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?

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 β€” 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!

    Favorite Food and Daydreams

    March 10, 2011 § 3 Comments

    On Thursdays, Robert and I eat take-out. He opts for soy-free BBQ from his favorite place in town; I always eat chicken fried rice from one of the most delicious Chinese places in town. Sometimes I get a cup of egg drop soup as well.

    Imagination Land, here I come!

    Sometimes when I eat egg drop soup and the egg flowers are just perfect-looking, I like to pretend that I am eating shredded dandelion flower petals.

    When I was little, my sister and I would pretend that different foods were actually something else. We would turn our mint chocolate chip ice cream into soup, pretend we were ill (sometimes ill giants) and our soupy concoction was the remedy. We would eat it slowly at first, as though we hated the taste…and then we’d let our eyes get big at the wondrous sugary joy…and then we’d devour it.

    My shredded dandelion egg drop soup reminds me of those times.

    Do any of you have any foods that stir up your imaginations?

    (Photo courtesy of Homemade Chinese Soups)

    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?

    Sometimes life just requires you to high-five a puppy

    March 4, 2011 § 5 Comments

    I’m dangerously close to missing my very first post for the Post a Day Challenge. But I won’t. Because it’s still 10:28 here in my neck of the woods. Boo-yah!

    In a very short post, I shall demonstrate to you precisely why sometimes we have to high-five a puppy.

    Take Annie, for instance.

    Okay, that's just an expression. Please don't literally take Annie.

    In only a few short days, Annie has learned how to shake and high five. Why is the latter particularly awesome?

    Because sometimes, like after a day of amazing accomplishments…or a day of rest…., you just really have to high-five a puppy. She gets the best look on her face, too–ears go down and back, like she’s really concentrating, she pulls her head back so that she displays her double-chin, and then she just starts going for it. Sometimes, most times really, Annie does the high-five superbly well.

    But on particularly wonderful occasions, Annie will give you the double-high five, placing both paws in your hand. I’m working on teaching her the word “dance” when she does this so that she and I can bust a move when I feel like a high-five won’t do.

    In the meantime, high-five the nearest puppy to you. It will make your day so much better.

    And on that note, I’m leaving this post behind and returning to the couch where I’m going to enjoy my alcohol-induced buzz. ‘Night y’all!

    A fair warning to all readers, old and new

    February 28, 2011 § 12 Comments

    For some reason or another, these past four days have been turning up A.Hab.! Completely undeservedly, I am receiving recognition from a few sources, which has brought with it a ton of new readers (I’ve either gotten close to or broken past the 100-views-a-day barrier for three days). I am astonished and thrilled. So, to all new readers: Welcome! I hope you enjoy what you see here, and I hope even more that I can live up to your expectations! πŸ˜‰

    The places that I’ve gotten some recognition?

    Well, it all started when the Social Media Coordinator for Martinelli’s, Warren, asked to share my story on the Facebook. Shock and awe! Someone at Martinelli’s saw my love-note to their apple juice in the glass bottles. It was…surreal. I’ve never been noticed by a company before, except, say, if I forgot to mail my bill payment on time or something. πŸ˜‰

    And then, in honor of the Oscars and yearbook season, Tori Nelson at The Ramblings honored me with the awesome superlative of “Most Likely to Rid the World of Ugly Words.” Shock and awe, again! I never received a superlative when I was in grade school. Ever. Sure, I was friends with the people who were “Most Likely to Succeed” and “Best Study Partner” (I wasn’t the friend of the “Best Dressed” and “Cutest Couple” recipients…class distinction, you know). So, many thanks to Tori for the sweet superlative! It means so much to me that you chose to recognize me for your first round of “The Sunday Paper” (where, weekly, she will point her own readers to her favorite blogs). So sweet! And, since turnabout is fair play, especially in the blogosphere: all my readers–go read Tori’s blog. Forthwith! You will not regret it! She is a hysterical, stay-at-home mom of 1-year-old Thomas, and invites her readers to laugh with (and sometimes at) her daily grind. She always puts a smile on my face!

