The Garden of Forking Paths

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I have this habit of making significant decisions subconsciously, carrying them around for months, and then waking up one day convinced that I’ve had a revelation when in fact it’s only that I’ve finally turned into my own head.

This was one of those. So here goes.

I am not graduating from PhD land this year. In fact, I may never do so.

If I’d written this post three weeks ago, the “may” in the sentence above would have been missing.

But I’m old and [too very much] aware that life, the universe, and everything has a way of nudging one places that one did not expect, much less bother to plan for. So I opted for a via media.

That is, I’m taking a year-long leave of absence from my PhD program. A trial separation, if you like; time for me to see other professions, meet new ways of making a living, and generally figure out if I want to finish this degree or not.

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Right.

The question is not, am I capable of writing a dissertation: for I am, without question. I’m a fine scholar and good writer and possess the required analytical skill.

The question instead is: do I want to?

A brief look back at some of my (increasingly infrequent) posts on this blog will make it plain that academia and I, the ideological institution and me, have been on the outs for a while. Part of it is me–I’ve changed a great deal since I started pursuing this degree, I’d argue much for the better. But a key component of that change has been an ever-growing disinterest in pleasing other people, in jumping through hoops, in generally keeping my mouth shut and doing what the institution of Higher Ed told me was required. It’s a hell of a time to embrace one’s rebellious streak, in the middle of a damned PhD program, a thing that’s designed to teach you how to conform to a particular set of disciplinary rules.

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I mean, there’s a reason it’s called a “discipline,” y’all.

I’ve also been ill, depressed more fully, more completely, than I have been in years. That depression has made it hard to get things done, but even worse, it’s made it almost impossible for me to reach out for help, either clinically or academically. This is part of the reason, ultimately, that I chose a leave of absence rather than to walk away entirely: I have been depressed, no question, and while the decision not to finish doesn’t feel to me to be driven wholly by that (or even in large part), it’s something I have to consider. Maybe I’ll feel differently in a few months when (knock on wood) I’m handling the world better than I’ve been able to of late. And maybe I won’t.

When you come down to it, though, I’m not finishing this degree because I don’t want to be an academic. At least I don’t today, and not for the last 360+. Academia is not, as I once believed, the panacea of my personal happiness, the key that will unlock the future I once painted in my head. And that’s ok. I’m glad I’ve figured that out now and not in five or ten years time.

For all of that, there’s so much about academic life that I adore, that my time in PhD land has allowed me experience and embrace. Even as I prepare to step away from this institution, I have no intention of leaving the excellent network of humans and scholars I’ve come to know in rhetoric and in fan studies. I’ll still write and go to conferences and participate in the scholarly community for as long as they’ll have me: they–you, my friends–are the reason that I’ve lasted here for so long. I thank you for that.

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I want to be 100% clear about one last thing, perhaps the most important one here: this is my choice, my decision, my move, and it’s the right one for me. I’ve made a lot of big, game-changing decisions in my life, and while some of them were dumb, most of them were the right call, even when they made life difficult in the short term. I feel good about moving on from PhD land–perhaps for a while, perhaps for good.

What comes next for me? I’ve no idea. But I’m looking forward, for the first time in ages, to figuring that out.

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Maybe, Just One More Try

So. This is a hard post to write.

I’m not going to graduate this year.

Not because I couldn’t, or hadn’t done what I needed to do so, but because my PhD program has offered me a fifth year of funding. See, ours is a four-year program from stem to stern; in, out, and on to the world. But as I’ve documented here, I haven’t been able to land a job yet, academic or otherwise. And I was (I am) ready to toss the whole academic job thing by the wayside: I remain unconvinced that getting such a gig would be my occupational panacea, the space in which my skills can be put to best use.

And, oh yeah. That it’s the sort of gig that would make me happy.

But. My program doesn’t make a habit of offering a fifth year of funding—though I’m certainly not the first student to whom they’ve made such a gesture.

I turned it down once. I turned it down a second time. Then my diss committee made a hard court (if well meaning) press as to why I should reconsider.

I won’t get into the various arguments they made. Suffice it to say that, to my surprise, they were convincing: in part because the arguments focused less on my failings, on the ways in which the program could use a fifth year to fix all that was deficient in me, and more on how I could make one more year, one more try, work to my benefit.

