Seeing the light and affecting just one life

December 10, 2012 § 6 Comments

I graduated on Saturday, December 8th, 2012.

My dissertation director draped the hood across my shoulders, and I shook hands, strutting my stuff across the stage. The symbolism was great on that day. Upon entering the arena, my director walked before me. Upon approaching the stage, she walked before me. Once I stood up from my crouch to be hooded, I walked in front of her. It was a moment that I had not anticipated would have affected me quite the way that it did.

I arrived to the meeting room twenty minutes before the e-mail had instructed me to. I was nervous and antsy, so I read an athletic program, staring blankly at pictures, feeling a bit alone among all the other graduating doctoral students who seemed to be there in pairs. When I finally saw my director come into the room, I hurried over to her, feeling suddenly thrilled and excited. I felt like I belonged there. Soon, we were given instructions–hand over your hoods now (it will be on the stage waiting for you), don’t take up more than one seat (just squeeze together), don’t hug each other on the stage (keep moving quickly), and remember to smile (there will be pictures)! There was a joking promise of seeing the light (you will suddenly realize that you know everything there is to know once you get hooded).

My director and I offered muttered commentary where some of the instructions warranted it, stifling our laughter behind sarcastic smiles.

After we had chorused our understanding of the instructions, we were herded back downstairs to the arena portal where we would enter for the last time as students. My director and I muttered together about another professor’s hatred of ceremonies, confessing that we both secretly loved going to graduations. I was relieved to know that I wasn’t alone in feeling the weight of this moment. I walked past my family, seated only a few rows above me. Once I found my seat, I heard a familiar motorboat sound and looked slightly to my left: there was Melanie with Robert’s family, seated near a door for a quick get-away. I felt surrounded by my supporters, both behind me and in front of me (later I would learn my friends were seated to my left).

The familiar music swelled and ended as the departmental representatives arrived and were seated alongside the masters of the ceremony. Speakers spoke. The commencement speaker was a humble professor of poultry science who had earned several excellence in teaching awards–and well deserved. He spoke about success not requiring strength in quantity but strength in quality–it is possible to succeed by positively affecting just one life, not all lives. I took his message to heart, and I saw the light in it.

After my director and I were seated, she and I began to play the “look at the undergraduates’ shoes” game. This is a famous game, rumored to me by her previous doctoral candidates. I was delighted when I received my formal invitation to play. While she remarked on the height of heels coupled with inexperience in walking in them, I pointed out dullness of men’s shoes coupled with programs of expertise. Of course, the military men and women swept my shine score card, but that was to be expected (and was). I love a high shine.

The ceremony ended quickly–in under two hours. We were escorted out of the arena to applause and back up to the room where we first convened. After sharing my home address with my director and receiving her promise to attend the reception afterwards, I hurried down to the arena to hug my husband.

I have been flying high ever since.

A few people have asked me what it feels like to be finished. And, in fact, I must confess that I have asked my other friends the same question when they have completed their degrees. It’s a feeling that has no description. Does it feel good? Of course. Do I feel relief? Immense relief. Do I feel proud? I want to wear my hood everywhere.

But what word encapsulates all of those adjectives?

The best I can come up with is happy.

If you are working on a degree, and I know so many who are, push yourself. It will hurt. It will suck. It will make you question your decision-making skills. But this is a finite experience, as long as you end it. Finish your program, and no one will ever be able to take your degree away from you (along with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities therein pertaining).

Push yourself. Finish the degree.

This happiness is well worth it.

Seeking external motivation: the power of a job application

April 21, 2011 § 11 Comments

I stare at the Word document. It stares right on back. Jeering. Judging. Judging? Definitely judging. Why don’t you just go ahead and write something then? It taunts me. I sigh and fight the urge to open WordPress.com to begin another hour-long marathon of blog-reading. Do it. The document seems to say. You can’t write today anyway. You’re too tired. You’re too bored. You’re too lame. You’re too incapable.

Instead of succumbing to the document’s powerful fighting words, I open a new window in Safari. But not to visit WordPress.com. Instead, I visit my university employment site. I log in. And I see something beautiful. Under the words “Application Status” are the glorious and truly validating words “Forwarded to hiring department.”

This is not the first time I’ve read this memo. I must have logged in to this system at least five times since yesterday. Seven times since Tuesday night when I came home in tears over blog grades. Were they happy tears? I think so. And angry tears. Tears that indicated the vindication I so desperately sought from a department that won’t offer it. Come on, I told myself. Seriously. What English department actually vindicates its graduate students? I thought of my undergraduate English department. Yeah, I corrected myself. You weren’t a graduate student then. I wanted to buck-up or maybe I wanted to continue ripping apart my self-esteem. I logged onto the employment site for the first time since submitting my application and saw the status was, gloriously, updated as though to say, “Amanda, we think you’re all right!” I fought back more tears. I was too tired to deal with this, but I went to bed happy. I made it through one more hoop.

