of fellowships and felaweshipe
February 5, 2013 § 5 Comments
I have been making a lot of Hunger Games jokes lately.
In this season of watching my friends and my colleagues claw their way through the elaborate rituals of the job market, of watching my own department’s searches unfold, of applying for funding under pressure of the knowledge that as of July I don’t know where my rent and food will come from, and of reading for Ph.D. admissions, it’s difficult to avoid the sense that everything is a fight to the death. Because while that figure is an extreme one, it remains true that nearly everything in my present landscape is a contest over scarce resources.
And it is also true that we need to put paid to the lie that a thing like a good job, a thing like a year’s dissertation-completion fellowship, is some kind of merit award. It is not. It is not our ambitious pride that is at stake. It is our livelihood, at the most basic rent-and-food level. And we cannot all have the resources we need to continue in this profession, because there are not resources enough for all of us.
On the other hand, there is something about this landscape of scarcity and its attendant traumas that has managed to make my world more vivid.
Especially in reading for admissions, I’ve had occasion to remember why I’m here. These applications – in their sheer number, in the surprising degree of accomplishment that so many of them exhibit, so many more than can possibly find a home here, in the simple warm beauty of the letters admiring teachers write to promote their students, in the verve with which so many of those students themselves write – they remind me, necessarily, of my own process, five years ago. Many of you were there with me during that process, and you may remember how wild and dizzy a thing it was for me. These applications now remind me that I am now where I then wanted to belong. They have taught me to want it anew.
I sit on the admissions committee now with the man who phoned me, almost exactly five years ago, to inform me that I’d been admitted to this program. That, too, is a wild, dizzy thing.
Last night, I taught the opening of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales to the fifteen bright, animated students who populate my early-English-literature survey. There is, of course, that amazing first sentence, with its virtuoso act of syntax and suspension. It dazzled them, as well it should.
But my favorite is the second sentence, which begins, ‘Bifil.’ From the figurative and rhetorical gymnastics of the first sentence, Bifil performs a shift into a homely little literal register. So there I was in this place and these people showed up. It befell that, it happened that, it chanced that. Bifil. Homely little word; little narrative tic. So it happened. The simplicity of everyday chance. Blink and you miss it, chance and word alike.
But here is the best part: the company who enter are by aventure yfalle / In felaweshipe.
By risk, by chance, by hap, by circumstance, by venture-forth, by simple little romance trope, fallen into fellowship. Tumbled into company, thrown in amongst each other, yfalle, homely little participle, blink and you miss it.
The joke of course is that in Chaucer’s highly-wrought verse, nothing happens by aventure.
But thinking of my path into the place where I sit now, I can’t imagine a better way of understanding it than that I was once, and am continually, by aventure yfalle in felaweshipe.
And such fellowship it is. I am competing with my colleagues – many if not most of whom are also my friends – for funding, both internal and external. There are cultures in which such competition could at the drop of a hat turn vile. It has not, here. I believe it will not. By aventure, I found myself in a place where collegiality and kindness are the order of the day. Where generosity and rigor are not antithetical terms but generative collaborators. Where we giggle ourselves stupid in the office, one hour before the application deadline we all share, the application for the thing that only one of us can have. The thing to which it is almost obscene to apply the word ‘fellowship,’ because the thing and the means by which it is distributed are antithetical to that name.
Because it’s us, here, laughing, it’s this, that brings a richness equal to its sound to felaweshipe.
By aventure, I found myself in this company. I was of hir felaweshipe anon. Homely little copula; homely little adverb. Just like that.
It could have happened otherwise. By a hairsbreadth, by the difference of one miniscule circumstance, by aventure, my life might have taken a very different path. Aventure is not naïve adventure; it is not fun or easy; it is not happy, except in the most splendidly literal sense that it lives by hap, by happenstance. It’s chaotic and a little amoral – it must be guided, lest it go off course according to the bias that will roll any chance askew, given the opportunity.
It makes it easier, thinking this way of what might befall by aventure, to turn my attention to those many contests. It’s all bloody arbitrary; we all know that. I would have thought that having my sense of arbitrariness confirmed by this pile of applications would be an occasion for despair. It isn’t. It’s an occasion for a sense of aventure.
The odds are never in our favor. But when we know this, we can shape ourselves to meet those odds – and what comes by aventure is not always quite so dire as it might be. That seems so slim a thing to stake a life on, but I am happy, in all senses, to have found it.