Unleashing the Crackin’

The weather here has FINALLY gotten nice on a consistent basis, which means that in spite of the move I’ve been trying extra hard to get out and enjoy the sun (you know, while it lasts and it’s not so hot that I think my face is melting off).

For most people, “getting out to enjoy the weather” might mean a walk, a picnic, a round of Frisbee with friends in the park… while I enjoy most of these things (except for Frisbee… what is even the point of Frisbee? Frisbees were like the thing man made to prove that other men were dumb because they could never get the darn thing to fly much less fly in the direction they wanted it to… not that I’m bitter about a piece of plastic or anything), the nice weather more means that I get to break out my toys on a consistent basis.

I’ve already touted the importance of lateral thinking and study breaks that encourage physical activity. When I was studying for my German exam, I taught myself to play the ukulele during study breaks because it was the only thing that would reset my brain for MORE FLASHCARDS when I felt that gray matter was going to start leaking out of my ear any minute. Also, since I’m a pretty awful guitar player (self-taught during high school… I can eke out about four chords on a good day), I figured I’d be a passable ukulele player (so far, this theory has proven to be true).

When I was studying for my comps last summer, I opted for something a little more fighty and a little less musical. My sister and her now-husband are pretty much experts in the art of bullwhip cracking and have shown me a few things over the years. With their help, and the assistance of several youtube videos, I managed to coerce my body into learning the finesse and art of the bullwhip.

First things first: I would never advocate playing with weapons

This is my object lesson about why eye protection is important

This is my object lesson about why eye protection is important

without careful professional supervision. This is PARTICULARLY true when you’re dealing with projectiles, or weapons that are fluid/non rigid. Swords are much easier to control than bullwhips. If you want to take up a dangerous hobby, try swords first. You’re much less likely to hurt yourself. In other words: don’t try this at home unless you understand that playing with any weapon involves an innate risk, and that your risk is much greater if you lack proper supervision and understanding of said weapon.

I’ve cracked myself several times over the course of learning the bullwhip and don’t foresee this stopping anytime in the near future. Understanding how to control a six-foot length of kangaroo hide moving faster than the speed of sound has a definite learning curve. Always wear eye protection, and be prepared that you’re going to get yourself good probably sooner rather than later and probably more than once.

If you encounter people cracking in public parks, here are a few good rules of thumb: don’t sneak up close to them while they are practicing. If you’re interested and would like to ask questions, chances are we’re used to hearing those questions and would be happy to answer them. Wait patiently at a healthy distance (at least 15 feet; if you feel “unsafe” then you are probably in the danger zone), and approach respectfully (not because we are innately violent people, but because wouldn’t you like people to be nice to you if they wanted to know things about your hobbies?). While the cracker is (we hope) HIGHLY aware of people in her zone, do keep an eye on your kids. Most children have a healthy self-preservation instinct, but you never know when someone is going to fail a Darwin check. Honestly, when I practice in public, I try to find a place far away from small children (as a safety precaution, but also because I can’t always give my “don’t try this at home” speech to passers-by and the last thing I want is for a child to injure itself trying to be as cool as Indiana Jones). This is not always possible. Crackers need grass (concrete or stone chews up whips and they are investments; especially leather ones), we need open spaces away from low-hanging trees or branches, and we need a place away from people. If I can find all of these things AND no four-footers in sight, I’ll always opt for that. But if my only choice is to be somewhere within eyesight of a family with children, there’s not much I can do about it.

Really, all you need to do is be aware that someone is practicing a martial art nearby. So long as you keep yourself away from the hurty end of the whip, you’ll be fine. And you’ll probably get a neat show to boot; whippersnappers are nothing but show-people. You don’t really take up a hobby like the bullwhip and not expect to get stared at a lot.

Happy cracking!

