Tag Archives: academic life

The Biography of a Dissertation Chapter

The Moscow move approacheth. I depart on Thursday with The Husband following a few weeks later. Blogging has been sporadic because I have heretofore been incapable of tackling creative problems more demanding than, “How many of these books and clothing items can I live without for a couple of months while I wait for our shipped items to travel to the other side of the planet and clear customs at multiple borders?” This, however, is a post I have been meaning to write, and there was a new development today, so I might as well go with it. 

I think even seasoned writers need reminders of just how intense and even repetitive the revision process can be for pieces that actually get published. One time when I was doing a revision workshop for a freshman comp class, I brought in the six extant drafts of my dissertation prospectus, each covered with advisor comments to make a point. The point was that at multiple points during the production of a successful piece of work, you are probably going to want to put your eyes out with a fork. This is normal.

In about a month, I’ll finally see my third article–which originated as a dissertation chapter–in print. Without a question, this is the piece of work I’m the most excited about, but also without question, it has been the most labor-intensive. In order to remind myself that I don’t completely suck and to show ailing grad students out there just how normal this sort of thing is, here is the story of how my beloved monstrosity was brought into the world.

July-August 2011 – During my first research trip to Boston, I made a significant finding that ruined my plans for the dissertation chapter I thought I was writing but turned into something way more awesome. In a sort of fugue state, I hammered out multiple drafts (probably 3-4) of a 14,000 word chapter in two weeks, edited the rest of my dissertation, and sent it all off to my co-chairs before my 5 week stay was up. I felt like a freaking god.

September 2011 – Co-chairs make a bunch of suggestions for small changes but deem the dissertation defensible. Graduate Advisor pushes for Fall semester defense in order to make it for certain job market deadlines.

November 2011 – Dissertation is successfully defended. Committee members note that because of the sharp left turn my research took in the summer, that chapter no longer really fits the rest of the project in terms of scope and methodology. They suggest publishing it as a stand alone article instead of including it in book revisions.

January – February 2012 – I work with a committee member who is enthusiastic about that chapter to turn it into an article submission. It goes through a couple of additional drafts (we’re at like 7 or 8 now) in which I strengthen it’s claims, explain central concepts for non-experts, and completely rewrite the first third and the conclusion Because we are planning to submit it to a flagship journal with no length limits, I add a new section based on more recent reading. 

March 2012 – Major scholar in the sub-field gets wind of my project from a couple of sources and requests the article for a special journal issue to appear in Fall 2013. The special issue topic is a perfect fit for this research, and multiple mentors advise me to go ahead with it. 

April – June 2012 – I revise the article again to better suit the theme of the special issue and to speak more directly to the concerns of scholars in that sub-field rather than to a more general audience. I submit my “final” draft to the editor well ahead of the deadline.

January – February 2013 – Editor gets back to me with several suggestions and asks for the changes in six weeks. I go ahead and make them, and the editor is pleased with the results.

May 2013 – Editor has bad news: the amount of space available for the special issue was radically overestimated, and in order to keep costs in line, the journal is asking all contributors to get their submissions under 11,000. At this point, my article is 18,000, which is an absurd length, but I was so close to getting away with it. I am also in the midst of selling/giving away most of my earthly possessions, submitting final grades, planning another research trip and an international move, and having a nervous breakdown. This latest development becomes the topic of my next couple of therapy sessions, and for two weeks, I’m sort of paralyzed by the whole thing, unable to look at the article without wanting to cry.

June 2013 – I finally finish making the cuts, and admittedly, the article is better for it. I remove certain sections that were admittedly digressive and indulgent entirely. I streamline some paragraphs and remove extraneous examples. I combine sentences and paragraphs to say the same thing with fewer words. The very apologetic editor is again pleased with the results.

August 2013 – The journal editor (different guy, reads this blog apparently – Hi, Tim!emails me the publication contract and a list of minor changes that need to be made before the thing goes to press. This is what I’ll be doing on the 12 hour flight to Moscow. 

So that’s like 14 drafts or something. I don’t even know anymore. Because I’m a psycho, I save a lot of intermediate drafts (though not all of them) as new files. One day, I might print them all out and show a class to make a point. That point will be that writing and professoring are stupid things to do for a career if you want to keep your sanity. But somehow, sometimes, it’s kind of worth it. 

