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.

2013-07-28 21.36.58

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.

Working Back to Running

Operation: relax was a great success.  Spending a week away from my books has made all the difference in the world and I’m feeling much more capable of tackling the things that I left behind in Boston.

Unfortunately, getting back into my studying groove is proving more difficult than I had anticipated.  While I know that I couldn’t have maintained the pace I had achieved when I left, coaxing myself back up to running speed is not easy.

I also have found that taking a week away has done scary things to my sense of information retention.  I’m reasonably sure the information is still in there, just occluded in a way it hadn’t been when I left the Northeast.  I have to reach around the pleasant cloud of vacation to turn up the things that I need on any given occasion and that, my friends, is rather startling given the amount of effort I put into putting those select facts into my brain.

In addition, it seems I’ve brought the Florida weather back with me.  While it was still pleasantly autumn upon my departure, it now seems to be full-blown summer.  This makes my life slightly more difficult as while my apartment is many wonderful things, air-conditioned is not one of them.

In summary, while I know I needed the break and I am absolutely assured that it did wonderful things to my mental (and physical!) well being, it’s definitely wrecked some havoc on my studying habits.

Let’s go back to the marathon training metaphor I used earlier this summer.  Taking a

artistic rendering of my workspace at the local cafe yesterday.

artistic rendering of my workspace at the local cafe yesterday.

week off from any intensive training will give you time to relax and recuperate, but there is some inevitable back-slide upon your return.  I’m just feeling all kinds of sore from my workouts since my mind, over the course of the past week, hasn’t been as rigorously worked.

It is sometimes important to recognize that we are not machines.  Though the comps-study process is a great deal about becoming a sort of professional juggernaut, at some point we need to recognize and yield to our humanity.  Slowly working back up to break-neck speed after some time off is one of those things.  Actually taking time off is another.

I had promised myself that I would be as gentle as possible with my study habits while simultaneously pushing myself to do as much as I had to/could.  These goals, while they seem antithetical, are actually really important to maintaining both sanity and work/life balance.  In order to prevent myself from being anxious about all the things I’m not learning, I need to push hard.  In order to maintain my mental well-being and not turn into some kind of Gollum creature clutching books to my chest and muttering about French Neoclassicism, I need to preserve some semblance of equilibrium.  So without moving into the land of unrealistic expectations, this antithesis is just something I have to balance.

And on that note, I’m going to stop procrastinating and get to reviewing Medieval Europe.  If I do well today, which I should, tomorrow opens up early Modern to study and, since that means some quality time with my man Will, if I can’t get excited about that I should probably just quite now.

Party-induced Realizations; or; Why Academics Should not get their Hands on a Slip and Slide

Wednesday evening, at a party which answered the age-old question “what happens when a group of academics have access to a large house, copious amounts of booze, and a slip and slide?” (hint: the answer involved me re-evaluating how any child survived the

greasy little death-traps they are, but oh so much fun!

nineties, and mentally writing several obituaries beginning with the words “Promising academic [John Smith] perished in tragic slip and slide accident this fourth of July….”), I realized several things.

Realization one: Having survived my first year, I am now officially a “grizzled old-timer” of the department.  I’m debating investing in a flat cap and a cane.

Realization two: Come September, there will be a whole new crop of first-years, as wide-eyed and nervous and excited as I was last September, all ready and willing to begin their journey into academic theatrics.  This will mean many things in terms of atmosphere in the department, and I truly hope that those who do show (I’ve had the good pleasure to meet/exchange e-mails with/chat with some of them) add as much to the environment round these parts as we did.  Folks who pursue a PhD in Drama are interesting types; loud, smart, occasionally obnoxious, always eccentric, charming, witty, we’re all so very different from each other that when we’re put in the same room there’s the very real possibility of spontaneous combustion.  Here’s hoping we make fireworks and not forest fires.

Realization three: In just one short, arduous year, I too will join the ranks of those who have fondly galloped forth into the sunset of dissertation land.  Heck, a year from September and with any luck I’ll be ABD.  That thought is only vaguely terrifying.  Mostly because all thoughts about my dissertation at this juncture can only be vague.

