Category Archives: The College/Graduate School Experience

Why English and Rhet/Comp Graduate Students Should Consider Career Choices Abroad

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If you’d told me a year ago, that I’d be able to walk here from my apartment, I’d have…done…something.

November starts tomorrow, which means that job hunting season for new and expectant PhDs is about to really get going, and I am having bad acid flashbacks of weekends spend queuing up Interfolio dossiers and hoping I remembered to change the receiver’s address on each cover letter. I am hoping to stay put in my current job for a good while, and not only because I’m hoping to avoid crying in restaurants for a few years, but because I can honestly say that I am enjoying my job. Really, really enjoying it. And even though it wasn’t Plan A and even though I wound up here through a bizarre series of coincidences and chance encounters, I couldn’t be more grateful that I ended up here rather than at one of the other places that offered me interviews (but didn’t offer me jobs). Now, I certainly can’t say that my experience is typical, but it’s enough for me to recommend that English and Rhet/Comp students (and all fields, really)–facing increasingly dire prospects on the US market–look at an international career as a viable option. Some reasons:

Travel, duh.

Some of my current satisfaction has to do with location and the thrill of travel. I made a pact with my spouse when I began my job search that–and this is the exact wording–we would not die in Waco. I’m not going to go into all the reasons why, but you can guess some of them. Cut to three years later, and I am at interviewing for a position for a university in Waco. And I interviewed for two more jobs that were in places very much like Waco but with different weather. For many, no doubt, Waco is a brighter prospect than Moscow, where the sun currently comes up around 8:45 am, but a couple of weeks ago, we walked from our 600 square foot apartment to Red Square on a chilly day in the rain, and I was overwhelmed with disbelief that this is my actual life. Different isn’t always better, but when you’ve felt yourself grow stale in a place, going somewhere completely different feels like a rebirth. You aren’t better, but just by virtue of changing your life so radically, you lose a lot of bad habits and pick up a few new ones. You find yourself challenged and engaged in ways that are completely unexpected. And you learn a little bit about surrender.

Working Conditions

Speaking in more practical terms, the set of conditions under which I’m working are quite a bit better than what I could have expected in the US. Though this isn’t a tenure track position, it’s a renewable contract with an institution that was willing to make a pretty considerable investment in getting me over here. I am getting paid at near the top end of what Assistant Profs make in my field in the US. I have a research budget. I got to design and teach my own literature elective my first semester here. I teach a 1/1 load alongside my Writing Center admin responsibilities. My students are Ivy-League caliber and turn their assignments in on time and have forever ruined me for teaching in the US. I have health insurance. I could go on.

Building Something New

I teach at an institution that is only two decades old in an English department that is only a few years old. For some, I think this would in and of itself be anxiety producing. And there are drawbacks. The building I work in is decrepit, though that’s largely because the school invested in world-class faculty on the front end rather than facilities. The former Rector had to, you know, flee the country under the threat of political persecution, but we have a new Rector who seems extremely qualified and energized about where the institution will go next. In short, the people who work here seem to think that they are involved in doing something extremely important and urgent for their students, their research field, and their country, and despite the specialization of the school, the English department is part of that. And that, to me at least, is so much more exciting than slotting into a long-established literature or writing program at a centuries-old universities where the possibility of making a genuine difference means working against entrenched interests and traditions.

This Writing Center is only two years old and is the first of its kind in Russia. The US model Writing Center is rapidly becoming a very attractive import for many European, Asian, and Middle Eastern universities. Not only does this mean that there are jobs out there but that international, multi-lingual writing centers and writing programs are becoming a new frontier for research.

International Colleagues

Which brings me, of course, to the fact that the American academic universe is pretty much hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. And particularly in the areas of rhetoric and composition studies, there is a LOT of interesting work that could be done if there were more exchange of ideas internationally. There’s always some noise about the need to do so, but very little of it actually happens in practice.

And then, of course, there is just the stimulation of having colleagues from all over the world just down the hall. I work with people from Belarus, Palestine, Turkey, and Italy as well as Americans who have made their entire careers abroad. And I’m interacting with these people in a place where “Americanness” isn’t neither the default nor the goal, where we are all foreigners.

