I have long mulled over the central paradox of biographical and autobiographical writing: My life history is really interesting to myself, but why on earth should it be fascinating to anyone else? More on the Central Paradox
In recent months, another layer of hesitation has added itself to the hang-ups I have--because writing about myself is also a form of "white-centering" that I want to avoid. So I am working on a website on the Black and Ojibwe sculptor Edmonia Lewis instead. Sort of. More on White-Centering
And yet, I'll probably keep writing my memoirs because it is an important form of self-reflection. In that case, they'll show up on this site eventually. But for now, here is the Knowledge Junkie side of me, in a nutshell. Well, maybe in a coconut shell. It's still probably longer than you'd like. More on Navel-Gazing
Becoming a Knowledge Junkie: The 3-Paragraph Version
I was born in Germany in 1966, just after my mother had finished her Library Science degree (my dad took a few more years to complete a Masters' degree in psychology). I was their first child, and they were very impressed with me. I'll be forever grateful for the self-confidence they instelled in me. When I was 5, my sister was born, and we moved to the small northern German town where my parents worked and where I spent my school years. I was very bright and quite nerdy: an obsessive reader, a budding writer, fascinated by languages, although I also loved visual art and was good at math and science, even as those subjects were much harder for me. When I was 16, one of my favorite teachers pointed out to me that literary studies was a field one could study at the university-- and I knew I had found what I wanted to do with my life. And I did: after graduating high school in 1986, I studied English and German literature—initially in Germany, then in the US, where I first arrived as an exchange program for a year, then stayed for an entire doctoral program, and from there, for good.
I spent over twenty years at two different small liberal arts colleges teaching English literature—three years at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, and another 19 years at Hastings College in Nebraska, where I was hired into a tenure-track position and ended up being promoted full professor and chairing my department. In the meantime, I had two kids, born in 1995 and 2000, and ended up raising said kids as a single mom for many years. During the time at Hastings College, I worked a lot of hours on campus, parented as best I could, and tried to do a little research in 19th-century British literature But I never quite got any of my projects off the ground, and I began to lose the sense that “publishing”--the career goal and obligation of most academics—was not my thing. It was not a priority: even more so than with life writing, I struggle with the question of relevance when it comes to writing publicly about the arcane, microscopic questions the work in my field involved. But although I had no sense that I had anything important to say publicly, what I often missed was learning: doing deep dives into research in my field the way I had done in graduate school. I had a few chances to do so in summer seminars for professors and during my one and only research leave, in 2009-2010. But it always felt like there was too little time to go into depth and sustain the effort.
So when my younger child graduated from high school in 2018 and I was considering a big life change and a move away from small-town Nebraska (to slightly-more-urban Nebraska, i.e. Lincoln, to live with my fellow Knowledge Junkie Mark), I decided that I would go back to graduate school and study art history as well as the basics of what is called "digital humanities." At the time, I only vaguely knew that the term meant "working in the humanities with the help of digital technology," but I now know that can mean a very broad and diverse range of undertakings. The two years back in school have absolutely rejuvenated me, and renewed my enthusiasm for deep-dive learning. What they haven’t done, however—and I think that’s a good thing—is to make me go back to the tunnel-vision of a big doctoral thesis project. I love that I can pick and choose things to pursue now; some of them fit together tightly like a gorgeous jigsaw puzzle; some very loosely, and some don’t fit together at all. If you start from the Antje page, you’ll see a sample of all of these. And if you’re curious for the professional version of this run-down, here is a link to my CV, or academic resume (which I promise I’ll update at least occasionally).
The Central Paradox
Stories of someone's life generate interest because the person is famous or important, or because the events that they were part of (or eyewitnesses to) are historically significant or otherwise intriguing. And sometimes a life story becomes interesting because it's well told. As a reader, you hit the jackpot when all three things fall into place. But I am not famous or important. My brush with historically significant or otherwise interesting events is minimal. And I don't think I am the kind of writer whose gifts can make my life story riveting. So even though I keep writing bits and pieces of my memories down (I really don't know where a pile of memories become a memoir), I always drag my feet when I think of doing this for eyes other than my own. Not because I am not full of stories that I love to tell about myself, but because I can't really imagine anyone else wanting to hear them. This is not about self-pity and appealing to you, dear reader, so that you'll at least give it a try; it's about a realistic assessment of a justified lack of interest in the Life and Opinions of Antje Anderson, Former College Professor, which is mostly just interesting if you've lived it--if you are me.
The surge of BLM protests after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the same time the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, hit the entire world hard in a very contentious election year, showed me the weaknesses and the fragility of the very fabric of American society like never before. But part of the process of seeing this more clearly--especially the way that systemic racism and xenophobia are directly woven into that fabric--means that I have begun to take a hard look at how much everything I do, especially all my writing, "centers" me as a white woman, and my story. There are already way too many educated white people writing about their lives, or being written about. There’s already plenty of self-absorbed navel-gazing and reminiscing by people of privilege--and there is no denying that I am one of them: a white, middle-class, college-educated woman who, in her mid-fifties, was able to quit her position to go back to school and risk an uncertain professional future after that. It’s not just that my story isn’t important; my story shouldn't be important: it shouldn't stand in the way of untold stories being told. Which is why I have (for now) shelved my autobiography project and working to use my newly-gained expertise (in art history and in doing humanities things with the help of computer science) to build my website on Edmonia Lewis
Strictly for myself, the aforementioned self-absorbed navel-gazing is often important if I don't want to stagnate but move, if I want to keep my mind open and receptive to new ideas, if I want to learn and understand and take to heart what I hear and read. Reflecting on my past experience, and knowing "where I'm coming from" has helped me understand others and be interested in their stories. Changing my mind about what events in my life mean or which of them are significant has been important, and it wouldn't be possible if I didn't think back and retold my story to myself and others at times. I am a relentless archivist of my own thinking: I write a lot and I rarely throw my writing out, so I can go back and look again at what I once thought or felt, and look at it through different lenses, with new priorities and new insights. I am reasonably sure that for that reason alone, I will return to write a full-length memoir or, more likely, a bunch of essays, in blog-form, on specific themes and stories, and you'll end up finding them on this website.