Mountain Climbing for the High Functioning Depressive, or What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

From left to right: North Apostle, Ice Mountain, West Apostle
From left to right: North Apostle, Ice Mountain, West Apostle

This is the penultimate week of my research fellowship here in Boston, which means that my summer of nomadic living will soon be drawing to an end as I head back to my parents’ house in Dallas for a few weeks to pack up for Moscow. Since the sale of our house was completed in early May, I have not stayed in any one place for more than two weeks, having visited five states and covered thousands of miles by airplane in a little over two months.

Included in this farewell tour of the US was a visit to Deer Valley Ranch near Buena Vista, CO, an establishment owned by long-time family friends and site of annual visits for my family for over twenty years. It’s one of those family vacations that makes you happy to be amongst a crowd of introverts, as our family of nine adults (and one toddler) can easily pass an entire afternoon reading and only occasionally talking for an entire afternoon (or for as long as the toddler is napping). In the evening, me, my sisters, and our spouses play Settlers of Catan, a ritual that very often sends us to bed hating each other but doesn’t stop us from starting another game (or two) the next night. (Josh, my sweet, infinitely patient missionary-kid brother-in-law is the most quietly ruthless player and regularly makes us feel like complete assholes for telling him where he can shove his Monopoly card. Anyway).

That level of competitiveness tends to bleed into more athletic pursuits as well. Five of the nine of us play tennis, and I suspect that if I were one of those, no one in my family would speak to me again. Ever. I don’t really excel at sports but do like intense physical activity, particularly hiking. This means that at the end of our week, I typically join my dad and now the aforementioned brother-in-law on an all-day mountain climb with Actual Mountain Goat Bob Marken. If you have never attempted climbing a Colorado peak, let’s just say that they are called the Rockies for a reason and with altitudes over 14,000 feet present a significant challenge for anyone who spends 51 weeks out of the year at sea level.  For that reason, the rest of the family, my spouse included, tends to opt for spending the day sitting on a deck looking at the mountains rather than scrambling over them. My other BIL, a Colorado native, swears that the next time he’ll climb one of the state’s famous “fourteeners” is when the Goths invade. And as my dad says, the two things required for this sort of adventure are a high threshold for pain and a bad memory.

The first major ridge we had to climb.
This was one of the easier parts

I’ve been up a half dozen or so fourteeners and other local peaks, and this year, our intrepid guide proposed what he called a “more interesting” thirteener. At 13,860 feet, the North Apostle is just 140 feet shy of the prestigious 14,000 but sits on the same ridge as two other thirteeners that present one of the greatest challenges in Colorado mountaineering. The mountain doesn’t have to be high to completely kick your ass. The North Apostle is the easier of the three in the sense that the climbing is non-technical and no special equipment is required. However, unlike the many Colorado mountains (including the most trafficked fourteeners), there is no trail for the last half of the four mile hike up, at which point the elevation gain becomes so precipitous that you are basically climbing a ladder for about 2000 vertical feet.

Uuuuuugggghhhh
Uuuuuugggghhhh

This is my way of explaining why, even though I made it to the summit, this mountain basically broke me over its knee Bane-style and has left me to painfully recover at the bottom of a sunken prison while it destroyed everything I loved. Not that I didn’t help it or anything. The day before, I neglected to get on top of my hydration and, not wanting to get stomach cramps, I didn’t eat anything on the trail until we’d already gone almost three miles. What this meant is that by that point I was dehydrated, hypoglycemic, and hyponatremic (salt-deficient), and throughout the day, my body would never really be able to catch up. 1400 vertical feet from the top, I got a calf cramp that made me see white. This is honestly probably where I should have stopped and waited for the rest of the group to pick me up on the way back. But no. I pressed forward even though my body was screaming at me not to. I was able to stretch it out, but in order to keep it from happening again, I had to take an unscheduled food and water break, and slow down and ease up my pace each time I felt my muscles start to seize up.

Summit Ridge
Summit Ridge

This meant that I fell considerably behind the rest of my group and therefore never got to rest with them, even at the top of the mountain. Getting to the summit was exhausting enough, but after I snapped a couple of pictures and wolfing down half a sandwich, the sleet started, which meant we needed to face what I had been trying not to think about all the way up: climbing back down the steep rocks, which were now wet.