Marketability

For the reasons discussed earlier, Americans with English and Rhet/Comp degrees are extremely marketable on the international market, especially if they can bring some ESL/EFL experience together with expertise in a content field. the TESOL jobs site and the International Writing Centers Association website are good places to look for openings. Be aware, however, that in addition to talking about your research and teaching, you will need to be able to articulate–both in your cover letter and in your interview–why you want to work abroad and why you want to work in that country specifically. The turnover rate among expat employees is high because people get homesick or have a change in family circumstances or whatever, and schools who pay for moving costs invest a considerable amount in their faculty up front. So you need to be able to argue for why you are a good investment.

I was warned before taking this job that working abroad could hurt my marketability if I want to return to the US. I have heard anecdotal reports that this is true, but the person I replaced had two job offers in the US, so take that for what it’s worth.

Caveats

Working abroad is not for you if:

  • You are seeking the traditional middle-class American experience with children, extended family in easy reach, and steady, reliable employment. Granted, for many of us, this simply isn’t an option we can count on. But the truth is that going abroad means being uprooted, many times, potentially. And it means going long periods without seeing your parents or siblings or old friends. If you go abroad, you need to wrap your head around the fact that this isn’t study abroad. This is going to be your life, and if you have doubts, it’s best to grapple with them early on.
  • You shun hassles. I mean, I don’t know anyone who likes being inconvenienced, but moving internationally is a giant effing hassle in every possible way. I have had to deal with more paperwork than it took to sell our house (and most of it in a language I don’t read well). Shipping a few boxes of personal items and research materials has been an undertaking so grueling and expensive that I question whether it was worth it (probably not). And airports, man. Airports.

The takeaway here is that it’s not going to be a glorious experience for everyone or 100% of the time, but it’s a career path that is very seriously worth considering as an alternative to stringing together adjunct work, taking a 9-5 office job, teaching a 4/4 lectureship with no opportunities for research or career advancement, or even *gasp* a tenure track job in quite a few cases.

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Dealing with Culture Shock – Don’t Isolate

Many experts describe culture shock as a psycho-physical phenomenon that presents in 4-5 stages: Honeymoon, Negotiation/Depression, Adjustment, Mastery, and Re-entry. One of my colleagues, however, thinks of it as something more akin to bi-polarity with fluctuating periods of enchantment/excitement and frustration/homesickness. So far, my experience has been conforming mostly to that latter model. It’s been mostly positive, but there have been some intense bouts of acute stress and anxiety that have sent me reaching for the prescription bottle in the last three weeks. The pattern that colleague described supposedly plays out over long periods, but the fluctuations have felt more rapid to me, cycling from high to low in as little as hours. This past week was especially difficult due to apartment search drama, about which I may say more if I can find a way to make it interesting.

There are, of course, ways to cope with the fairly inevitable sense of disorientation that comes from adjusting to a new environment, be it a new country, job, or school (or in my case, all three). But one of the hardest pieces of advice to apply, I think, if you are an introvert or have a history of depression (or both) is to resist the urge to isolate. When it’s difficult to communicate, when the environment is intimidating and draining, the pull of solitude is incredibly powerful. At least it is for me. Solitude is my way of recuperating and restoring myself. At my healthiest, it is the best, most effective form of self-care that I can practice. So, it’s difficult sometimes to recognize when I shouldn’t be doing it.

Moving to a new country and getting situated in a new job is definitely not the time to turn inward. This is a mistake I made early on in graduate school and one I’m trying not to repeat now. Intimidated by people who seemed so much smarter than me and an academic environment so different from what I was accustomed to or expected, I pretty much never went out. And it meant that while I had some friends, I felt cut off from the social life of my department most of the time. When you repeatedly turn down invitations, people tend to stop asking you to go out drinking with them. And that–rather than classes–tends to be where a lot of people do their bonding.

