Can’t See The Trees for the Angst

The other day, a colleague lauded me over coffee.

(I know; stop the presses, right?)

She pointed to my apparent state of Zen as a grad student; in contrast, it seems, to some our peers. To my general lack of concern over the minutia of coursework, of Being a PhD student, of publication and conferences and such.

(But you, dear reader, know better. I just let my anxiety make its home here, on this blog, and keep my wailing in public to a minimum.)

My colleague’s words, they were a nice way of saying: You seem like you don’t give a shit. About stuff that’s unimportant, anyway.

But this got me thinking, as flattery will no doubt do.

I haven’t taken my comprehensive exams yet, much less passed them. I spend most days convinced I’m an idiot set loose by the pen.

Still. Maybe, my ego hinted, I have something constructive to impart.

So: three pieces of advice, for what they’re worth, on how to not live on Pepto and bourbon in graduate school. Most nights. During the coursework bits, at least.

Ok, strike that.

Three pieces of advice on how to enjoy grad school for your damn self. Because otherwise, why are you here?


  1. Understand, first and foremost, that you cannot read everything you’re assigned and hope to hold insanity at bay.

Let me rephrase: you cannot read everything carefully, with deliberation and deep thought. It’s not possible. And that, my friends, is ok.

Yes, every professor, in their secret heart of hearts, holds the Tinkebell belief that you’ll savor or suffer over each word, each page they assign. Some cling to this belief, this expectation, more than others, for they can convince themselves that they did so, long ago, sweat over every phrase; if this is so or not, I can’t say. I can tell you that you, yourself, cannot.

It’s no statement about your worthiness as a scholar. About your smarts. No. It’s a firm belief that (relative) sanity is more valuable to you in the long run than creaking through the wee hours to make thoughtful annotations on texts that you’ll never get to in class.

Now there’s an art to it, the not-reading-everything-in-detail gig. You have to sort of test the waters with each prof, each term: figure out how the prof works with the texts they assign in class, how they run discussions, the sort of input they expect from you as a student. This isn’t slacking, ok? It’s a survival skill, and one you can also apply in other professional academic settings: at conferences and departmental meetings, for example.

Yeah, it can be risky. There’s always a chance you’ll be called on and have nothing to say. It’s no fun when that happens. But hey, bullshit is your friend sometimes. Don’t be afraid to deploy it, if you have to.

There’s also the matter of figuring out what you’re interested in; which of the readings or texts might be useful to you one day, in your own research. To me, this is even trickier, for it requires you to balance an open mind—you never know what you’re going to find in a text with which you’re not familiar–with a filtered focus that helps you sort the wheat from the chaff.

But, one might argue, what if you’re working towards comprehensive exams? Won’t you be required to know all of these materials cold?

I can only speak to my experience, to my program, but honestly? The answer is no. Our program, for example, has a common reading list from which questions on each student’s comprehensive exam are drawn. In theory, the materials listed there reflect the classes offered during our two years’ of coursework; each prof selects texts to be included on that list, and the list changes every two years accordingly. Thus, another way to gauge which texts are important to focus on carefully, and which are not is to use the list as a guide.

For me, I’ve followed my instincts. As to how effective said strategy will be, in the end, only my comps this fall will tell.

2.  Mess around and take chances in your coursework.

Not every class you (are forced) to take will be useful, or even interesting. Some will make you want to pound nails in your skull. It happens.

More to the point: not every seminar paper you write can (or should) be transformed into an article or conference presentation. Sometimes, you just have to write the damn thing, finish out the class, and be done. I don’t know where this notion came from, that everything you write in grad school has to be a draft of something publishable or whatever, but it’s crap. I think profs like to tell us this because it makes them feel less bad about assigning yet another freaking research paper; they want to think that what they have us do will be useful. Whatever.

Resist the temptation to strive for perfection, to write something you like every time. It’s not gonna happen, not if you (again) want to stay on this side of sane. And that’s ok.