Maybe it was the optimist in me wresting control away from the realist for a moment. I don’t know. But after some sustained, concentrated angst about it, what do you know. I said yes.

So the plan is for me to finish the diss this summer, just as I planned to in anticipation of defending in late July. Doing so will let me go on the job market (have I ever been off it?) this fall with letters from my committee informing potential employers that the diss is done, and I have only to defend the thing in January 2016 to be officially done.

The rest of my time here? Devoted to working on publications (which ok, I enjoy)–although I suspect TPTB will want me to focus on getting shit published in more straight-up rhetoric journals than in fan studies. (And I can work on my romance novel. Shhhhh.)

So is this the perfect solution? No. Do I kinda feel like I’ve just agreed to become an angel condom? Yeah.

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But, but: there’s no way to know which answer is the right one. And even when I’ve been at my lowest of late, I’ve tried to remember this Quaker proverb: the way opens. Maybe it’s not the way I wanted, or was even looking for, but my program’s chosen to hold the door open. And I’m ok with going through it.

Here’s Our Darling Scarlet

There was an interesting discussion on Twitter this AM about how we as academics talk about and share our research process, rather than just the final result.

Often, the messiness of the process that we go through—ok, that we totally make up as we go along, even though we’re not supposed to admit that—is where the good stuff happens.

The weird shit that happens in the trenches, between lines of analysis and unexpected data sources, that’s the stuff that inspires us to keep writing abstracts, keep going to conferences, keep writing essays about subjects we love.

Publication is great, and final products are awesome by virtue of being fucking done. But the process is the cool part.

Ok, let me stop. I have this tendency to talk around whatever’s bothering me, whatever it is I really want to say—a bit ironic, given what I do for a living, but there it is. Let me take a deep breath and try again.

I am very, very tired of my dissertation. Of the research that it’s entailed. Of the writing up that it demands. Of what it represents in terms of my work as a scholar and yet, what it doesn’t.

People have told me: The dissertation doesn’t matter. It just has to be done. The dissertation matters, because its subject may help you get hired. Or not. The dissertation is the culmination of–what, exactly?

I’m writing about a subject that I’m intellectually interested in: how and why Christian women use what I call “rhetorical bleed” as a persuasive tactic in their discourse about female sexuality.

See? There’s even a theoretical component to it, a contribution I’m ostensibly making to the field of rhetoric and writing.

Oh, joy.

I admire some of the women whose writing I’m examining. They’re doing good work, work that needs to be done, they believe, in the face of the way that the evangelical church tries its damnedest not to discuss female desire, and women’s use of pornography, and the idea that some Christian women feel overwhelmed by those desires. The only advice the evangelical church offers to women generally about sex—as one of the subjects of my research rightly noted—is shame.

In the context of the purity movement, that push within contemporary evangelicalism for young people (esp. women) to remain physically and mentally “pure” about sex until marriage, the shame thing is particularly unhelpful. So you feel bad about experiencing sexual desire, about exploring that desire through masturbation and porn–where are you supposed to go to talk about those feelings, exactly, when the church’s response tends to be: well, you shouldn’t have done that in the first place. End of discussion.

So some of these women have started talking about these issues amongst themselves. In my diss, I’m examining how this organization talks about these ideas in public spaces, including their website, monthly podcast, and book. At the same time, I’m steering clear of the members’ only online message boards where the organization’s members talk with one another about their personal struggles; that’s their business, and not fodder for academic research, to my mind.

I like these women. I care about this project. And yet I am having a devil of a time caring enough to write my dissertation.

Maybe it’s that the reality of the job situation has slowly started to sink in: the chances of me getting a FT teaching gig, already slim, are fading fast. On the one hand, this makes me quite sad. I’ve spent the past four years figuring out what I’m really fucking good at—teaching people how to effectively express their ideas on paper—and now I have to accept that I probably will not be able to apply that skill in the academic realm.

I haven’t gotten any callbacks, as it were, on 31 applications, with 6 rejections already in hand and more no doubt to come. Maybe it’s because my diss is about women, desire, Christianity (gasp!), and porn. Maybe it’s because most of my publications deal in fan studies—rhetoric, performance studies, and fan stuff, but still, it’s not Rhetoric.

Maybe it’s because all of my cover letters have been riddled with errors, or because my font choices are offensive, or because I’ve applied for the wrong kind of gigs. Or none of the bloody above.

I don’t know.

