In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we get to know Hannah Means-Shannon. She’s Editor-in-Chief of Bleeding Cool.com and Bleeding Cool Magazine, a comics scholar, and a former English Professor.
When you were in your 20s…
What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?
Entering my 20’s, I was already conflicted about my future career, but was happy to continue to be a researcher, finish my Ph.D., and work in a library to support myself. I hoped to gain more recognition as a creative writer and travel much more widely since academic study had limited my ability to travel once I was a graduate student. I was an American living in the UK at the time, and I honestly didn’t know where I would end up, though I hoped to have more freedom once I completed my Ph.D. to make that choice. I saw the decade as a route to empowerment but was also conscious that I wanted to enjoy my life rather than just become absorbed with work.
In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?
I found the expectations that I had experienced as a young woman in America somewhat limiting. I also came from a Southern background, which was fairly conservative, expecting girls to dress up and wear makeup from a young age. When I considered whether to go to college in the USA, I was told that since I was a girl, it was best that I didn’t go to college more than an hour or two from home. It took a big leap to break from that and study overseas instead. That was an important step where I looked for a different set of expectations for myself. I feel that British society was more encouraging of my intellectual pursuits and also allowed me to feel freer about my appearance and self-expression.
What was your first job like?
My first job was as a summer camp instructor for young children at a “day camp” meaning the students didn’t stay there overnight. It was quite a jump into the deep end since my first class was 4-5 years old and there were many pupils. I learned a huge amount about child development, and the ways in which young children can surprise you with sophisticated thoughts as well as seeming at times like they are only one step beyond their toddler years.
What was your first apartment like?
Well, I lived in my own lodgings from the age of 16 and also in university accommodation that was never shared. The first classic apartment I rented was in my late 20’s and it had a sitting room/kitchen, a bedroom, and a kind of alcove as well as bathroom. I found that to be plenty of room, especially to keep clean since I don’t relish house cleaning. I had a lot of books and managed to make them fit. I think I realized that having a ton of space isn’t necessarily what you need or want at certain stages of your life. I worked at home and went out a lot socially and that was just right for me.
Did you experience any big life changes?
Sure, absolutely. Let’s see—I was engaged for a few years in my young 20’s and that didn’t work out, which was a big emotional experience. I made decisions to move back to the USA and then to Japan for a year, and then back to the USA. I got my first real college teaching job full-time, and got engaged again. My 20’s were probably the most changeable in my life. Having said that, I am quite a changeable person so life has continued to surprise me.
In what ways did your friendships change?
The friendships I formed in my early 20’s have stayed with me, actually. I was fortunate in that some of the people in my life were in proximity for several years during that time, and though the decade moved us all over the world, those are still my formative friendships. If you don’t have enough in common, those friendships will fade away. You get used to not necessarily celebrating friendship through the same rituals—now we use social media and e-mails to stay in touch. But by my late 20’s and even now, I’m crossing oceans just to see these people and it’s worth it.
What did you learn through your romantic relationships?
Let’s see if I can say anything wise: you probably have a lot less control over who you care about than you think. Trying to turn off your feelings isn’t a good idea, so that means you have to endure change and not every relationship will work out. But my conclusion based on my experience is that it is better to take risks than to close yourself off from life-changing experiences.
How did your relationships with your family change?
Pretty drastically. I went from the perpetual graduate student to finally having an income. I think that my family saw me in a different light once I was in charge of hundreds of students, but then again teaching runs in the family. My siblings and I went through changes in our relationships. I think we became even more of a support system for each other the more we moved into the adult world.
How do you feel society viewed you?
I think society viewed me as being a little wild and perhaps too emotionally connected to the arts. I had many weird haircuts, a few different hair colors, and at least a dozen different style changes in my clothing, none of them particularly sedate. But I also became known as a writer within my community and among like-minded people I often felt reassured by their view of me. I was probably fairly rebellious toward the status quo, which I probably thought of when I heard the word “society” throughout my 20’s. But conversely, I took a lot of inspiration from previous generations.
How do you feel you changed emotionally?
I have always been a very emotional person and still am. But the more experiences you have in life, the more grounds you have for comparison. I learned to panic less about things not going the way that I had expected or planned them to go by having experiences I wouldn’t have chosen turn out well. When I lived in Japan, the school I was teaching for had a lot of problems and I eventually felt I should leave the job. I found myself somewhat alone in another country with a couple of months to spare and not much money. I was forced to find a workable solution and it was a great time for me. I economized, found somewhere to stay, and spent my time traveling and writing based on practical needs. That was “me time” and it was great.
