Feeling the Pressure

February 1, 2012 § 6 Comments

Maybe the subtitle for this post should be something along the lines of “or: a tale of lightening.” I hesitated to commit to that subtitle because I don’t know for sure that I am experiencing lightening yet. (For those who aren’t familiar with the term, “lightening” refers to when the baby drops into the pelvic bowl in preparation for labor. Lightening can happen as early as four weeks before labor or as late as minutes after labor begins.) What I do know I’m feeling is pressure.

Yesterday morning after waking up, I felt this incredible “dropping” feeling in my lower abdomen. It burned and felt like a sharp stabbing pain all at the same time. I groaned as I settled into an upright position so that I could begin the slow wobble to the bathroom. Throughout the day, I noticed that walking helped alleviate the intensity of the pressure some, but the pressure itself did not disappear. Some women describe this feeling as a sort of “falling out”–they may describe an irrational fear that the baby will “fall out” because of how low the baby suddenly feels. As of yesterday, I practically expected to shake hands with my nearly-born daughter.

I had a prenatal appointment in the afternoon and described the pressure to my obstetrician. She grinned and said, “That’s great!” I must have looked skeptical because she elaborated, “It means that you’re getting close. Things are moving along.” I must admit, that is pretty great. This past weekend was all about preparations and nesting–even Robert got in on the act. I don’t know whether daddies experience a nesting instinct, but Robert announced last Thursday that he was going to wake up early Saturday to take my car to be washed and vacuumed, and then he would install the car seat bases into both of our cars. (By the way, I have to give a shout out to the LATCH system in vehicles–it took Robert and me all of five minutes to install those bases into our back seats, and I think three of those five minutes were spent reading the manual and double-checking that we were aiming in the right place. Installing a car seat is absolutely idiot-proof these days, which is a relief. Most vehicles after 2002 come equipped standard with LATCH in the back seat. If you’re not sure, you can check your vehicle’s user manual.) I’ve been driving around with the car seat in my car since Saturday for two reasons. The first is so that I can go ahead and get used to seeing it in my rearview mirror–the handle of my car seat is in my line of vision only a minimal amount, so it’s good that I have been practicing so that I can make the necessary adjustments. The second reason is because we plan to take my car to the hospital, and not having to remember the car seat itself will be a blessing. I also spent Monday finishing Melanie’s baby laundry. (Well “finishing”…I just realized I haven’t done her cradle sheets yet. So that’s on the docket for today.)

All of these preparations are thrown into stark relief when I compare them against my physical experiences. The pressure in my lower abdomen constantly reminds me that this little girl is coming, and she’ll be coming soon! No matter how anxious I was in the beginning that I might lose her, no matter how many horror stories I read or heard about women losing their babies in the second trimester, no matter the warnings and risks I’ve become aware of for signs of trouble…Melanie still kicks and squirms around as though this uterus isn’t closing in on her on all sides. Her heartbeat (that I get to hear every week now) is strong and stable. I feel more relaxed now because I know that my baby will come to us in a matter of days.

The pressure I’m enduring physically has spilled over into our household activities–we are cleaning more regularly; we are preparing the nursery with more gusto; we are making arrangements for plans B, C, D, and E; and we are staying in touch with each other more carefully than ever before. Robert limits his time out of the house without me asking him to. I limit the number of text messages I send him through the day so that I don’t send him into a panic that I’m in labor. This physical and emotional pressure from our upcoming major change has even made me more productive–I sent off the second draft of my last chapter to my director on Monday morning. Today I’m going to grade some papers from my online class so that I don’t have it hanging over my head any longer. As Robert is making himself more available to my pressing needs, I feel as though I’m clearing away the clutter in my day-to-day in order to make way for Melanie’s arrival.

Pressure, as my obstetrician so rightly pointed out, is a great thing.

Stickers, Post-Its, and Charts: unexpected tools to success

April 26, 2011 § 5 Comments

I believe in order to be a successful writer, you must have a system in place. Perhaps it’s a favorite coffee shop, or specific drink ordered there. Maybe it’s that one playlist that unlocks your creativity. Or maybe it’s your own obsession with planning.

Whatever your preferred system, that system requires tools. And my tools are all about the plan.

I have already mentioned one of my favorite new tools for keeping track of all those to-do lists in order to maintain motivation as well as to avoid double-booking responsibilities. iProcrastinate has been one of those apps that just really gets me going. It makes me utterly happy and excited to check those little “complete” boxes and see the required to-do items begin to diminish.

In addition to that awesome app, I have been using another set of tools to sort of “trick” myself into believing that not only is writing fun but it’s also something worthwhile. (I know, I know, the sarcasm is palpable.) V has voluntarily come along with me on this crazy ride, and as writing buddies, we have responded to each other’s needs by developing useful writing aids.