    So, then, after that stunning experience, I wake up this morning and find that the lovely Lisa Kramer at Woman Wielding Words (I loooove that alliterative title!) also gave me a shout-out! She credits me for being an honest writer–and I responded to her that it was a difficult choice to make, but one that I knew I would have to firmly decide. If I chose not to be honest with my experiences, then I would be faced either with lying or misrepresenting my life. If I chose to be honest, then I could potentially help someone else who is going through this…and also potentially get myself in some trouble. (That’s why I write this quasi-anonymously–you may notice that if someone writes a comment revealing my location, I will edit that comment. I have dropped the hint a few times, but it’s not something that I want splashed about the page…just yet. Give me until August, please. :)) It is greatly important to me that I honestly discuss especially my love-hate relationship with academia; it turned out that when I started to explore my true feelings, I discovered that I am not alone. I wish I had known that I wasn’t alone earlier. That’s the point of this blog. So, a huge thanks goes out to Lisa for recognizing that and for sharing my blog with her readers as well; it’s just amazing to me how far a little shout-out can go in this blogosphere of ours. And, with that in mind, please give Lisa’s blog a perusal. Reading her blog is like going through a private, personal stash of thoughts and mementos collected in a box. I thoroughly enjoy her writing–she’s a real writer’s writer; I don’t think she can help it! πŸ™‚ Her writing style is accessible, witty, and enjoyable. Some of her favorite themes to revisit are her experiences as a professor of theater, her beautiful daughter Sarah, and her own fiction. Believe me: you will love them all!

    Thanks again to all of these generous shout-outs in these past few days. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve the recognition all of a sudden, but I truly truly appreciate it!

    Now, that said…I want to give my old and new readers a fair warning.

    As many of you know and others of you will soon discover, I am writing a dissertation. This is a book-length project of torture. I have given myself a deadline of March 11th to complete the next chapter. That’s two weeks to write an entire chapter. This is not an easy task to accomplish and will probably require me to write more than 2 pages a day–probably to achieve my goal, I’ll need to write at least 4-5 new pages a day (around 1000-1500 words). This means two things: 1. I am going to continue to participate in the PostADay challenge, so there will be new entries every single day, but they may not be particularly riveting or insightful, and 2. I am going to fail hard at keeping up with commenting on new blog posts, and I will also fail hard at keeping up with responding to your comments on my blog as well. Please know that I am reading your blogs, I am loving your blogs, and that I truly appreciate your comments. I will try so very hard to catch up at some point, but please do not take my lack of communication personally. Give me until after March 11th, and I should be able to return to normal…at least for a little while.

    In the meantime, seriously, check out my blog roll and fall in love with these same writers I adore. They will entertain you and bring you great joy and personal validation. πŸ™‚

    Nerves: or, why I fail so hard at competitive academics

    February 27, 2011 § 9 Comments

    Even though I can carry a tune, I was never the girl who fought hard for the solo in elementary school chorus.

    Even though I know I could have tuned the rest of the orchestra with my awesome “A,” I never challenged another violinist for the prime spot in first chair.

    Even though my grades had always supported my claim that I can write, I never voluntarily entered into an essay contest.

    Even though I loved dancing and practiced at all hours, I never auditioned for better stage placement.

    I am not competitive. I never played competitive sports. I never earned any accolades that come from nominating myself. I never luxuriated in the thrill of being called “the best.”

    In fact, all achievement certificates I earned found their places buried deep in my school folders, forgotten almost immediately and rarely mentioned to my parents (who would have been so proud). No blue ribbons or gold medals from mandatory orchestral all-state competitions decorated my walls. No plaques declaring me the absolute best literature student in college hung above my desk. Oh yes, I had these things. I still have them…somewhere. I’ve always shied away from pride and boasting, even when it’s actually just celebrating. My own birthday actually brushes against my comfort boundary for self-celebration (much to Robert’s eternal chagrin). The only reason my Master’s degree adorns my home office wall is because Robert encouraged me to hang it there…and because my granddaddy framed it. If those two points of fact had not been true, I would have been happy enough to leave it rolled up somewhere in a tube. My Bachelor’s degree, although framed, is not hanging–it still waits for its moment of glory in the framer’s box, stuffed behind my dresser at my parents’ home.