Realization four: Summer is a time when academics get less work done than they had hoped to, more than they had planned to, and just enough to keep themselves going for the coming year.

while this is always what I imagine work-on-vacation to look like, it’s really not anything resembling reality.

Realization five:  Summer is also a time when academics are allowed to occasionally take a much-needed break.  When is the last time I walked away from my desk for more than a day and a half and not thought about work?  Normal people take weekends every week…. I’m allowed to have a day or two off (and should take them on a regular basis).  I also should not feel guilty about the week-long vacation I have planned.  I also should avoid bringing work with me (…but will I follow through on this?  Probably not).

Realization six:  When attending a party with colleagues, try to come armed with conversation topics that are not your work.  This is much more challenging than one may think.  Academia can be extremely isolating; most of my work is done at my own desk without anyone else around.  The true kernel of my research is not something that I have occasion to discuss very frequently.  As a result, whenever I’m around folks whom I feel will get it, I’m so eager to talk about it that I lose sight of all other topics of conversation.  Suddenly I become a machine, a cyber-man, a single-minded zombie of academia with only one thought to drive my actions: SHAAAAKKKEEESSSPPPPEEEAAARRREEEEE.  It’s extremely easy for me to forget that my colleagues are people too who may prefer to have real-life conversations than talk about work constantly.  Next time; pocket-sized cue cards with tips for things that normal people talk about.  What do normal people talk about?

Realization seven: Wow, I know some really smart people.  Like… really smart.  Like… totally smart.  God, have I told you how smart you are recently?  And pretty.  You’re pretty.

Realization eight: When drinking sangria, don’t eat the fruit.

Summer Days… Drifting Away

Can you believe it’s July already?  That reality check as I looked at my calendar reminded me that summer is in full swing and I had better settle into it and stop waiting for it to happen because otherwise I’ll miss it before it’s even occurred (…plug that into your TARDIS and parse it, I dare you!).

As I have previously mentioned, this summer my schedule is full to the brim with important self-propelled projects.  Large items on the docket include:

Learning to Read German: This requires the most tenacity of any of the projects which are currently on my desk.  Turns out learning a new language is, while not more difficult than I remember it being, more time-consuming.  This is likely because I’m attempting to cram the entire thing into my head in the matter of mere months.  Well… that’s not entirely accurate.  I’m attempting to cram the skills which I will need to read it effectively into my head in a matter of mere months.  These skills include: an understanding of grammar (a

This was my preliminary flashcard stack… it has since grown by at least 300%

little… complicated in German.  Very different from English, not so different from other things I’ve previous done, but definitely convoluted until you figure out how to break it down into its bits and memorize those bits… it’s the memorization part that’s tricky), an understanding of how to utilize a dictionary (not as straightforward as it sounds… curse you, German, and your crazy compound words!), and a giant vocabulary.  Vocabulary acquisition/retention is what takes up the bulk of my time.  Every day, I am learning between 50-70 new words.  That’s a LOT.  On my desk sit stacks of flash cards that grow and thrive between each passing day.  I have a pile system.  It’s nice to see things I know today that I didn’t know yesterday represented in such a graphic way.  However, problematically, since my class moves SO quickly, learning all the things in my “to-learn” pile just means I have to make more flash cards.  This has caused me no small amount of stress (since there’s CONSTANTLY something else to do and I can’t really ignore the giant stack of index cards that sits RIGHT IN FRONT OF MY FACE), but I keep having to remind myself that a language is all-inclusive.  I guesstimate that I have acquired the reading level of an eight-year-old.  That’s pretty friggen good for one month of hard study.

Brushing off Papers for Publication: Publish or Perish ain’t just an old sailor’s adage, folks.  In fact, many respected academics say that publishing is the most important part of a PhD candidate’s marketability as a job candidate.  The job market the way it is, I need to be as flawlessly perfect as I can be (and as attractive to potential employers).  And that means publishing.  And that means a lot of work on top of the work I’ve already done to produce these papers in the first place.  Unfortunately, since this task is slightly easier to ignore than the tribble-like flash cards that litter my desk, this doesn’t take up as much of my time as it should.  That said, I hope to have at least two papers floating in the publication ether by the end of the summer.  Three would be better, but I’m trying to be realistic and not drive myself absolutely bonkers trying to accomplish something that’s only kinda feasible if I stop sleeping and going to the gym.

