Saturday, January 27, 2007
Basically things have been crap -- I had two existential meltdowns this week where I not only felt terrible about myself as a blocked dissertator, but wondered why the hell I was doing all this. Who am I and what have I become? What does all this academic crap matter anyhow? I met with a great philosophically-minded former student who was telling me that he didn't know who he was and what he liked. I knew he was probably looking at me for hope, for guidance. Platitudes like it gets better or getting to know yourself is the great adventure. But actually, I know too well exactly what he's talking about. I've been in grad school long enough that I haven't just dropped hobbies and interests along the way to Doctorness but I've forgotten what they were. When I think about reading or writing something, I think of it in terms of publication, escapism, what does this get me always in relation to my academic work. I've forgotten that the academy was the best choice for me out of a range of options - being an academic was supposed to be a career and a role that would allow me the most flexibility to do the things I really want to do, to write the things I really want to write. It wasn't supposed to be a straitjacket or some plug into the matrix that makes me forget that there were other things I wanted to do, things that I have always wanted to do, that I used to dream about doing when I was a kid. In my particularly blue moods lately, I've despaired of ever being able to do those things in some version of if I haven't done it already, surely I'll never do it. And maybe those were the dreams of youth, and it's time to put those toys away.
In short, I've gotten into a very bad spiraling headspace. I met with the Senior Scholar I'm TAing with and dumped my dissertation woes. This SS was so understanding and wonderful that changing diss directors flitted through my mind. Very generous with lots of good ideas. That I can try on Monday. But this weekend, I'm taking a vacation from academia. I'm going to try to tap into that person I was before I got here, try on the other identities I've sloughed off in order to fit better into the academic mold. (Those of you who know me in the Real World know how ridiculous a statement that is. But, yes, however spastic I am as an academic, I really have tried to fit in.) Trouble is, I don't have a clue what I'm going to do. There are always so many immediate academic tasks to do that I never have to think about those long-range things that I say I really want to do, but never get done. But I'm not going to think about the rest of my life or how I'm going to feel on my deathbed this weekend. I'm going to focus on some immediate gratification and experiencing myself differently. Read Agatha Christie's Curtain. Maybe make some calls.
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
A few days ago I was reading Nora L. Corrigan's Chronicle column about job hunt madness. There was something I couldn't put my finger on, something about why job seekers go so nuts in their "petty anxieties" about staples and the "ideal candidate" that troubled me. It was only when I was thinking about them in relation to Flavia and NegCap's recent posts on the infantilization of grad school and the extended adolescence of grad school life that it clicked. After years of grad school and the kinds of social mirrors that suggest -- at least to me -- that I'm not a person because I can't pay my bills or have a decent car or be considered a full professional despite the fact that up until this fellowship-ed semester, I taught as much as the tenured and tenure-track faculty at my school, I begin to believe that I have no agency or choices -- that I am, in fact, a beggar to the feast. So I go crazy. I look for every shred of advice about finding a job I can find, because the things that make sense to me no longer have any validity. Did I go into my interview with a pad and pen as I have with every other interview since I graduated high school? No. Because I no longer trusted my own sense of things. What do I know? Nothing. That's why I have to prove myself in an academic discourse that feels alien, where I have to say that though I connect my work with other scholars, they are wrong so I can clear away enough space to assert any real opinion of my own. I realize that I'm playing the victim here, but really that's what I want to counter. Many people say that grad school is this way, has to be this way. It's the way it is and always has been. I say hogwash. There must be better ways of helping people negotiate the identity shift from student who follows the guidelines to scholar/cultural worker/academic who invites others into intellectual work. This isn't the army. We don't tear people down so we can build them back up again, do we? There's got to be a better way.
Anyway, lately I've been thinking I've never done anything at all in my life. My SO suggests it might be Seasonal Affect Disorder. I say it's just PMDD, PhD Madness Dysphoric Dysfunction. Until there's medication or a cure, I'm going into quarantine!
Thursday, January 18, 2007
A dissertating friend of mine put it so well: "I just want someone to say it's okay. I know it's crap. They know it's crap. But let's all agree that it's okay for now."