    Why am I so wary of competition and even more weary of celebrating my victories?

    Because they seem wasteful and petty.

    I don’t relish another person’s loss or failure. In fact, when a classmate of mine recently challenged me in regards to our dissertation completion dates, boasting that she would finish in four years and not in the five and a half that I took, I could merely smile at her and wish her well. I felt sorry for her. I wanted to say to her, “How sad that you think your academic progress has anything to do at all with my academic progress. I will forget about you in a couple of years, and your cruelty will mean absolutely nothing to me.” How is her progress going these days? I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to her in at least a year, and I frankly don’t care about her progress. Her progress or lack of progress has nothing to do with me or my progress.

    But now…now all of a sudden, I’m meant to care about everyone else’s progress. Because there’s a substantial fellowship up for grabs now. Being awarded this fellowship means competing against my colleagues (and even my best dissertation writing buddy, V! Sob! But…really…if she gets it, I will be super-duper thrilled because she totally deserves it!). Receiving the fellowship also means the freedom to write, write, write absolutely uninterrupted for the entire summer semester–no teaching!! Recipients of the fellowship are funded so that tuition is not painful, so that they do not miss paying bills because they are not teaching.

    I am going to apply for this fellowship more out of necessity than the desire for prestige.

    This could very well be my final semester teaching because my department may choose not to offer me a teaching assistantship for the summer semester. Typically, our department funds doctoral candidates through their fifth year. Summer will mark my fifth year and a half. My department may choose not to fund me, but I will still require one last credit hour to be considered a student in order to graduate in summer–and the tuition is not cheap.

    If I don’t get the teaching assistantship, it will be okay. If I don’t get the fellowship, it will hurt…but it will be okay. It will be okay because my husband is taking on so many extra courses this summer, and we will miraculously make it. (Well, no…not miraculously. We will make it because Robert is a hard-worker and an excellent provider.)

    But despite knowing that we will be okay, I still want the fellowship. And my nerves hit me square in the gut when, on Friday morning, I received an e-mail from our graduate studies coordinator who sent the message along to all advanced PhD students (from my best calculations, people who are at least in their fourth year) and announced the details for applying. I was nervous when I saw the sheer number of names on that e-mail. I felt sick to my stomach when I read the requirements for qualifying. I need a letter of support from my dissertation director. I need to be able to show that I am making progress on the dissertation. I need to be able to say that I will defend and graduate within the term of receiving the fellowship.

    I believe in my plan. I believe I will defend and graduate in the summer.

    My fear, the only thing that would actually deter me from applying in the first place, centers entirely on the one reality: because I have never cared a whit about my colleagues’ academic progress, I don’t know where my competition is. I don’t know my likelihood for receiving the fellowship. V came up with some really good, educated guesses, and I do feel better now about our chances than I had felt initially. But, despite all of V’s wonderful uplifting words, my nerves still grip my heart…and my stomach.

    In what might be my last moment in academia, I face near-mandatory competition. I wonder if I have it in me.

    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.)

    I don’t know about teaching, but I’m pretty good at being bossy

    February 25, 2011 § 4 Comments

    One of the traits I was always qualified as having when I was a young girl (ah, who am I kidding? This is a quality I’ve been described with even into my adulthood) is bossiness. When I was quite small, my parents thought perhaps I would be a lawyer or a teacher, the way I commanded my sister and our friends in play. Of course, I was often a bit mean about it…so I don’t know why teacher crossed their minds, but there you have it.

    At any rate, I am still quite bossy, even today. Even as an adult, I like to tell people what to do and am satisfied when they go off to do what I so wisely commanded of them. So, here I am a teacher. And I tell people what to do, and they do it.

    And I don’t enjoy it.

    (Turns out that teaching isn’t just all telling people what to do. Who knew?)