GIFT

This summer, I have the extraordinary privilege of being a Fellow with the GIFT program here at Tufts University. GIFT is a clever acronym for Graduate Institute For Teaching and it’s really an amazing program. Every summer, fellows are chosen from amongst Doctoral Candidates university-wide to participate in the institute. Seminars are held in various aspects of teaching and pedagogy and are conducted by top teachers from all of the disparate departments.

So far, the seminars have been delightful and extremely applicable to my job. I’m learning

A pano of my book fort that I took to show the other fellows what my workspace looks like

A pano of my book fort that I took to show the other fellows what my workspace looks like

a lot about teaching, and I’m learning a lot about being a graduate student.

You see, this is the first time that I’ve encountered other Tufts Doctoral Candidates in the wild. This is the first chance I’ve had to have close contact with a group of people so very like me, but also incredibly different. Lunchtime chats are dominated by discussing the similarities and differences in our fields, what Quals are like, what it means to work on a dissertation or culminating project, and what we expect to do when we grow up.

And the food. I have to say this about being a Fellow: in addition to being a really cool title (tee hee… I’m a “Fellow”), it also comes with certain expectations. You work hard, you make sure to represent your department in the best light that you can, and you try your hardest not to get fat. They’re feeding us really well at this program and it’s definitely been a source of mid-day delight and end-of-day regret.

In all seriousness, having somewhere to be every day first thing in the morning is a welcome change of pace. I wake up, I have coffee, I dress like I care what other people think of me. I’ve worn two blazers this week and four different pairs of shoes. The isolation of graduate study is a really crushing beast to deal with and my involvement with this program has been pivotal to understanding several concepts which, in theory, I knew but which, in practice, I had yet to truly uncover for myself. Impostor syndrome affects all of us. We all have trouble doing one thing or another and that doesn’t reflect our expertise as professional academics, just our growth as humans. There will always be a student who you don’t quite know how to reach, but with the right support system you can better enrich both her experience in the classroom and yours.

The program is a lot more intense than I was expecting it to be and I have found that I’m exhausted at the end of the day (and certainly now, at the end of the week, I’m dragging to get through the last tasks I need to accomplish before I can rest a bit this weekend). It has been so very worthwhile already, though, and I’m excited to see what the rest of the program has in store.

Also, you’ve never felt like you’re in an incredible discussion until you’ve been in a room full of budding experts in fields from Theatre History to Theoretical Physics. Just saying, we’re pretty smart.

White Lies

As the weather gets nicer, it’s becoming more and more difficult to focus on the work I need to do rather than go outside and play all the time. This means that my running has definitely gotten some attention, but that I’ve had to get clever with how I get myself to my desk in the morning.

I was once given the advice that, whenever you’re feeling down about your work (and hey, it happens!), you should “eat dessert first”. Find what it is about the topic, the job, whatever it is you’re doing that drew you there in the first place. Some of what we do as academics is administrative red tape rigmarole, some of it is downright unpleasant, but there’s always going to be that shining kernel of things you love.

This week, it’s been about using that kernel to trick myself to my desk.

Due to the generosity of my home institution, I’ve been given the gift of research this summer. I’m enabled and empowered to visit New York for a full month to do dissertation research (which is vital because, you know, my dissertation is kind of all about New York). I’m so EXTREMELY excited for my trip for so many reasons (not the least of which being all the food from home that I miss so much up here in Boston). This means that I have to take some time before my trip to figure out what I’m actually going to look at at each of the various archives that I will be visiting.

Here's a picture of a T-Rex that I found in a bar a couple weeks ago.  For no reason really just that I had nothing else to put here.

Here’s a picture of a T-Rex that I found in a bar a couple weeks ago. For no reason really just that I had nothing else to put here.

Which basically means online shopping. I’ve spent no small amount of time this week (and will spend some more in weeks to come) browsing the catalogues of my target institutions for items that might have information which would help my project. Essentially, I get to sift through the holdings of these CRAZY LARGE PLACES in order to try and determine what small subset will be worth my while to look at.