Learning to Play the Ukulele: While recently attending the wedding of some dear friends, I

someday, maybe I’ll be as cool as Amanda Palmer

came to the realization that since I’m a less-than-mediocre guitarist, I’d probably be halfway decent at playing a ukulele.  The idea percolated and I realized that it was perhaps the perfect way to spend my copious amounts of free time (did you hear the sarcasm in my font?).  So far, I was right!  The ukulele is perfect for me because it is small, lady-like, has four strings (four strings for four fingers instead of six strings for four fingers… it’s like heaven!), and doesn’t carry the asshole connotations that a guitar does.  Also, it’s interesting.  “Oh, yea, in my spare time, I play the ukulele”.  Who says that?  (…other than me now….).  It’s also portable; I have handbags that are larger than my uke… and I don’t eve have a small uke! (she’s concert-sized, for anyone to whom that would mean anything, and her name is Jojo after the wonderful lady  who hooked me up with chord charts and learners’ resources).

Going to the Gym: A constant process, and one I’m trying to get better at before school devours me.  During my first year, I was pretty consistent about being a 2-3 times a week gym bunny.  I’m trying to bump this to 3-4 times a week.  Can she do it?  Let’s find out…

Starting a Podcast: If you haven’t visited the links section of the site in a while, you probably won’t have noticed that I’ve added a few (…and also a page for my sundry extracurriculars… in case you aren’t tired of listening to me rant about grad school here, you can see me do it at other places on the internet!).  One of these links is to the site that is going to host the podcast which myself and my partner in crime have been cooking up.  Several months ago, he came to me with the idea to start it and, always being game for things involving Shakespeare and things involving my partner in crime, I said “let’s do it”.  Well, we’ve been busting our butts to make the dream a reality and, in the next week or two, look for our first broadcast.  We’re going to be chatting about Shakespeare’s canon in approximate chronological-to-how-he-wrote-them order in 15-minute-a-week intervals.  Our first show: Shakespeare’s first tragedy, Titus Andronicus.  Should be good fun!

Preparing for the Fall: At the back of my head, I’ve constantly been reminding myself of the

Last summer, I could get some R&R right at work (… Beach-Themed dance party at the studio)

mental fortitude required to live out a year in academia.  I need to get some R&R in this summer if it kills me or, come fall, it really will kill me.  I do have a tiny vacation planned, and have been orchestrating some exceedingly fun outings with friends (by the by, 5-wits events are TOTALLY worth going to especially if the idea of being a super-spy or steam-punk adventurer for the afternoon at all fills you with any sense of childish glee).  I’ve also been trying to take it as easy as I can between everything else, not beat myself up too much if my to-do lists are slightly behind, and enjoy some good ol’ fashioned vitamin D every chance I get.  With any luck, this will be enough to recharge my batteries so that I can be rearing to go come September.

So for now, I think I’m going to grab myself an iced tea with mint and blueberries, and return to this persistently propagating pile of plosives.  How’s your summer going?

The Blahs

Whether it’s the lazy, hazy days of summer that have hit us here in Boston, a general sense of overall fatigue from the semester that I haven’t given myself a chance to recover from, or the moon being in the seventh house and Jupiter aligning with Mars, I’ve found myself deep within a case of the “blahs”.

You know the blahs.  That thing that happens that makes you want to do nothing more than sit on the couch and be a lump.  That thing that whispers lazily in your ear telling you “just one more episode, you didn’t actually want to go to the gym today”.  That thing that puts a fire-blanket over productivity and makes it nearly impossible to keep up with your “gotta do it now!”s (forget your “should do it soon”s).

For people with conventional jobs, while annoying, the blahs aren’t exactly life threatening.  You’ve still gotta get up, go into the office, do your basic functions, and come home.  You’re still accountable for your responsibilities to a boss, supervisor, team, company.  There’s going to be someone asking questions if your productivity takes a nose-dive for the bottom of the bar graph.

Unfortunately for me, summertime in academia is a very very difficult time during which to get the blahs.

