Reflections on 2018

I’ll remember 2018 for what felt like an impossible task: restarting, from scratch, my doctoral studies. I haven’t shared much publicly about why I left Brown or why I’m returning to grad school, but maybe the last day of a long year is right for stories of renewal.

I left Brown in 2014. For three years I’d labored through a depressive fog, my first and only encounter with mental illness. I almost didn’t make it. When the depression lifted I found that I’d gained weight, amassed a shocking amount of debt, and accomplished hardly research. My project on the common good was more conviction than argument. I returned home to Missouri in 2014 to reorient, and since Brown didn’t have a leave policy that fit my situation, I had to quit the program.

I was adrift. I buried my theory books in the basement. Having failed, I hoped to forget.

Then came Brexit and Trump. I went for a long walk the morning after the 2016 election, and by the time I got home my account of the common good—which had been just out of intellectual reach at Brown—was clear. I spent the next nine days typing out a 20,000-word fever dream. The result felt like a new model of politics… and it was entirely unconvincing.

Few things are more humbling than facing, all at once, the bulk of your ignorance, and I saw that if this new project were ever to be any good, I’d need to finish my training. So I got to work reading and writing and discovering—for the first time—how to actually do scholarship. I applied for readmission to Brown in 2017, and though my committee supported me (bless them), the department declined on grounds of limited slots and my prospective sixth-year student.

That rejection would have brought 2011 Jason back to despondency, but I was stronger now, and I had purpose. I’d start from the beginning if I had to.

And here, dear reader, began the real trial, for the shame of the intervening years—quitting and moving in with family and working a string of menial rural jobs—was nothing compared to the obstacle ahead: I’d have to retake the GRE, and that meant learning math.

Not relearning. Learning. I’d left my little country high school functionally innumerate—not uncommon in the Ozarks—which meant sitting down 15 years later, pulling up Khan Academy, and fumbling through the addition of two-digit numbers. Long division made as much sense as divination. But after a lifetime of excusing myself as a words guy, it turns out that this is amazing. I can’t learn enough now.

And here we are at year’s end. The applications are (mostly) in, I’ve got an article on Rousseau that shows potential, and after a couple months of study I did just fine on the GRE. The closing months of 2018 have been among the hardest I’ve known, but they’re over now, and in a few weeks I can rest.

Why mention all this? Partly because I’m celebrating today, and thought you might like to join me. But mainly because I want to share my failures here before I share any success. Social media gives lives an unnatural shine. In 2011 I needed to know I wasn’t flailing alone, but I was too inward to talk about the struggle. In case some friends feel the same today, I offer my story.

So here’s to 2018, a very human year. Let’s see what 2019 has in store.

[UPDATE FROM FUTURE JASON: 2019 began with disappointment—I wasn’t yet as ready for graduate work as I’d hoped—and ended even better than it would have under my original plan. Funny how that works.]

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