Expected Graduation Date May 2020

This post appears in the SHA Grad Council's new series about research, teaching, and living under the shadow of the pandemic.

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“In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded.”- Terry Pratchett

Did anyone else feel like we slipped into this whole crisis so quickly it almost happened without us noticing? Like all of a sudden you have looked around one day and you were in your home instead of your office, classroom or library and you thought “it’s 3 pm on a Wednesday and I’m in my pajamas but it seems normal?”

It was actually around 11:15 in the morning on a Monday when I pressed “send” on the email, subject heading “Yarbrough Thesis.” I had finally finished my conclusion, which I usually save until the bitter end to write:

“The socio-political history of the United States will only be fully understood once its most marginalized participants, such as black women in South Carolina, are brought properly into the light."

It felt like the proper note to end on. Leaning back in the large armchair which has become my command station I was comfortably surrounded by books, random draft pages, colorful pens, and a lukewarm cup of tea. I had imagined this moment as some sort of mystical, far off milestone, when a great weight would be lifted instantly from my shoulders. The late nights, the anxiety, I had imagined it would all come down to this moment!

But in reality, nothing felt different. I was still sitting alone in my living room. I hadn’t left my house for two weeks. I didn’t feel sad or relieved, despite this accomplishment I felt nothing. Casting about for some way to celebrate what was increasingly beginning to feel like a crushing disappointment I decided to FaceTime one of my best friends. She picked up on the second or third ring, smiling expectantly as she knew today was “the due date.” She opened the FaceTime and I immediately blurted:

“I just submitted my thesis” and then and without warning, like those 5 words were some sort of hex I cast on myself, the tears began flowing. Hot and painful, these tears would reappear out of the blue every time I said the words “I submitted my thesis” over the next few days.

This, as it turns out was rather disconcerting to the poor unsuspecting FaceTime recipients who were looking for my “I’m so relieved” and instead got a “I feel nothing!” Accompanied by many tears.

“No way out but through” -Kelley Yarbrough (my mom)

To be clear this post will not be a “how to” on how to feel better. I am also not setting out to bemoan my hardships, on the whole I have been extremely lucky, I have a stable home and a healthy set of family and friends. I suspect my story could be deemed average and maybe even a privileged story. It’s not over yet so I cannot speak to whether or not there will be a happy ending.

Anyway, back to my random fits of sobbing. I think those tears were the grief I hadn’t allowed myself to feel for all my canceled and postponed events. As academics, especially as a young and overly energetic academic, our events are our world. Especially an event which translates to a line on a CV.

As the emails began to roll in with the word “canceled,” I felt like I had no right to feel sad because I was safe, my family was safe, I had a secure place to live, and confidence in where my next meal would come from. Despite that, I will now take the time to list everything I was looking forward to that was canceled: two class guest lectures, one conference presentation, one conference without my own presentation, my graduation ceremony (postponed technically) and finally but by far most painfully my in-person Thesis defense. To a wider academic audience these may seem pretty small. But I’m just starting out and these felt huge to me.

So, in the late hours of that Tuesday morning, after receiving cancellation email after cancellation email, I sent the email whose attachment represented the thing I’m most proud of in the world: my Master’s thesis. As a girl I struggled with dyslexia, I didn’t learn to read until fourth grade and only after several brutal years of tutoring, tears, and panic. If you had told me back then that I would write a ninety-page Thesis exploring how class impacted black women’s political mobilization in Reconstruction South Carolina, I would have told you I didn’t even know how to spell the word “class” let alone “Reconstruction.” As a grown woman with dyslexia there were several times over the course of the last year when I doubted if I could pull it off. Had I misread sources? Had I confused dates? These fears sat among the ever-present historian’s insecurities that had nothing to do with my dyslexia: Was my argument original? Did it matter?

Perhaps I would have felt the same odd sense of disappointment had I turned in paper copies of my Thesis that I printed from the college library, instead of sent an email from my living room. I’ll never know. What I did know at that point was that it felt like I had sent my year of work out into an echoless void, just one more line to add in my growing list of cancellations and dead opportunities.

“We’re each of us alone, to be sure. What can you do but hold your hand out in the dark?”- Ursula Le Guin

This feeling faded. My family reminded me over and over, despite my petulant disappointment that I had in fact accomplished something important. My advisor and Thesis committee went above and beyond to ensure my defense via Zoom went smoothly. The defense ended up being the longest in my department’s history, as we talked for over two hours about exactly how the Rollin sisters of South Carolina fit into the wider women’s suffrage movement during the 1870s and exactly what the implications were of pervasive rumors that freedwomen wore men’s pants to fraudulently vote during Reconstruction in South Carolina. A professor whose class I was slated to do a guest lecture in arranged the lecture to take place over Zoom, dulling the sting of another one of those “cancelled” emails. My friends sent me a bottle of champagne with a picture of our group and the words “Happy Graduation Cappy we are so proud of you!” scrolled across a custom label. In short, despite the new social distancing measures in place, the people in my life continued to support me, to push me, to remind me that what I do every day as a young historian matters. Even when it feels like no one is watching.

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” -Mary Oliver

What has been the oddest for me, someone who loves research, loves writing, loves having a project, and who understands the deeply complex love-hate relationship we all have with deadlines, is that just as the whole world seemed to stop, so did the current phase of my academic career. I finished the last of my historiography papers. I finished my thesis edits after my defense. I turned in the graduation paperwork.

So now I’m left to brood and stew over my future during my gap year in a time where getting a job feels if not impossible, extremely challenging. I’m left looking towards a future that’s never seemed foggier. This is the experience of those of us whose CVs have for the last several years read: “expected graduation date May 2020.”

I’m not entirely sure how to end this blog because it feels like we are in the beginning of a new era not necessarily at the end of a brief crisis. Plus, even if this was the end of something, I would really be more comfortable waiting for thirty to fifty years to provide any sort of comprehensive analysis; as historians tend to insist. The real question running through my mind over and over is a simple, yet painful one “will PhD programs be accepting new applicants in the fall?” It has many follow questions “is it wise to seek my PhD?” “What else am I going to do?”

Academia is always an unpredictable career; we base our lives around earning acceptances from hiring committees and conference committees. Around acceptance letters from publishers. Around words of praise from advisors. It never feels like we are in control of our careers when so much of our success is contingent upon acceptance from others. But now there’s a new layer. COVID-19: An even greater and darker unknown. Until I know any of the answers, I will continue to wrap myself in the comfort of the words from authors like Pratchett, Le Guin, and Oliver and as always, the words of my mother; “no way out but through.”

[Carolyn "Cappy" Yarbrough graduated with a Master of Arts in History from the College of Charleston in May 2020, where she also worked as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.]

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