Since Tuesday, I have logged onto that site in the moments when self-doubt and -deprecation threaten to creep back in. I want nothing more than to silence that voice that has seemed to locate a megaphone in my mind and that hourly shouts at me, “You are such a fucking loser!”

Knowing my application has been approved by someone with the expertise to approve such things offers that megaphone-voice the equivalent of a mental raspberry. Pbbt! I imagine spitting at the negativity. Gosh darn it someone likes me! I giggle at my own reference to early Franken.

Somehow this job application, this whimsical hope, this dream, this fantasy has been enough to spur me onward. I have been productive–if not every moment on my dissertation, then I have been a more productive teacher in these past few days. I have graded more, lesson-planned better, conducted more analytical and interesting class discussions. I have written over twelve pages all told. I have compiled disparate secondary sources and identified the ways in which I will use each one. I am ready to move forward and finish.

This job, this fantasy has offered me a concrete finish line.

“It will be extremely difficult for someone to do this job well while also finishing a dissertation,” she told me confidentially. I smiled and assured her I’d be finished by the beginning of August.

And I will be.

I will be because this job is important. And I want this job. This specific job. This isn’t just any job in the wide world. This is a great job. An interesting job. A job I know I would do well. It shouldn’t even have been available this year, but thank goodness that it is.

Even though the promise of the job is as solid as gossamer, belief in it fortifies the fantasy until it can withstand the weight of my dissertation, of my motivation.

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!

Letting sleep(y) dogs lie

March 23, 2011 § 7 Comments

My home is incredibly quiet this morning. Except for the snoring of two sleep-deprived canines.

And the source of their sleep deprivation? Me.

You see, I stayed up until 2 a.m. this morning working on the finishing touches of my draft of Chapter Two (draft one, I should clarify). I woke up around 7:30 to Annie’s beckoning (she needed to potty, as puppies do), and sat down to do some quick proofreading (although I am confident I left some errors in the document…it’s fine, though–it’s just a draft), converted in-text citations to footnotes, and wrote a bibliography. And then…around 9:30, I e-mailed the draft off…and this is it in its current statistical form:

36 pages, over 10,000 words. The best part? Those 36 pages are really just the beginning. Those 36 pages are just to prove to my professor that I am going to make the kind of progress one needs to make in order to bang out a dissertation in time to graduate. I still have the depths of my argument to explore, which will probably take at least another 20-30 pages. Chapter Two is destined to be a long one, but why shouldn’t it be? It’s the foundation of my own argument.

Although I would love to say that my day’s plan is to just sit around and sleep, that is not the case. I have a great deal of grading left to do (most of my students’ papers). So, I’m going to work my way through those so that I can have those off my shoulders by tomorrow, return them in class, and then spend my entire weekend relaxing.

In the meantime, I’d like you to enjoy the view I’m enjoying this morning:

The saying may be “let sleeping dogs lie” (in other words “if there’s no problem rearing its head, leave it alone”)…but in my house, today the saying is “let sleepy dogs lie!”

Will happiness boost my productivity? Outlook good.

March 14, 2011 § 4 Comments

Today is the first day of Spring Break. To me, as with all graduate students at any stage in their programs, the term “break” does not mean “time off to lounge around and do absolutely nothing.” It typically means, as my friend Tawnysha describes it, “catch-up week.” Historically during Spring “Break,” I would go home to see my parents and then work on whatever needed working on. These days, I just stay here in town and work as much as I possibly can. Last night I went to sleep feeling pretty depressed about this coming week. I wish I could lounge around and do absolutely nothing for seven days straight. But I know that doing so would be academic suicide.

And then I woke up pretty bummed out that it was here: the non-break “spring break.” I continued to feel low…until I read Tori’s post from Friday, “‘Can you hear that? That’s me smiling, y’all’.” That’s when I realized the fatal flaw in my plan to work through my break. Although I created a work syllabus for myself (complete with due dates and completion goals), I failed to make any plans about my attitude while I worked. But, once again, I’m inspired by Tori’s very conscious decision to face current life obstacles and challenges with unflinching gleefulness.

And I do believe that Leo Babauta of zenhabits is on to something when he offers a rather lengthy list on how to achieve happiness while also being productive In addition to a few pieces of advice that might not be particularly applicable to my dissertation-productivity (like, say, #41: be romantic [not sure how to romance a dissertation…maybe I’m just not trying hard enough] and #13: simplify your finances [well…money sure would be a little bit easier to come by if I could get one of the fellowships….]), Babauta actually offers a number of useful pointers to infuse one’s productivity with a little peace of mind, a little zen. One pointer proves particularly helpful for my current stage:

40. Focus on benefits, not difficulties. If you find yourself struggling to do something, or procrastinating, stop thinking about how hard something is, or why you don’t want to do it. Focus instead on what benefits it will have for you, what opportunities it will create — the good things about it. By changing the way you see things, you can change how you feel about them and make it easier to get things done.