This is why three Friday nights in a row I’ve done the unthinkable and gotten half in the bag with nearly complete strangers instead of succumbing to the desire to go take a bath and fall asleep watching Netflix. This is why tonight I forced myself to stay at a party and make small talk for longer than was comfortable. And to my surprise, I haven’t regretted those choices, even when it meant racing to catch the metro before it closed at 1:00 am. I think perhaps it will take someone with a similar temperament to mine to understand what a big deal this is, how unnatural it feels to cope with the stress of moving into a new apartment and adjusting to a new set of students and trying to manage the various and occasionally bewildering differences between the US and Russia by seeking people out rather than turning inward.

I have never and still do not see my strong tendency toward introversion as a liability or a defect. If anything, it fosters a sense of autonomy that makes certain parts of this transition easier. But navigating this whole process does also require me to draw on interpersonal resources that I, and many like me, am not accustomed to developing or utilizing.

What does “failure” mean to you?

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If you have been trained to pursue an academic career–or trained for any highly specific career path, honestly–then it’s easy to feel like a failure if that doesn’t pan out. But there are many reasons why people wind up choosing Plan B (or C or D or M), and oftentimes it has little to do with incompetence. I have a sibling and an uncle who each studied piano performance. One is a VP at a major tech corporation you have definitely heard of and one is an SEO specialist at a Madison Avenue firm and lives in Central Park West. Neither of them are playing at Carnegie Hall right now, but both of them are winning at life by every measurable standard.

By going international, I’m stepping a bit to the left of the traditional career path for someone in my field and have been told by one colleague that it could make things additionally difficult if and when I try to get an academic job in the U.S. However, in many respects, I am pretty much living the dream. I am get to teach literature and will have time to do research. But it certainly looks different than the dream I had in mind 8 or 5 or even 1 year ago.

So as trite as it is, I think it’s important to remember that success and failure are contingent categories, though often our training teaches us to adopt a very narrow understanding of what success actually constitutes, implying that anything that deviates from that is failure. But failure, I think, really depends on what you want to get out of life. So here’s what it would constitute for me:

  • Failure is being in a job I hate even if it provides security.
  • Failure is staying in Texas (no offense to Texas, but I’ve lived here 26 of 30 years, and I’m ready for weather that sucks in at least a novel way).
  • Failure is not growing as a human being.
  • Failure is continuing to beat myself up over shit that doesn’t matter.
  • Failure is never getting relief from depression.

It would have been possible (and seemed, actually, very likely if I had gotten this one job I interviewed for) to have gotten the golden ticket–the tenure track offer–and still “failed” myself on all four counts. This is getting awfully self-helpy, so I’m going to cut it short, but with all the job market and post-job market angst, it helps to remember that the whole point of job searching is to create a life for yourself that you enjoy living and that allows you to contribute something to the world. And it’s possible to do that without the title “Professor.”

Don’t Forget Your Towel: A Guide to Surviving the Job Search with Your Ego Mostly Intact

job_interviewNearly two years ago (ok, three, actually, but I don’t really count the first one), I started my search for full-time academic employment, and I am here to tell you that much of the hand-wringing warranted. It’s kind of a bloodbath, to be honest, and there’s no real way around that. I have, by my estimation, a healthy number of publications and a standout teaching record, and in two years, I interviewed for seven positions and received one offer. When you consider that almost all of those positions received upwards of 400 applications, that’s actually a pretty outstanding performance. Even though I’m not heading into a tenure track job (and I’m fine with that), the fact that I am now employed full-time and without a hard-and-fast termination date (my three year contract is renewable) means that this was a successful job search. If you did better than me, you’re a freaking star. And I say that as someone with a pathological case of self-doubt. But despite the good outcome, this was without question the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. The odds are decent that I would have survived it without Lexapro, but let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t have to take that bet.

So yes, it’s as bad as you’ve heard. But the truth of the matter is that while MLA statistics and the sage council of placement committees can offer guidance, no one can tell you what your individual job search experience will be like or what things will matter most for your success. For me, having the degree in hand made a huge difference, but I know ABDs who got tenure track jobs their first time out. Publications do matter, but people without them do get hired. Teaching experience matters a lot, but some schools don’t necessarily care that you haven’t taught such-and-such course to first years. Some people seem to have gotten through their job search experience fairly smoothly (though maybe they’re lying), and for others (myself included) it has been a pitched battle with panic and self-loathing.

