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The Imagined Academia and How I Still Love It

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I’ve spent my whole life on campus. Before I even entered elementary school, my mother was enrolled at community college working on her associate’s degree and I would sometimes go to campus with her. (This is how I had my first taste of Raisin Nut Bran: it was in an orientation package she got.)

When I was 7, my parents enrolled at Florida State University, my mom to get a BA in Religion and my dad to get his MLIS. My dad got a job at Duke Law after graduation and my mom stayed at FSU working on a Master’s in Theology and my sister and I alternated living with them; when she finished her coursework, we all moved to NC, where my mom started a Master’s in Divinity at Duke. My dad was still working at Duke when I graduated from high school and moved to college; I did a one year MAT after college and then worked as an educator for 5 years before returning to get my MSLS, then worked another year as an educator and three years in higher ed outreach before returning to get my PhD.

I have a deep working knowledge of what education is really like.

And yet I still romanticize it.

As part of my foray into the aesthetic that is dark academia (which involves many fewer contingent laborers than you might expect), I have joined a readalong taking place on Instagram and Discord. We’re on our last book now, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. Early in the book, a father narrates to his daughter his time as a grad student, spending hours locked in a university carrel writing about 17th century merchants in Amsterdam, sneaking in to hear the end of his advisor’s lectures to undergraduates, sitting in his advisor’s office…

And I swooned.

I wonder if it’s because only the first year of my PhD was really spent writing in carrels on campus? Because the rest of it has been in public libraries, cafes, and co-working spaces, places I could briefly slip away without a long bus ride while someone else was with my kid. (Commute to UNC: minimum 40 minutes. Commute to closest public library branch: 10 minutes. It only takes 10 minutes to drive to UNC, but it’s cost-prohibitive to park there more than once a week or so.)

I had this same wistfulness when I read A Discovery of Witches. What is it that I love so much about this life? And is it my love of this imagined academia and my understanding of how very imaginary it is part of what keeps me from pursuing the tenure track?

I wonder all of this, but really, what it comes down to, is this:

I love this imagined academia, and regardless of what academia really is, I love this imagined version anyway, and it brings me joy. So I will keep reading books and watching movies about tweed-clad scholars in their gothic architecture reading rooms, debating the finer points of Latin grammar (an activity I actually hated as an undergrad, an attitude that won me scorn from my Latin professors), spending time in cozy offices, and secretly learning that imaginary monsters are real. (The Sunnydale High School library is 100% Dark Academia; don’t @ me.)

The Sunnydale High School Library

Kimberly Hirsh, PhD @kimberlyhirsh