This process is more complicated than you might think. The trouble is that library science, while certainly further along than it was when my grandparents were working on their dissertations (while I have used a card catalogue, it’s thankfully only a small subset of a specific corner of my research which requires such medieval measures), is still an imperfect science. But it’s not the field’s fault really; I mean how do you accurately catalogue boxes upon boxes of material in a way that is intuitive to the general researcher? Generally, the answer involves a complex series of sub-headings, and documents known as “finding aids” (slightly more detailed descriptions of what’s in a box than the collection’s title, but when I say “slightly” I often mean just that… most finding aids that come across my desk are one-line descriptions of date, persons involved (if it’s a letter then usually it’ll be the to/from), and maybe some brief description of places involved). These “finding aids” can be quite old and are generally in PDF form (and not even OCR PDF) which means that, rather than use a computer to look for the word/words you might need to key you in to items on this twelve-page list which might be useful, you have to sift through them using your own two eyes.

If this sounds like a special breed of torture, then you’re not entirely wrong. After about hour five of this, I tend to be too tired to continue without fear of missing something important. But the cool part is that you get little bursts of inspiration/encouragement along the way. Remember, you’re looking through these lists to find something related to your research. That means that the gems you find here will be the things that are the backbone of your project; one document could change the way we look at history! Every time I find something in one of these aids that might be useful to me, I get (at least a little bit) excited. What I’m looking at now will, when it’s in front of me, help to formulate the big ideas that I’m currently wrestling with and provide the documentation to support my arguments.

Also, handling stuff that’s easily five times your age never gets old.

So that’s been my method of tricking myself into productivity this week. Let’s see how long it holds up!

The First of the Last

Yesterday was the first of the last: the first last day of class for Spring 2014. My evening acting students gave their final scene presentations (though my afternoon Shakespeare students and my Tuesday evening fight students still have another week to go; so next week will officially be the end of teaching for Spring 2014).

A gratuitous shot of one of my bookshelves (Shakespeare... obviously) just 'cause

A gratuitous shot of one of my bookshelves (Shakespeare… obviously) just ’cause

The last day of class is always bittersweet for me. It’s exciting to see how far my students have come, and it’s definitely a downer that I won’t be seeing them on a regular basis anymore. It’s exhilarating to feel that I’ve made a difference in how they view themselves, theatre, or other people, and it’s jarring that I won’t be walking with them any further on their journey. I see my role in the classroom as a guide; I can show them the path but it’s always their choice whether or not to tread it. Now, they’re on their own to machete their way through their own wilderness. They’ll meet other guides along the way who will, hopefully, be able to keep them away from obvious pitfalls and point out the edible plants as opposed to the poisonous ones.

And sometimes, they’ll be on their own. I like to think that I’ve shown them a thing or two that will help when they find themselves treading the path solo. Maybe it’s how to start a fire, and maybe it’s how to make shelter from banana leaves. Maybe it’s something smaller like the best tree to sit under on a warm day. Whatever it is, I’m proud to have taken the journey with another stellar group of students this semester. Now to make my way back to the beginning to meet my next bunch.

It takes some time to navigate back to that starting place. You’ll get back faster on your own, but it won’t be as exhilarating. And you walk with the constant awareness that the landscape always shifts; the next time you take a group through there will be new challenges, new pitfalls, and new adventures to face together.

Next semester is going to be a very different beast from this semester. I won’t be teaching acting (that I know of… yet…), but I will definitely be TAing at least one class. I have another class on the “maybe” pile (still waiting to hear back about it), and there’s a pretty fair chance that I’ll be teaching at least one stage combat course. I’ll likely also be leading another Shakespeare discussion group (but again, this isn’t a sure things yet).

There’s nothing quite like the life of an adjunct to teach you to treasure what you’ve got when you’ve got it, because you never quite know when and where you’ll find it again.

In any case, I’ve still got a pile of grading to do. I guess that’s the other “bitter” in my “sweet”: paperwork and red tape are an ever-present force in academia.

Good luck with your finals, everyone (whether you’re taking them or giving them)!