Regardless, I will soon have to fend for myself in the world, and I need to find employment. Full stop. So I’ve begun looking outside of academia, back to the business and non-profit world I thought I’d wanted to leave behind.

I’m a good writer, damn it. And an even better writing teacher, or tutor. I love research, most of the time, and I’m pretty good at that, too. These are marketable skills, surely. I just need to figure out how to do that, exactly.

There’s part of me, too, that feels a bit like a failure for not landing an aca-gig. I know there are some people in my life—in my goddamn department—who cannot freaking wait to say I told you soIf only you’d listened to me and not written about fan studies or sex or Christianity, you’d have done so much better.

On the one hand, I want to say: fuck them. Because they WERE wrong on that front. The best part of grad school has been the research, believe it or not, and all the conferences and amazing colleagues and pub opportunities that have resulted from it.

On the other, though, part of me wants to slink away like Scarlet tries to in Gone With The Wind after she’s caught in Ashley’s arms. It’s the day of Ashley’s birthday party, to which everyone in their circle has been invited, and Scarlet’s mortified to be the talk of the town in the worst possible way. Her instinct is to hide at home and not go to the damn party.

But Rhett won’t let her! No, he insists that she wear her most stunning gown and freaking march down there to Melanie’s and show her face to the woman she betrayed and to the community that think she’s trash.

And she does, dear Scarlet. And she kills it. Even though Rhett makes her walk in by herself and even though the looks she gets from those assembled—from everyone but Melanie, of course—are beyond venomous.

So, like Scarlet, I’d much rather hide at home for the next two months. To bang out this crappy diss in misery and shuffle out of here in May with my head hung low. I’ve failed, people, by the predominate measure in PhD land and I hate it and it fucking sucks.

Blargh.

But I won’t.

I don’t have a Rhett in my life to goad me into it, or a killer ruby-red gown to wear, but I’m going to put myself out there in our department. I’m not going to dig a hole, as awesome as that sounds right now, and camp out until May. I’m going to show my face and talk to people and show my fellow students that, no matter what the faculty tells you, life goes on even if you don’t get a single academic job interview.

I hope.

Audience, Purpose, Angst

So the final, painful push of grad school is on and, to be honest, it kind of sucks.

On the one hand, there’s great promise: I’m almost done!

On the other, there’s great pain: Yeah, but, you’re not done yet and oh hey, how’s that job search going?

derek hale wth

Right.

Continue reading “Audience, Purpose, Angst”

I May Need to Re-Read This One on My Own

I’ve had a really hard time writing of late. All kinds: my dissertation, fic, blog posts, you name it. The words have been hard to come by, even harder to put on the page.

Part of it, no doubt, lies in the building veil of anxiety that surrounds what will happen this fall. That is, come September, there’s a very real possibility that I might be the only person in my cohort going out on the job market.

Now I do my best to be a “run your own race” kind of person, so at some level, this development shouldn’t concern me at all. My colleagues and I, we are all of us faced with very different life choices at this time, and what they do or do not do on the job front has little impact on me.

However, as I’ve noted before, in my department, the job hunting season for upcoming grads is freaking spectator sport, and in this equation, I will be the object of that gaze. With the prospect of perhaps being the ONLY object from my cohort in those sights, well. Pass the Pepto and the nearest paper bag.

No doubt this has contributed to my sticky keys.

But there’s something more to it, something even more fundamental and confusing. Setting aside the problem of what employer might pay me for what, I’ve been battling the question–what kind of scholar do I want to be, exactly? What kind of job might I want (dare I even think such a thing)?

Continue reading “I May Need to Re-Read This One on My Own”

My Heart’s (Not) In the Work

One of the things I’d forgotten over the past year was how important is was–it is–for me to look outside of my department, my university, for support.

This isn’t to say that the faculty in my department aren’t supportive of my work; for the most part, the ones whose opinions I value are. But you know what? They’re also really fucking busy.

There’s a lot of bullshit involved in the day-to-day life of a graduate program; the persistent minutia of academic life, like who’s teaching what course, who’ll serve on which committee, who’s not talking to whom. In addition because our program’s so small, most faculty members are on multiple dissertation or thesis committees, and they all have, you know, family lives.

So no one is here to hold your hand, as a PhD student, and most of the time, for me, that’s been ok. More than. Generally, I don’t like to be fussed over.