Behold! Our tools for dissertation success:

My tools to dissertation success

It may not look particularly fancy to you, but allow me to explain.

Our Sticker-Clipboards.

Doesn't photograph very well, but my clipboard is very pretty.

Have you ever watched a college football game and ever wondered why those boys have stickers lining their helmets? No, silly as it may look, the boys aren’t exploring their six-year-old-girlie-sides. The stickers mean something. Sometimes they mean success on the field or in academics (…more often than not they mean field success…), and often the football players can rattle off the meaning behind each individual sticker. Robert is the one who sparked this little idea. He recommended that we do something where we could collect success stickers and feel pride and motivation. My clipboard, although not particularly photogenic, is gorgeous with butterfly stickers representing pages completed and metallic floral stickers representing major goals accomplished (like submitting the fellowship materials and e-mailing drafts to my committee chair). V has adorable paw prints for her pages-written accomplishments (because she and her husband have three awesome dogs), and beautiful gold metallic bird stickers for major dissertation goals met (because she loves birds and was once the loving owner of a darling pair).

Every Friday, during our weekly dissertation meeting and “therapy” session (oh the therapeutic powers of raspberry Chai…), we tally up the goals we’ve accomplished and pages written. Each time we write ten pages, we get a new sticker (butterflies for me, paw prints for V). Each time we accomplish a major goal, we get a fancy sticker (flowers for me, birds for V). The placement and design of these stickers is entirely up to us, and we do have in mind the specific location for the dissertation defense sticker. Hey, it’s good to have a goal, right?

Our Post-It Note Argument.

My Post-It Note argument is written on the piece of paper; Vs Post-It Note demonstrates the concept.

You’re already familiar with the concept behind this little beauty, so I won’t go into greater detail here. If you need a refresher on the theory behind the Post-It note argument, please feel free to go back and read, “A Post-It Note Argument: a cure for the common ever-expanding diss topic.”

Please note: As far as I know, V has not publicly released her Post-It Note argument. Regardless her reason and my decision to do the opposite, I obviously respect both her privacy and intellectual property. Therefore, I have purposefully smudged-out her dissertation argument past the opening “My dissertation explores the.” Also, I thought I should mention that V’s handwriting is super neat and tidy…my poor smudging skills on Photoshop are what caused the wavy lines. Her original Post-It looks very nice.

The “Honest About Our Time” Chart.

How A.Hab. has been spending her time...

V is actually entirely responsible for the honest-time chart. She suggested that to prepare us for summer vacation (which can either be an embarrassment of riches in terms of undesignated hours or an enticement to laziness), we should keep track of how we utilize our time utterly honestly this week. This is the beginning of my time chart. My goal is to have a slew of mostly pink and orange (dissertation) time charts by the time this entire thing is over.

The Antithesis to Success.

Uhm...'scuse me calico-girl...but I can't see the screen....

A Beatrice who insists on being exactly where my hands are at all times, which often happens to be the laptop keyboard. This is often my view. Or, rather, the view my laptop camera has of me. 😉 The best way to combat this? Set her down on her favorite chair cushion and convince her she’d much rather be there than around me anyway.

So, these are our tools to writing success.

What are yours?

From the Other Side of the Desk: help me help you

April 13, 2011 § 16 Comments

Probably the single best part about the actual instruction involved with teaching is the motivation, the encouragement. I love it. I thrive on it. It happens all too infrequently.

Yesterday was a great teaching day. Class clicked along swimmingly (although discussion was a bit one-sided for my tastes), I had a few opportunities to demonstrate my generous benevolence, and I met with a few students in my office a full gasp! nine days before the paper is due! (That’s not meant to be read as sarcasm…I am truly astonished and thrilled.)

This paper that my students are writing is an experiment. All semester, I have asked them to consider the theme of “Identity” throughout these World Literature II texts. Generally speaking, I believe we’ve done a stand-up job. This final paper condenses a semester’s worth of lectures and thoughts into a single moment, a single exploration of the Self. I have assigned my students the weighty and nigh-on impossible task of crafting their own identities. They will interact with the literature, though, analyzing the authors’ approach to identity-making and mimicking as best they can the approaches that work best for them. I expect some creativity. I want some sparkle. This could be the last paper I read for quite some time (and at least until August–since I won’t teach this summer), so why not go out on an experimental high note? So far, I believe they are enjoying the journey. Many of them are relieved to find out that I’m fairly loosey-goosey on this particular assignment…unlike the first one which was very rules-y. (We must all learn to write in specific landscapes, yes?)

Yesterday’s good teaching day allowed me a moment’s meditation (and only a moment) on the loveliness of helping. And, in light of that, I’d like to write a short open letter to students everywhere.