There is plenty of job search advice out there on the more practical aspects of entering the market: writing your cover letters, preparing your dossier, practicing for interviews, etc. And it’s possible that I’ll get into that in a future search. But surviving the job search emotionally is, while much more dependent on the strength of your self-image and your resilience under stress, also something I think you can prepare for. And mostly by telling you what I did that you probably should not do, I will try to provide a few pointers here based on my own experience.

1. It’s not you

Assuming you have done what you were supposed to do–taught your classes well, at least attempted to publish, made reasonable progress or (better) finished your dissertation, avoided vomiting on a search committee member during an interview–the subtle calculus of who gets hired over who doesn’t usually comes down to things you can’t necessarily control, and the sooner you realize that and embrace it, the easier this whole insane process is going to go for you. Very often, hiring decisions come down to that indefinable something called “fit,” and while there are things you can do to argue for why you are, in fact, a fit for this school, in many cases you simply are not or someone simply fits better. It’s not that you suck. It’s just that, like most relationships, this one just was never going to work out, and it likely has almost nothing to do with how awesome you are.

What this means is that while you should do what you can to put together the best job package possible, you can stop obsessing over whether or not to staple your cv or worrying about whether your ambitious research program is going to intimidate an older faculty member (you don’t want to work with him anyway). Focus on what you can control and let go of what you can’t. Seek pharmaceutical relief if you need to.

2. People in your life are not going to get it

Everyone understands that job searching sucks, but few people outside of academia–and a lot within (senior faculty are mostly useless in this regard)–get how ridiculous a process this is, especially now. They will not understand that you are interviewing for jobs in January that do not start until September. They will not understand that certain fields see 600-700 applications per job. If they are your grandparents, they will not understand that there are at least that many newly minted PhDs who are at least as qualified as you are. And they will not understand the panic you feel as MLA gets ever closer and you are trying to resist refreshing the wiki one more time. (Protip: five of the seven schools I interviewed with did their interviewing outside of MLA, so it’s not over for you if you don’t have tons of invitations in December).

For that reason, I made the decision this year that I would not answer questions from family or friends until I had an interview. I forbade my relatives to ask me about it at holiday gatherings, an injunction they pretty much accepted. At some point in January, I decided I wouldn’t talk about it until I had a campus visit lined up or until I had already been rejected. It was just too hard to come back and tell them it didn’t work out. I am thankful that I was too lazy to take The Chronicle of Higher Education up on their offer to blog about my job search. I do have a masochistic streak, but blogging about my failures in real time–even under a pseudonym–would have been a bit much. (Plus, commenters at the Chronicle can be vicious.)

In other words, you need to establish limits with the people in your life about when and under what circumstances you want to talk about your job search. Or you can say, “Nothing to report,” when they ask and then change the subject. Avoid, if possible, the impulse to take care of everyone else’s feelings about your job search.

3. Figure out who does get it

This is not your fellow graduate students who are so mired in toxic shame and panic that you walk away from job market check-ins reeling from the ambient stress in the room. It isn’t your advisor. This is also not your partner or some other person who has a personal or financial stake in whether or not you are employed next year. This is the person who understands what you are going through but doesn’t give a shit about whether or not you get some particular job. In my case, this person was my therapist. The point is that you do need someone to talk to, and that person’s emotional investment in the job search (yours or their own) needs to be minimal. You may have to pay them. But trust me, it’s worth it.

4. Be ready to bail on this whole academic career thing and decide what will trigger you to do it

I decided last summer that while full-time non-TT work was fine with me (and does actually present some freedoms not available on the tenure track), I would rather jump off the academic career path than do long-term work as an adjunct. There are many reasons why universities have become so reliant on extremely low-paid contingent labor. And while the corporatization of higher education and apathy of senior faculty and weakness of unions are certainly part of the problem, one other important reason is that there are desperate aspiring academics out there who are willing to take these jobs (and I know a few who are quite happy to do so because it suits their life circumstances, but they appear to be a minority). You don’t have to. You really don’t. If your threshold for indignity will allow you to do this for a couple of years, that is fine. Mine wouldn’t. I had non-academic career plans B, C, and D more or less figured out if some version of Plan A didn’t present itself this year. A lot of academics pay lip service to this, but you really do have to be willing to pull the trigger and recognize that leaving academia isn’t failure. In most cases, it’s an indicator of self-respect.