F*** this
F*** this

Anyone who has done a significant amount of hiking can tell you that the descent is often worse than the ascent. For one thing, you have no choice about it. While summits are optional, getting off the exposed peak before the lightning shows up—not to mention getting home—is not. For another thing, if you have terrible knees—which I do thanks to heredity, dance, and high school track—walking down a flight of stairs is way worse than walking up. And these stairs were slippery, uneven, and constantly moving around under me. About 500 feet from the top, on the way down, with 3.5 miles still to go, in addition to dealing with knees and sleet and burning quads, I hit what runners call the “wall.” I had completely burned through my glycogen stores. And I was still dehydrated. So, around 1000 feet from the top, I was not only physically running on fumes but had lost the ability to make good decisions about where to put my feet. Mountain climbing is a mental challenge as well as a physical one, and if your brain is basically just buzzing inside your head, then the physical side of things starts getting much harder as you slip all over the rocks, struggle to right yourself, and thereby make yourself more and more tired than you would be otherwise. At one point, my father had to start hiking right in front of me so that I could just step in all the places he was stepping.

Ice Mountain from the NA Summit.
Ice Mountain from the NA Summit.

Along the way, I ate the rest of my sandwich, a bunch of chips and other snacks (yay salt), and drank three bottles of water, but as a testament to the fact that my body was using every available resource for cell maintenance, I didn’t have to relieve myself once the entire day. By the time we got back, I was clearly in ketosis (which some extreme dieters and athletes try to induce but really doesn’t feel good). It took me an hour longer to get down than it had to go up, and in the car, I was too tired to talk and couldn’t eat anything without choking because I was so dried out. When we arrived at a gas station, I did what I never do and bought a 16 oz. full sugar soda and almost instantly felt better (protip: have these waiting for you in the car next time). But I was so physically defeated that getting to the top of that mountain feel like a pyrrhic victory. It’s been five days, and my legs are still a little bit sore. I also immediately came down with a cold, and there were a few other physical after effects of extreme exertion that are a tad too personal to mention here.

You could argue that the views are worth it. I'm not going to right now.
You could argue that the views are worth it. I’m not going to right now.

Mountain climbing is the source of a number of self-help clichés that I could no doubt spend another thousand words listing here. There’s the one about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And the one about taking everything one step at a time. A journey of a thousand miles. Humility while standing before nature’s grandeur. None of those are the epiphanies I had while I was barking my shins repeatedly on boulders. No, the persistent thought I keep returning to—that I’ve actually been turning over in my head all year—is that there may be something really wrong with me. Because this flogging myself up a mountain even though I know that it’s probably going to wreck me, that I am probably going to embarrass myself while climbing with three men over six feet tall in top physical condition (there are plenty of female athletes who could have breezed right past them, but I am decidedly not one of them), is pretty characteristic. I am ambitious, competitive, challenge-seeking, and I see stuff through to the end no matter what. Those all sound like strong qualities. They are without question the reason I got a PhD, why I am moving to Russia, why I double-majored and graduated with enough credit hours for two degrees, why when I was thirteen, I went to Honduras for a month to lay concrete with a crazy fundamentalist mission group. While basically a home-body and not much of a risk-taker, I have a tendency to push myself in ways that get me things I want but that also know can become maladaptive.

For example, panicked about money and my job search, over the course of my last year in Austin, I was working no less than three part-time jobs at any given time. For a few months, I was working four. Granted, one of those jobs got me the job I have now, but piling on that many commitments is inadvisable if you are also supposed to be writing a book.

On that note, there seems to be no project so difficult that I can’t find a way to make it even harder. My dissertation project should be strong enough for publication with some straightforward revisions and the addition of a new chapter to replace one that no longer fits the book’s scope and methodology. Having spent almost three weeks in an archive this summer, I’ve come up with ideas for another two chapters and two articles with little clarity about how to prioritize what I want to do.

Again, all of this sort of sounds like good stuff. Having more ideas than time to write them is a high class problem. So is having more paying gigs than you can possibly juggle. And it sounds like all of this could be waved away with “work smarter not harder,” and “give yourself a break,” but this is as useless to a high-functioning depressive (which is what I am) as the advice to not worry so much is to someone with an anxiety disorder (which I have). But the truth is that this past year (the past few years, really) has taken me to absolutely terrifying physical, emotional, and spiritual lows that I might blog about one day if I’m drunk enough. And because I do not behave in stereotypically depressed ways, because I get out of bed in the morning and generally get shit done—whether or not I have to go cry for an hour in my office after teaching class—my particular form of depression is very difficult both to acknowledge and to treat. What it costs you to get to the top of the mountain and back again isn’t as significant to most people as the fact that you got there.

