On the Death of a Former Colleague

My former UIUC colleague, Korea anthropologist Nancy Abelmann, died this past week, after a long and protracted battle with cancer.  It was very sad. She was only 56.

Nancy Abelmann

Nancy Abelmann

Those who were fortunate enough to know Nancy loved, above all, her incredible generosity and unfailing kindness.  She was a gifted mentor to countless people, especially her many Ph.D. advisees, but also junior faculty, colleagues and peers, as well as random academics she met along the way.  She had time for everyone.  It’s a mystery how she did it.

There’s been a collective outpouring of grief and remembrances on Facebook, where these things happen nowadays.  It’s amazing to see how many people she touched, of every rank and status in our academic cosmos.

Her death has been difficult for me not just because the world has lost a very special person (and East Asian anthropology a very gifted colleague) but because I never really reconnected with Nancy after my loud, public, and acrimonious departure from UIUC in 2009.  A snapshot of that departure is preserved here, in this guest post I wrote not too long afterwards on the Worst Professor Ever (now Tech in Translation) blog.

I made a kind of amends to Nancy for the way I left, about a year ago, but she was already very sick by then and was occupied with other things. I never got to really sit down with her and apologize in person.

And I owed her an apology.  While the UIUC was indeed a wretched place for me, Nancy Abelmann was never anything but kind and generous and good to me, as she was to others. She is actually the person who hired me to the tenured position at UIUC, and she was a steadfast supporter, even coming to my aid in one of the many court battles involved in my custody dispute.

I have been reflecting on why I was unable to distinguish between the bad that I experienced on that campus in general, and the good that I knew from Nancy, when I left and for most of the years afterward.  I tarred all of UIUC with a single brush; I could not then or for a long time afterwards, see any variations or shades of gray.

Part of it is, I’m sure, that I was traumatized.  As I explain in the post above, I had to leave Illinois not just because I was miserable at UIUC, but because I was involved in a threatening and terrifying custody battle, in which I was not, at many points, sure of my own or my childrens’ physical safety.  I’ve been dealing with the aftermath of that trauma for the almost six years I’ve been back in Eugene, Oregon. I’m only now seeing how it consumed and warped me.

I look back now and see that when I left UIUC I was, in a way, out of my mind.  It felt like I was fleeing for my life. The misery of that campus and the misery of my life collapsed onto each other, entwined in each other, and squeezed me tighter and tighter until I was frantic and desperate, and could only repudiate the entire place and all the people in it, and indeed, the entire academic career. I was not in my right mind. Not that I should have stayed, of course.  But I do look back kind of stunned at the way that I left.

I was angry. I was angry that nobody at UIUC would speak publicly about the meanness, the coldness of life there – the astonishing racism and sexism – even though Nancy and I had many candid private conversations about it all.  I felt, in general, abandoned.  Now of course I know that one abandons oneself. I abandoned myself. It wasn’t my colleagues’ job to be different than they were, for my comfort.

I’ve been thinking about all this in light of the piece, “How to Read a CV,” by Monica Casper.  In this amazing piece of writing she narrates the personal backstory of love, heartbreak, loss, babies, moves, despair, desire, behind each line of the CV.  One part reads:

Executive Director, Intersex Society of North America, Seattle, WA (2003)
Yes, I am “that” woman – the one who leaves a tenured position at UCSC (the dream job!) to raise babies on Whidbey Island. I can no longer stomach academia’s nasty politics and its contradictions (e.g., labor stickers on shiny new Volvos). Also, it is unbearable to live in such a beautiful place as Santa Cruz while listening to a litany of complaints from privileged colleagues. My head hurts from the undercurrent of hostility and my heart is empty, so I flee north.


This is familiar.

Casper goes back to the academy, ultimately.  I do not.

Nancy was a connecter of people. I admire that about her.  I’m more of a separater.  I’ve been working on that.  But separating is what has made The Professor Is In possible. I separated from the academy, and then fought to get my readers to separate from (the self-serving mythologizing of) their advisors and departments, so that some clarity and truthfulness could find space to emerge–truthfulness about the job market, the nature of Ph.D. training, the ugliness of many aspects of academic life, things that are often shrouded in denial.  With separation could come autonomy, and with autonomy, a regaining (or finding) of personal truth based on intentionality and choice, beyond the constant bludgeoning of the academy’s external judgment. For readers, and for me.

But I regret the lost connection that was there, that I forgot to remember in my trauma, while Nancy was still alive. I regret that I couldn’t sit down with her and say: sorry I did that the way I did.  And thanks for being one of the good ones. One of the best, really.





On the Death of a Former Colleague — 5 Comments

  1. Thank you for profound honesty and reflection here. So much of this kind of talk is utterly taboo in academia. I am a UIUC alum (we could swap stories) and PhD candidate at another institution considering a flight from academia for the sake of my soul and my children.
    I am very sorry to hear about the death of Dr. Abelmann. But as I cancer patient myself, I have real trouble with the language of “battles” against cancer. It’s not a battle. It’s random and unfair. It’s not a war – it’s a part of life. Human and messy. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/apr/25/having-cancer-not-fight-or-battle

    • Exactly. The “hero” “warrior” discourse is not really useful. My mother died of lung cancer, and I remember when someone praised her bravery she got mad. What else was she going to do but pursue the sadly mostly useless treatment? It was a pain in the butt. It was totally unfair. Except for the lung cancer out of nowhere, she was perfectly healthy! And talk of how it must all be part of God’s mysterious plan was really enraging to my atheist mother. I think this kind of discourse makes the associates of cancer patients feel better. But it’s not very useful to patients.

  2. Nancy and I were in the same entering class at Berkeley and after graduation we kept in touch sporatically. She occasionally came to AAAs, I attended her first wedding, and we exchanged holiday cards, and I think we may have had some phone conversations too. I felt that she was beloved by many but had a small inner circle that I was not part of. I wish I had kept up with her more, especially after one of her close friends told me she was sick, and that I had responded to her final, farewell letter to me. Death is so unbelievably final and irrevocable, I think it brings up these kinds of feelings for everyone. I also absolutely agree about the petty nastiness of academe. It is also the only job I can think of where what you do all day long: prepare lectures, teach, do committee work, hold office hours — has nothing much to do with hiring, promotion, and retention. It’s research and publishing, on your own time, that measures success. And people who publish many versions of the exact same thing get more credit that people who publish a few seminal works. I wish I could think of something else I would be better at than teaching — okay, well, rescuing cats but I can’t make a living at that. Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful essay.

  3. This is the very reason to be kind (but firm) to everybody under any circumstance. You never know that tomorrows holds for either you or others.

  4. Pingback: Ethnography of the University Initiative at the University of Illinois – Academography

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