Slowing it Down

Being busy is a really weird thing, and the busier you are the weirder it gets.

I’ve been so busy for so long that since the semester is winding down and I’m no longer running at a break-neck pace, I’m feeling like I am not doing enough. I know, right? Because working three jobs (instead of seven) while writing a dissertation, blogging, and having a social life is TOTALLY not enough and I’m definitely a slacker.

In moments like this, I contemplate starting another project. Then I contemplate why it is that I’m so intent on dying young due to stress-related heart complications.

There’s a huge sense of guilt which comes with being essentially self-employed. Some things will test the boundaries of what you thought you could do. Studying for my comprehensive exam last summer, for instance, was one such task. I learned exactly how many books I could read in a day and still retain the proffered information. After that, even when comps were over, if I wasn’t reading five to eight books in a single day and watching two documentaries as a cool-down, then clearly I wasn’t working at full capacity.

It’s the same with the end of the semester. I get up every morning at 8 and drag myself to my desk after making a cup of coffee. There, I stay (unless I have to teach during the day) until at least 7:00 PM. At that point, I often leave the house to fight direct or review a show. And on days when I don’t do that (and I’m not taking a rare social break), I have been known to work until 9:00 or 10:00 at night because there are things that just have to be done. Essentially, I’m used to twelve hour plus days (I think my record is something crazy like sixteen hours, but on a typical week I average more like thirteen). I’m used to every single moment of my time being filled with some work-related thing of one variety or another.

So when it’s not, I feel like I might be doing something wrong. Like I’m not doing enough. Never mind that “normal” people work eight hour days and maybe burning the candle at

rare glamour shot; public library on my day off last weekend

rare glamour shot; public library on my day off last weekend

both ends isn’t the most sustainable work habit. It takes me a while to acclimate to a “normal” workload because I’m always so busy. When I drop by my desk time to a “regular” schedule, I feel like I don’t get as much done as I should.

I’m led to believe that this is a common thing in academia. It stems mostly from the fact that our projects are almost never completed (and when they are, never all at the same time). We can always always be working on something. There will indefinitely be another draft to write, another book to read, or another set of research to plow through. So when there’s work to be done and time in your schedule, why aren’t you working?

Part of it also stems from the constant drive to produce. With the job market being the way it is, there’s always a need to do more faster than the person behind, in front, or next to you. That one extra published article on your CV might make a different somewhere to someone at some time (especially at the early stages of your career).

Yet another part of it stems from the perfectionist tendencies which produce viable academics. Let’s face it; you don’t go for a PhD unless you’re incredibly driven to succeed and have a track record of near-perfection. If you’ve made it this far, chances are you’re used to being amongst the “smartest” people in the room no matter where you stood.* Now, you’re in a department full of people like you. That’s a really tough situation to be in and can result in no small amount of struggle. When the cream floats to the top,** some of that cream is inevitably going to feel like milk again. Or, to put it as my mother says it, “not every doctor graduates top of the class”. You worked hard to get here, now you have to work twice as hard to stay where you’re used to being: at the top.

So the semester slow-down, while a perfectly healthy form of work curbing, doesn’t always feel right. I try to remind myself that it’s okay to average out those long days with a couple of “short” ones, but that only goes so far.

So I’ll be here trying my hardest to sit on my hands at 5:00 if anyone needs me. I can’t guarantee success, but I can certainly at least try!

 

*I put “smartest” in quotation marks because I want to differentiate a socially-accepted view of book smart from street wise, kinesthetic smarts, or emotional maturity that can make a brilliant person feel overlooked in a conventional classroom setting. Books and grades aren’t a sure-fire way to measure intelligence.

**Again, not sure this is a metaphor I’m entirely comfortable with but I’m having trouble coming up with an alternative.

You’re into the Time Slip

Time is a weird thing in academia.

The semester starts and things get nuts because you’re trying to fit in all the meetings that you couldn’t have while nobody was on campus over the “break”. You’re getting a feel for your classes, you’re trying to learn names, you’re working through your schedule.

