School’s out for Summer

Yesterday, I attended the last class of my PhD.

This isn’t to be confused with completing coursework (which won’t happen until my papers are all firmly nestled into the appropriate inboxes, a momentous occasion which will occur next Wednesday) and, really, knowing me I won’t be satisfied until the grades all pop up on my transcript affirming, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that this is (in fact) real.

The class was a five-hour lecture wrapping up my ancient theatre course.  This particular lecture covered Sturm und Drang, Weimar Classicism, and Romanticism.  It also included a “presentation” I had prepped on Goethe’s relationship with Shakespeare (I put “presentation” in quotation marks because it wasn’t a “talk at the class for x amount of time” kinda deal but rather a “do a lot of reading and act as a pop-up video as we discuss the course reading” sort of thing).  This class wasn’t a small deal at all.

But I survived.  The class ended with the professor making a few profound remarks about

Yup.  It's me.  Slaying zombie Shakespeare.  Because I roll that way.

Yup. It’s me. Slaying zombie Shakespeare. Because I roll that way.

how far we had come and it took all my self-restraint not to stand up in my chair and yet “AMEN TO THAT!”  For me, she wasn’t just talking about her course (though certainly we had come a long way there), but rather the progression of my graduate career at Tufts.  Two academic years ago, I was sitting in a room, terrified, and waiting for someone to stand up, point at me, and shout “you don’t belong here!” before systematically evicting me from the premises never to return again.  That feeling of being a fraud, not worthy of the opportunities allotted me in my career, has faded over time.  I’ve learned so many things these past two years; some quantifiable, some not.

Among the other things I’m proud of, here’s a reasonably superficial list in terms of its breadth and depth, but it should at least give you some idea of the way I’ve changed as a scholar since my wide-eyed arrival at Tufts University:

I’ve learned how to gain access to (and dig through) an archive.  I’ve learned how to cite the sources that I find there and use them in a paper that I may, someday, publish.

I’ve learned how to get on a plane to a city I’ve never been and be totally comfortable (if a little nervous the first time or two) spending two to four days networking my little Shakespearean heart out with people whom I have never met before, and may be Top Men in my field.

I’ve learned how to write better, how to read better, and how to think better.

I’ve learned about playwrights I’d never though I’d read, performances I’d never known existed, and theorists I’d never hoped to “meet”.

I’ve learned how to talk about my own work in a way that isn’t a snooze-fest (though this will depend upon the audience, of course.  Even I can’t make the deep technical aspects of some of my research appeal to everyone).

I’ve learned to read and translate German (…though this is a skill that I’ll be cultivating for some time).

I’ve learned that when in doubt, just look.  And when looking doesn’t help you, just ask.  There are always people there to turn to.

I’ve learned that it’s amazing what people will do/reveal when you ask them questions.  So many people are willing to be so generous with their time if you’re just nice to them.

Yesterday's theory board doodle

Yesterday’s theory board doodle

I’ve learned that reference librarians are veritable deities and should be worshiped as such.

I’ve learned that it’s not enough to think, you must do.  Touch the ground and your work will always have more depth and meaning.  This means it’s not enough just to think about theatre; go see theatre.  Make theatre.  Get your hands dirty.  If we forget why we fell in love with the field in the first place, there’s no way that we’re going to last in it (and there’s no way that we’re going to make our students love it).

I’ve learned that just because it’s obvious to you does not mean that it’s obvious to anyone else, or that it does not need to be said.  And, moreover, if you don’t say it, someone else will.  Jump on it, take credit for your ideas, and you’ll go much further than if you just simper and mull them to yourself.

…this list could continue ad infinitum but I’ve still got a paper to write.  I hope that your finals are treating you well, you’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and that you can take some time today to remember why it is (precisely) that you do this.

…or you could just watch this:

Writing

A tip: if at first you don’t succeed, re-analyze your plan of attack and try again.

Over the weekend I tried desperately to get some work done on this one paper I’ve got looming.  I did get one draft pounded out, but try as I might I couldn’t seem to do any editing.  Every time I sat down to work, I realized that something else needed to get done: my desk needed to be cleaned, my floor needed vacuuming, I had other things I needed to write, I hadn’t answered x, y, or z e-mail, etc.

