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.

6, 12, 25: reaching the educational finish line

October 23, 2012 § 17 Comments

6
The number of years I spent in my PhD program.

12
The number of years I spent in higher education programs.

25
The number of years I spent in all educational programs.

Reaching the educational finish line is not always as easily mapped-out as it may at first appear. On that first jittery morning, standing on the hearth with plastic Strawberry Shortcake lunchbox in hand, plaid jumper and be-ribboned pigtails quivering, I grinned until my cheeks hurt. This was the day. I would get to ride on the Big Girl Bus, stay away from home all day long, and return with tales as long as my arm about the lessons learned in kindergarten.

I didn’t know, couldn’t know, that on that Day One I would embark on a journey that would carry me for 25 years. To the passive observer, my path was clear-cut from the beginning. I was the child who lined her stuffed animals up (and later added her younger sister to the group) in order to offer reading instruction, pointing to letters and imagining their chorused response. The destiny was obvious: this child will teach. So I carried that in my heart for 25 years, positioning myself and repositioning myself until that goal was no longer a shimmering possibility but a very real outcome. Although I was not a driven high schooler, I managed well enough to get into a good liberal arts college. From there, I buckled down, ultimately clawing my way into a graduate program in spite of unimpressive GRE scores, in spite of a decision from the admissions faculty not to fund my education with a teaching assistantship. A week before classes began, I took advantage of an opportunity in order to swoop in and take an assistantship from a graduate student who had rejected hers earlier that morning. I took a chance by applying to a single doctoral program, not expecting to be accepted; feeling utter joy, gratitude, and fear upon reading my acceptance letter.

Six years later, I have reached the inevitable telos of my path. My journey is not unlike the journeys of other people, and not just of the academic nature. It began with excitement and anxiety, maintained a level of energy and motivation for a while, dipped into nadir-depths, trudged through sluggish valleys, cautiously ascended…until I reached the summit, battered, bruised, but there dammit.

Have I wavered on my life goal? Yes. Do I doubt my training, my ability, indeed my own interests? No.

Yesterday afternoon I defended my dissertation.

I am no longer a graduate student.

I will graduate this December as A.Hab., PhD.

The end…always the end…

August 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Excuse me while I go a little…melancholy? I’ve got Gotye stuck in my head for some reason. Melanie went to bed a few hours ago. Robert, a couple of hours ago. And me? Well, I have insomnia. I received my final comments for my conclusion, and I thought I would work on them while I struggled to find sleep. And instead? Hello, WordPress.

There’s this folder in my hard drive. And it is called “Graduate School.”

In this folder is another folder labeled PhD, and in PhD (among all sorts of other things) is a folder labeled “Dissertation–hard drive.”

I go through phases, opening and closing all the folders you see in this image. Opening and closing all the files within those folders. Each chapter in its fourth (and final?) draft, excepting the conclusion…of course. Sigh.

I look at these icons, these reminders of a program I can’t seem to shake, and I feel. I feel so many things that I stay awake at night, feeling. It’s annoying. I sound like a hormonal high schooler. (And I should know…I was one once…half a lifetime ago. And that’s no exaggeration.)

I am so eager never to open those folders again, never to stare down “Socio-Religious Commentaries–full draft 4” or “Shakespeare Chapter–full draft 4,” dreading what I might find when I open them. Will it be as bad as I remember? Will I want to move forward, knowing that in the year since I last looked at those files my ideas have morphed and shifted in such stunning ways that I can’t even remember my central argument anymore?

There is another folder on my computer. One labeled “Melanie Lynn.” It contains the hundreds (nigh-on thousands) of photos I have taken of her since February 16th. This is the folder I instinctively open when I open my laptop–this is the one I could get lost in for hours.

I resent the one labeled “Graduate School.” It gets in the way of “Melanie Lynn.” Why isn’t “Graduate School” a distant, if it can’t be a fond, memory? I feel like a junkie hooked on a habit she desperately wants to kick…but depends on. When I think about no longer opening “Graduate School,” no longer needing to, my mind goes blank. What will that be like? Will I miss it? Will I forget that folder existed? Will I feel the urge to drag it to the trash bin, do away with it in one fell swoop?