To all students present and future:

To borrow a line from Jerry Maguire, please help me help you. Give me the chance to demonstrate to you my knowledge. Allow me the opportunity to attempt to motivate you. Ask me questions. Open up. Be honest. Reveal your insecurities, your concerns, your fears. Be receptive to my advice, my recommendations, my suggestions. Take notes while I expound on my answers to your questions. Demonstrate to me that you are actively listening. When I see you take notes, feverishly writing to keep up with my fevered counsel, a fire burns in my heart and I become proud. I become confident. I realize that I have something of value to offer you. Give me that chance because the more often you do so, the better my advice will be.

Let me celebrate with you. Tell me about the times when you broke through your Writer’s Block. Share with me the harrowing tale of your 2 a.m. Dorito’s and Mountain Dew bender at the library and the genius that pored forth from your fingertips to the keyboard. Recount for me the time you showed your classmate a rough draft in an impromptu peer review, and how it helped you. Give me the gift of collegial joy. I’m a writer, too. I can revel in your successes, too. I can live vicariously through your victories, your triumphs, your battles hard-won, too.

Help me help you.

Offer me a moment to teach you, to feel a burst of confidence when you promise to get it, and to experience the utter, bone-deep pride when you actually do.

Respectfully yours,
Mrs. H.

Blogs and Writing Pedagogy: what I should have said

April 7, 2011 § 22 Comments

“I just don’t see the blogs accomplishing your pedagogy like you think they do.”

I sit there, blinking. Crap. My jaw clenches. Don’t you cry, Amanda. Not now. Not in your annual review. I am so miserable in my job, and I’m positive he can tell. Despite my best efforts to prepare a portfolio that might suggest otherwise, I’m sure he can tell that I have been miserable for quite some time. But I’m afraid. If I tell him the truth, what consequences could I stand to risk? Might I be strung up? Would this follow me my entire life? If a potential employer asks him about my teaching experience, will I be ruined? Buck up. Seriously. Stop. Just don’t say anything. If you talk, you’ll definitely cry. Just don’t say anything.

“According to your students, they had trouble remembering to do the blogs. And it looks like they’re not worth much, only 10% of the overall grade, so doing them doesn’t really affect their overall grade.”

“Actually,” I cut in, my voice breaking. “They’re part of the 10% daily grade, which also includes quizzes.”

“Right, I saw that on your policy statement. That’s redundant. Daily quizzes and three blogs a week.”

“They’re not daily quizzes,” I try to explain. The tears are starting to rise up. Can he tell? “I give the quizzes randomly, but on average there are ten quizzes in a semester.”

“Okay, so my point is that the blogs don’t count for much, and if they’re sharing that 10% of the daily grade with a few quizzes, then they count for even less. Do you see how that gives the students little incentive to want to even do them in the first place?”

It takes a conscious effort to nod. Don’t say anything or else you’ll start crying. Shit, why are you such a baby? You’ve never been like this before in an annual review! Can’t you take criticism at all??

“Why did you come up with the blog assignment at all?”

The question surprises me. Catches me off-guard. It shouldn’t because I’ve been asked it before. Except…this is different. I think when I’ve been asked this question, it’s usually been phrased with the word how. This feels immediately judgmental. He has already made up his mind. He’s looking for a reason to change his mind. I won’t give it to him. I can’t give it to him. Not without crying.

“I-I guess I just…” I swallow. “To me, they’re like critical reading responses except the students have the opportunity to read each other’s responses and then respond to them as well. I wanted to keep the conversation going, I guess. I just….”

“Okay, but I’m not sure that it does that for you. The students remarked about how they often forgot to even do the blogs in the first place. I would recommend either eliminating the blogs entirely, reducing the number of blogs they should do in a week, or eliminate quizzes. Actually, I think I would recommend reducing the number of blogs in a week and eliminate the quizzes.”

I’m back to blinking. I really like the blogs. My students had seemed to really like the blogs. My mind is reeling. They forgot to do the blogs? But…according to my grade book, most of my students did most, if not all, of the blogs…. I have more students with perfect blog grades than students with failing blog grades. I don’t understand why they would claim that they didn’t remember to do them…. That’s not true….

The rest of the review continues in a similar vein. He pulls out the already-written assessment report, crosses out the word “eliminate” and replaces it with “reconsider” so that the final sentence now reads, “reconsider the blog assignments.” I sign the form, representing my agreement to his report. He was going to tell me to eliminate the blogs entirely…. My first out-of-the-box assignment failed. I walk out of his office and quickly get into mine, closing the door, and collecting myself. Don’t cry, not now. One more meeting. Don’t cry. I pull it together after ten minutes, and I am late to my next meeting. But I’m not in tears.

After several days of consideration, I realize now what I should have said. And now that I am beginning to apply for jobs, I realize what I did by not defending myself–if he serves as a reference, then he will deliver the same report he gave during my annual review. If I mention the blog assignment in my application materials (in spite of everything, I am still proud of it), then I now face the risk of the hiring manager asking him, “She mentioned something about blogs. What do you know about that assignment?” And what will he say? I surely can’t know, but I have a good guess.

