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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Collaborating With A Fine (Not So Young) Cannibal

gorgeous two shot from potage

I made this pact with myself that I wasn’t going to write about NBC’s Hannibal. Not in an academic way, at least. For all of its gore, its elegant violence that can make cruelty taste like art, I didn’t want to engage with it on a critical level because I love it too damn much.

Continue reading “Collaborating With A Fine (Not So Young) Cannibal”

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”

Protect and Survive


It’s annual review time again in my PhD program, which means a set of new goals for the coming year. And my, has my list gotten short:

1) Finish the dissertation
2) Send a chapter of the diss out for review to a top journal in my field (that is, rhetoric) in August or September of this year.
3) Find a fucking job.

It’s this last one that has me, oh, not worried, exactly, but on the edge of unease. Todd Platts’ recent post at Inside HigherEd, I think, suggests why:

Like many recently minted Ph.D.s I am witnessing the shattering of my dreams of becoming a full-time college professor by the vagaries of an academic job market destroyed by a fledgling economic system.

And that’s the second sentence! Way to drop the bomb in paragraph 1.

For two years, Platts, a new PhD in sociology, has been searching far and afield for some sort of gainful academic employment. And, despite “put[ing] a little piece of myself into every job packet,” he has “come up empty-handed every time.”

As he notes, this is not a new story in his discipline of the social sciences, or in mine, in the humanities; indeed, of late, there has been an ongoing conversation on Inside HigherEd and in similar online spaces about the “heartbreak,” as Platts puts it, faced by many PhDs fresh out of the mill: there are no jobs–or not the right ones–to be had.

But what struck me about Platts’ piece, above all, was this: Platts cannot understand why he can’t get a job because: he’s done everything “right.” Continue reading “Protect and Survive”

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.

Beware Fools Bearing Advice

When I’m angry or uncertain, the first place I turn in my writing is to style.

To wit, the original opening line of this post was:

Friends, colleagues, countrymen: we come to bury the permission slip, not to praise it.

Right. Because what’s set me off today isn’t anger, really, though it may have a shade of frustration. It’s passivity.

Specifically, what I read as passiveness in this essay, On Writing in Grad School; the gist of which is: in general, we don’t teach graduate students how to write.

On the one hand: true.

On the other: tough shit.

To be clear, I bear no ire towards Kevin Gotkin, the author of this piece. Indeed, his grievances, the absences he’s noted in his own graduate education, truly seem to trouble him greatly, and I admire his ability to transform that sense of injustice into a cogent piece for The Chronicle of Higher Ed. There’s a conversation to be had there, and he’s kicked it off clean. Well done, sir.

Rather, what troubles me is the way in which Gotkin’s essay repeats with difference (as Jenny Edbauer might say) similar complaints I have heard of late within the rhetorical ecology of higher education in the humanities.

(Heh. How’s that for wonky style?)

Continue reading “Beware Fools Bearing Advice”

writing is hard.

So I got a new tattoo this week, one that speaks to me at a fundamental level:

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In retrospect, I can’t figure out how these words will strike my students, exactly, or my clients in our writing center. I wonder if they’ll think: dude, I already knew that or really? writing’s always been easy for me or oh crap. is it too late to switch sections, to find a class with a real professor, one who’s mastered writing and can teach me to do it, too?

And at some level, yes, I can see it sounds strange coming from a) somebody teaching college comp and b) a nascent scholar who freaking studies writing for a living, but man: this is a reality of which I need to be reminded every time I sit at the keyboard.

Writing is hard, and it’s coming out of my ears lately, even more than as per usual.

In particular, my brain is big-wheeling over The Writing Process; or to be more specific, the process that’s supposed be mine. I think it’s because I’m preparing to teach composition again–for the first time in a year–while writing collaboratively with a friend and fellow fic writer on a piece we started about a year ago.

Can you see a pattern here, perhaps? It feels like my writing’s been on hold for a while.

And now, too, staring down the barrel of my dissertation and all the very particular kind of writing that will entail, again, it all comes back to The Process.

One thing I’ve learned in grad school is that, as a writer, I get into trouble when I wander away from the data, from the content of whatever it is I’m trying to say. I can tie myself up in theoretical knots–frame, unframe, and matte–through page after page and not say a freaking thing. Worse: I’ll write myself into a ditch, a mental one, sure, one that makes me feel like I’m drowning. Like I have nothing useful to say.

And sometimes, of course, that’s the case: I really don’t have anything insightful or interesting or even halfway amusing to add, and that’s fine.

No. It’s annoying as hell and flip-the-table frustrating, sometimes.

Writing, that bastard, is so fucking hard.

Yeah, that wouldn’t fit on my arm.

What I’m always chasing these days is that balance between consideration and production, between turning ideas over in my head or on the backs of Starbucks napkins and sitting in front of the screen and putting that stuff on the page.

I write to learn, yes, I write to figure out what I’m saying–there’s no question about that. But since I’ve been in PhD world, I’ve realized how much of my writing process, for better or worse, still goes on in my head.

Often, it’s background noise to something else I’m doing, or should be; working through a story as I code data for my dissertation, or chewing on data as I try to write two beautiful, fictional men into bed. The result of this being that, sometimes, when the goddess Rhetorica is on my side, I can sit down and seemingly dump out a lot of text at a rapid pace–a lot of it’s crap, sure, but it gives me a good place to start.

If I think too much, though, I’m screwed.

Not enough, and what comes out come back from my advisor or kindly editors with comments like you can’t just say that. you need some actual proof.

It’s like getting a tattoo, in a way.

It’d had been two years since my last tattoo, and I’d both forgotten and was dreading the pain, the little snip snap jab of the needle into my skin. So the first few minutes this time? Very unpleasant.

But I calmed down, got Zen, and made it through the initial outline pretty damn well, if I say so myself.

Then the artist hit me with numbing gel and let it sit for a while.

When he returned and went back to work, I couldn’t feel a damn thing. That was almost as bad as the initial, terrible pain.

It was only in that interval in between, after the first jabs but far enough away from the last, when I was focused and breathing and singing along to Stevie Nicks on the stereo that everything felt good, felt right.

That’s the space I’m always chasing when I write: that interval between the pain and feeling nothing at all.

So I need this reminder on my arm to turn to, a inky compass on which to focus my anxiety as I chase that perfect space:

Writing is hard.

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.

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?

Continue reading “Can’t See The Trees for the Angst”