Not only is there no one besides myself to whom I’m accountable, but I don’t even have any hard deadlines to work towards.  I’m awash in a sea of amorphous, ambiguous, and very large tasks which all require attention and diligence, but also provide the illusion that succumbing to the blahs could be alright.

 

My to-do list is no shorter than it has ever been, I’m just working on things that are long-term goals.  I’m trying to maintain better gym habits.  I’m putting a lot of effort into personal projects that fell by the wayside during crunch-time.  I’m trying not to give myself heart attacks while accomplishing my summer tasks, and I’m also trying to get in some of that rest that’s so crucial to being prepared for the fall.

But the blahs are not sated by ambiguous improvement, nor can they be fought with small accomplishment.

To help myself beat back the blahs, I’ve tried to create visual guides and land-marks for the things I’m doing.  I’ve created physical flash cards for my German vocabulary so that I can actually see how many words I know now that I didn’t know yesterday, a week, a month ago.  I’ve started stacking my used-draft-papers again to (hopefully) find some convenient fire in which to burn them when I’ve submitted the paper I’m polishing.  I’ve created a cheat-book of song chords for my ukulele so I can A) localize the songs I know and B) see how much I’ve learned since I took it into my head that I should learn to play a ukulele at a friend’s wedding a month ago.  There’s not much I can do about the gym other than pat myself on the back and have a nice shower when I return home, but endorphins and a few hours of temperature control (my place has many virtues, central AC isn’t one of them) are reward enough, no?

 

I, like this sheep, feel droopy about the ears

In my experience, productivity expands and contracts in direct correlation to the amount of time at one’s disposal.  Have A MILLION BILLION THINGS TO DO RIGHT NOW!? No problem, you will get them ALL done.  Have a lot of time on your hands and just a few projects with a bunch of space in which to accomplish assorted random other tasks?  Meh.  You’ll get done what you need to get done, but no more.

So as I struggle through my case of the blahs, I have every expectation that I will accomplish what I absolutely need to accomplish… but likely not so much as I had wished to accomplish.  With any luck I’ll be seeing some sunshine at the end of this gloomy tunnel and be able to kick my summer into overdrive as soon as I find some inspiration to do so.

Into the Abyss

So I have previously mentioned that part of my process come panic time involves a giant whiteboard.

This is a survival mechanism which I developed in my Master’s.  Often, a graduate student lives in three to four different worlds an each world is represented by a separate syllabus.  Each has its own deadlines, requirements, readings, library pile, points of interest on the internet, points of contact at the department, rules, regulations, and practices.  Often, meshing these worlds together is the cause of a great deal of stress come finals time (see my momentary freak-out about over scheduling myself towards the end of last semester).  Also, because a course can contain many little assignments in addition to a large one, often things can get lost in the shuffle.

To combat this, I developed the whiteboard technique.  Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed by deadlines, I make a chart.  I list what the assignment is (and, if it requires further specificity which due to the nature of grad-school courses it often does not, who it is for), where to send it (if you’re talking about abstracts and publication submissions, often those e-mails can get lost in the shuffle as well), and when it is due.  Then I leave myself a place to check off when the assignment has been completed.  On the side, I create a list of ongoing projects with no due-dates, just things that I need to remember to do.

Getting it all down in black and white (and often also orange, purple, and green when I’m feeling whimsical) helps to assure me that a) I didn’t miss anything, b) I won’t miss anything, and c) I really and truly do have a handle on my life.

At the end of the semester, when all is said and done, I leave the whiteboard there for a while with all of its check boxes intact.  It gives me a sense of accomplishment to see that I’ve met all my deadlines and, at the end of a semester, one needs all the sense of accomplishment one can find.

But the other day, I took the leap.

I erased the whiteboard.

It’s pretty freeing to be able to sit at my desk and have a giant blank slate hanging over me.  Of course, my summer projects are taking up a lot more of my time than I had anticipated (I dramaturge eight to ten hours a week, German class four hours a week, study approx. ten hours a week, have been trying to catch up on my sleep, my e-mails, my reading, my knitting, my life, and my gym schedule, I haven’t really had time to touch my papers that I wanted to brush off over the summer yet but it will come).  These ongoing projects, though, the kind with no deadline, they’re not exactly whiteboard material.  It’s like looking into a great white expanse of nothing.  My time is my own again.  I’m not working under pressure, I’m not working under any imposed or hard end-stop, I’m just working as much as I can as fast as I can.