My advisor didn't say anything too awful -- small stuff that amounts to merely completely rewriting the chapter. In my advisor's mind, the ideas are there enough to be plastic, ready to play with, scrunched into a ball and rolled out a bunch of different ways. But to me, they are a squirmy jiggling pile of goo; in that chapter I carefully spread out the goo, reshaped it, tacked it down. It's still squirmy, not very happy about its new shape, but it's there, parts all splayed out and pinned. But comments about major revisions are a giant magnet held out over my squirmy creature. Up come the metal tacks that were holding the ideas down, and the creature contracts, released from the sensible but overwhelming shape, and turns back into a pile of goo. Then it grows legs and scurries away.
Progress is a myth. The diss has brought me back around to postmodernism.
Monday, January 15, 2007
I am a big fan of these ideas. When deluded optimists and idealists (inevitably unhappy or unsatisfied because the world does not meet their expectations) tell me I'm pessimistic, I simply retort that I'm a realist. So I'm a prime candidate for becoming a real North Dakotan, or so says my friend. But I am having a very hard time trying to give up this dream that I will get a job for 2007-8. I know I did the smallest search known to Englishkind. I know if I were smart I would've applied to those 4/4 jobs who'd probably love me for my teaching experience. (3/3 was my limit.) I know I should be applying to those jobs that are just now coming open. (I totally forgot to check ADE last week. Bad, bad, very bad.) But hey, yoo hoo, yes you know who hoo. WHAT IS THE DEAL?
Originally, I went on the market because I heard grapevinewise that a job would open this year at a place that can only be described as Perfect-on-Paper-for-Me University. (You know, the one I used to call the job-I-think-I-want.) Though POP Me U were reopening a search from last year, their ad got posted late and though I hoped for the sky to break open and the angels to sing for them when they looked at my materials, calling me immediately to say that they MUST meet me ASAP, they did not interview at MLA. They had said they would start reviewing at the beginning of December, but keep the search open until it was filled. But it's been a month now of dedicated Wiki watching and Wiki waiting, I want to whine. It's so quiet over here, I check Wiki pages that are not my own just to see that there IS movement in the process for others. Medieval Woman and my MLA roommate have both gotten flybacks and phone interviews. (My MLA roommate already went and came back already, but that's a story for another time.) And I'm delighted for them and for everyone for whom the process is working. But about this one job, I just can't take it anymore. Did POP Me U even get my application? Can't they just send me an email saying that my writing sample was pure shite and that they don't ever want to hear from me again? Or send the whole lot of us (Wiki wisdom lists them as one of those that no one has heard from) an email telling us what is up in their hiring process? I know a month of quiet is not totally unreasonable, but I must know what's going on so I can put the dream of this job behind me.
Here are some scenarios I'm imagining -- and y'all can tell me whether I'm seriously warped. (Well, I am. But you can tell me whether these sound plausible.)
- They didn't get the kind of applicant pool they wanted and though I am a top contender, they don't want to proceed in the process until they feel they've got 3-5 good possibilities. Now that they've held the process open for another month, they've gotten some more good applicants and they'll be calling us all in the next week.
- They didn't get the kind of applicant pool they wanted and though I am a top contender, they don't want to proceed in the process until they feel they've got 3-5 good possibilities. They still don't have them and this process is going to take for frigging ever.
- They didn't get the kind of applicant pool they wanted and though I am NOT a top contender, they aren't proceeding to tell the un-contenders to give it up until they feel they've got 3-5 candidates.
- They have the kind of applicant pool they want, but they are waiting until the first flush of the semester is over to conduct phone interviews and invite people to campus.
- They've already sent me an email saying "nice try, dorkus," but I couldn't find it as I was deleting fifty emails from the Library of Social Science Newsletter spam snafu.
- They will call me tomorrow, but since my SO mistakenly took my cell phone charger with him when he left today, I won't be there to get the call.
- The search committee can't decide what they want. One person says I'm the kind of person who is perfect (or POP, Perfect on Paper) for the program as it is now, but there are others who want to significantly change the program and worry that I'm not edgy enough.
- They really need a minority/edgy/more radical/less radical teacher than I am.
- I was a top contender until they read my TSWS (totally shite writing sample).
- POP Me U is actually very disorganized or going through the kind of Scary Transition that I wouldn't want to deal with anyway.
- The program is in the middle of some kind of pitched battle where this job search had become am important site of contention.
- The dean or provost or whatever higher-up is holding up the process because s/he has a friend/lover/family member who s/he feels should have the job.