Midterms happen before you know it and you wonder how it could possible be the middle

Pretty library I found recently!

Pretty library I found recently!

of the semester already. Also, you wonder why you assigned so bloody much writing because clearly you are a masochist and wanted to punish yourself with ALL THE GRADING!

Between midterms and finals, you wonder if you’ll ever see the end of the semester. You don’t have much time to wonder this though because, before you know it, you’re chasing down the last loose ends of the semester and looking forward to the much-needed break.

You collapse for a few days right after the semester is over only to realize that whatever “break” you’re on isn’t really a break and that you have a ton of projects to take care of that you were just pushing off until the end of the semester.

The worst part is that nobody in your real life understands why you tend to live cyclically like this. It’s like an eternal butterfly; going around and around its life cycle never truly getting the chance to fly as free as it wants to (….I guess until you wind up taking a sabbatical but that’s a dream that lives evermore in the distant future for me). You wind up having to explain and re-explain that no, you’re not really on a break. All this means is that you don’t have to show up on campus a couple times a week (though you will anyway to make copies, print documents, and rotate your library books). No, friends and family, that’s not the same thing as having “all this free time” to visit or goof off like normal people get to do on their “vacation”. What is “vacation” anyway? A state of mind? A state of being? Some Zen-like state achieved with yoga and too much caffeine?

The end of the semester is so close that I can taste it, but really all that means is an increased stress as deadlines pant their hot vapors down my neck. My plans this semester have had to be loose and flowing due to the inevitable red tape which comes with academic pursuit, and the summer is proving to be no different. There’s almost nothing relaxing about the prospect of what’s to come in the next few weeks.

Rows of green say Spring might JUST be here.... finally.

Rows of green say Spring might JUST be here…. finally.

This is (probably) punctuated by the fact that I’m planning a move to some undisclosed location in the general vicinity (undisclosed, mostly, because it’s so secret that even I don’t know where it is yet… ah the beauties of apartment hunting). It doesn’t matter how you slice it; moving simply sucks.

So if I seem more frantic than usual, it’s probably because I’m trying to contemplate fitting my life into boxes and re-acclimating to a new office space with the most nominal possible break in my standard operating procedures. Oh and because summer isn’t summer anymore; it’s just “work and try not to melt while maintaining your own schedule because your meetings all happen on skype now rather than in person”.

Spring. Finally.

It’s getting to be spring in Boston.  I know this because I’ve (regularly) been able to go for outdoor runs in the afternoon without wanting to die due to exposure.

I also know this because of the wistful glances that my students have been making out the window during class time (difficult because my classroom is actually in a basement; the windows are almost entirely below ground level and the small amount of natural light which we are graced with has to travel through small slits on the level of the ceiling).

I also also know this because of the inevitable yearning for even less structured days; the bulk of my grading is pretty much done at this point (there will be one final push in a few weeks, but the major written assignment are all taken care of), my trips to campus are growing fewer in frequency by the day (also due partly to the fact that I’m not in a research crunch right now, but rather a writing stretch), and I have fewer and fewer meetings on my calendar.

I also also also know this because when I look at the syllabus, we’re quickly running out of class days.  And when we run out of class days, then we run out of class.  And when we run out of class, then I get to take a short break before running brake-neck into the next series of engagements (I’ve got several summer tasks already lines up and I can just smell a couple others on the air).

In short: spring is a big fat tease.  It tantalizes with promises of nice weather (I went for so many walks this weekend; I even got to take my whip out for the first bullwhip practice of

A day at the park.  This is perfectly normal, right?

A day at the park. This is perfectly normal, right?

the season… surprisingly my skill didn’t degrade at all over the winter, which gives me hope for learning a couple new tricks in the next few months), it shows you the slightest bit of freedom before yanking it away again, and it simply revels in your glorious suffering.  Sure, you might be able to work with the window open these days, but that wonderful fresh air which beckons you outside sings its siren song to lure you to inevitable lack of work ethic.  Spring encourages lackadaisicality and I will never forgive it for that.