It took some serious oomph before I realized I had to resort to the old stand-by: print and red pen.

When I was in my Master’s, I didn’t do anything electronically.  Every single paper I wrote was something that I would (admittedly) preliminarily type, but then hand-edit.  Draft after draft after draft I would ink to my heart’s content and, after about six to ten drafts, I would have something worth turning in.

In recent years, I’ve tried to become a bit more “green” and conscious of precisely how many trees I was killing in the process of producing 60-80 finished pages of writing a semester (multiply by 8; the average number of drafts I go through; yikes).  Not to mention the money I was spending on ink and paper (which, believe me, wasn’t insignificant).  I developed some ability to edit at my keyboard and I’ve even produced full papers without printing more than three drafts.

But this one was simply eluding me.  It was taunting me on the screen and I was left with no recourse.

I printed, and went for a walk.

I find that, given the right environment and the right project, I can be much more productive away from my desk than at it.  This only works for papers in draft form as, before they are

mid-way through my draft; a still-life.

mid-way through my draft; a still-life.

coherent, I have to reference the piles and piles of books from the book fort I’ve built on the floor next to aforementioned desk.  But once I do have something I’m playing with, once the words are on the page, often times the only way I can advance past this is to go to a coffee shop and not let myself come home until I’m done drafting.

It does two things: first it removes any possibility of distraction (especially if I’m a good good girl and turn my phone off for the duration of my writing session), and secondly it gives me the impetus to work faster.  If I want to go home in any reasonable length of time, well then I had better get to business hadn’t I?  Often, there are artificial limitations on this: how long can I sit without a break for the necessities (food, nose-powdering, etc.), but if I work diligently, I can crank out a draft of a 20-page paper within the two to three hour time window that my attention span and biology usually allot for.

So that’s just what I did yesterday.  I took my draft, I took my red pen, and I bought myself a giant iced coffee and went to town.

Luckily, it was a random daytime during a Monday so there weren’t many people there to talk around me (something I can’t abide while I’m working).  I also happen to know a great place that doesn’t play obnoxious music (another thing I really can’t work through).

Done!  I can go home now, right?

Done! I can go home now, right?

Writing, actually writing, the old fashioned way with a pen, is very romantic.  Whenever I do so at a coffee shop, I can’t help but imagine myself into some antiquated notion of academia where we all wear tweed suits and use monocles.  There’s something nostalgic about it; an act that connects you to your forefathers.  Everyone I’ve ever read wrote this way (and certainly those I most admire wrote this way); pen in hand, caffeine source nearby.  I guess unless you’re Kerouac in which case I’m not sure I’d want to write the way you wrote…

Anyway, my ploy worked!  This paper is in great shape, all of my projects are under control, and despite any misgivings I may have about walking away from my desk at the end of today (because I know there’s more work to do, I just can’t do more work right now), I can comfort myself with the fact that everything is where it should be and nothing is getting left out in the cold.

…Unless I’m forgetting something huge.  Which is always a possibility.

Feelings, Nothing More than Feelings

Here’s something that folks don’t normally talk about: studying art can be extremely emotionally draining.

Investing one’s full self into anything is draining.  If you have a career which you are passionate about, you will go through phases of utter and complete investment (of course followed by “down time” to recover yourself in order to push for the next accomplishment… it’s inevitable; we can’t give 150% of ourselves at every single moment).

When your career is centered around dealing closely with bodies of artwork that you, personally, find meaningful, it means that every reading or encounter with that artwork has the potential to move you.  I’m not saying it will; simply that it might.  And when you are dealing with art on a daily basis from a critical perspective, there are some things you must read at certain times.  You can’t avoid it.

But, being a human being, you have a personal life outside of your work.  And sometimes your work and your personal life clash in an unpleasant way.  This is particularly upsetting when you may be going through an emotional crisis.  In his book Will and Me (a great read, by the way, for anyone who has a remote interest in Shakespeare geekery), Dominic Dromgoole admits that certain plays of Shakespeare tend to find him when he is emotionally available to them (he specifically mentions reading Hamlet after the death of his father).  This kind of personal connection to the work brings new revelation both about the piece in question and about one’s self.  Really, I can think of no better guide to the human spirit than my man Will.