I should have defended myself. I should have given him something else to say.

The blogs work.

1. Overall quiz grades from semesters without blogs to semesters with blogs have marked improvement. The reason? Students are reading. They have to do the readings in order to write the blogs. And if they did the readings, then they will do well on quizzes. Although I do change questions from time to time on my quizzes, the type of information I’m searching for is pretty consistent from semester to semester. My students’ daily grade average has improved.

2. They are a low-stakes assignment purposefully designed to be low-stakes. If a student forgets to write a blog once or twice, his or her daily average is not ruined. But, completing all blog assignments on time and receiving a perfect score on the blogging assignment by the end of the semester is equal to receiving perfect scores on four quizzes. It is a “gimme” assignment, but it’s supposed to be. Students are not graded on quality or content of the blog, except according to some basic standards (it should be about a specific text assigned that day and it should be analytical). They are not graded on how well they analyze (unlike their papers), but instead they are given an opportunity to practice analysis in a way that will not hurt their overall grade.

3. Class discussions are much more focused on critically analyzing the texts rather than “walking through” the plots. Students will chime in and say, “Yeah! I wrote about that on my blog!” And others will respond to that student in class. The classroom rapport is typically supportive, congenial, and encouraging. Because a student was able to sort of “try out” his or her idea on a personal blog, the idea was given space to develop so that it would be fully-formed by the time s/he brings it up in class. Even when students disagree with one another’s points, the comments are polite, respectful, and explanatory. They learn not only how to make their own points but also how to properly counter-argue against someone else’s points respectfully.

4. Papers and essay questions on exams are generally more analytical than summative. My students have physical evidence that their peers have previous knowledge of the text, so there is little reason to summarize major plot points. Because they’ve had the chance to practice analysis without fear of failure, they are often more confident in the presentation of their arguments. Because of this, I’ve been able to ask more from my students. And, for the most part, they deliver.

5. The blogs reinforce to my students the idea that one cannot be a good reader without writing, and one cannot be a good writer without reading. Although my students may have more writing assignments in a literature course than others may have, my students not only get the point but have it demonstrated to them that reading and writing are inextricable.

6. I use the blogs myself as a guide for class discussions. I usually try to peruse the blogs the day of class (since blogs are due by midnight the day before), and through that perusal I’ll see what they are confused about, what was interesting to them, what they really gravitated toward. And I will tailor class discussion based on their needs–do we need to unpack that theme more? explore that concept? Judging by exams, my students do get more out of these discussions from the blog posts.

I realize now that I should have defended myself and my blogs.

They work.

If I were to teach again, I would absolutely keep the blogs with no changes whatsoever. They would still be worth very little on the overall grade because low-stakes grades work. There would still be three blogs due every week. They would still have the same number of required words due per post.

My writing pedagogy is that through practice (constant, consistent practice), students develop basic communication skills as well as sophisticated analytical skills. Ideas develop best through writing. Texts are explored best through writing. Learning to write properly will inevitably lead to the ability to articulate an intelligent thought eloquently (either in speech or the written word). If my students are to believe that the literature was not composed within a vacuum, then I should demonstrate to them precisely how one composes devoid of a vacuum. And, thanks to the power of the Internet and new social media, blogs are a perfect method to free writing from a vacuum-like experience.

That’s what I should have said.

A Post-It Note Argument: a cure for the common ever-expanding diss topic

April 2, 2011 § 16 Comments

“It’s like ripples in a pond!” I exclaim over my grilled herb chicken. My director and I are at lunch at a local in-hotel Italian restaurant. The number of faculty and staff at this particular location right now is astounding–this must be the tastiest lunch deal within walking distance of campus. I’d tend to agree with them.

“Well, maybe for you it is…,” she says warily.

“I guess I have a great topic.” When she cocks her eyebrow and kind of laughs, I take it back. “Well…I have good ideas how to work on this topic. I guess I’m just worried that this topic is so huge, so unwieldy that I’ll get to the end of the dissertation and hear criticism because I didn’t talk about this point or apply my theory in that way. I’m scared of being judged for what could have been.”

“That’s fair,” she concedes. And then she pauses. I take a sip of my water realizing that I’m doing it again–rambling like a hyperactive child who discovered her mother’s sugary treat stash. “You need to come up with an elevator topic.” My eyebrows crease. “You don’t know about the elevator topic?” she asks, surprised she hasn’t already divulged this secret to me yet, over our six-year working relationship.

And, friends, that’s when my directing professor delivered the single-best advice I have ever been given. And now I will share it with you.

“The elevator topic…,” she says almost conspiratorially, leaning forward a little. “…is a method for distilling your entire dissertation argument into a single, concise sentence.”