Of course, I will also never forgive it for the havoc it wrecks on my sinuses.  Stupid tress.  Stupid pollen.  If any other living thing assaulted me suchly with its reproductive organs, I would be filing a restraining order and calling my shrink on a daily basis for assistance in dealing with the trauma.  No means no, adolescent trees.  No means no.

Anyway, mostly this year I’m holding it against spring that it chose to show up so late to the party.  Not that I’m not happy to see it, just that I’m grumpy it made me wait so long.  It thinks it can make up having to deal with winter’s creepy show-up-at-your-door-unannounced tendencies for an extra month by just being its “awesome” self?  I don’t THINK so, spring.  You’re going to have some real groveling to do before I forgive you for that little trick.  So get going with trying to make it up to me; I’ll just wait here until I feel like you’ve done enough to put you back in my good graces again.

…ergo sum

I am really tired.

Everything is funny.

Everything is beautiful, and nothing hurt.

No wait, that’s not it.

I am… a seagull.

…no…

I am… an actress.

I am… over-worked and completely stressed out.

I am attempting to find comfort in frozen yogurt and hard cider.

side-note: the acorn head at Tufts has been replaced by this dapper gentleman.  Whomever worked the sparkly tophat onto this deserves a good hardy handshake.

side-note: the acorn head at Tufts has been replaced by this dapper gentleman. Whomever worked the sparkly tophat onto this deserves a good hardy handshake.

I am reading and re-reading, copying information onto index cards, thinking deep thoughts, trying to make the puzzle pieces slide into place and keep them slid once they get there, trying to control the number of books I have in my house, trying to make sure I don’t rack up overdue fees on anything.

I am prepping my syllabus for Acting I, scanning readings, setting up my online bulletin board for my students.

I am bracing for the new semester and all the meetings that come with it.

I am evaluating my fall wardrobe and what pieces I need to acquire/dispense with.

I am both praising and cursing the coming of seasonal pumpkin flavored treats.  This is not going to be good for my diet but OH MAN DO I LOVE ME SOME PUMPKIN.

I am counting the days until this is all over and the next chapter begins.

I am cursing myself for counting the days because that means I have to face the reality of this test actually happening.

I am going back to work.

Work Habits

As August stretches out before me, I begin to hone in on the methods which create the best study environment for myself.

This is, of course, assisted by the magical early arrival of autumn here in New England.  I can definitely say that my work habits are much healthier when I can comfortably sit at my desk all day as opposed to having to find alternate places to work due to the heat.  My office is wonderful and sunny with lots of windows… though these qualities also make it the hottest room in the house (lots of windows = greenhouse effect and essentially bakes me out of the entire area as soon as the temperate spikes much above 75°).

I’ve come to carefully and jealously guard my weekdays.  While technically I can work anytime anywhere, I find that I am much less inclined to work on the weekends.  I have no qualms about working late, but if there is anyone else in the apartment I become distracted; I mean, really, who wouldn’t prefer to watch episodes of Supernatural with housemates than read about Weimar Classicism?  So, despite the HUGE amounts of temptation* to go do other things during the week, I am extremely careful to keep my work hours to work hours.

I’ve found that a pile-system works well.  When I move into a new unit, I order somewhere

....just my supplies for a normal trip to campus.

….just my supplies for a normal trip to campus.

between 20 and 40 books from the library.  When I get those books home, I pile them on my desk in thematic piles.  I can generally go through between four and five volumes in a day, so I try to pile them in approximate daily-dosage.  When I go to work in the morning, I pull a pile and see, visually, how much work I have to get through in a day.  It’s a good way to track how much I have accomplished in a time period (be that time period a morning, a week, etc.) and a good way to track how much more I have left to cover before I can move on.  Since I’m a kinesthetic learner, this is HUGE in terms of facilitating my study plan.