Every time I have encountered a play of Shakespeare’s in this way, I have been absolutely

a shot I took of working in the hotel lobby while at CDC... sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do

a shot I took of working in the hotel lobby while at CDC… sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do

astounded at how accurately his characters behave in circumstances similar to mine.  I have continually wondered at how one man could encapsulate such a great spectrum of the human emotional experience (as, by the way, have countless other scholars – this is one of the arguments that the heated authorship debate is based in).  Whomever Will was, I can assure you that he knew things about living; he knew people, he knew pain, he knew heartache, he knew love, and he knew desire.

So how is it, then, that we are able to compose ourselves through whatever it is we’re dealing with and focus past it into the work that’s presented itself to us?  Certainly a degree of critical distance is helpful – if you can view the text before you as text rather than an emotional journey, it will help you to detach.  If you can focus on the minutiae of what’s going on rather than give a general reading, it can assist in this; when you’re looking at the mechanical functionings of something, it’s much more difficult to become attached to an artistic whole.

Put your theory glasses on.  Try and put the piece in context and then pull it out of context.  Deconstruct the art; really break it down into nuts and bolts.  Again, if you’re looking at pieces, it’s harder to become emotionally involved with it.

If you really can’t see past the big stuff, take a moment, walk away, deal with what you need to deal with (I find that journaling is generally good for this), then come back.  When you come back, make it business.  Change out of your pajamas if you have to (yes, I know, the cardinal sin of academia: working in real-people-pants while in your own home).  I find it’s a lot more difficult to invest emotionally while wearing pants.

Remember this: at the end of the day, this is your job.  You may love it, you may be devoted to it, it may overflow into many other aspects of your life, but it’s what pays the bills.  Show me an engineer that weeps over robots on a daily basis, think about how ridiculous that is, then remind yourself that getting caught up in your work (while very easy to do) is equally ridiculous.  It’s not sustainable, healthy, or good for you in any way.

….This does not, by the by, mean that I will be able to restrain myself from weeping every time I reach the end of King Lear.  It does, however, mean that I’ll at least acknowledge the ridiculousness, allow myself to be human, and eat more ice cream when I’m working on Lear.

Pre-Conference Panic

At its best, conferencing is both draining and stressful.  It’s also wonderful, horizon-broadening, and fun; but we cannot forget the fact that it involves many particulars which can be disruptive to the life of an average graduate student.

I love to travel and flying is a special treat.  It’s probably good that I chose a profession which allows me to do so on a regular basis (since I’ve been in the PhD I’ve averaged about 2.5 trips a year for various things).  That said, it always takes me a night to adjust to sleeping in a bed that’s not my own in a city that’s not my own away from my schedule, desk, library books, and on the whole away from my life.

It can be very unsettling to attend a conference when your life is bustling and the things

A shot I took last year of the conference hotel.  Pretty snazzy, no?

A shot I took last year of the conference hotel. Pretty snazzy, no?

you’re flying away from to spend a few days in an actual manifestation of the ivory tower are large and stressful.

Which is probably why I’m having such a hard time this week.  I’ve so far managed to recover from every little blunder (forgetting my iPad at home, nearly missing meetings, making minor scheduling errors which could have huge rippling effects on certain committees I’m chairing, etc.)  The worst part?  It’s only Tuesday.  I have plenty of time to make all kinds of crazy mistakes which could impact my future as I know it.

I’m trying to be methodical to head off any chance of large error; my paper is already printed, I’ve done the majority of my packing, my packing list is composed, I’m creating my usual conference redundancies (kits to deal with paper loss, bad breathe, bleeding, spills, etc.).  Despite this, I have the sneaking suspicion that I’m going to forget something and that something is going to be vital to my future as an academic.