    Tonight Robert and I went up to his community college and saw their production of Tartuffe. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s about a religious hypocrite (Tartuffe) who swindles a guy out of house and home by his charming, smooth-talking ways. The students did an admirable job at the play, but it was severely cut (curtain rose at 7 p.m. and fell at 8 p.m.), and there were moments where I thought to myself:

    Gee…if only they knew that that bit they just said was funny, they might have delivered it this way.

    So, I’m left wondering this. If I don’t want to be a director and I don’t want to be a theater teacher, do you think I could have a job as the bossiest person in the auditorium, just telling people how to deliver their lines and why the jokes are funny?

    What’s that job called?

    (P.S. You might have noticed that this is an extremely late, extremely short post. I spent the entire day working on a draft of my introduction that I am e-mailing to my director tomorrow morning after a couple more edits. It’s crunch time; I’ll explain more later.)

    I’m no role model: why new ABDs should not follow my lead

    February 23, 2011 § 4 Comments

    Yesterday, I happened to run into (almost literally because I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going) one of my younger peers who is a freshly-minted ABD (that’s “all but dissertation” for the uninitiated). (She actually reads the blog–hey, L! :)) L is at that tremendously exciting and terrifying place in her academic career where she has completed her course requirements…forever (unless she chooses to get another degree, I suppose), and she has passed all of her written and oral examinations (comprehensive exams, or comps, we call ’em). She is now perched upon the tippy-tip of the graduate school tree limb and is gearing up to take her flying leap into Dissertation Land. L is currently drafting her prospectus, which is a smallish-to-largeish document that essentially outlines her future dissertation project. She will be asked to explain what her argument is while also foreseeing (to some degree) the direction each chapter will take as she develops her argument. She will be expected to compile a working bibliography that confidently says to her committee members, “See? I’ve done some research, and I’m really on to something here!” This gate-keeping document can set even the most stalwart academic a-trembling. And, sure, L will have her stumbling days, her days when she’s not certain her theoretical wings are strong enough to hold the weight of her ideas. But, as I’ve learned, the prospectus will change. It just will. So, L, and to all brand-new ABDs, I say this to you: just write it. Seriously, just bang it out. Let it be a little rough, not your most perfect work, but just get the ideas out there. Your committee members are absolutely going to have changes no matter how perfect you believe your document to be. So, don’t torture yourself to craft the end-all-be-all draft on the first or even second go. Your dissertation will also very probably diverge from the prospectus in some ways. Don’t waste your time agonizing over whether or not you know for sure that the points you want to discuss in Chapter Three belong there or if they’d be better suited in Chapter Four. All of that can be figured out later. What is important is pages. And forward progress.

    When L and I were talking yesterday, she so sweetly (and I know she meant it genuinely) complimented me on my latest progress. “I can’t imagine writing two pages a day! That’s incredible,” she said…or something like that. I had to laugh. “Yeah,” I said. “But I’m at the stage now where I better be writing two pages a day or else I don’t graduate in August.” (Hell…I still may not graduate in August, but I’m sure as hell going to try!) As she remained surprised and complimentary at my self-inflicted torture progress, I continued to laugh ruefully and say, “Just don’t follow my example, just don’t follow my example.” Seriously. Don’t follow my example.

    I am no role model.

    Let me explain in very clear terms why I am not to be made a template of: I lolly-gagged for two years and am now forced to work at breakneck speed to finish or else I could lose funding (hell, that might already be gone) and I could definitely not graduate in August.

    What happened to me? Well, I passed my exams and entered into the stage L’s in now at the very beginning of March 2009. Two months before my wedding. That’s almost exactly two years ago. Then, I struggled to write a prospectus. I finally composed a draft of…something…by August 2009. It went through several drafts (I think in the neighborhood of five…either the fifth or the sixth one was the one that received final approval), and my prospectus was approved March 2010 (a full year after I became ABD). And here we are, another year later, and I’m finally producing chapters. I don’t have another year in me. This is it. I’m done.