Imagine you are at the MLA conference, the location for all humanities-related job interviews. You are in a hotel, preparing for one of your first market interviews. You’ve waited a while, and now you wait on the elevator. As the doors ding! open, another job-seeking-hopeful joins you and pleasantly engages you in conversation.

“So, what’s your dissertation about?” he asks, pushing the number 3.

You have three floors to offer the argument of a 200-page book.

What do you say?

I laugh, interrupting the magic of the moment, and say, “I’d end up having to hold the door open and would just annoy everyone.”

She laughs too. “Well, this is something you need to do. I’m concerned that your topic is attempting to do too much. Your dissertation will not be perfect. It just won’t. Even if you publish it, you will flip it open to the first page and locate an error immediately. You’ll realize that you meant to say it another way or that you should have developed your argument in a different direction. That’s the nature of a dissertation. If you focus on the perfect product that argues everything, you will never finish.”

The last four words she delivers ominously. I think the sky darkens outside the window as she speaks.

“So, an elevator topic, huh?” I ask when the sky lightens. “That is what I will devote my next 48 hours to. I will come up with an elevator topic.”

“Yes. And when you do, you need to write it down and put it on your fridge. Put it everywhere you will see it.”

After I left lunch, I felt inspired.

“V!” I probably blast off her ear when we’re on the phone. “I have this great idea. Professor Director told me about the elevator topic. Have you heard about it?” She hasn’t. I impart my newly-gained wisdom upon her. Once I finish, I say, “So I was thinking…if it’s something that should go on the fridge, it’s something that should fit on a small piece of paper, right? Like a Post-It Note!”

V knows where I’m going with this. “Oh my gosh, A.Hab., I love it!”

We agree that Saturday will be Post-It Note Argument Day. (It’s a lengthy title, but major projects deserve lengthy titles.)

This morning, V and I worked on and wrote our Post-It Note Arguments. We wrote them about four times (twice on Post-It notes, once on our notepads, and once on our laptops). We exchanged one of the two Post-It notes with our argument with each other, fully intending to help hold the other accountable for her concise argument.

I will speak for V when I say that we are relieved, better focused, and more motivated to incorporate these arguments throughout our dissertation chapters. V’s even going to apply this theory to individual chapter arguments in order to check that she is consistent from the beginning to the end of each chapter.

I’m thrilled. My first Post-It note argument draft was rough. V helped me see how it was too broad. She gave me a dose of honesty that I truly needed. My first draft, she said, read too much like a dissertation from a psychology student or a human sciences or evolutionary biology student. “Are you really going to be able to prove this by the end of your dissertation?” she asked. I shook my head. “And where’s Shakespeare?” I reworked it to include the words “select seventeenth century texts” and reevaluated my end-goal…and now I’m happy. Because my chapters are working toward this argument. I just now need to make sure I state it clearly throughout the dissertation in a way that won’t leave my readers wondering why they’re receiving a specific anecdote.

So, here’s the moral of the story:

When in doubt, write it out…on a Post-It note!

A post before it’s too late!

March 22, 2011 § 4 Comments

It’s not a time crunch I’m afraid of. No, no, no. WordPress has been having some herky-jerky craziness in the last couple of minutes, which has prevented me from accessing my all-important stats page. I must be able to see my stats the second they update! So, you can only imagine my need to post my daily entry while WordPress is not acting like my keeper: A.Hab., WordPress says to me. You better write that dissertation or else no more stats for you! If I had a virtual bedroom door to slam while screaming “I hate you, you never let me do anything!” in WordPress’s face, I would. And then I’d emerge five minutes later, mascara staining my cheeks in rivulets, and apologize for my ‘tude.

Whoa.

I just sort of flashed-back to high school A.Hab.

Weird.

Aaaanyway. Here’s what I wanted to quickly advertise/talk about. My officemate, MC, introduced me to a pretty swanky new app (well…new-to-us anyway…I’m not sure when it was released, although I’m sure that information is readily available) called iProcrastinate. If you ever have anything in your life that requires a plan…download this immediately. Contrariwise to its name, it is an app NOT for procrastination but to help procrastinators (or really busy people) manage their time even better! And we all know how much A.Hab. loves to plan things…this is just like…awesome. Seriously awesome.

