Through Good Times and Bad

In case you haven’t been super-stalking my digital life, you may or may not know that I’ve just come off a grand adventure.  Three days; three plays; three reviews.  All have been posted to New England Theatre Geek (since in my copious free time I moonlight as a reviewer there), and you should check them out if you’re at all interested in the American Shakes-scene right now.

What this really means is that I’m exhausted.  I’ve been working so much that I’ve forgotten what “fun” is.  I demonstrated this fact the other day when I sat down to my desk, looked at the pile of books I set aside to read that day for my Prospectus prep, and thought unironically “THIS IS GOING TO BE THE BEST DAY!”  (… it was “THE BEST DAY”

Not my book fort, but some days it feels this way.  This is a used bookstore in Salem, MA.

Not my book fort, but some days it feels this way. This is a used bookstore in Salem, MA.

for maybe two hours before I realized that I had about 1,000 pages of reading to do before sundown, wasn’t getting through it as fast as I wanted to, and OH BY THE WAY also had a veritable pile of other work to do).  The stationary bicycle of PhD work has really got me down this week, and as a result I’m plugging along like the little engine that could (“I THINK I CAN I THINK I CAN”), or if you prefer, Dory the forgetful fish (“JUST KEEP SWIMMING! JUST KEEP SWIMMING!”).  That said, I have a hard time sitting down at my computer for more than twenty minutes without my eyes glazing over.  It’s just the way it is sometimes.

The problem is that it will always be like this on occasion.  There are days, no matter what you’re doing and how much you love doing it, that you simply don’t wanna.  Heck, there might even be whole weeks when you simply don’t wanna.  That doesn’t mean you don’t love your work, it just means that you’re a human being and not a research machine.

Understanding this and getting through it is a process.  Up until now, I’ve prided myself on the point that I can work through just about anything; extreme weather conditions (you laugh, but it’s actually a problem in deep summer when your apartment doesn’t have central air or deep winter when you’re freezing mid-day because you’re trying to keep your heating bills down), extreme emotional conditions (life happens and you still have to work), extreme stress (I swear I will never again be able to hear the words “exams” without a small spine-tingling shudder), extreme pain (I’ve undergone minor surgery and still had to work the same day), and extreme workload.  The fact that these extenuating factors take their toll is not something that I’ve cared to put much thought into, but we need to face reality.

Being a graduate student is hard.  Doing the work for a Ph.D. is REALLY hard.  There’s a

A gem from my stack of dissertation reading.

A gem from my stack of dissertation reading.

reason that not everyone gets one.  What we’re doing is extraordinary.  Period.  If, at any time, you feel tired, overwrought, or wrung out, it’s probably because you’re working your smart little elbow patches off.

This work is exhausting, life-consuming, and never-ending.

It’s also incredibly fulfilling, exciting, and the most enormous privilege.

To pretend otherwise is ridiculous.

There’s good and bad in everything and, when you’re doing something extraordinary, the extremes are pretty extreme.  Admitting this is not admitting defeat.  If you’ve hit a point where you’re just tired don’t let it stop you, but don’t assume that it makes you weak or lesser in some way.  Taking breaks is healthy and finding your break zen is important to productivity (I, for instance, need longer days to work at a slower pace.  I will take an hour and a half mid-day to fit a workout in, but I will work until 9 or 10 at night to get what needs doing done).

Really, though, if you’re going through a rough patch for whatever reason, be gentle with yourself.  It doesn’t make you a bad scholar, it doesn’t make you a bad teacher, and it certainly doesn’t make you a lesser person.  Just take a moment to accept that you’re a human being.  Remember your triumphs, and consider slowing your pace just a tad.  You’ll pick up the slack when you’re back in the saddle.  As long as less work doesn’t become a habit, it all evens out in the end.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to go watch some trashy television and detox from my Academic Life for a while.  If you need me, I’ll be on my couch with my Netflix.


Girl Fight

A friend of mine recently brought this blog post to my attention and I had some… colorful things to say about it.  Since I am a blogger and firmly believe that a vital function of the internet is to abet and continue important conversations, I would like to voice some of my more coherent thoughts.