But it also means that there’s a lot of stuff I’m not saying, that I’m not sharing with anyone in the program. About my project, my work process, I mean. Because at some level, when people on your committee ask “How’s the dissertation coming?”, what they want you to say is “fine.” For many good and right reasons, most people don’t want to hear the messy truth, one I’d struggle to communicate, anyway:

It’s hard. I’m a little lost. Having to plan a project before I did it is kind of biting me in the ass. Today was ok. I read some good theory. I found a great source. Look what was posted today at this site that I’m studying. I think I’ve got something good. Writing is hard.

Truth be told, though, I don’t want to share the complexities of the project with my committee, because I don’t want them to interfere. Yes, I want help, or at least a sympathetic ear, but I’ve learned over time that those asks often come with a cost.

Continue reading “My Heart’s (Not) In the Work”

It’s Ok To Be Unhappy In Grad School

It’s ok to be unhappy in grad school.

It’s ok not to do all the reading.

It’s ok to look outside of your department/coursework/colleagues for validation, inspiration, and a sense of self-worth.

It’s ok to be bored by your coursework.

It’s ok not to like the students you’re teaching.

It’s ok to hate the textbook/curriculum/assignments that you’re required to use in your classroom.

It’s ok to feel threatened by your colleagues.

It’s ok not to like people in your cohort.

It’s ok to question why you ever thought a PhD was a good idea.

It’s ok not to like your professors/your committee/your dissertation chair.

It’s ok not to turn every seminar paper into an article for publication.

It’s ok to be rejected by that journal/conference/research group.

It’s ok to resent the long hours and the crap offices and the terrible money.

It’s ok to be unhappy in grad school. Don’t beat yourself up about feeling like shit. Embrace it. Admit it. Talk about it with somebody you trust: a colleague or a counselor or your best friend back in Poughkeepsie.

Ignoring it won’t make it go away. Turn around, face it, and punch that fucker in the nose. Take pleasure where you find it, when you can, and acknowledge the unhappy when it creeps back in.

The more light you shine on it, the more mirrors you force the unhappy to face, the harder it’ll be for it to sneak up and shiv you in the middle of a seminar, or in your advisor’s office, or over your keyboard when you’re trying to get shit done.

It’s ok to be unhappy in grad school. Just don’t do it alone.

Running Under Caution

Academia is the only field I know where applying for jobs is something of a spectator sport.

Not only do we–and by “we” I mean “the humanities”–talk endlessly and openly and sometimes even accurately about the State of Labor in our fields, we also spend this  time every year staring INTENTLY at our soon-to-be graduated PhDs as they buzz about trying their best to become gainfully, oh please Tenure Track-level employed.

Seriously. It’s a little creepy.

Part of this, I think, is that some of the hiring in fields like rhetoric, composition, and literature has been heavily institutionalized around particular spaces; there’s a ritual to it, if you like, one that’s centered on the Modern Language Association (MLA) conference held around this time each  year. Even in the wee tiny graduate program of which I’m a part, one is made to understand that what one should strive for is to have at least one face-to-face interview at MLA. Phone interviews, Skpye interviews? Cool. But MLA, one is made to understand, is still considered by many to be the gold standard, it seems.

There are just two folks in our program on track for graduation this spring, but last year, we had 7 or 8 go on the market all at once. For a  good six months or more, the efforts of these folks to land interviews, get called up for on-campus visits, and then finally, to land a job, fed the departmental gossip mill to the full point of gorging: who’s going where, and who wasn’t chosen, and why did so-and-so turn that one down. Mind you, the average number of applications that one’s expected to submit in Rhet/Comp? Is 60.

Don’t get me wrong: in the abstract, this whole process was fascinating to watch, like NASCAR with resumes and writing samples. But now, as I edge closer (knock on wood) to the job search, nigh on a year from now, the voyeuristic aspect is kind of giving me the creeps.

Yeah, and the vapors, too.

Getting a job, no matter what field or area of expertise, is never fun. Strike that: it usually sucks. So I can’t say that the prospect of looking for work, of some sort of professional legitimation, in full view of an avid audience hoping for blood or at least a good sideswipe makes me feel warm and fluffy.

Perhaps I’m just being overdramatic. Probably. Yeah, I am. Still, it’s one of my resolutions for this year: to run my own race, as much as I can, and to stay away from the Peeping Tom-aspect of departmental life. If I can.