You do not need a tenure track job or even to stay in academia in order to have a good life, and despite what you may have heard, graduate school does not make you fundamentally unfit for any other type of employment. Not only can having an escape hatch give you peace of mind, it can give you the confidence that makes you an inherently sexier candidate.

5. Remember that it isn’t hopeless

This is definitely in the “do as I say, not as I do” category. There certainly aren’t enough tenure-track jobs out there, but there are jobs. We all know people who get them. And provided you’ve made the most of graduate school and provided you are able to support yourself in some way or another, it’s worth spending a couple of years on the market to see what opportunities emerge. Those opportunities might not be what you expect, and the best ones may involve stepping off the prescribed path laid out for you by your field, your department, or your advisor. But rather than seeing it as an exercise in desperate self-promotion, consider this a time in which you are shopping for potential lives. You are considering an array of possibilities, academic and non. You have choices. You have agency. You can say no. But you can also say yes.

Identity Crisis

So, it’s been a while.  It is customary, when a blogger returns from a long absence, to explain one’s absence and give an accounting of one’s whereabouts.  I am not sure I have a good one to offer, except that, around the time when I stopped posting, a lot of really good things started to happen in my life, and blogging–which began as a therapeutic exercise–got boxed out.  At some point, last Spring, I fell in love with my dissertation and was writing so much that I had little energy left for blogging.  In addition, I had two articles accepted by excellent refereed journals. I won a fellowship that allowed me to spend the summer at an archive finishing my dissertation.  I also got funding that relieves me of my teaching responsibilities this semester, and as of three days ago, my defense was scheduled for mid-November.  I am putting the finishing touches on the final draft and poring over a list of 60ish job openings and postdocs in my field.

In short, I am in a very good place right now, and that, frankly, is a little terrifying. I have always, frankly, had a modest estimation of my own abilities as a researcher, writer, and academic in general.  I realize now that, in a way, that modest estimation has been a form of psychological protection. It’s going to sound really obvious, but if I don’t expect much of myself, then I can’t be disappointed.  Success, therefore, is more than a little scary. Though I don’t think of myself as superstitious, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.  It hasn’t yet, but there’s a long, bleak job hunting season ahead of me and plenty of time for the universe to take its revenge.

Does this little bout of navel-gazing presage a return to blogging? I am not sure.  I am, however, impressed that this site continues to get a few hundred hits a day.  You people have patience.

I Am Locutus of English Teachers?

Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard as Locutus of BorgI get that there are bad teachers out there.  I get that there are people teaching English classes who really shouldn’t be.  I get that some of these people hold advanced degrees and are currently in charge of undergraduate composition classes.  I get that plenty of people have been traumatized by bad teacher.

Here is the thing though:  English teachers are not a hive mind.  We disagree with one another, sometimes quite vehemently, about what constitutes good teaching.  Both English and pedagogy are dynamic fields of theory and practice that are constantly adjusting and changing as new knowledge is produced and old assumptions are challenged.

This is why I get chapped when, if my job comes up in casual conversation, I am suddenly called upon to answer for the transgressions of everyone’s 9th grade English teacher or freshman comp instructor.  This happens with acquaintances, with total strangers, with my father-in-law, with my grandfather. These last two pass up no opportunity to tell me–again–about the English prof who failed to recognize their latent genius back in college.  That teacher had the idiocy to give them C’s and made them feel like crap by using red ink to mark their comma errors, and now they hate English forevers.  And my role in the conversation is, I suppose, to confirm that I and all members of my profession traffic in bullshit.  Keep in mind that I get this from people who last took English classes during the Eisenhower administration.

