It’s not all downhill: On becoming an older scholar

It’s not all downhill: On becoming an older scholar

By Laura Miller.

Meme with photo of black and white cat with the text “Getting older?” and “It’s not all downhill”

Expectations for academics are sometimes based on stereotypes. One idea is that people reach the apex of their creativity and intensity before diminishing energy and relevance after the age of 60. I suspect that “relevance” has more to do with academic trends than with research productivity. Less energy may be a genuine problem, but I’d like to focus on a few positive aspects of becoming an older anthropologist and newbie historian. Although my early career was plagued by years of shifting unstable positions and contingent work, I recognize that now I speak from a position of unique privilege that allows me to be optimistic.

I’m approaching 70 but not retired. For the first time in my academic life, I am relishing all of it: the research, writing, and teaching. My PhD is in linguistic anthropology but my endowed professorship is in Japanese studies and not tied to any department or discipline. Given that social sciences and humanities are incrementally closing or shrinking, I worry that when I retire the professorship will return to its first home, the business school. There is great interest in Japan among our students, but no other Japan-focused research faculty in any department or academic discipline. I’m trying to hold down the fort. I teach a range of undergraduate courses that I created to attract students from across the university, on topics such as ghosts and goblins, food and drink, and ancient culture. Developing and teaching them has been more enjoyable and enriching than I expected.

Being older allowed me to revise perspectives on research and writing, and to reframe my place in an academic institution. For decades I tried to follow the written, spoken, and unspoken rules for getting a tenure-track job and advancing through the ranks. I was never part of the anthropology prestige kula ring and struggled as an outsider adjunct and researcher, and began with zero cultural and economic capital. There were personal sacrifices when I was younger, often occurring in tandem with lifecourse events that normally occur later in life. Between the ages of 20 and 41, both parents died and I had serious health problems and multiple surgeries. The grief and physical pain had a negative impact on my career trajectory and productivity, but they didn’t damage my spirit as much as the ongoing bullying, hostility, and passive aggression I have received from university colleagues.

My dissertation research in Japan was on interactions in workplace settings, which I audiotaped and videotaped. It was exhausting at every stage. Years later I did research on the Japanese beauty industry, fieldwork that was taxing and uncomfortable. In contrast, recent fieldwork projects have been smooth and incredibly enjoyable. I didn’t anticipate that people would be kinder and more willing to talk to me. Perhaps I looked intimidating when I was younger? Now, strangers readily initiate conversations, and offer me treats and small acts of welcome.

I worked in a Japanese company in Osaka for some years prior to graduate school, and early career trips from the US were for goal-oriented research. But when I am in Japan now, it is less fraught with demanding tasks or self-expectations. I don’t worry about language fails, behavioral faux pas, or lacking a fashionable wardrobe. It is not bad being a chubby drab elder who is accepted into new spaces and encounters. Fieldwork also provides an emotionally cleansing retreat. When I faced an unexpected divorce after 27 years, returning to Japan soon after the shock afforded a familiar and comforting space to reflect on my life. The fieldwork was on symbolic uses of an ancient ruler and entailed visiting small towns that celebrate her in various ways, from beauty contests to menu items in restaurants. Aside from simply being a highly pleasurable topic, not having the pressure of worrying about tenure or promotion enabled unexpected detours and chances. Some were fruitful, some were not. But all of it was good. A few years later, the fieldwork visit just months before the COVID pandemic was also one of the best times ever, and stimulated me to complete a new book. I realized that I had always felt slightly guilty going off to do fieldwork for months at a time and leaving pet care and household upkeep to the ex. I now enjoy going to Japan without the baggage of either personal or professional anxieties.

I spent fifteen years in an anthropology department that had little regard for my research and teaching. A few people mocked my writing on the beauty industry in Japan– in particular my article on mammary mania! A bioanthropology chair once refused to let me take a semester leave when I received a prestigious Japan studies fellowship, saying “It’s not like it’s an NSF.” In a recent anthropology department people showed no understanding or interest in linguistic anthropology. As I began to have increasingly historical perspectives on subjects ranging from elevator girls to medieval wizards, I realized that biological anthropology/archaeology dominated departments were never a good fit for me. I’ve seen more than one anthropology department, observing the demise of humanities programs, distance themselves from that part of our discipline by stressing its scientific aspects. After decades of dedication and service to the professions of anthropology, I moved to a history department around five years ago. My new colleagues in history are receptive and supportive of my eclectic research and teaching interests. They are open-minded and encourage experimentation with new ideas without much discipline angst.

Getting older means I can safely take risks that were unthinkable in the past. I decided to incorporate my love of art and visual culture into both writing and teaching. Academic publishing is often a narrow enterprise with rewards reserved for expected and limited types of products, but now I can safely step out of that cage. A friend invited me to contribute a chapter to her own experimental book project on the Yamamba (mountain witch). I created a Yamamba art piece and wrote about it, finding it satisfying to write something without front-and-center theory or obligatory citations. Of course, it may not fare well in the academic bean-counting system. In my classes, I ask students to create zines, visit art museums, and analyze Japanese food dramas without worrying that colleagues will see these activities as lacking academic rigor. This semester I am trying something I’ve never done before, a student-curated exhibit on kawaii (cute) objects in the art department’s gallery.

We face more challenges the longer we stay on campus. All that hidden labor—letters of recommendation, article peer review, grant committee proposal vetting, journal editing, reading book manuscripts and writing promotional blurbs, campus committee work, and helping with tenure and promotion cases – greatly expand and become more time consuming. I think of these duties as work, while research, writing, and teaching are pleasurable undertakings.


Laura Miller is the Ei’ichi Shibusawa-Seigo Arai Endowed Professor of Japanese Studies and Professor of History at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She served as the President of the Society for East Asian Anthropology (AAA) and the Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs (MCAA), and has published widely on Japanese culture, history, and language. Her book in progress is Occult Hunting and Supernatural Play in Japan. A previous contributor to the blog, see Laura Miller’s contributions here.

7 Replies to “It’s not all downhill: On becoming an older scholar”

  1. I LOVE this post. And I agree with the freedom that age allows. I used to dread being older, but now I love it! We are no longer held to rigid expectations. Or, maybe we are, we just don’t give it the kind of attention we did in the past. Thank you for writing this wonderful salute to aging.

  2. Laura, good to see this post. I think that you point out a kind of freedom that we get not just as the benefit of age, perhaps, but also when we let ourselves do work outside of the expectations we place on ourselves because “well that’s the way we must do things in anthropology.” But of course as you note this is a freedom that comes from a kind of privilege many anthropologists, particularly younger scholars don’t have. One wonders if it has to be so…

    1. Thanks DJ. I know, it isn’t an easy path. The training and specialization into disciplines is valuable yet it also provides what appears to be firm borders (but often isn’t, we just think so). And rather than seeing this training as a set of guidelines we take it as rigid rules we need to adhere to in order to succeed.

  3. I love this post as well. I am just starting my work for an MA in anthropology at SFSU; it an be a little off-putting at times being 3x older than others in my cohort or refraining from gleefully raising my zoom hand too often so as not to be that annoying old guy, it is hard to contain myself at times because anthropology, cultural anthropology that is, is so fascinating and intellectually enjoyable

  4. Thanks Paul! I’m glad for you. Maybe starting later in life is one way to value it more? When we are young we are sometimes drifting.

  5. Also, we have some ex-academics who give advice for a fee, and they have very specific roadmaps. It adds to the sense that there is a certain defined right path.

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