I leave for Baltimore tomorrow.  If you’re at the Comparative Drama Conference, feel free to say hi and ask me if I’ve remembered my pants.  At this rate, there’s the very real possibility that I might be living that particular anxiety dream.

Some random mid-week thoughts

With Twelfth Night behind me, I’ve dived head first into an insane-o week.

The midterms for the course I’m TAing have come due and are in the process of being graded.  This process is otherwise known as “Operation: dig yourself out of the avalanche of papers that just fell on you”.  I’m making pretty good progress (and, without saying horribly much about it, the class is turning out some impressive work – good job, team!).

All of the projects which I had pushed off until after the show are suddenly looming before

Plus side to having just completed a show: I get to wake up to this every morning.  I love roses!

Plus side to having just completed a show: I get to wake up to this every morning. I love roses!

me like the chimeras and dragons they are.  This semester’s big projects consist of one paper (due ASAP), one paper (due in May), one more lecture for my TAship (in two weeks), my German qual exam (mid April), a conference paper that’s written but has yet to be conferencified (beginning of April), and a class presentation (end of April).  Basically I’ve got a series of staggered deadlines for big projects that are all screaming at me simultaneously.

Luckily, next week is Spring break.  If I can make it to next week, I can have the entire week to not be on campus and sit and work in my pajamas all day every day.

This doesn’t sound healthy.

…or it sounds extremely healthy.

One of the two, I’m not sure which.

I just finished translating Grimm’s Aschenputtel (Cinderella) yesterday which means I need to start in on a new piece.  I try to spend an hour or so every day with my German.  I’m thinking of going back to the German Goethe articles I had the library pull for me.  I should also probably return to my grammar book.  But translating fairy tales is so much more fun than learning grammar!

I have spent the last week steeping in Molière.  I’m writing a seminar paper on him and there are a LOT of plays to get through.  My professor loaned me some books so I’ve been trying to (with a moderate degree of success GO ME!) to get through them in a week so I can return them to her.  This means over-saturation in French witticism.  I’m continually surprised (to the point that it really shouldn’t surprise me anymore) about how much more pleasant it is to research something that’s enjoyable to read than to research something you couldn’t give a damn about (or is just torturous to get through).  Though he many not be my man Will, Monsieur Molière is slippery, witty, and wonderful and I’m having fun getting to know him.  I’d be grateful if you didn’t disclose this to Herr Shakespeare; he’s a jealous mistress (don’t believe me?  Read the sonnets).

I’ve had some wonderful professional opportunities fall onto my plate this week (details to follow; I don’t want to give too much away before things are finalized).  Suffice to say you may want to leave the evening of April 23 available (Shakespeare’s birthday) if you’re anywhere in the vicinity of Portsmouth, NH.

And on that note, I should return to the mountain to defeat the midterm dragons.  They’re becoming rather insistent and I’d rather not walk away smelling of scorched hair.

After the End Times

If you are reading this, it means that I have survived finals.

Well, actually, it means that the programming on my website didn’t fail me as I scheduled it to post this entry at a time after which I would have turned in my last paper and during which I would be in a car driving home to New York for the holidays and, since blogging while driving is not something that computers have figure out yet (I’m confident that Siri will change this soon), decided that was my best course of action.

Life: I'm doing it right

Life: I’m doing it right

Here is a still-life I managed to capture of my desk the other day (completely not posed, just how my desk looked at the time).  Yes, that is my ukulele and those are my chord charts.  Yes, that is a nineteenth century print of an engraving depicting Act V of As You Like It sent to me by my Academic Fairy Godfather.  Yes, my tape dispenser is in the shape of a black platform stiletto.  As far as I’m concerned, this picture is proof-positive that whatever life choices I’ve made which lead to this moment are absolutely correct.  A pretty validating thought for the end of my last fall semester of coursework.

This semester’s been tougher than I thought it would be.  That said, I learned a lot, met some really interesting people, and have some shiny new projects to get me through the winter/Spring.

So, since I’m done, I’m taking a short break to be with my family for a week.  I promise I’ll be back after the holiday.  For now, have a watch of this “holiday card” I prepared for you (…when I say I’m only a “passable ukulele player” I really do mean it, so please take this as a sort of “amusing anecdotal internet offering” rather than any sort of masterpiece…. I know I messed it up at least once).