As I (not so slowly) reach burnout point, I’ve also learned to prioritize information.  I will look at everything on my desk, but the amount of time I devote to a volume will depend on that volume’s readability, the ease with which I know I will digest the information in that volume, and my ability to connect the volume to something else I know.  Learning is facilitated by connections.  As I fill in the edges of the theatre history map, it is much easier to move outward from territory I have some passing familiarity with than to plonk myself in a strange land where I know nothing and try to figure out the local culture.  Sometimes, I will have (and have had) to start from scratch (let me tell you how much I knew about the Spanish Golden Age before I started this process… there we go, that’s about all I knew), but by and large I can relate most things to something either historical or theatrical that I already have in my arsenal.  As such, if I find something that’s difficult to digest, completely unrelated to anything I already know, and written in impenetrable academicese, I tend to set it down and move on.  The time I would devote to decoding this piece of information is valuable and could better be used finding a book which will explain it to me in a way I can readily understand.

I do find ways to give myself little rewards and motivational things for reaching the next hundred pages, the end of the next book, etc.  Often times these thing consist of “okay, we will send that e-mail AFTER we get to page 150” or “you can check in on facebook/twitter once you finish x more chapters”.  This way, I’m not distracted by the completely natural urges to participate in the rest of the world for longer than I can afford, and I’m motivated to get through my workload.

side-note: I also taught myself to embroider this summer.  This is my first piece (mostly done, I may add some highlighting to the roses).

side-note: I also taught myself to embroider this summer. This is my first piece (mostly done, I may add some highlighting to the roses).

Speaking of distractions, I know that I work better if I can silence my phone and leave it in another room.  No matter how well intentioned, mid-day texting completely breaks my concentration and instantaneously takes me out of whatever it is I’m doing.  Chatting while working seems to be a phenomenon that desk-job people can accommodate (I know when I worked a desk job, I had an IM window open all day every day).  Because of the nature of my work (deep thought, deep research, uninterrupted brainwaves yield the best results), I simply can’t do it anymore.  Even when I’m in the deepest portion of research mode, the smallest thing can jar me back to reality and, often, I find it twice as hard to recover whatever it is I was doing before someone decided to ask me some menial question or send me a selfie.  Solution: silence the cell phone and put it face down on the desk.  Unfortunately, this is a do as I say not as I do item as my self-control tends to only go so far with this rule.  But!  We are all in a process of bettering ourselves as individuals and if this is what I need to work on as a human being, I’ll add it to the list right under “being careful of caffeine overconsumption”.

Obviously everyone is different so what works for me may not work for you.  My point is that astute self-observation will lead you to the path of righteousness and productivity.  Sleep well, study hard, and get ready because autumn is coming.

*By “HUGE amounts of temptation” I’m talking huge… like the knowledge that my entire family is having a get-together in New York because my scattered-across-the-country siblings all happen to be free on one weekend and are flying home and so I should totally join them two weeks before my test.  Let me tell you how painful that was to turn down, especially when a certain family member who shall remain nameless simply won’t stop pushing the issue no matter how many times I say “no, mom, I can’t come down to New York two weeks before my exam”.

The Care and Feeding of your Comps-Taking PhD-to-be

As we launch into August, it has come to my attention that I will have to take the comprehensive exam.

“Well, duh!” You say, “Isn’t that what you’ve been studying for since June?  Isn’t that the cause of your extreme stress, and the true root of every single nightly anxiety dream you’ve been experiencing?  Don’t you already know this?”

…yes, I know this.  In theory.  Comps, much like any other part of this process of becoming, is something that is effectively fiction until it’s reality.  You know that it’s listed as a degree requirement in the Graduate Student Handbook, you see its wake in the eyes of your senior colleagues, you understand that it is a thing that does happen, but until you have some confirmation that it will happen to you it still seems like you roommate’s imaginary Boyfriend who lives in Canada*.