Here are a few current screen shots:

Things to notice:
–the ability to input new subject matter (such as “work” or “meetings” or “kids” or whatever)
–the ability to input new tasks within each subject matter
–the ability to give each task a number of associated steps to accomplish the goals
–the ability to attach a file to a task so that it can be opened through iProcrastinate right then and there (“through” meaning, of course, that you would still open it with the appropriate program, but you wouldn’t have to go digging for it)
–the ability to check off each step as you complete it
–a rather neat way of organizing the due dates: iProcrastinate puts it simply (i.e. “tomorrow” or “next Friday”) rather than just relying on your (if it’s like mine) unreliable sense of time to understand that 3/25 isn’t as far-off as it seems…in fact, that’s this Friday!
–an iProcrastinate icon in the dock with a notification reminding you that you have x-number of items due today (for me, that’s one item due today–e-mailing Chapter Two to my directing professor)

What you don’t see pictured:
–when creating a new task, you have the ability to prioritize it (low, medium, or high), star it, and set its date as recurring or not (so if you know you have weekly meetings, as I have with V, then it is easy to set those up)
–an iProcrastinate icon in the taskbar near the battery and time display that 1. indicates that the program is running and 2. allows you to create new tasks within particular subjects (or create new subjects, for that matter) without searching for and pulling up iProcrastinate on your desktop (if your desktop is cluttered or if you have many windows open or minimized that might make it difficult to locate iProcrastinate quickly)
–as you accomplish steps on each task, it will keep track of your accomplishments for you: for instance, completing my chapter draft on time will require five steps for me. If I click the boxes, I will see that I will have completed 1/5 steps, and then 2/5, then 3/5, etc. until the entire thing is completed. Clicking boxes can be unimaginably delightful for someone who both loves lists and procrastinates.

I seem to have angered the WordPress yet again…I will attempt to post this later. 😦 Maybe a fifteen-minute break will do the trick.

I hope I’m not grounded.

Edit: Well, it took a couple of hours, but WordPress seems to be back to operational order…phew. Just in time for my post to go live to count for the day! 🙂 (If anyone from the WordPress team sees this–thanks for the hard work and getting our blogs fixed [for surely mine wasn’t the only one…].)

Embracing the unknown unknowns

March 15, 2011 § 17 Comments

Sometimes, when I am at my most panicky, Robert will take my hand and soothe me saying, “Baby, we can’t panic about the unknown unknowns. We don’t even know what they are!” He is the incredibly faithful optimist–and not naively so. No, my husband is an optimist in the very best way. He is logical and practical enough to know that plans fall through, hopes often give way to disappointment, and nothing is ever perfectly executed. But he still believes that the outcome will be worth the attempt.

This is where we differ.

I constantly tell him that I wish I could just see into the future, or better, have my future self a la Marty McFly zip over to me on a hoverboard and tell me what I need to do to ensure utter lifelong joy. What’s the fun in that? You might wonder. That’s a fair thing to wonder. My answer: I like knowing! (I think this comes as no surprise to anyone else who has ever met me even for a moment….)

I have racked up several blog entries at this point on just how very confused I am–indeed, there’s an entire category of them, which you are welcome to peruse. And if there’s anything that the entries in this category will show you, it is that I do not like the unknowns.

What am I going to do with myself after graduation? I dunno.

Will we have enough money for our big, grown-up expenses (like a new car, a house, a family)? I dunno.

How will I contribute to the so-called “combined income” of this household? I dunno.

How much will I contribute to the so-called “combined income” of this household? I dunno.

How long will be my full-time unpaid job be to search for salaried full-time jobs? I dunno.

How long will we go in this state of uncertainty? I dunno.

What state will we be in when we come out of the uncertainty? I dunno.

See, folks, these are the unknowns. These are the actual questions I can ask myself because I am aware that there will be answers for them at some point in the unknown future. But then, there are the unknown unknowns, the things that I don’t even know I don’t know. I can’t ask questions for these unknown unknowns because I don’t know enough about the unknowns in order to develop those questions in the first place (and then they wouldn’t be unknown unknowns, would they?).

This is what I struggle with: not knowing what I don’t know. I guess I can handle it if I know the question and not the answer. But to know that there is some mysterious other question I will be or should be asking myself and not to know the answer to that unknown question is terrifying.

And it’s in the midst of these anxiety-provoking thoughts that I remind myself: A.Hab., your life did not come with a roadmap…neither did anyone else’s!

All you other people who I admire and look to as examples of got-it-together-ness, I envy your ability to hold things together (or at least to hold together the appearance of holding it together) in the face of possessing absolutely no roadmap. How do you do it?

I’ll tell you how I attempted to do it this past weekend. When extended family members came up to me to ask me how my dissertation and degree were going, when I planned to graduate, and what I intended to do with my life, I tried very hard to smile (with my mouth and my eyes, thankyouverymuch Tyra Banks!), and say with pretended confidence, “I’m halfway through my dissertation, I will graduate on August 6th, and I think I’d like to give teaching a break for a while, go into editing or working with theaters in an educational function.” I must have convinced them because frequently, conversations would turn to, “Oh! How interesting!” And then we’d move on from there. I found no resistance, no judgment, no admonitions about what I waste I had made of my life. It was oddly…rewarding.