How did you change intellectually?
That may be the toughest question for me to answer in the list. I was intellectually engaged from a young age and I spent my 20’s in academic study. But the truth is, I got way more restless and inventive intellectually during my 20’s. There were my “official” studies and then there were my studies as a writer. I read tons of novels and plays that had nothing to do with my curriculum simply because I didn’t know about other cultures and wanted to. I came to realization that there are no limits on learning—it’s in your own hands.
In what ways do you feel your identity changed?
I think I shifted from a scholar to a writer more fully in my 20’s, accommodating both. I think I became a lot braver about traveling and spending time alone and also about meeting new people and learning about the world. I stopped being as worried about fitting in and much more concerned with what made me unique as a person.
How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?
My worldview was somewhat global since I had moved around a lot as a kid, but as I’ve mentioned above, I also faced limitations based on gender and tradition. Exploring other cultures became the key to personal freedom for me—you can’t make choices about how you want to live fully unless you can see difference and options. As I told my students for many years teaching, the first advice I would give to someone in their 20’s is to study abroad. It will make more than an academic difference.
What was the most embarrassing moment?
I feel like I spent a lot of my 20’s embarrassed. Probably one of the worst moments was having a loud argument with my boyfriend early in the morning on a busy street corner and just not giving a damn about the looks people were giving me. Then an entire enclave of my professors walked by, walking up behind me so I didn’t curtail the loud dispute at all. Come to think of it, I think they were more embarrassed than me.
What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?
My biggest disappointment then, from my perspective at the time, was probably when I didn’t get a scholarship I was hoping to get that would allow me to do a graduate degree. I thought my life was over and was truly shaken up by it because I had wanted to do a graduate degree and teach from a young age.
I started packing up to move back home, even. I felt that life had made a decision for me that would affect my future and I wasn’t happy about it. At some point, when I had calmed down a few days later, I began making lists of long shots of what I might be able to do to continue my studies. It took some massive determination but through combining a series of approaches to scholarships and loans, I was able to continue. That made a big difference in my life because I followed through on my goals and didn’t let outward circumstances call the shots so easily.
Who was your biggest influence and why?
My biggest influences continued to be my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother, who had been big influences in my childhood. The last of them passed away when I was 21, but not before seeing me off to college. Both placed a huge value on education and intellectual pursuits, and my grandmother, having been an artist, was quite rebellious too. When I needed to reassess my own identity, I went back to them mentally and that helped me avoid conformity that might be limiting and kept me from underestimating myself since they had both led very interesting lives.
Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?
When I think about my 20’s, there are quite a few things to choose from, whether it was exploring Paris early in the morning, or taking part in fire festivals at night in Japan. Those are the kind of beautiful moments you hold onto. A lot of my big life-changing events have actually happened in my 30’s, so that’s a hard question to answer otherwise.
Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?
My regrets are mainly centered around the time I wasted worrying or disliking myself, or not thinking I looked or acted the way I wanted my persona to be. I would definitely advise to reject the urge to be constantly dissatisfied with yourself and instead spend your time focusing on something new to learn or experience rather than focusing on the negative. And also to keep in mind that you feel like you’re a fully formed adult, but really life is constantly changing on you and you’re at the beginning of something, not the end of a developmental period.
Is there a story that you feel best sums up the decade?
When I was finishing up my doctoral degree, I had a trip planned with friends for after I finished and submitted my thesis. It was the trip to end all trips in the South of France and it was going to be fantastic. Things were booked and paid for well ahead. Everything was on track. It kept me going through the days of nonstop work leading up to the end.
Then one day I received a note from my supervisors that they had decided they wanted me to switch my citation method on my 300 page thesis. For those of you have done research, you might guess the avalanche of work that means focused on minutiae. They advised me to reschedule the completion of my degree and take an extra 6 months to do it. Either way the trip was off. I felt very angry that this decision hadn’t been made earlier and that it was affecting my life in this way.
I decided to try to complete the corrections before the summer was out, and moved the trip by 6 weeks, managing to keep things booked. For 6 weeks I basically slept in the library and showered in nearby dorms. I kept to a really specific schedule and I did it. One day ahead of schedule I handed in my thesis and shoved off on my trip on the date I’d set. My advisors congratulated me. They hadn’t thought it was possible and they had to give me credit for determination. And yeah, that was the best trip ever.