No…I’m not that dramatic. There’s a spark of ego in me yet. There’s a bit of pride in all those drafts, all that work, all that quantifiable effort.

I’ve said it before, so believe what you’d like, but I think this is the semester. In a few months’ time, I may never open “Graduate School” again.

…never say never, though, right?

And now a word about Mommy

August 13, 2012 § 2 Comments

As you may have noticed, my life has become a bit baby-centric in the past (almost) six months. For the first two and a half months, I struggled with feeling like I mattered at all–it seemed clear to me then that my existence was only useful for as far as I could extend myself to meet Melanie’s needs. Was she hungry? Call Mommy. Did she seem tired? Call Mommy. Was she wet? Call Mommy. (This assessment, on its face, is not fair–obviously, Robert played a massive role and still does. He has changed just as many diapers as I have; he has rocked her to sleep just as many times as I have. But, from my own perspective, I felt like I had no other use on this planet except to tend to Melanie.) I did not develop clinical postpartum depression, but I did experience the baby blues. A lot of new mommies do, and I had to eventually feel comfortable with the fact that I felt so sad and lonely.

That said, even though I was sacrificing myself (my personal interests, time with friends, my health goals, work on my dissertation), and even though I did experience some low moments because of that sacrifice, this has been an experience unlike any other. If I were given the choice not to make those sacrifices, I would not hesitate in the least at rejecting that choice. Melanie is a gift, and I am every day made aware of the preciousness of that gift.

After the first two and a half months, I felt like the clouds began to part. Melanie could smile back, which reassured me and made me feel like maybe I did matter beyond the ability to meet her basic needs. Now she can play with us, and she really is starting to enjoy spending time with us. She prefers some people over others (family members and friends we see with some regularity versus strangers), and she is starting to show elements of her strong-natured personality. (My mom has recommended I read The Strong-Willed Child, which she apparently read cover-to-cover when I was a little girl. She told me this weekend that she thought Melanie would take after her mommy…I couldn’t be more proud. This world needs strong-willed girls, even if they are challenging for their parents.) Best of all, Melanie can nap independently now. We are also working on solids–she has had rice cereal (blech), zucchini (meh), green peas (ugh), oatmeal cereal (blech), green beans (where have you been my whole life??), and (as of today) squash (alleluia!!). As with all new moms, I do believe the solids are helping her nap and sleep longer, but we established a sleeping schedule independently of her introduction to solids.

(Hey wait, isn’t this supposed to be about me??)

As Melanie has become more confident and comfortable with her place in this family, and as we have become more confident and comfortable with her, our lives have gotten substantially better.

Case in point: tomorrow, my committee will be receiving the revisions for all chapters (excluding the conclusion).

I received comments from my committee between June and July for all chapters (excluding the conclusion), and I have been able to slowly and systematically work on revisions as Melanie naps or plays. Robert has had a major hand in this because he has been able to take care of Melanie and offer me a few hours here and there to work. This past week, Robert had a break between his summer and fall semesters, so instead of spending that week with each other (which we desperately wanted to do), he took me to the university library each morning, dropped me off with my lunch and a pout (on my face), and picked me up in the evening when I texted him that I was at my limit and couldn’t take it anymore. He withstood moments of desperation, despair, and depression; as well as moments of guarded joy, relief, and pride. While in the library, I did the best I could, taking each chapter, each comment, as it came–I started with the small stuff first, letting my mind mull over the larger changes. It felt like gardening–I had to clear away the brambles and brush before I could plant the nice big trees.

This morning, as Melanie dozed away the early hours (she is now typically waking up around 8/8:30 instead of 6/6:30–thanks solids!), I finished the last paragraph that needed my attention (the introduction to chapter three). Just as she began to stir and fuss, I printed off a copy of the introduction and four chapters for my committee member who has vision problems; he will receive his copy tomorrow, so I will send electronic versions to my other two committee members at that point as well.