A few of these points are very valid.  Point one, for instance, is something that I struggle with every day… but not in the way described by tenureshewrote.  In academia, a lot of our work is done via e-mail.  In a globalized field, the internet makes possible projects and conversations which otherwise would be very difficult.  That said, figuring out the proper e-mail salutation is fraught with peril; do I address this person as “Doctor” or “Professor”?  I’m on first name basis with important person X, but since e-mail is a written medium does that mean I should address her more formally?  In contacting a department admin, what is the proper e-mail salutation to give respect but not seem condescending?  I see my students struggle with this as well; my department runs on a first-name basis and, accordingly, to them I am “Danielle”.  Their e-mail salutations are always deferential, but often edge into the reverential (for the record, they usually go with “Professor Rosvally” especially if they are winding up to deliver bad news).  Defaulting to the most respectful title available is always a safe bet.

I have two large-scale issues with this list: the first being that it oversteps the boundary

side-note: check out this rainbow I saw on Friday!

side-note: check out this rainbow I saw on Friday!

between “personal” and “professional”.  There are a few borderline cases of this (see: item six which, for me, brings into question whether everything held in the workplace is automatically a professional function… I tend to think yes but an argument could certainly be launched in the other direction).  There are a few that are blatant attempts to dictate life choices (items nine and eight specifically).  Chore division at home has absolutely nothing to do with the workplace and, frankly, is no one’s business but the homemakers.  Including items like this in a list directed at the workplace not only further blurs the already-hazy boundaries between an academic’s “home” and “work” life, but it also encourages an attitude about the lifestyle.  As an academic, it is difficult to turn off at the end of the day.  I work from home a great deal, set my own hours for the most part, and since we live in a digital world my e-mail is always by my side via my smart phone.  Ensuring that I am not constantly “on duty” is already a mammoth task without the kind of bleed-over this list exhibits.


The second large-scale issue I find with the list is that most of its points fall into the doctrine of “don’t be a jerk”.  Point four, for instance, violates every rule of professionalism in anyone’s book no matter what profession you happen to be in.  It is not appropriate to have sexually-charged conversations at your workplace/with your co-workers.  Point fourteen is just a good general life rule.  These things are not items which male academics must particularly be aware of so much as codes of decent living.  They have nothing to do with a chosen vocation or sexual equality but rather should be a part of living a do-unto-others lifestyle.

In addition to the large-scale troubles I find here, there are a few specific points that I take real issue with.  Point seventeen, for instance, takes a good concept too far.  Yes, equal opportunity is important in the workplace, but telling male academics to be careful whom they include when they go for after-work drinks because this is a valuable networking opportunity crosses a line.

First of all.  As an academic, part of my job is to network.  By encouraging my male colleagues to extend special invitations to me which they wouldn’t otherwise extend potentially puts me in the situation of being around a group of people who have already judged me as inferior and, thereby, do not want to speak with me.  If I can’t get that invitation to drinks on my own merit as a scholar/person rather than by some hidden code of my gender, then I don’t really want it.  And I absolutely don’t want an invite simply because a group of male coworkers needs a token Girl with them at Guy’s night.

By treating the work of female academics as precious or special, we create a scenario where that work becomes different from the work of our male colleagues.  The value of my scholarship has nothing to do with my gender (or the color of my skin, or my sexual orientation for that matter).  I don’t believe it’s right to treat my paper any differently from that of a man simply on the basis of field demographics.  By giving this kind of special attention to the fact that I might be a woman in a predominately male field, it in turn creates that kind of special attention.  Why should the gender of panel-speakers matter if they are equally qualified experts?  The best people for the job should be given the job (even if, in this case, “the job” is likely a volunteer service to the industry).  When last I checked, hiring an employee based on gender discrimination was very illegal, why should this be any different?