    So why not follow my lead? Because I gave up. I admit it–I absolutely gave up. I felt miserable, incapable, and exhausted. I had the idea that now that I had finished my courses and my exams and my prospectus, I was entitled to a rest. (This is one of the signs to me that this is not the career for me. More on that later.) It was like I had a case of senioritis. I just wanted to be finished for a while so that I could take a break. What I have come around to realize, though, is that this break only hurt me rather than helped me. Sure, I was conducting research in that time. I was reading and writing notes and outlines and thinking, thinking, thinking. Always thinking. But pages were nonexistent. I finally composed over 25 pages of Chapter Two between August and September 2010 so that I could present a shortened version of it at the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference (SCSC for short) in October 2010. (Little factoid: this conference is HUGE for people in this field. There were so many meetings and presentations, and if I had not come down with the plague, I may have actually gone to some of them.) After I returned from my trip to Montreal to present a shortened version of my chapter, I took another break. Sure, I wrote a little bit here and there, but they were notes and nothing really worth getting excited about. But because I gave up, because I took a break, I forced myself into this specific situation.

    It was in November, when I realized how unhappy I was, that I started to realize that I needed to make a decision. As my wonderful and amazing friend Dr. Amanda Morris asked me during her visit in October, I had to answer the question: am I having trouble hanging on or letting go? If I’m having trouble hanging on, then I need to rework my strategy so that I can get a better grip on my responsibilities and work requirements. If I’m having trouble letting go, then I need to come to terms with what it means to release this path and pursue another. At first, I concluded that I was having trouble hanging on. I wanted that to be the right answer so badly. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, no, I was having trouble letting go.

    Now, let me clarify one point: I am going to get my Ph.D. I am not stopping now, although there is no shame in walking away from a program ABD. I know several people who have walked away from the program before writing their dissertation. I know several people who have walked away from the program before taking exams. There is a culture of shame around these decisions, but I have learned that these are not shameful choices to make. (Why continue the torture if it’s not working for you? Life’s too short!) The reason I am going to finish, though, is because I am months away (nearly five, to be exact), and I am too stubborn to be five months away from a degree and then leave it on the table. So, I’m going to finish, one way or another.

    Back to why I’m no role model.

    Writing a dissertation is hard work. It just is. It is not as simple as writing five or six seminar papers and cramming them together. (Who here has written that many seminar papers on the exact same topic? Not me! I’m not sure I even have two related seminar papers.) A dissertation requires a sustainable argument that can last for somewhere in the neighborhood of 200-ish pages. I want this point to be clear. Many of us won’t admit it until we’re safe from being graded (like I am), but it is not common practice to begin writing a 25-page paper at the beginning of the semester, or even a month before deadline. So many of us write our seminar papers within, oh, I’d say at least two weeks before deadline. (And let’s not kid ourselves–our professors know.) If this is your habit, let me be perfectly frank with you: you cannot write a dissertation the way you write your seminar papers.

    They are not the same animal, and they do not share the same requirements. Begin early, stay on track, write every single day (okay, you can have weekends off, if you begin working early enough). One of my friends V was told by a professor (neither of us can remember who now) who gave her a clever response to the question, “How do you write a 300-page book?” The answer: “One page a day.” Literally. If you write one page every day for a year, you have 365 pages. And that’s far too many for a dissertation.

    In the world of dissertation writing, pages are everything.

    Yes, make time to do your research, make your notes, do your outlines. But also compose pages. A dissertation, while a milestone to be proud of, is not the marker that you have finished something but instead it is an indicator that you have one more task to complete.

    L, and all you other ABDs out there, please don’t follow my model. Don’t torture yourselves. Keep a steady pace and stay focused. Regardless if you want to stay in academia or not, make a decision whether or not you want to get the degree. If you don’t care about the degree, then stop now. If you do want it, then let that be your golden fleece. You won’t get the degree without a dissertation, plain and simple.

    And if any of you ever needs someone to vent to or to kick your ass into gear as A.Mo. did mine, I will be happy to fill that role for you.

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