As for my conclusion, the reason it has stagnated is not my fault, I swear! 😉 I drafted my conclusion at the end of May, and then I promptly sent it to my director. I am still waiting to hear from her; although I know that my peers would be really upset by this lack of attention, I am a bit relieved because it gave me time to focus on the revisions from my earlier chapters. If I don’t hear from my director after tomorrow’s electronic delivery of new chapter drafts, I will get in touch with her again and ask her what I need to change about the conclusion. We’ll see what she says. I don’t want to get my hopes up, but there are some whispers that the defense might actually be doable now. I sure hope it is…I feel like I can’t take another semester of this.

So, as my baby continues to nap, and while I am on borrowed time, I am going to close this post here and get moving on some housework.

I am so grateful that my baby is doing this well and that she and Robert have been instrumental in my recent success.

The Rogue (W)riter (plans to) Returneth

August 31, 2011 § 6 Comments

That, friends, is an example of a deeply desired (but masterfully failed) attempt at alliteration where alliteration has no business. Ah well. Them’s the breaks, as they say.

So, yes, I am (planning to) return to my writerly ways. (Visual alliteration but not auditory…damn you, English language.) I admit to taking a lengthy reprieve from writing on my dissertation, but I don’t feel guilty about it. I needed the time off. I needed the time to refocus, to reconnect, to recommit. I can see now how other ABDs* before me have gotten so near the defense and petered out. I would be willing to bet that their lack of motivation was more than likely externally imposed. I doubt, for instance, that someone whose writing fires had been previously stoked suddenly and without any warning whatsoever saw those same fires extinguish into barely smoldering ashes.

It may be difficult for those who have never taken this particular journey to understand how a student (an adult, grown-up, ready-to-move-on student) could put several years toward a program only to turn tail and run the other direction right before the last big push.

If you are such a person who has difficulty understanding this phenomenon, please allow me to offer my take on it.

The stamina required to keep pushing is unlike any other I have ever known. This is not just “finish the work.” This is not “keep your nose to the grindstone.”

It’s torture yourself despite your better judgment not to.

You may think I’m overdramatizing the writing process. I can promise you that, for my particular situation at least, I am not. In fact, I may not be “dramatizing” it enough.

Remember way back in May, when I had my embarrassing gynecological exam?

My blood pressure registered as “prehypertensive,” according to the new measurements. It rang in at 130/80. At the time, I attributed the pre-high BP to an uncomfortable conversation about my weight. While that is a possibility, here’s a stunning fact. Two months later, when I went to my first prenatal exam (at the same doctor’s office), my blood pressure registered at 114/76. Way normal. About as normal as you could want. I had also apparently lost 11 pounds since getting pregnant. At my second prenatal appointment, my blood pressure was 126/70. Still normal. (I gained 9 pounds–normal!–but I blame that entirely on all the carbs I ate in order to control my “morning” sickness…I feel like my eating habits are a little more on track now. We’ll see at the next appointment on Tuesday.)

What was the one thing that changed between May 19th and July 12th? What can really be attributed to the sudden drop from 130/80 to 114/76?

I decided to postpone graduation by four months.

This meant that I could take my time on the last chapter and the revisions. It meant I didn’t have to kill myself to try to meet ridiculous self-imposed deadlines. It meant I could actually take some time to focus on myself as my body experienced something entirely new.

Attempting to meet the August deadline, writing as quickly as I did, was physically harming me. If you can look at those numbers and not agree with me, then I must suggest that you’re simply refusing to see the point.

This process has taken a toll on many of us. And it will continue to take its toll as long as students voluntarily (that’s the worst part) submit themselves to the torture. I have not decided yet if the payoff is worth the risk–I’m still involved with the risk, you see. Ask me again in five years. As of today, my answer would be a strong no: no, I would not pursue a PhD directly after my Master’s, given the opportunity for a do-over.

So, what does all of this have to do with the Rogue (W)riter Returnething? Well, probably not much. Except to say that I have recovered, and I finally feel ready to reenter the writer’s wrestling ring. (Much better alliteration…strange image, though.)

So, what does this mean for the rest of my progress? Just how far behind am I? Are we looking at a future modeled on the break-neck pace of January through May?

Hell no!

Friends, I’m probably about 20-25 pages away from completing my dissertation. I have three pieces of literature to analyze in this final chapter, and I’ve analyzed one. So I’ve got two left. And I know what I want to say about them…I have just been waiting for the motivation to sit down and say it.