Happy holidays, happy finals being over, and happy take-a-friggen-break.  You deserve it!

Lost of love,

Dani

A Little Help from my Friends…

I had a moment of panic the other day.

I had been summoned to participate in a departmental thing.  I’m really not sure who decided it was a good idea to schedule any departmental thing smack dab in the middle of finals time.  This, to me, seems like a sure-fire way to make at least one of your graduate students slit her wrists in hopelessness.

Any who know me will tell you that one of the things I am best at is time management.  I never leave anything to the last minute, I have a good sense of how much I can handle, I work until I’m done, and I know what is okay to sacrifice and what simply can’t be cut from any given day.  As such, my schedule books very far in advance.  Often, I have trouble squeezing in social engagements unless I’m made aware of them at least two weeks before they happen (at the busiest times of the year, this becomes more like a month).  As such, if I was having trouble departing from my desk to attend said departmental thing, it was not because I was having last-minute finals panic, it was because scheduling a departmental thing during finals is inhuman.

The departmental thing took longer than I had planned (but not longer than it had been scheduled, I simply misread the schedule and under-calculated my timing).  I got into my car and felt like my chest was clenched in an iron clamp.  I still had errands to run.  I still had all kinds of work to do.  And I still had one more appointment with my ever-wonderful Partner in Crime that I could not miss because of a long, convoluted series of events which amounted to him helping me clean my apartment (I think he realized by looking at me that even mundane tasks were well beyond my capabilities to handle and, left to my own devices, I was in very real danger of exploding… spontaneous human combustion: not just an urban legend).

During the drive home, the panic attack symptoms started setting in.  Increased heart rate, hopeless whirl of uncontrollable thoughts, and pressure behind the eyes that threatens to burst into uncontrollable weeping.

I got to my desk, sat down, and forced myself to breath.

For those who have ever experienced a panic attack, you will know: the only way to coach yourself through it is slowly and methodically.  You need to clear your mind, breathe deeply, and slow your heart-rate back something resembling normal.  Sometimes you need to cry for ten minutes just to get it out.  I don’t have them often, but my PhD has taught me all kinds of new and wonderful things that my body is capable of when pressed against the wall (some of these things are more useful than others).

This time, head in my hands, trying to calm myself down enough to look at the word documents I had left up on my machine, my gaze drifted to my desk ornaments.

I’ve spoken about them before.  Over the years, I’ve accumulated a seemingly random assortment of bits and bobs which have come to reside in happy harmony upon my desk.  What I didn’t realize until that moment is that all of the little guys directly under my monitor (and, in fact, most of the baubles as a whole) were given to me by various important someones in my life.  Shakes-cat: a gift from a dear old friend.  Baby-hatching-Gargoyle: a

a selection of my desk baubles.

a selection of my desk baubles.

present from my grandmother upon realizing that it looked just like the logo for the theatre company I ran out of New York.  Liberty-Duck: a random Monday offering from my Partner in Crime.  Long-Duck-Silver: from my mom when she came to visit me during my brief-tenure in a soul-sucking office position pre-Master’s (it came in a box of Band-Aids and helped to cheer my gloomy day).  Tribble Fluff the Yarn Monster: made for me by my wonderful penpal and sent in a box of comfort yarn around the holidays one year.  The list, believe it or not, continues to the point where I really can’t chronicle all the things on my desk attached to all the wonderful people in my life.

And, in that moment, it was like getting a hug from all of them simultaneously.  Like somehow they were all there (without even knowing that I needed them) to tell me to get my act together because I could totally handle this.

Over the past week or so, I’ve received an immense amount of support from my usual support network, but also some very unexpected places.  People who are around, but whom I don’t speak with frequently (perhaps the epitome of this being a random and unprompted text from an old friend with the news that he had procured a GIANT BAG full

some very old friends who are still in my life came to help me celebrate my birthday this weekend; they are amongst the awesome folks who helped me get through finals this semester.

some very old friends who are still in my life came to help me celebrate my birthday this weekend; they are amongst the awesome folks who helped me get through finals this semester.

of my favorite girly-scented lotions and things and was sending them to me imminently… thanks again, Brian, you seriously made my week).  People who would have little way of knowing the insane amounts of pressure and stress that I’m under right now who, from some twist of the universe, had me in their thoughts on a given day and thus found some way to send some extra love my way.