- This wasn't a real search, but merely a ploy to hire an inside candidate.
- My frantic Wiki Watching and this blog are somehow actually slowing the process down in that butterfly over the Pacific kind of way.
Enough whining already. It's just not very North Dakotan.
Saturday, January 13, 2007
I would say that part of the reason why we invest so much time in our academic persona facades is our own sense that this is how we would act if we were confident, instead of being so possessed with, and determined to compete with, other competent veneers and hide our imposter syndromes that we overwork, overdress, overcompensate. (I feel pretty confident about the imposter syndrome and grad students -- I just bet that getting a job feels more like you pulled the wool over the new school's eyes rather than an affirmation of your academic rockingness.)
One point I want to discuss is the sticky wicket of writing. Dr. O said:
. . .students often don't understand that we scholars learn in part through writing. Writing is not the reporting of completed and digested discovery, but can in its own right be part of the discovery process.
Yes! And if we want our students -- from first-year writers to grad students -- to consider writing part of the discovery process, we have to develop projects and assignments that encourage them to use it that way. Many teachers across the curriculum tell those of us in English that "students can't write." (It usually goes like this: "What are you doing over there in first-year writing? My students can't write.") What is it that they can't write? They can't work through their thinking about course concepts in their writing? Or they can't write a "good" well-formatted paper in the discipline? (Often what these complaining teachers say is that students don't know their proper grammar. Not only can a first-year writing course not inoculate students against the improper grammar that surrounds them everywhere, but compared to exploring complex ideas and communicating through the confusion of new concepts should hyper-correct grammar be what we mean when we say "good writing?")
Too often, assessment strategies (No Child Left Behind's timed writing tests anyone?) foreground organization over complex thinking. Complex thinking is often messy. Focusing too much on discourse conventions, format, and organization in a piece of writing can lead to well-structured but simple-minded papers. While developing a thorough understanding of discourse conventions is very very important, assigning writing that invites students to do the messy shitty-first-draft exploratory work that we do invites students into how the real work in the discipline gets done. Worrying over whether a piece of writing is structured correctly for the discourse before grappling with the complexity of the ideas is like making sure we have the tweed jacket with suede patches and the pipe in our mouths before we get to grad school. The smooth surface of a too-correct paper may be like the all-competent surface of our academic persona: totally empty beneath.
Academic self-reflexivity? Praxis? Liberal guilt? Overwork from imposter syndrome? Come on, how many academics are cat people?
Friday, January 12, 2007
Worse for the diss but very satisfying for my continuing sense of community and intellectual life, I'm assisting in this fascinating course and taking altogether too much time with it. In an attempt to gain control over my time, I'm trying to keep a schedule, using much-ignored laptop scheduling features. In fact, I tend to fill in what I'm doing after I do it, rather than using it to plan. (I don't bother to put in all the time I spend reading other people's blogs or checking and re-checking the damn Wiki. What is that school-I-thought-I-wanted-to-work-at doing? Helllllloooooo? I'm right here!) I think I have to put up parameters around my time, say to myself that I will work for this length of time on the Fascinating Class and no more. Not my strong point, especially when I can ignore the Boring Diss Chapter writing in favor of the Fascinating Class. (This all draws on my complicated theory of counter-irritants. I am the kind of person who will willingly do my dishes when I'm avoiding working on something else. But if there's nothing I'm avoiding, the dishes pile up in my sink until there are no utensils left, like this week. So if I have something I don't want to do for my Fascinating Class, perhaps I can get some diss work done!)
But inspired by Dr. Four Eyes and her posts on working in brief, daily sessions (BDS, which suggests to me some awful bowel dysfunction, but maybe that's me), I've begun not allowing myself to read email or blogs until I freewrite on work matters! Unlike making a schedule or setting an alarm clock, this works. Thanks, Dr. Four Eyes! Without you and that great tidbit, I wouldn't have even begun my ramblings for my proposal to Cool Conference.
Monday, January 8, 2007
Today, I had more paperwork to complete. I dragged myself to Grad Studies. I admit it -- they are as nice as can be there. But I don't want to be a student anymore. I don't want to walk to some office hoping that someone will sign the piece of paper I hold in my hand. My signature is not good enough. As a student, I must be advised. I had to get off campus. I called a friend and told him I was sick of being a student.