…so I guess on the other hand not having white-board deadlines also means that I’m probably working more in between all the other things I do, but at this point I’ll just relish the change of pace.

 

Deutsch

So one of my summer quests is to learn to read in German.

One of the requirements for most PhDs in the Humanities (I know for certain English and Theatre Studies, other areas I’m not so clear on) is a reading knowledge of two languages other than English (alternately, a deep comprehension/fluency of one other language).  This requirement is often best taken care of in the early stages of your coursework so that it doesn’t hang you up when you go to do big things like comps and orals.

For me, I came into the program with a fairly solid reading knowledge of French.  German, while it seems esoteric, is a good choice for someone in Theatre Studies as the field was basically conceived in Germany, though like most things conceived in Germany fell apart during that big black hole in history that began in Germany.  Nowadays, the Free University of Berlin is a fairly happening place (especially for Shakespeareans and especially over the summer).

To assist in my quest, the school has hired one of my colleagues in the English department to teach a reading-in-German tutorial for anyone in the humanities required to pass such an exam as mine.

Learning to read in a language is a skill set entirely different from learning a language.  We did not spend the first day talking about our names, how we were, and where we lived.  Because we have a very limited time frame and are expected to retain a whole lot of information, this course is essentially a strategy guide for quick and dirty German.  Here’s how you recognize a noun, here’s a verb, here are common irregular verbs, now go learn all the vocabulary you can stuff in that little brain and come back later.  It’s a lot more technical; let’s break down this sentence (almost diagramming the sentence) and figure out which words we absolutely need to look up.  How many trips to the dictionary can we avoid?  How much can we clarify what you’re actually looking up and what you will find when you do?

This is made slightly easier by the fact that German, like English, is a Germanic language (and, to be even more technical, a West Germanic language).  It’s closer to English than a Romance language and thereby has a great many cognates which can help the English-speaking German-beginner.

It’s also made slightly easier by the fact that in my undergrad I decided to take a smattering of all kinds of languages.  Flash back to the first semester Freshman year, my brief flirtation with Latin.  I had a slightly longer affair with Italian, and the longest-lasting

This picture might best encapsulate my time in Dublin* *this is not entirely true… but that is a whole nother book of stories…

was with Irish (two and a half years of Irish Gaelic and a summer living in Dublin later and, while my Irish has decayed over the years from lack of use, I may still know more than native Irish people who don’t live in Gaeltachts).  Latin taught me grammar.  If you want to learn English grammar, go learn Latin.  I also taught me the meanings of cases and declensions, a building block for many of the other languages I’m working with.  Irish taught me how to deal with an inflected language (that is, a language in which word order doesn’t really matter).  This is the same in Latin, but since I lived with Irish longer I was better able to grasp the concept.  German word order is often strange and unusual because the rules governing sentence structure are not the same as they are in English.  Italian taught me to order in restaurants and buy a verb dictionary.  Seriously.  More irregular verbs than any language a sane person would actually want to learn.

So, while German is foreign, it’s not completely foreign.

It’s also delightful to be learning something new and different.  I’ve spent so long with a certain kind of schooling (namely: go home, read this book, do some research, come back and talk about it, write a paper) that having a new way to exercise my mind is almost salivatingly good.  Last night, the teacher handed out worksheets!  I haven’t had a worksheet to do since the 90s! (…almost as long, by the way, as I haven’t done higher-level mathematics…. I think I may see a corollary here…)

So, yes, they basically throw you in the deep end clinging desperately to your dictionary like a lifeline.  And there’s a lot of vocabulary to memorize.  Like… all the vocabulary.  The more vocab you know, the fewer trips to the dictionary you need, and thereby the faster you are at translating.

But it’s fresh, it’s interesting, and it’s extremely different from the kind of learning I do during the year.  While I can’t really call it a vacation, I can call it a drastic deviation from my regularly scheduled programming.