Do I care if nobody understands why I needed the break? Not really.

Do I care if nobody appreciates that I am confident in meeting this new December-graduation-deadline? Nope.

Do I care if somebody chooses to judge my process and condemn me for slamming on the brakes in July? Not even a little bit.

So, what’s the point of this entire tirade if I just don’t seem to care?

It’s to say this: I’ve been there. If you are struggling through a difficult Master’s or PhD program, I’ve been there. If you have lost all motivation to finish your dissertation or thesis, despite being mere months away from graduation, I’ve been there. If you feel as though you have been chewed up, swallowed, regurgitated, spat out, stomped on, and chewed up again by your program, I’ve been there.

Much like Dan and Terry Savage’s** campaign to end suicides in response to anti-gay bullying: It. Gets. Better. Promise.

Hang in there until you either feel that you have accomplished what you have set out to accomplish, or hang in there until you work up enough gumption to say that you refuse to take the abuse any more and will pursue other dreams. Hang in there while you allow yourself to reevaluate your priorities–and reevaluate them frequently. Check your blood pressure and weight, your lifestyle, your friendships. Choose what matters in life and hang in there until you can confidently focus on them.

So, yes, I have been hanging in there. And my dissertation has taken a new priority. Rather than being at the top of the list, it’s toward the top of the middle of the list. Still important, but not my everything.

And I’m much happier that way.

* Refresher time: ABD stands for “All But Dissertation,” meaning that all other requirements have been completed satisfactorily except for the dissertation. I am currently ABD. If I were to bow out of my program now, I would forever be an ABD.

** I am blanking now on whether or not Terry has taken Dan’s last name…. I made an editorial judgment call for the sake of completing a blog post. If I’m wrong, please feel free to correct me, but don’t be offended if I smile, shrug, and say “that’s nice.” (Point is this: it doesn’t matter, does it?)

Rolling with the punches: or, how I came by this black eye

June 21, 2011 § 14 Comments

I’ve just gotten beat up by Grad School.

We would break up…but I know it loves me. It didn’t mean to beat me up. I’m to blame. It just loves me so much. And I just made it so mad. It really needs me. How could I leave it now?

(Have I covered all the cliched and borderline offensive bases? Yes? Good. Moving on.)

Yesterday morning at 8 a.m., I was informed that my plan to complete my paperwork for graduation the first week of August was ill-fated. In fact, as it turns out, the woman I spoke to in February (a mysterious, nameless individual who has inadvertently taught me the lesson of asking for names and writing them down) misled me. She allowed me to believe that I simply had to be done by August 5th in order to walk* in the August 6th ceremony. From February to yesterday, I planned the progress of my dissertation according to this August 5th advice. Yesterday morning, I learned that the deadline is actually July 29th. To some, this is not a big difference. To those in the academy, particularly those who know my specific committee members and their special needs (in one case), the difference is stark and obvious. A week eliminated means a week less spent on reading and commenting on drafts. A week eliminated means a week less spent on revisions based on those comments. A week eliminated means the difference between graduating in August…and not.

I panicked.

I e-mailed my committee chair, who responded in a doubtful (but still maybe kind of sort of hopeful) way. She said it would depend upon the rest of my committee members. So I lobbed it out to the committee. And by the afternoon, I heard from one of my readers. The one who has the most explicit special needs. He requires more time to read because he is seeing impaired. It requires a great deal more of him to get through a document that’s over 200 pages. He told me this new deadline would be extremely difficult to meet. We might be able to make it to July 28th. Which would give me a single day to work on revisions. As I began to weep (no, no…literally), I came to the realization: I’m not going to walk in the August ceremony.

I spent the rest of the day sobbing. Robert came home from work, and I rehashed the entire saga to him. And we talked for nearly three hours about my options. In order to make it to August, I would have to give up everything else. I’ve already limited my social life to the point where I’m saying “no” more often than “yes.” It’s devastating. I’d have to exchange sleep for work. And my eating habits would follow those of a graduate student under intense deadlines. (Picture a poor, young person shaking the library vending machine in hopes a bag of chips might fall. That’d be me.) I might gain massive weight. Or worse, put my body through hell. And I am just not willing to do that. Despite all those physical and social sacrifices, I cannot guarantee my committee would approve the dissertation.

