Surely This is a Million Dollar Idea

When I started this blog, I promised myself that I would never apologize on my blog for sudden drop-offs in blogging activity, seeing as I do this entirely in my free time and largely for my own amusement.   However, in order to assuage that shame-ridden people-pleasing, neurotic part of myself, I feel the need to apologize for the recent drop-off in blogging activity.  There was a flurry of dissertation productivity.  Then I got angry with the internet.  Then there was Christmas, which was partly held at my house this year and was basically a three week-long parade of family events.  After that, I needed to detox from, well, humanity for a while.  Oh, and I got sick.  But I think I’m back in action now and do, in fact, have a backlog of post ideas I want to get out, including a follow-up to my last one.

While my holidays were mostly quite wonderful (though exhausting), I was reminded that being in graduate school and having to interact with friends and family who don’t really have a concept of how long it takes to write a thesis can be pretty demoralizing, judging by the horrified looks I got when I told some people I expect to finish in six to nine months, which is actually making pretty good time.  Furthermore, after trying to explain my dissertation, which does have to do with religion, to the fundamentalists I grew up with, I started just saying “it’s about Mark Twain” (which is sort of true) and moving on.

My sister who is a sophomore in college and I decided we should print cards for students to hand out to people who ask this sort of stuff.  Mine would read:

Yes, I’m still in grad school.

Oh, about a year.

I have three and a half chapters done.  Out of five.

It’s about Mark Twain.

No, we’re not having kids any time soon.

Hers would say:

I’m a psychology major.

Yes, I love ____ College.

No, I don’t have a boyfriend.

Yes, I’m fine with it.

I feel like there’s a fortune to be made here.  Or perhaps I’ve simply misunderstood the whole point of small talk.

9 thoughts on “Surely This is a Million Dollar Idea

  1. I have made the fatal error of selecting a socially taboo topic as my thesis subject, meaning I have gone from the endless parade of cue card answers (oh yes, you could make millions* with personalizable flashcards, you could) to a politically-volatile tap dance around what I’m actually researching. Fortunately I made such an impression on most of my friends and family as a Socially-Dense Rambling Blowhard throughout my undergraduate years that most of them have learned better than to ask.

    *Millions of what, I’m not sure. Probably not dollars. Sorry.

  2. I love the idea of cue cards! But I would need several sets for different situations, and the real problem is to have some kind of casing that makes it easy to pick exactly the right on at the right time. I want to be spared the talking, but not for it to be substituted by fumbling…

  3. I love the idea of cue could expand the range so that they didn’t just cover Christmas but other occaisons such as: Family events which you’re obliged to attend – ie weddings, funerals, important birthdays, Easter, etc..the list is endless. I always want to spare the talking, fumbling…nervious looking at my feet, faintly stuttering..mumbling that would ensure from me as I didn’t want to explain why I couldn’t just write my dissertation/finish my PhD a Sunday afternoon/a week/three months etc..etc (let your imagination run riot at the periods of time suggested by others.

    1. Yeah, I ran into plenty of people who seemed to think that a dissertation is something you can knock out during an all-nighter.

  4. I’d also like someone to give me some ideas about what questions I can ask that will signal my interest and willingness to hear anything they’d like to share with an aunt they see 1-2 times a year.

    “How are you?” “Fine.”

    “What’s going on with you lately?” “Nothing much.”

    I believe absolutely that no one is obligated to talk to me, but I sincerely would love to hear anything they’d like to tell me about anything that’s going on. I have a son who’s a freshman in college and is undeclared so he would really like one of these cue cards, but I try to explain to him that his uncle is really just trying to get him to talk to him about something and if he were to say, “I’m still undeclared, but I’m enjoying writing and I spend all my time reading graphic novels so that might lead somewhere,” he would be thrilled and the follow-up question would probably be about reading and not college plans. Or could be led in that direction.

    And as for the clueless, I have an MLIS and people still say, “You have to get a Master’s to be a librarian??!!”

    1. This post was partly light-hearted catharsis, so take it with a grain of salt if you so choose.

      That said, questions like “so how much longer are you going to be working on your dissertation” or “what are you planning on doing after college/grad school” frequently touch on such sensitive points of anxiety and self-doubt that the questions–even if they are asked innocently–almost feel hostile and intrusive. It’s sort of like asking a fully fledged adult when they expect to pay off their student debt or when they think they’ll start having kids.

      I think it’s easy to forget that teens and young adults feel do feel considerable anxiety and insecurity about their futures and about how well they are living up to adult expectations. And their/our fear of judgment is not unfounded. Adults often unthinkingly express sweeping opinions about entire academic or career fields or telegraph their own biases, so the uniquely sensitive may be particularly reluctant to divulge information that may invite either tacit or overt disapproval, or even simple indifference.

      In general, I think most will find it easier to open up if questions about significant commitments (such as college major) and future plans and love lives come later in the conversation, once they feel reassured that you are not going to judge them. I know I probably violate this etiquette with my younger cousins, but I did find a way to ease into a lengthy conversation with the sixteen-year-old I see twice a year with a simple “I hear you’re really good at baseball” (information I heard in passing from my grandfather). If you do wind up asking about future plans, you can always do so with a sympathetic “I know that’s kind of a sensitive question. I changed my major twice, and I hated it when people asked me that.”

  5. I think this is a wonderful idea, especially at things like family reunions where the same scabs get picked at by multiple well-meaning people. It gets very tiring, because I end up spending several weeks recovering from the self-doubt and anxiety that their questions dredged up. Yup, denial as coping strategy – but for me it works.

    Mine would be:

    Yes, I am training for a different career. Yes, it is the same one as last year.

    No, I am not excited about my current job. This is okay. Please don’t try to brainstorm alternatives for me.

    No, really. I mean it.

    We don’t know where we will be next fall. We will let you know when we do.

    I’d rather not talk about our reproductive plans, thanks.

  6. While last year my cue-card list would have been identical to yours (ok, different diss topic, and fewer chapters done, now that I AM reproducing conversations with the clueless are MUCH more tedious. I would need to add:

    Yes, I do, in fact, plan to finish.

    No, I will not be taking a year off, my fellowship and time-to-degree limits won’t allow for it.

    Unfortunately, there is no simple cue card I can think of to defuse the inane repetition of statements like, “If you want to read a book/write your “paper”/get anything done, bet do it right now! Ha, ha!”


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