He said: "You're not a student and haven't been for a long time."
I don't know why that made me feel better, why the sight of campus makes me want to hurry and get off, why when I was walking onto campus on the first day of classes I longed for summer, already tired in a way that usually takes me until mid-semester. Perhaps it's just that I'm not teaching my own classes this semester for the first time in five years. Instead, I have a pastiche of funding -- a fellowship, tutoring, TAing with a professor in a class I'm excited about. I chose this as the best way for me to settle down deep into work on the diss. More likely, this is the kick in the butt I need to get me out of here -- the sense that I just can't bear being an impoverished student for one moment longer.
Do I even need to say that I've made a pretty good start on Chapter 2?
Saturday, January 6, 2007
Wiki watching has become a full-time occupation, even though I'm now not looking as much for me as for good news about others. It's a weird dance when I see a school that I know a friend has interviewed for. Do I email? Do I dare to eat a peach? (Eat the damn peach, say I to Prufrock.) So I did. And good news! I hope it's always like that -- my friends, both at Midwestern U and in the blogosphere, deserve every interviewer to bring them to their campuses.
In dissertation news, I am trying to really grok one reality: in the dissertation world, plans must be revised. Writing one chapter is not like writing another chapter. I can really write like a demon for a while, but then when it's over, I must rest. Can I say that Chapter 2 will take me a month? Easily. But can I say that Chapter 3 then is February's challenge? No, says my brilliant dissertation coach. Because I will likely need two weeks off after I turn it in. And if I get a campus interview at the job-I-once-thought-I-wanted-who-didn't-interview-at-MLA? Well, then. I turned ferociously to my dissertation coach at our meeting this afternoon: I can't apply to any more jobs. And he said, totally taking me seriously: so don't.
So I'm not. I think.
Don't you think that meeting with one's dissertation coach and coming up with a plan and a schedule counts as work? I do. I'll take the rest of the day off.
Friday, January 5, 2007
I know too well why this is. Because each day a wall begins to build itself between you and your topic. Overnight, the wall built up is pretty flimsy -- ricepaper. You can tear it down with one hand. After a missed day, it turns into particle board. Give it a few days, and you have to center yourself Karate Kid-style before you can bust through the solid pine. But after two weeks, you can't just brace yourself and start running, expecting it to crumble. It's solid granite. You need a chisel.
So today is my third official day of hurling myself at my dissertation, only to end up bruised and achy. Earlier versions of me would've been worked both New Year's Day AND Gerald Ford's official-but-totally-bogus day of mourning. (Personally, I think our flags should be at half-mast for James Brown. He brightened all our lives. Days AND nights.) I schedule the time to work on the diss. But I can't make myself work on it. The first day, scheduling the time was as much as I manage. Yesterday, I actually opened the file of Chapter 2. But everything in the world is more pleasing or important -- especially reading other people's blogs, checking the damn Wiki, watching recorded BBC shows that I've seen a hundred times, daydreaming about totally sailing through a campus visit, daydreaming about totally bombing a campus visit, and fretting. I'm telling you -- these things are full-time gigs! I don't have time to write a dissertation. Today, I managed to work it into a conversation I was having -- you know, as if it were real. I think this is a real step up.
Part of it may be that Senior Scholar said he wanted to see it. Today, one of my interviewers said she was interested in seeing a chapter (though not in a way that made it seem official and part of the hiring process -- don't worry, I'm not fooled -- it all counts). But I think a big part of my block is what I experienced when I was writing the job letters: I'm thinking so much of how I'm crafting my interests for others that I've forgotten how to focus on the work -- mano a mano. I have all these other voices in my head. In order to write my dissertation, I need to get up in the morning and get to the laptop before life has intruded too much, when I'm still wrapped in the cotton-soaked fog of caffeine-withdrawal, but starting to come out of it. Too much coffee, too much conversation -- and that's it. I've blown the entire day. Might as well just go back to bed and start over. And then the rest of the day I try to convince myself that I'm going to be able to sit still and work on the beast, but who am I kidding? I'm just waiting out the rest of the day.
These explanations are all well and good, but the real reason I haven't worked on my dissertation is I've forgotten how to write it. I turned in a chapter to my advisor and then I forgot how to write it. Yes, it's true that Chapter 2 is different from Chapter 1 -- that it may require some different approach, but you know, I worry. Especially in the first-year writing courses we all have to teach at some point, we tell undergrads that what they're learning is transferable -- whether we teach them process techniques, rhetorical triangles, or critical reading and writing habits. What if they're not transferable? What if every time we sit down we have to learn how to write all over again, invent anew a self who can write?