For what it’s worth, through six years of coursework [sob]–four years as a Master’s student and two in a PhD program–I’ve written exactly three things as part of my classes that have transformed into something useful. Yep. Just three.

  • A paper I wrote in my first Master’s program on Zora Neale Hurston in 2007 morphed into my first Master’s thesis in 2008 and much later (in 2013) into an essay published in a critical collection. That baby’s had a loooong shelf life, and yet is ten steps removed from where my research is now.
  • A presentation I wrote in 2011, during my first semester as a PhD student, on Christian women and sexuality became a conference presentation in 2012 (that I wasn’t happy with) and now forms the foundation of my dissertation research.

Funny story: that original presentation, in class, was TERRIBLE. I was nervous, I fubared the tech, and my prof had no idea what to say about the topic. It was kind of hilarious, in retrospect. The good thing, though, was that I fumbled in front of my colleagues who are smart, thoughtful, and invested in seeing me not be and idiot; their feedback was careful and constructive, and helped push the next revision of the thing forward. If you’d asked me, right after that class in 2011, whether I’d go at that topic again, I’d have told you flat out: hell no. And yet, here I am. So you never know where any of this shit is gonna go.

  • A seminar paper I wrote in the second year of my coursework, in 2012, on my favorite idiot, the Overlord, evolved first into a conference presentation (after much gnashing of teeth) and now is out again for publication review. Whether it’s picked up this  time, I like the thing enough to knead it, reshape it, and kick it out again. It’s become a piece I love even though it’s one of the most difficult fucking things I’ve ever tried to write. My adviser tells me Misha Collins can be my focus post-tenure. Heh. She’s nothing if not an optimist.

Of these three, only one, the one on the Overlord, was constructed with a particular future in mind; I was writing towards presenting the paper at a conference–a decision which caused many more problems than it solved. I found it hard to write a “research paper,” which was what the assignment demanded; I kept wanting to write a presentation, a very different genre, in my book, and dude, did the original paper suck.

So embrace it, this notion: sometimes you just need to write the freaking paper, all 20 pages of it, and be done.

Which leads me to my last FWIW bit of advice:

3.  Study what you love while you can.

I looked at my PhD coursework, and all the conferences I went to during that time, as a chance to what I wanted, to be the kind of scholar I wanted, before my dissertation committee got a hold of the reigns.

That’s part of the process, being hemmed in and constrained. Having scholars in your field(s) guide your work in a more structured way, at least for a little while. I knew it was coming. So I wanted to screw around first.

I spent a year and a half trying to write academically about slash fiction because someone in my program told me not to. Advised (for what they thought were the right reasons, no doubt) that there was no future in such research, no jobs.

But I’m a stubborn bastard. So I did it anyway. And man, did I have fun doing it. Even when I was getting fussed at after conference presentations, or when I was making a second home at the airport.

Look: I learned more going to conferences, giving presentations and attending them, than I did during my PhD coursework. More, that is, about what it means to be a scholar. About the kind of work that I want to do, the kind of researcher I want to be. It was awesome on-the-job training and can you tell that I miss it, right now? Heh.

So, for me, when it came time to sketch out a research project, one I could sustain for two years, I had a year and half of doing whatever the hell I wanted, whatever conference organizers were willing to accept, and that helped me a great deal in sketching the boundaries of my wee bairn dissertation-y thing.

I’ll keep writing about slash—or more probably, fan practice—because I love it and it’s really hard as hell. But I don’t feel the need to keep sticking it to the man (ok, this is getting Freudian) because I know I can keep doing it on my own; that’s what I’ve been doing, and what I can keep doing, if I wish. It’s my choice.

I’ll say it again: take some chances. Revel in ignorance of the ways it’s been done before. Do what you want as a scholar, as much as you can, because necessity will demand, after a time, that you start answering to somebody else. That’s ok, but easier to deal with, I think, when you’ve let yourself run around free for awhile beforehand.

Maybe I’m writing to assuage myself more than anyone else.

Rule 4: Sometimes you gotta write for yourself.

2 thoughts on “Can’t See The Trees for the Angst

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