It is true that the academy is facing a disproportionately large number of women in professional service positions.  This is a problem for several reasons; two of the largest are: 1) These positions are generally volunteer-based and pile atop any paid position the holder also has.  This means that female academics are unfairly burdened with more work for less pay.  2) These positions take a great deal of time and care that otherwise could go towards research (which essentially means that men in the profession have more time to conduct research on the kinds of projects that tend to weigh heavier in job and tenure applications than even high-end professional service).  This demographic tangle means, at its core, that female academics may have fewer hiring and promotion opportunities because they do the kinds of service that are required to keep important functions of the academy running.  Gender dynamics in the ivory tower is a complicated issue and untangling it isn’t as simple as weeding out benevolent sexism or “mansplaining”.

Generally, my take-away from the tenureshewrote list is that we need to encourage, above all, a doctrine of be a good person.  Presumably we all got into this gig to be educators and, in some small fashion, to shape the future by way of our students.  If we ever want to function in a society where sexism is no longer newsworthy, we have to be the kinds of people who don’t see sexism as newsworthy.  Most of all, we need to treat each other with respect regardless of gender, not because of gender.

The Finals Countdown; Fall 2012

This is a drive-by.  Things are nuts; For the past three weeks I’ve been doing nothing but work, go to the gym, and sleep.  My brain is currently the approximate consistency of tapioca pudding.  And not even the good kind of tapioca pudding, it’s the soggy from a plastic container and tin lid sort.  And it’s likely been sitting on the shelf for too long so it’s just this side of “okay to eat”…

…this is not an invitation for zombies to come raid my apartment.

In that vein, I do not feel that I have anything intelligent, pertinent, or inspiring to say at the moment.  I’ve been communicating with my roommate and partner-in-crime using grunts and clicks (I’m past even the capacity for charade-like hand motions), and I don’t trust my own judgment right now as to what would constitute “intelligent, pertinent, or inspired” anyway.

Sooo…. I will re-assert a few basic truths about this point of the finals process, and then dive back to the turmoil of the ever-present grindstone.

Thing One: Proofreading saves lives.  Amongst the errors which, uncaught, would have proved outright embarrassing (mind you, in drafts that are far enough down the writing process that I even ventured to show one to my PiC the other day) are: several punctuation mishaps, misspellings of authors’ names, and (most embarrassing of all) several accounts of the correct Shakespeare quote attributed to the incorrect character in a play completely different from the one it was in in the first place.  Apparently, I can quote Shakespeare verbatim in tapioca-mode, but I’ll be darned if I can attribute these quotes correctly.  So far, I’ve attempted to put Touchstone in Twelfth Night (this is particularly puzzling since, of all shows, you would think that As You Like it would be freshest in my

my Sassy Gay Friend pretending to be Lincoln

my Sassy Gay Friend pretending to be Lincoln

mind right now and, indeed, it’s only my performance recollections which saved this mishap from making it to the final cut of the paper), and re-attribute a piece of Macbeth’s “sound and fury” speech to Hamlet (What, what, what are you doing?).

Thing Two: I am, as of today, T-minus two papers and four days from completing the last Fall Semester of coursework in my PhD.  My first paper goes down Monday, my second Wednesday, in between I proctor and grade a final for one of my TAships.  On Wednesday, I will drive to campus, drop off my paper, and drive directly down to NY for holidays with my family.  Because my life isn’t stressful at all.

Thing Three: It’s remarkable what slack people will cut you when you look at them with the glazed-over look of hopeless “good god, I don’t remember how to talk to a normal person because my mind is still reeling about early nineteenth-century draperies”.  Either that, or my friends are amazing.  I suspect a combination of the two.  Maybe I look worse than I think I do.  At least I’m bathing regularly (IMPORTANT!).

Here is a cute picture of a baby hippo I took at the San Diego Zoo... for no reason other than it is sometimes good to look at cute pictures of baby hippos.

Here is a cute picture of a baby hippo I took at the San Diego Zoo… for no reason other than it is sometimes good to look at cute pictures of baby hippos.

Thing Four: No matter where you are, I can assure you that if you aren’t done by now, you are very close.  If you, in the past few days/weeks have experienced the same jarring helplessness that I have experienced, I would like for you to take a moment, take a breath, and remember that the light is right there at the end of the tunnel.  I know you’re tired (“exhausted” might be a better word… actually “bone-weary beyond all possible means of human comprehension” might fit best), I know you’re frustrated, I know you’re worried.  But you will do it.  I have faith.  Hold fast, Horus.