Oh, how depressing. I'm going to go watch a movie and wait for the rest of the day to pass.
Wednesday, January 3, 2007
What makes this not a catastrophic experience is this strange new sensation I have. Instead of feeling like a pretender, waiting for someone to figure out that I'm an imposter, I feel like an academic. Somehow, something has turned on inside myself; I'm ready to be an assistant professor. I'm not sure what made that happen (and let's face it, it's probably a 24-hour bug), but suddenly I feel ready to grow up out of grad school and walk new halls as an assistant professor. In a response essay some of whose main points I would take issue with elsewhere, Jeffrey J. Williams claims that "affects or feelings are a primary medium of professionalization -- part of its informal structure -- and the affects and modes of behavior that one learns, notably in grad school, tangibly make us into academics" (JAC, 160). The dissertation doesn't make me an academic, but rather the feeling of being one. It's the feelings we learn in grad school that I've been thinking a lot about.
There's a grad student in my program who is very accomplished and very talented -- also very organized. This "star" wins prizes and fellowships. Everyone I know compares themselves to her. On the market now, people are watching her; if she doesn't get a lot of interviews, others worry that they won't get jobs at all, because, they lament, they are not as good/organized/talented/smart as she is. She has become the model. She's also a friend of mine. I admit I have certainly done my share of comparing myself to her and coming up short. But inspired by Donald E. Hall's The Academic Self and his call for academics to own our academic dysfunctions, I had to own up to what I was doing. Not only did I inappropriately project my dreams onto her (her path is not my path), but I compared myself to that dream-image in a way that would always leave me feeling bad. Every disorganized and procrastinating person I know who thinks they should be more organized talks about how they should be more like their image of her, almost as if they don't deserve to be an academic otherwise. I have found myself explaining that she is not the perfect image they have made of her. She is just not all that. But I don't feel good about denigrating her achievements in order to make other people feel better.
Before break, I found myself having a conversation with a student who was talking about how he'd like to change his major but he's so far into his current major that he feels he shouldn't switch. His main reason was that he was far enough behind the people he went to school with -- and changing his major to something he liked better would get him even farther behind.
"Well," I said in my usual snarky way, "that is what life is all about -- keeping up with the people you went to high school with." And then in a demonic possession of unbelievable pretentiousness, I had the audacity to impart, as if I were some wizened sage he had climbed a mountain or two to meet: "You look one way and there are people better than you. You look the other way and there are people worse than you. Both are traps." (Oy. He was very gracious and didn't roll his eyes or anything. Let's face it -- I was talking to myself and to everyone who had ever compared herself with a "star.")
What can I say? With my pseudo-hippie parents, Desiderata was on the wall the entire time I was growing up. I passed these words a zillion times a day: If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
It's obvious that if we compare ourselves to others, especially people totally unlike ourselves in temperment or goals, we're just asking for trouble, not just making ourselves feel bad, but accepting professional values and goals that may not be what we believe in. Furthermore, the "star system" may also be bad for the stars. It's tempting to think that if we had that sense that our departments or fields loved us, then we'd do our best work. But some of us use our worry and panic to fuel our work, learning about the Job Search Wiki after sleepless nights spent at the keyboard, learning about why some liberal arts colleges might not post their jobs on MLA Job Information List, and making friends on the Chronicle Fora. Some stars may not restlessly seek out all available knowledge, content to believe those who provide such fulfilling social mirroring. Others may be terrified to be found out as less than all that. As Hall says: "Unless we find ways of taking our successes as well as our failures as less than fully accurate indicators of the sum total of our fundamental worth in this world, we will forever be driven by a fear of failure rather than a love of learning or a commitment to students" (11-12). I would add, we might also be driven by a love, even the expectation, of success.
Which is why my resolution this year to be better to my friends and myself is to not engage in or support this kind of fruitless comparing of one's self to another. We shouldn't have to tear each other down to make ourselves feel good or use other people's successes to feed our senses of ourselves as failures. No more back biting. No more self-pity. I've played with these enough during grad school. It's time to put these toys away.