Look, I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I just don’t. Some days I think I could probably not hate teaching. Then other days I remember that it’s not the classroom-time I don’t like. Then other days I think about all the options that are out there (maybe I should work in a library, or maybe I should tell people what’s wrong with their documents so they don’t embarrass themselves, or maybe I should find another way to tickle my educational urges). And there are so many more options than the ones I’ve rattled off here…I don’t know what the options are (unknown!), but I’m determined to find out. And any assistance to that end would be greatly appreciated, seriously.

Here’s what I’m getting at, though: maybe if I can just take a deep breath, stop fixating on the unknown unknowns (the poor residents of Japan on Thursday the 10th, for instance, did not know that they did not know that their lives would be in ruins on Friday the 11th), then maybe I can at least prepare myself for the eminent unknowns as best as is humanly possible while maintaining sanity. (And my deepest and sincerest condolences go out to those in Japan who were affected by Friday’s horror-storms that were the earthquake, aftershocks, resultant tsunamis and potential radiation exposure. You couldn’t have done anything to prepare, and I hope that you’ll forgive me the absolutely disproportionate example.)

So, I pose my question again to my readers: how do we break free from the cycle of fear-based living and instead embrace the unknown unknowns?

The Real World: when does it stop feeling like playing house?

February 26, 2011 § 17 Comments

You could say that as a kid I had a wild imagination. I didn’t just play house with my sister. No, no. She and I were sisters who had been married to army men who were both in the same platoon and had been recently deployed after we each gave birth to twins. Oh yeah. We didn’t play house. We rocked house. We imitated super-long-distance telephone calls from an “imaginary” place called Kuwait (it was the Gulf War, after all). We received heartbreaking letters detailing how our wonderful husbands had lost their lives serving their country. And then, we two sisters were alone in the world, against all odds…with our four babies.

Imagine my surprise when, after I got married to Robert, I came to realize that my childhood play failed to prepare me for what real marriage is like.

I mentioned on Valentine’s Day that Robert and I were saving our money to get a breakfast room table. Last Friday, we visited a good number of furniture stores in search of the best table. Saturday we bought it. It’s gorgeous, has a table leaf so that it can open up to an impressive 54 inches on all four sides, and we purchased two additional chairs for a total of six. Extravagant? Not so. When my parents come to town, we often have to eat in separate groups–four at our little teensy banquet table that we have now and two on the couch on top of (very nice) TV trays. When our new table is delivered a week from today, we will be able to seat eight people comfortably around the table. (We didn’t get four additional chairs for a total of eight because we couldn’t quite afford that.) I cannot wait until we receive our table and can finally entertain on it!

Today…today, we took a road trip around our little town and grabbed a bunch of brochures…on local houses. Our eyes were opened as to the expensive areas, the expensive floor plans, and the expensive amenities that we originally thought we just had to have. (I so want a two-car garage!)

After we returned home, our heads swimming, I realized we were going about this absolutely backwards. This isn’t like shopping for shoes or couches. You can’t just go browse around town and compare prices at each location. This is a situation where you have to know the amount of money you have in your pocket and select a house that fits that budget. (Although I trust most of my readers aren’t condescending, please allow me to remind everyone that I have never owned a home nor looked into owning a home. I’m a renter, through and through. This is my first foray. Be gentle in mocking comments. ;)) So, we’ll need to make a trip to the bank and speak to someone about home loans.

There’s some work to be done before we do that, but at least in the meantime I came to realize that Robert and I are on similar pages in regards to size and type of house we’d like to settle into (at least as our starter home). One of the things we have to accomplish before we sit down with someone at the bank is a salaried job for Amanda. That’s going to be part of my project over Spring Break in a couple of weeks–look for work after graduation. (I’ve already offered before, but seriously…anyone want to pay me about $30,000/year to read Shakespeare to you in your living room? I do voices and funny arms and everything!)

But here’s my greatest curiosity. Robert and I will celebrate our second anniversary in May, but I can’t quite wrap my mind around the fact that we’re grown-ups. Sometimes, most of the time, I still feel like we’re playing house. It doesn’t feel real. These past few weeks, looking at grown-up furniture to put in grown-up houses, I somehow felt like an even younger version of myself than I am. Is this our lives, really? Are we really talking about furniture and houses and cars and…babies? While it’s exciting and thrilling, it’s also surreal.

When does it stop feeling like we’re just kids playing house?

(P.S. I finished and e-mailed off my introduction this morning around 10 a.m. I’m actually…fond…of it. That’s an unusual thing for me to feel about a piece of academic writing, but I can’t deny it. These next two weeks are really crunch time while I work on drafting the next chapter. If I can meet this goal, then by Spring Break, March 12th, I will have a half of my dissertation drafted.)

Midterm Exam Thursday: my second-favorite day of the semester!

February 24, 2011 § 5 Comments

I don’t have much time for a blog update, but I couldn’t let my second-favorite day of the semester go by without any notice. So, just because I’m so pressed for time, here’s a quick rundown as to all the marvelous reasons that Midterm Exam Thursday deserves so much praise.