Okay. I do not want to get to work today. I really don’t. I want to lay around and watch trash TV and just completely veg out. But, this is obviously not productive. I have a chapter to write and submit to my dissertation director by Tuesday (the 22nd). So, step one in being furiously happy just for the spite of it? I am going to focus on the benefits of completing this chapter on time.

Benefits

  • It will be a load off my mind. Pages are pages are pages. More pages written equals fewer pages left to write.
  • My dissertation director, who is already supportive, will have no doubt in her mind that I will finish on time, according to the plan.
  • I will graduate on time! Having confidence in my own ability to graduate on time is key for my productivity.
  • If I don’t have confidence in myself, then I will not be productive…and then I’ll definitely not be happy.

    So, here is my commitment to myself and to my readers: I absolutely will approach this week of mandatory productivity with a good mood and positive energy. I will produce pages, and I will submit a draft to my professor on time. And knowing that those things will happen makes me extraordinarily happy!

    Cannot brain…too exhausted…

    March 11, 2011 § 4 Comments

    I feel like I’m going to pass out here any second. I’ve had a little bit of an emotional couple of days (much related to stress, unnecessary panic, excitement, and finally relief)…and now I’m left just tired.

    So, here you go for your daily post from A.Hab.:

    I am going to apply for the dissertation completion fellowship for this summer–this means that I would be fully funded by a “scholarship” so that I do not have to teach the semester I plan to graduate.

    This is just generally good news, even if I am nervous as hell to apply for it. V is certain that we are well-qualified applicants. I literally cling to those words for encouragement and motivation to apply in the first place. I meant to send my materials to the committee before the end of the day today, but I don’t see that happening now. I’m unsure if I’ll be able to submit everything tomorrow either. It might be Sunday or Monday. Either way, the gist is this: I am applying. As much as it scares me to compete with other graduate students, I’m going to apply anyway.

    Good night everyone. It’s way past time for ol’ A.Hab. to get herself to bed.

    Lent for Adults

    March 7, 2011 § 15 Comments

    It seems for me that every year I feel compelled to explain how I plan to acknowledge Lent. As a Catholic who has fallen out of the habit of attending Mass regularly, I hesitate to call myself non-practicing. I do practice. In other ways. In ways that don’t count for the Church. But I don’t care.

    Last year I participated in Lent by fasting from my temper and impatience. Looking back now, I believe I accomplished my goal of permanently affecting a change. It was during that time that I really reevaluated the way I chose to conduct myself during arguments with Robert, and I believe I have become a better partner for it. (Only he can vouch for that.)

    This year, I have decided to take this concept of “fasting” in grown-up terms to another level. I do not believe in giving up a food item or something frivolous with the intent to indulge in it or even just to reincorporate it in my life again. That’s fine for children who, as Robert points out, do not have a capacity to think in the abstract. Adults, I believe, should make lasting changes–changes that will carry on throughout their lives, changes that will help them or make up for a lack.

    In light of these ideas, I have decided to attempt something I have always always struggled with. As many of you are aware of, in October I felt deeply wronged by a family member of mine. (I won’t go into great detail for this person’s sake.) Despite our best efforts (mine and Robert’s), the apologies we so deeply desired were never offered to us. Christmas came and went, and I was civil, friendly even. I have not seen this family member since that time. I will see this person next weekend, though, at a family gathering. And this is why I need to make a change.

    When I think of this person and hear this person’s name, a deep rage bubbles from within me. I am quick to cut this person down and ignore any redeeming characteristics others point out to me. I absolutely will not hear them because this person so deeply broke my trust.

    Harboring this rage and anger when I know a sincere, heartfelt apology will never come is extremely dangerous and unacceptable.

    That’s why, for this Lent, I have decided to try something I have never been able to accomplish:

    Forgiveness without an apology.

    I have heard of people forgiving people who murdered loved ones without ever once receiving an apology from the murderer. I was not wronged in that way. Comparatively, the wrong I felt seems like the difference between running into a gnat with a windshield and purposefully running over, reversing, and running over again someone’s beloved pet cat. (I’m the gnat in this little scenario.) If someone has it in their heart to forgive and no longer harbor hatred and rage toward a murderer, then surely I can forgive this person and no longer harbor anger and hurt feelings toward my family member.

    As with my attempt for patience last year, I will probably fail in my goal in many ways. But it is a change I am desperate (for my own sake) to accomplish and successfully incorporate within my character. Probably the greatest struggle I can foresee with this Lenten “sacrifice” is that I in no way want this person to believe that forgiveness came because I just eventually let the wrongdoing go or because I am letting this person off the hook.

    But you know what, A.Hab.?

    You can’t control what other people think or how they respond to your actions. If this person chooses to believe that you are ignoring the hurt and that they “got away with it,” then that’s this person’s deal. You will rest easy knowing that, hurt feelings or no, you are not expending any more emotional energy feeling angry and hurt by this person’s inconsideration.

    Is anyone else participating in Lent in grown-up ways?

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