For me, the concrete proof came in an e-mail from our department admin this week announcing the dates of the exam, some details about the exam, and the locations where we will each be subject to our individual torture hell anguish trial.  This, combined with the realization that it is, in fact, August and thereby the summer will, at some point, end has added some heat to the proverbial fire and kicked my already-overblown stress level into overdrive.  The anxiety dreams have gotten more pressing (though, sadly, more routine and so affect me less when I wake up), the fatigue has gotten more dragging, and the day-to-day realities of comps studying have

Another cute picture of a cat that's not mine with books that are mine.

Another cute picture of a cat that’s not mine with books that are mine.

gotten more mind-numbing.  I’d love to say I was in the final stretch, but I’m really only cresting the mid-point.  I’ve got about a third of the way left to go.

This in mind, I would like to take a moment to address the care and feeding of your beloved PhD student.  If you’re reading this, there is (in some capacity) someone in your life who has, will, or is gone through or going through this process.  As such, please bear in mind the following fundamental truths of comps studying:

Truth the first: every small adjustment, change, or mishap is suddenly a GIANT CALAMITY.  Right now, there are very few things that we can control.  Changing a SINGLE THING which falls inside that realm is simply disastrous.  In the past week, I’ve burst into tears over eggplant because it wasn’t in the fridge when I expected it to be.  No joke.  Treat your PhD student gently and if something ABSOLUTELY HAS TO CHANGE, make sure it has the smallest effect on his/her existence.

Truth the second: We don’t have enough hours in our day.  Do not expect us to go above and beyond for anything right now (note: “above and beyond” can just mean “hey, can you take out the trash AND recycling because of completely reasonable reason y?”  See truth the first for further explanation on this point).  Also, do not expect us to be capable of organizing, planning, being in charge, helping, assisting, or taking care of anything no matter how menial it may seem.  We simply can’t do it.

Truth the third: Small words.  Please.  Use small words.  And unless you’re talking to us about our field, don’t expect to engage us in any conversation that requires more than grunts, nods, or Neolithic fist pounding.  If you do expect such engagement, also expect that we will almost immediately find a way to turn the conversation back to whatever it is we’re studying.  Example: I found clear references to eighteenth century acting technique in Pixar’s Monster’s University.  When my companion asked what I thought of the film, it was about all I had to add to the conversation.

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and another picture of my desk. This time in PANORAMA!

Truth the fourth: Any small kindness will be taken as earth-shatteringly wonderful.  This includes meal-cooking/meal-providing, hugs without conversation, and pretty much any unobtrusive reminder that you’re there, you love us, and you understand we’re going through a rough time but don’t worry it’ll get better soon.

Truth the fifth: Treat plan-making with us as a precarious process which may or may not come to full fruition, and please PLEASE don’t take it personally when we have to stay home and read, work late for some reason, etc.  This also includes unanswered/unreturned texts or phone calls.  We still love you and we promise that we’ll get back to you come September when this ordeal has come to its inevitable conclusion.

Truth the sixth: As odd as this may look from the outside, this is a life-changing process which (literally) determines the fate of our future.  Our entire careers will be changed by the outcome of this exam.  Dealing with that reality every day is daunting, dizzying, and frankly terrifying.  We are essentially training our brains to think like professional academics and this is something we will use for the rest of our lives.  Please don’t compare our stress over this to your bad day at work, the failures of your dating life, or burning dinner.  It will just make us angry and frustrated that you don’t really understand what we’re going through.

Truth the seventh: Pretty much just treat us like cranky three-year-olds and you can’t go wrong.  Simple things that provide amusement are appreciated, tasty treats will always be greeted with gratitude, ignoring us when we’re having a temper tantrum is perfectly acceptable.

I assure you, we will repay the favor tenfold when we’re no longer living in the seventh circle.

*Please Note: My current roommate doesn’t have one of these, but I understand from contemporary satire (i.e. Avenue Q.) that it could be a thing which a hopelessly single person might say in order to convince his/her friends that he/she is not, in fact, hopelessly single.