Moving graduation to December only gives me time. I could take my time churning out pages. My committee could read the dissertation more slowly, giving higher quality comments. I could spend more time thoughtfully responding to comments and producing a draft worthy of approval. Worthy of pride.

After our talk, I sent my committee chair an e-mail detailing the highlights of my conversation with Robert. I cried off and on for the rest of the night. This morning, I awoke to an e-mail response from my chair, and she agreed with my reasoning. I wrote back that I was disappointed in myself, but that she was right. I made the new plan official shortly thereafter by e-mailing the rest of my committee members, as well as some important people in the graduate school and English department.

I struggled with feelings of failure and disappointment. How could I work so hard since January and still not meet the deadline? How could I have made such confident claims that I would graduate in August…only to have to rescind those claims just a couple of weeks later? How could I allow my parents to make financial commitments (in the form of invitations, a hotel banquet room deposit, etc.) when I wasn’t actually guaranteed to graduate?

My chair e-mailed me back and invited me to lunch where we could talk. She was extremely supportive and sympathetic. But she agrees with my decision to postpone graduation to December. When I expressed my disappointment in my production, she was speechless. She said she didn’t know how I could have produced any faster. I’m forbidden from punishing myself for not writing more and faster.

I spent the rest of my day with V, which cheered me up beyond belief. I came home laughing and smiling.

I know I’m going to be okay.

This is the right decision.

It’s going to be okay.

Onward…to December.

*In terms of graduation, there are two ways to get across the stage on that magnificent day. You can graduate outright, which means you’ve met all deadlines in time to have your paperwork processed so that your diploma has time to be printed and will be handed to you in person on the day of graduation (after the ceremony; there are many people who graduate). If you graduate outright, you will also see your special name printed in the special commencement program. The other way to make it across that stage is to walk. Walking requires the completion of all paperwork by a super-secret, unpublished (but still super official) deadline. People who complete their work and forms between the published deadlines and the unpublished deadlines will walk in the ceremony. Their diploma will be printed by the next graduation ceremony (so, if walking in May, the degree will read “August”). Their name will not appear in the special commencement program until the following graduation ceremony.

Rest assured

June 9, 2011 § 6 Comments

When I’m excited about something, truly excited, I tend to not allow myself to enjoy it. I’m superstitious, you see. I’m afraid of jinxing my source of excitement.

Take graduation for instance. If I get too excited about it, then I might do something to screw it up. How can I know for sure that I’ll graduate when I haven’t graduated yet? How will I know that it will absolutely happen without the power of clairvoyance to tell me so? How can I rest easy when something that I want so terribly bad hasn’t happened yet and still might not?

The trouble with this line of thinking is that it can lead to self-sabotage. If I’m scared I might not graduate, then I might actually sabotage myself so that I don’t. I really struggle with feeling excited when so much hinges on a single factor.

But here’s what I’ve finally landed on.

If I don’t graduate in August, I will be sad and disappointed.

I will be sad and disappointed if I don’t graduate and was excited throughout this summer.

I will be sad and disappointed if I don’t graduate and wasn’t excited throughout this summer.

So if the outcome is the same, then maybe I should just let myself feel excited, right?

I just wish it were that easy. I told my mom that I needed to feel more excitement from everyone about graduation. Up to that point, I had been hearing from many people “if you graduate in August” and “maybe we should push graduation to December” and that sort of thing. It was disheartening…as though I wasn’t getting encouraged to try to graduate in August. But as soon as I told my mom what I needed, she responded in kind! Invitations have been ordered and will be delivered soon. People have made travel arrangements. Hotels have been booked. Restaurant reservations have been made.

And now I’m freaking out.

What if I don’t graduate? What if everyone has made all these plans and I just screw them all up?

The biggest question, of course, is why am I like this? Followed swiftly by “how do I change it?” I want to enjoy this process. I want to feel happy and confident and excited. I don’t want to be on the other side of graduation and look back at these past six months with regret that I didn’t have more confidence in myself.

Rest assured, though, that I will likely not rest assured until the degree is in my hand. And even then….

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