In addition to reflecting the speaker’s insecurity and butthurtitude, these demands that I speak for all literature scholars and English teachers since Matthew Arnold also often takes the form of regressive attitudes about academic labor and the nature of tenure, which many individuals in my immediate circle seem to think is just handed out like candy to Trick or Treaters to any idiot who puts letters next to their name.  Also:  resentment about ever being asked to consider the experiences of women or minorities.

Samples from the past month or two:

Passing Acquaintance 1:  “Is there something about getting a PhD that makes a person’s head immediately go up their own ass?”

Me:  “Well, that will be me in about a year, so I guess you can let me know then.”

Passing Acquaintance 2:  “Are you like that teacher who tried to make me like Jane Austen back in college?”

Me: :…..:

Passing Acquaintance 2: “I mean really, why is Jane Austen considered to be a good writer?  I only read half of Sense and Sensibility and didn’t think it was so special.”

Me: “……”

Passing Acquaintance 1 (in a tone conveying disgust):  “My English prof is worthless.  She talks about feminism and how women are stereotyped all the time.  Just saying”

Grandfather:  “Blah blah blah. Tenure is a betrayal of the free market…protects bad teachers. Blah blah blah.”

Me:  [Something about intellectual freedom, the difficulty of attaining tenure, and the problems with applying free market principles to education].

Family:  “BLAH BLAH BLAH UNIONS! BLAH BLAH BLAH.” [Pile on.]

Friend:  “You must cringe when you read my emails.  My grammar is so bad…”

Me:  “Actually, I don’t care.  I find you to be perfectly understandable, and I don’t expect texts or informal emails to be perfectly edited.”

Friend:  “…because I had this English teacher who used to jump all over me for not putting commas in the right place, and I’m a pretty bad speller, and…”

Me:  “Well, that was part of her job, and what I do in my job and in my personal life is different, and I make typos all the time because I’m human and and and…”  [Dying a little bit inside].

Putting the Passive-Aggressive in Ph.D

Humorous diagram that shows how to decipher your professor's mood based on how he or she signs his or her emails.Today in “Duh:”  A study of graduate students at a major Western U.S. university discovered that over half of the graduate students surveyed had experienced major emotional stress.  Over half also reported knowing a colleague who had experienced major emotional stress.

Today in “DUUUUUHHHH!!:”  experiencing emotional stress was correlated with have a dysfunctional relationship with one’s advisor (also, precarious financial status, lack of contact with friends and family, being single, and being female).

Graduate students–and probably females in particular–spend an absurd amount of time worrying about what professors think of them.  This is not just because they are insecure, needy little babies.  It is because the academic survival and career outlook of a grad student depend significantly on the quality of her relationships with senior faculty.

As such, I was intrigued to hear that faculty in my department have been doing a bit of bitching about graduate students during Graduate Program Committee meetings, an issue which prompted one of my fellow grads on the Professional Skills Committee to organize a session on Faculty/Grad Student Relations for younger graduate students.  Now, some of the faculty’s complaints were entirely legitimate.  Students who wait until the very last minute to request job recommendations or feedback on materials rightfully deserve to be admonished.  I gave my reccommenders 8 weeks, so I don’t think I am one of the problem students, but no one has ever told me one way or the other.

But that’s actually sort of a problem in itself.  One would sort of hope that faculty members could tactfully tell their students that they need X number of weeks notice on a recommendation or a request for feedback on a chapter or article themselves, rather than making it a topic for committee gossip.  One would hope.  Yet the colleague who ran the Professional Skills session reported that pretensions about openness and honesty between faculty and grad students followed by confessions about dissembling and manipulating in touchy situations was sort of a theme.  When she asked each faculty participant to talk about how they wish to be addressed by grad students, one faculty member declined to answer.  I am, as of this moment, now obsessing about the fact that I once called this same faculty member “Matt” in an email, thinking I remembered him introducing himself that way, only to go back and realize he signs all of his emails with an ambiguous “MC.”  How can something as simple and straightforward as “How do you like to be addressed?” become such a locus for anxiety and misunderstanding?