My point is this: no man is an island.  The PhD is the equivalent to academic boot camp.  It will strip you down to your most basic human elements, take those away, then re-build you (and I’m not even through the “easiest” part of the process yet).  But just because you’re stressed, just because you’re tired, just because you think your brain is going to melt out the side of your head, doesn’t mean that you should forget something: you are loved.  And if you can’t remember that, take a moment to find someone who will help you remember it.

So many thank-yous to all of my wonderful friends who, wittingly or not, have once more gone above and beyond to help me get through this difficult time of year.  If I seem ungrateful or passive in person, it’s just because I lack the brain cells to express how much you mean to me right now.

And on that note, it’s time to face the music.  Turning in my first final today.  Queue The Imperial March, La Marseillaise (it always sounds victorious to me), anything from Newsies, or One Day More and send some good thoughts to Dani-land.  Here we go.

LOOK! SHINY!

It’s finals time.

That means a lot of things (among them: grinding the gears, burning the midnight oil, and lighting both ends of the candle for the next few weeks).

If your life is like my life, then inevitably when you become the busiest is when everyone suddenly decides that they would like to be social with you. And, while I do love my friends and family and do need occasional breaks from aforementioned clichés of business, it can be really frustrating sometimes that busy season of necessity means “the season in which I ignore people”.

I’m not doing it maliciously, it’s just the only way I can get anything done.

Distractions come in two varieties: the long-form distraction, and the momentary distraction.

The long-form distraction is by far the simpler type to avoid. If I don’t plan well in advance for a night away from my desk, I don’t spend a night away from my desk. As much as it kills me to miss the various parties, social functions, and gatherings that inevitably occur right before the holidays, it would kill me more to neglect my work and do poorly on my finals. Wise researchers take note: this policy works. Understanding friends will understand; this is what your job entails at the moment and, thereby, any declarations of “lameness” on account of it should be systematically ignored.

For that, a break is a break and it’s important to remember that the world doesn’t revolve

this is my desk from several months ago… the book fort gets built to the right and is, currently, taking up more space on my floor than my actual desk.

around nineteenth century circus clowns performing Shakespeare. Make sure you budget time for drinks, dinner, or some fun activity at least once a week or you will wind up an overwrought bucket of stress by the time things are said and done. Also, human eye contact is good for the soul.

So long as you can balance work and play, the long-form distraction shouldn’t prove too much of a problem.

The momentary distraction can come in several forms: an e-mail, a text, a facebook message, a gchat, or a well-meaning person (your landlord, your roommate, etc.) poking a head into your workspace to bring you news from the outside. While this may seem the less innocuous form of distraction, for me it’s deadly. I find that, reliably, for every thirty seconds I have spent being momentarily distracted, it will take me at least five minutes to get back to where I was in my stream of thought pre-interruption.

For me, the problem is several-fold. I have a hard time in general with my attention span, especially if I’m not yet into “the zone”. Once I hit the red, I can go for hours; but getting there is particularly difficult for me. I blame modern technology; I am truly a product of my generation who would rather have a constant influx of disparate information to keep my mind chewing than go deep-diving on any one thought. How I wound up a professional academic with this particular personality quirk is a giant question of the universe. In addition, I am extremely sensitive aurally and have found that external words in any form (music, TV, talking, etc) will completely take me out of the internal mind-tempest that research requires.

The best way to avoid these problems is (I have found) to turn off (or at least silence) my phone, keep my browser windows open to library resources ONLY, and work during the day when there’s no one in my house but myself. If I wind up working overtime (which is extremely frequent during finals crunch), I either try to arrange to work when my roommate is out of the house, or arrange a schedule with her that involves noise-canceling headphones (I am fortunate to have a very understanding roommate). Alternately, working after the household has gone to bed is something that I have found to be extremely soothing and productive (though you do have to plan for it so that you make certain you get your much-needed finals-time sleep).