Thing Five: I’m going to take a break and sit on my couch for a few minutes.  I haven’t actually sat on my couch in at least two weeks.  Since I’ve put in a good six and a half hours already, I think I deserve this.

Keep calm, and keep editing folks!  See you on the other side!

A Step Back

Yesterday, it was brought to my attention that perhaps I’m not being entirely fair in my depiction of graduate life.  In fact, to quote the individual who precipitated this, it was mentioned that I depict the department as “some kind of Dantesian circle of hell”.  In light of this, I want to take a moment to clarify some points and hopefully make my motivations in blogging a little less opaque to people who may stumble across this and misunderstand my intentions.

First things first: I am extremely lucky and entirely blessed (by a nondenominational atheistic power) to be where I am.  I love my department and I love my university.  Despite the rants and ramblings that appear here all-too-often, I recognize that I am one of the few (the happy few, the band of brothers) who had both the good fortune and the chops to be admitted to a place at a prestigious institution such as Tufts University.  My department is small and I have never been (and will never be) reduced to a barcode (despite what the University healthcare system may think).  My professors are supportive and giving of their time and expertise.  The library is a bastion of useful resources.  The research librarian is smart, patient, and wonderful.  My colleagues are brilliant and unafraid to challenge ideas even if they think it will make them unpopular.

In short, though like anyone else I have bad days, I can’t think of a better place for me to be spending the next 4-6 years.

Next: I love my job.  Period.  It is challenging, stimulating, and incredibly fulfilling.  It is also extremely stressful, but show me a job that isn’t (and isn’t mind-numbingly boring).  My hours aren’t set, I don’t get to walk away from my desk at 5:00 (or even on the weekends), and I’m always buried in projects.  But you know what?  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I’m a restless heart and a compulsive multi-tasker, being in a cube is absolutely mind-numbingly soul-suckingly awful for me, so I have chosen a vocation that caters to these personality traits.  This also means that I have chosen a vocation that I live with, 24/7, and in which I alone am accountable for the successes and failures that I face.

As I said, this is an extremely stressful situation to be in.  Oftentimes what this means is that my creative outlet (i.e. this blog) is a way to work through the everyday stress which I am experiencing.  I make light of the things that are upsetting me, I re-frame them in an entertaining fashion, and in doing so I aim for a measure of catharsis.

I do try to blog about positive things but on the whole I find that things which are going well are boring, and things which are going according to plan even duller.  There is nothing interesting about a plan coming together in exactly the way I expected it to.

What this also means is that when I have more work to do, the blog explodes into a downward spiral of hellish depravity.  In hindsight, perhaps I’ve been a bit too negative recently.

Let me assure you that, though I may dramatically recount my foibles through this completely cumbersome year, I am doing so with a grin.  My goal has always been to depict graduate life in a realistic fashion; the good, the bad, the velociraptors.  I don’t want to present a rose-tinted haze of nostalgia for one’s salad-years, but I also don’t want to make you (dear reader) believe that I live in a bookish hell of theory-demons in which highfalutin’ tweedy professors flog me day in and day out with bad Hamlet quartos.  Neither of these things are fair assessments and both would be a disservice to my colleagues and my institution.  Rather, believe this:

This is the tale of a girl who had only some idea of what she was getting into and would like the rest of the world to be a bit more educated than she was when she decided that she wanted to continue her education.  She began the journey with a map but no guide and things which appeared one way often weren’t while things which appeared another often were.

I am Alice and this is my wonderland.  Fanciful, beautiful, fleeting yet all-too-real, perplexing and lateral, a place in which things I thought I knew vanish into sand and things which I am learning are life-saving skills, a place where my bourgeoning expertise is valued but I must always enter with a beginner’s mind, a place where I must leave some weapons of the past at the door and cling to others (but I’m not always certain which is which), and above all a place I wouldn’t dream of giving up for anything.