Later, when they were discussing the need for directness and openness when setting the terms of an advisor/advisee relationship (how often you expect to meet, what kind of turn around time the advisee can expect for feedback, when the advisee feels they need to finish, how long it usually takes students of that advisor to finish, etc.), one distinguished professor admitted that when he doesn’t wish to work with a grad student, he becomes “really busy all of a sudden.”

From the safety of my pseudonymous blog:  that’s fucking ridiculous.  I am gradually–as professors begin to seem a bit less like towering, impenetrable monoliths and more like human beings–beginning to realize that many faculty members are as socially awkward and terrified of confrontations as their students are.  But really, the standard needs to be a bit higher.  Given the enormous amount of power an advisor has in a grad student’s life, the refusal to honestly negotiate the terms of a relationship and occasionally have difficult conversations about the student’s performance or etiquette  isn’t really a simple personality quirk.  It’s downright passive aggressive and detrimental to the grad student’s academic development and overall well-being.

Graduate students often feel as if they are constantly breaking rules and failing to live up to standards that no one has ever spelled out for them.  Worse, the rules and etiquette change depending on whose class you’re in or who is conducting a particular meeting or workshop.  Graduate students also frequently feel like they are imposters, as if someone at the university is going to realize that they do not, in fact, belong there and immediately send them packing.  But even worse is the sense that maybe you don’t belong here, but no one is ever going to tell you one way or the other.  All you will know is that the faculty members who work in your sub-field won’t return your emails, and the Graduate Advisor refuses to look you in the eye.

Ok, that’s not my situation, and I do know of excellent faculty members who were able to sit down and honestly tell them that things just weren’t working out.  I’m reminded of Notorious Ph.D’s excellent post about having that very conversation with two grads in her own department.  She describes that conversation as “difficult,” but I guarantee you that it was also compassionate.  Grad school is too huge of an investment of time, money, and energy, and faculty are being downright disrespectful if they allow grads to simply flounder through the process with no clear signals about their progress or their future in the field while complaining about them to the colleague down the hall.

Image Credit: Ph.D Comics

Why Did My Calling Have to Be This?

So it’s time I come clean and just say it:  I took a stab at the job market, and nothing happened.  It’s really ok.  I have a year of funding left, which means a luxurious 18 months in which to turn a merely defensible dissertation into an awesome dissertation, send off some articles, and generally get my house in order while taking another stab at the market next fall.  I made a promise to myself this summer that I would spend no more than two years on the academic job market before looking for opportunities elsewhere, and I am, for the most part, still committed to that.  At this point in my life, I am ready to leave the “student” qualifier behind and start making grown-up money.  I am not in any way enamored with the prestige that a university job confers, and I am open to considering a number of different career options in and out of education.  On some days, I’m even pretty sure that a high-powered academic job isn’t for me:  that the politics of university department are too oppressive, that jumping on the tenure track treadmill will require too many sacrifices, that I’m not sure how much longer I want to wait before reproducing, etc.

Then weeks like this one happen.  After an awkward first day, my class gradually begins to warm up.  They start asking interesting questions and propose provocative topics for their first writing assignment.  I spend an hour after class discussing Dante and C.S. Lewis and fantasy literature with one student.  Meanwhile, I’ve been emailing back and forth with an archivist at a research library that I want to visit this summer as she helps me identify holdings that I can reference in a fellowship application.  On the bus Monday, I got an email from her notifying me that the papers of a 1900’s female journalist I am interested in have just been made available to the public, and I think I may have squealed audibly, as this was quite possibly the most thrilling news of my month.  As I complete the funding application, I find that I am fantasizing–a little prematurely–about spending day after day walking to this library and devoting hours to perusing its holdings.  I can’t think of a single thing I would rather do this summer, and I’m sure that a little part of me will die if I can’t pull it off.

In short, I fucking love what I do.  I don’t love the low pay, or the uncertainty about where my career is going from here, or the students with shitty attitudes, or the colleagues with the shitty attitudes, or the ridiculous pressure to tailor research topics to the frustratingly narrow standards of “marketability,” or even the prospect of starting the tenure clock.  But during weeks like this, suddenly it all really seems worth it.  Maybe it’s just that I’m coming off a fellowship, where it was pretty much me and my computer in a daily staring match, and I’m remembering how much I love really working, how much I love my on-campus routine and just the experience of being at a university all day.  But all of a sudden, I’m sort of feeling like, “Dammit, I would really miss this if I did something else.”

