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.

…is that bad?

How you know you’re deep in PhD land:

1) You dream about both of your research subjects at the same time. Gotta say, the Overlord and anti-porn Christian women make an, uh, interesting pair.

2) You finally! give your diss director the intro to one of your data chapters and end up having this conversation:

Director: I can see why writing this is taking you so long.
Me: Oh god why
Director: Because what you’ve written is so clear. I can see exactly what you’re going to be arguing here.
Me: …is that bad?
Director: No, it’s really good. It’s just that most dissertation chapters aren’t this coherent. You’re usually trying to figure stuff out on the page, and you only get to a real point in the last few pages.
Me: Wait. I thought the point was for each chapter to be a coherent, self-contained argument, and then to tie all the chapters together as parts of one central argument.
Director: Well, yeah. In a perfect world. But that’s not what usually happens.
Me: WTF

3) You share your semi-magical job search spreadsheet with your departmental colleagues because hey, everyone’s already looking over your virtual shoulder anyway. So what the hell.

4) You start a post-it note countdown on your office door towards the next (the first!) job application deadline. Because again, the more information you offer people upfront, the less they’ll ask you about, right?

5) You actually almost make a career-ish decision based on how it will look on your CV. Luckily, you have enough sense to reach out to one of your committee members, who reminds you that, in this scenario, “what you WANT to do” should be your central concern.

6) You give serious, sustained thought about what music to play at your dissertation defense.

Hoooooo boy.

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”

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.

It’s Like Falling In Love. But With Footnotes.

dean confused by books

Academia is a feeling of failure wrapped in a taco of inadequacy. That’s what you signed up for, believe it or not. Embrace the salsa. Sit down and write.

Continue reading “It’s Like Falling In Love. But With Footnotes.”

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”