Today’s short-form distraction: decorating the department’s desk with a menorah made from a Poland Spring bottle, some glitter, and a dream.

A great way to improve the quality of your finals life is to make your nearest and dearest aware of these distractions and what they do to your work. If those people most likely to distract you understand that encouraging text messages are best left sent between the hours of 9 and 11 PM, they are less likely to inadvertently interrupt your stream of thought with a mid-day friend-crisis. If those people can fathom that when you say “I’m buried in mountains of work”, you literally mean that your book fort is actually large enough to cause a deadly avalanche, they are less likely to give you a hard time for skipping Friday night beer-o-rama. Give them concrete examples of how their actions affect yours in this volatile, stressful time. If they really love you, they’ll let you go crawl into your cave and re-emerge sometime after December 18th.

So… what are you waiting for? You have finals to write! Heck, I have finals to write! Go stop procrastinating and get your butt in gear! (…unless it’s your pre-planned night off in which case have fun, relax, and get enough sleep. Drink lots of fluids, eat right, and we’ll all get through this together somehow, I just know it).

Ode to a Reference Librarian

I

O Noble Reference Librarian, thou keeper of ancient tomes,
Thou from whose ever-seeing eyes the musty dark
of ignorance runs; fleeting into caves it roams.

Knowledge’s power and its difference stark
stands tribute to the echoes of my heart
without your watchful guidance and wisdom to mark.

Though all alone my research I may start,
eventually I am lost without your aid,
read between the lines: you’re pretty darn smart.

When I feel my resolve begin to fade,
and madness overtake my lengthy notes,
one e-mail from you and my project is made. 

Wise sage, who art everywhere and nowhere;
preserver of my sanity; hear, O hear!

II

Thou with whom all knowledge of the archive’s content
rests, solely within the confines of your mind,
Thou may these hopeless finding aids augment!

When I a promising volume or folder find,
I cannot help but wistfully wonder
if by you this call number it has been assigned.

And when I am delivered my research’s plunder
if it contains not what I was expecting
I know it must be someone else’s blunder.

This fondness is not something I’m affecting.
You truly are my savior, through and through
when I, my primary sources, am selecting,

You always have an answer for me,
where should I look next? You tell me; O hear! 

III

Thou who didst calm me with thy helpful words,
your e-mails always packed with burning hope
and, within me, that hope to joy transferred.

When I am lost, you throw me strongest rope
with which to pull myself from doldrums’ grasp
(though afterwards I may feel like a dope).

 Sometimes I come to you with dieing gasp,
knowing my project may be at its end,
lack of sources killing it like venom of the asp. 

But then, my broken thought tracks you do mend,
and breathe into my research new life
when bibliographic entries you me send.

You always do more than I expect of you,
and bring me joy with your encouraging words; O hear!

IV

If I were forced to spend my days
in a world without you or your kin,
surely my research I would appraise

At much less worth than now it holds within.
And thou, O incomparable! If even
I were as in my career’s prime and had been

looking with my mind’s full potential heaving,
thou wouldst still my puny efforts shame
(thy power over the materials I fully believe in).

As thus, to thee with questions I came,
O! Help me in my research’s day of plight!
Without thee, my paper’s going to be lame! 

Help me to bring new knowledge to academy’s light!
And weave an argument from sources tight!

V

Lend me thy thoughts, even as I am merely
a Graduate students with small street cred,
I am most in need of your help clearly!

And (although I know by now I’ve said
this several times, it bears to be repeated)
Without you, all my evidence is fled! 

Sometimes I feel as though I may have cheated
by enlisting your skillful help in my fond chase,
but when my project’s finally completed 

I will ensure I’ve thanked you in the space
allotted for such words of grateful praise
(and also try to say it to your face). 

The knight of research’s call! O reference librarian,
If you forsake us, the academy you’ll raze.

(…an over-working reference librarian made my weekend today, so I decided to make his weekend.  Not even sure if he’ll ever read this.  If you’re slightly confused, you may want to google “Ode to the West Wind”….)

