intellectuals I saw in my graduate career, pretty sure of what I’m doing, where I want to go, and how I’m getting there.


It’s good to know. This is where I belong.

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