When I read Historiann’s post on graduate school as a form of self-mortification with quasi-religious implications, the part of me who wrote this post last summer goes “Yeah,” and another part of me goes, “No, that’s not really it at all.”  In some ways, I am sort of attracted to the aura of sophistication that an advance degree confers, but in many other ways, I am just a huge dork who loves this crap and actually believes that what she’s doing is sort of important, even if no one ever recognizes it.  So in some ways, the analogy with religious vocation works.  Both academic and monastic life are about committing oneself to a belief, something you are willing to sacrifice a tremendous amount of personal comfort for.  And yes, there is a certain degree of masochism in that, as well as a certain degree of smugness.    But ultimately it is also about a kind of guileless love and naive belief and a willingness to put up a whole lot of bullshit in order to make that love the center of your life.

It’s a kind of sincerity that isn’t always easy to own up to at a time when irony seems to be the default mode of looking at just about anything, and as someone who has always prided herself on being responsible and pragmatic and adult about things, I’m hating myself just a little bit.  I’m reminded of an application essay I read recently in which the student talked about her complex relationship with her parents.  Her father was always the practical sort who was happy having a normal middle-class job and spending time with his family and taking pleasure in stability.  Her mother, however, was a former Navy pilot, skydiver, and documentary film maker who frequently sacrificed sleep and mental health in order to pursue her interests and follow her dreams.  The student always identified more with her father, having witnessed and resented the ways in which her mother’s aspirations impacted her life and always vowed that she would pursue a practical, remunerative career path.  Then she discovered that she loved acting, that she was outrageously good at it, that she never felt more at home, more herself than when she was on stage, and she went “Well, crap.”  Because there is nothing certain, nothing practical, and for most people, nothing remunerative about pursing acting either in college or as a career.  And yet, she writes, she feels she has to take it as far  as she possibly can.

In some ways, I’m not sure that we really choose our vocations or our dreams.  To a certain degree (mediated by biology, cultural background, family history, economic status, etc.), they choose us, and there is something profoundly weird about realizing that your vocation conflicts, to a certain degree, with your notions of what constitutes a healthy, productive, and socially responsible adult life.

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.

Conference Etiquette

I am currently at a big national academic conference at the moment, and it has been a phenomenal experience.  I’ve heard some fantastic talks by very smart people in fields close to mine, and I’m walking away with some new perspectives on my own objects of study. However, it’s also become abundantly clear that academic conferences are an excellent place to see people behave like narcissistic, anti-social assholes.

For example, I just attended an outstanding plenary address by a prominent historian of science at a prestigious university.  After her talk, she was kind enough to stick around as long as we cared to and answer questions.  There were probably about two dozen people who stayed until the very end of that session, and nearly everyone wanted to answer a question.  We were passing a microphone around, trying to give everyone an opportunity to talk, but there were three people in the group who, once they got the microphone, refused to give it up.  They asked their question and then a follow up and then another follow up and then a rebuttal. This got so obnoxious that the president of the association, who was moderating, had to get up and ask everyone to limit themselves to one question.  As she did so, the person who presently had control of the microphone, continued to talk over her and demanded that the speaker address his particular answer to the very large, very nuanced problem under discussion. When he was forced to finally pass the microphone, he then got up and left.

While this guy was most certainly the worst offender, there were three or four others who exhibited the same types of behavior:  interrupting the invited speaker who was skipping lunch in order to talk with us, refusing to allow others to participate in the conversation, and acting as if their own research on a tangential topic completely invalidated the premise of lecture.

I don’t really have anything more interesting to say about the situation than this:  Don’t be that guy.

Another pet peeve:  people who radically overestimate the amount of time they have to give their paper and then, when the two minute warning is given, skip huge section of their paper and say something like, “I think I cover the rest of this in my conclusion.”