Office Hours, the TA, and you

Over the years, I have come to a certain conclusion: you never know how to do something until you have already done it.

For some things, this is less problematic.  For example: I didn’t figure out how to write a college level paper until the last semester of my Senior year of undergrad.  While it meant that I struggled through writing them for most of my career as an undergrad, it also meant that I had plenty of opportunity to perfect the style in my Master’s and I’m still learning things about how to write a paper (and look forward to continuing this learning throughout the course of my career as an academic).  Things that you, inevitably, will be forced to repeat have an acceptable learning curve.  Your first anything is going to be the sacrificial lamb which dies upon the altar of experience.

Unfortunately, some things you really can’t go back and re-do.

As part of my job, I am required to hold office hours.  While this sounds horribly official, what it truly means is that I make a promise to the students that I will be in a given place (i.e. my office) at a given time (i.e. my hours) and at their disposal to answer any questions they may have about the class, their work, their grades, or the universe in general.

So far, none of the students have taken advantage of this.  I go, I sit, I wait, I bring work

A grading session from my Master’s. Yes, sometimes it really is that bad.

which inevitably doesn’t get done because I share the office with many colleagues who tend to want to talk and visit (which, don’t get me wrong, I do as well), and I mark time until I can go home and actually get some work done.

And I wonder, why am I sitting there alone when this is a golden opportunity for some undergrad to grill me about all of the questions I know they should be asking especially if they intend to go on to graduate school?  Why can’t they see that this is a gift, a precious commodity of connection which they could be cashing in on in order to better edify and prepare themselves for the life to come?

And then I remember: when I was an undergrad, I never went to office hours.  In fact, I think I can count on one hand the number of out-of-class interactions I had with professors who were not my advisor (even the professors who had the most profound impact on my academic career and/or personal development).  This is not to take into account that I’m not even a professor; I’m a TA.  I never even spoke to the TAs when I was an undergrad.  They were like some sort of weird mutant minion creature that the professor had cooked up in vats to do his bidding because he was too busy working on his latest book project to grade our finals.  They didn’t warrant making eye contact with much less speaking to.

Ah, the certainty of youth.

Alright, let’s set the record straight: a TA is a teaching assistant.  It’s an individuals hired by the department to help make the professor’s life easier.  This individual knows the subject matter, but perhaps doesn’t have as much in-class teaching experience as a tenured professor (but then again, who does?).  That doesn’t necessarily mean that this individual isn’t smart, capable, and desperate to answer your questions.  In fact, it probably means that the individual ischamping at the bit to get a chance to pass on something valuable.  A TAship is often the first in a long series of steps towards becoming a real professor.  We all serve our time observing, working in a supervised environment, and doing a bit of grunt labor so that we too, someday, can have the coveted job of molding young minds.

The TA’s office hours can be extremely helpful if you find yourself struggling with your writing, understanding an assignment, understanding the course material, or even the college experience in general.  Think of the TA like a friendly neighborhood spiderman: the TA is closer to the undergraduate experience and so is more likely to remember what it’s like, the TA knows the library resources really well because she spends her days digging through them, the TA is excited about whatever it is that you’re studying and would love an opportunity to pass on some wisdom, knowledge, or advice, and the TA works closely with your professor and so knows what is expected of you/the class in general.

Think about the possibilities for a moment.  Instead of turning in a paper that you think may be what the professor wants, with a little advances planning you have someone to ask!  You can better understand course expectations!  You can learn what a comma splice is and why people keep writing in the margins that you’re making them!  You can improve your grades with better communication, pointed questions, and a little bit of diligence!  The TA is there to help, not laugh maniacally while marking down your work for something you did but didn’t think to ask about, so think to ask about it.  How can you use this person to your advantage?  This MVP can bat for your team if only you would take the time to ask her.

So love your TA.  Embrace your TA.  Don’t worry about being bitten by your TA and turned into a radioactive creature of the night… unless your TA actually does glow in the dark and has weird freakish horns, green skin, and eyes without pupils, then you might want to worry.