1. It breaks up my semester nicely.
No, seriously, it does. At this point, my students have written a ton of blogs, they’ve taken a few quizzes, they’ve written half of their papers (okay, one of two), and have officially taken half of their exams (okay, also one of two). Throughout all of February, my sights are trained on Midterm Exam Thursday. Just make it, just make it, just make it, I tell myself. Well, it’s here! The rest of the semester will fly by now! (This will either be a wonderful thing or a train wreck. Let’s be optimistic, though, shall we?)

2. I get a whole class period all to myself while the students sweat it out.
Sure it’s stupid boring to sit there and watch people take an exam. But if you come properly equipped either with a fantastic imagination or personal work, the time can fly by beautifully. Do not misapprehend my meaning–I am still very much mentally present in my classroom, looking up every few moments. I didn’t say that I get a lot of work done during the exams, but that never stops me from bringing it along anyway. Today, during the exam, I worked on compiling a master bibliography for the dissertation.

3. Because I stayed late on Tuesday to make my copies, I had no preparations to do before the 8 a.m. exam.
I always do this. I make sure that my exam is written, copied, stapled, and properly collated on my last on-campus day before the exam so that I don’t have to come in early or do any prep work whatsoever beforehand. This habit is particularly useful for 8 a.m. classes because our departmental copy room does not open up until 7:45 a.m., and there’s always a line (or the copier malfunctions on my most important copying days). Today, I strolled in at 7:30 a.m. and finished grading blogs. Easy-peasy.

4. When I stay a little bit later after the exam, I finish my grading immediately.
Know what’s easier to grade than essays? Exams. Because for much of the exam, a student’s answer is either right or wrong. There’s very little room for interpretation or bias when a student says the French Revolution took place in 1879 instead of 1789. Wrong is wrong. Quick, quick, quick. Sure, I have my short answer portion and my short essay portion, but even those can be graded more quickly than a paper because I don’t leave comments on exams. I figure interested students will ask me about it.

5. It’s second to the final exam day, which is my favorite day of the semester for many of the same reasons plus it’s the last day of work.
When we hit midterm, the glorious news is that the semester is halfway over and we’re almost to the final exam, which is my absolute favorite day of the semester. I get two and a half hours to myself to “work,” entirely interrupted, of course, because I’m constantly looking around for cheaters. And I always try to get exam grading completed as early as possible so that I don’t have to bring it home with me; that way, the day of the final exam really is the last day of work! It’s wonderful!

For the rest of the semester, our upcoming texts in order of assignment are:
“The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Wilde
Anatol, Schnitzler
From the Deep Woods to Civilization, Eastman
Naomi, Tanizaki
Persepolis, Satrapi
Song for Night, Abani

I think they’ll enjoy the rest of the semester. And even if they don’t, I know I will because I’ve already read most everything on this list (okay, all but the Schnitzler), and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Although I’m probably the only one celebrating today, Happy Midterm Exam Thursday to you! 🙂

Funny thing about accountability: or, what it means to write a dissertation

February 13, 2011 § 12 Comments

While writing a dissertation, a student will explore a plethora of emotions that run the gamut from excitement to ennui to hysteria to antipathy. She (speaking for myself here) will doubt herself, defend herself, trust herself, torture herself. This is all entirely normal and to be expected.

What she might not expect is what happens when she maintains accountability with another dissertation-writer. My dissertation-writing buddy, V, has been…amazing. She pushes me when I need pushing; she supports me when I need supporting. At the beginning of the year, just after New Year’s and before the semester began, V and I met at “our” coffee shop to discuss our graduation plans. Of course, our dissertation lies in the way of graduation, and we must conquer it. We have both made significant steps toward that very regal walk we will take on August 7th, and I for one am extremely proud of us.

What I’ve learned about accountability is just how truly powerful it is. Because V has never belittled me or yelled at me (and I don’t believe she ever would, since she knows I don’t work this way) for not achieving a goal or for having a difficult time getting started on a particular day, I trust her and value her opinion when she helps me to set my next week’s goals. On Friday, she and I chatted for quite a long time about what I am going to do with this 51-page literature review…which is an exceedingly long lit review. She gave me fabulous advice in regards with how to reorganize some of the chunkier bits and where I might start looking to make cuts. And then she said:

“I don’t think your goal this week should be to churn out ten pages. I mean, you can if you feel inspired…but I think you’ve got plenty of work to do here. I’d spend the week getting this chapter ready to send out to your director.”

And when she said that, I felt such a weight lift off my shoulders. V gave me a new goal, one that I’m ready to accomplish, and I get to sort of “take a break” from new writing.

Although…truth be told…I’ll probably finish editing this chapter and just write more, lol.

Thanks, V, for keeping me accountable and for helping me to meet these commitments.

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