So, rather than write for another 2000 words on what should by now be the obvious similarities between mountain climbing and academic high-achieving (both are endurance games, both require mental toughness and very high tolerance for discomfort, etc.), so instead of that, I’d like to take a paragraph or two to recognize the wisdom of doing to reverse of making it to the top. Sometimes it’s ok to bail out. Sometimes it’s ok to not make the climb in the first place.

Critical to making those choices are enough self-awareness to know why you are doing what you’re doing. I am at the point where I can recognize what itch I’m trying to scratch but don’t quite have the will-power to stop myself. I attempted a hike I knew would be very difficult under circumstances that were less than ideal because I enjoy challenges, yes, but also because I was mad at my body. Moving around a lot has meant falling out of a regimented workout routine, usually only getting to it 2-3 times a week, and between that and new medication, my weight has creeped up bit. As someone whose all for body positivity and HAES and all of that, I’m a bit ashamed that that sort of thing throw off my equilibrium so much, but I live in the world, and sometimes it gets to me.

Likewise, I think some of us tend to pursue our academic careers, pursue a PhD or a particular job or tenure because of the feeling that it will fix something that we think is deeply wrong with us or because it will prove something about you. I defended a year and a half ago and spent the following two weeks in a post-partum fog expecting to change color or something, expecting some external sign that I had arrived. As anyone who reaches that milestone can tell you, it never really comes. You don’t suddenly become a different person (just as you don’t when your body changes, much as the diet industrial complex would like to tell you otherwise). And of course in a career like this, the goalposts just keep moving, so there’s always something new on the horizon to be neurotic about.

And finally, what it costs you to get something really does matter. I’m not just talking about the consequences of putting off family or neglecting friendships or whatever. There is a personal cost to everything that—especially if you are a very sensitive person—can be very, very real and long-lasting. And that is a thing that is worth weighing any time you are facing a difficult endeavor. Deciding that the terrible, never-ending scrutiny of grad school is just not worth it is not cowardice. It’s wisdom. And deciding that a job that is less prestigious or *gasp* not even academic is more amenable to your lifestyle preferences is knowing yourself, not selling out. I’m lucky in that I really do enjoy what I do and can’t imagine really being happy in other line of work (one of the things I learned from the multi-job clusterfrack of the past year is that I hate, hate, hate working in a normal office and love the fact that my schedule completely changes every few months). It’s also true that when the challenge is well-matched to my level of conditioning and acclimation, mountaineering is really fun. But with the work ethic of a Puritan and a masochistic streak, you can sure find a way to make it torture.

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.

Surrender

When I tell people I’m moving to Russia in August for a minimum of three years, I find I often have to spend the remainder of the conversation taking care of them. I’m not talking about my family. For the most part, they have been like, “That sounds like something you would do.” I’m primarily talking about strangers, like the guy who notarized a copy of my diploma for apostille purposes, who looked at me as if I had a fever. “Do you speak Russian? Have you ever been there before?” people like this usually ask, assuming, I suppose, that this person they have known for 30 seconds can’t possibly have thought this through long enough. The truth is, the answer to both of these questions is, “No,” which makes it sound like they are probably right.

Some of this is, of course, brought on by the word “Russia,” which I think most Americans learn about from action movies. “I just rewatched Air Force One,” one of my sisters said the other day. “I think you should reconsider this whole thing.” (She was kidding, but I there are people out there who agree with her). Moscow is about as exotic as you can get while still telling people you live in Europe, but it is still almost at the exact opposite end of the world from where I live now.

It’s hard listing off the reasons why this whole journey seemed so appealing to me in the time it usually takes to wrap up a conversation with a retail associate (“I’m moving to Russia” is now my go-to excuse for why I can’t sign up for loyalty programs and store credit cards. “I’m currently homeless” is another one.) I can tell people that my husband and I have always wanted to live abroad and travel together and that the job opportunity (with a school I have worked for before, albeit briefly) is excellent. I can talk about my romantic ideas about cold, snowy weather, that I think another August/September in Texas might literally kill me. I can tell them that in academia you go where the job is, but I don’t usually like to give off the impression that this is something I defaulted into out of desperation. Even though it’s sort of true (the job market: it is as bad as you’ve heard), it was also a conscious choice. None of my advisors or colleagues would have faulted me for turning the offer down. But I sent the application in the first place–never dreaming that this was the one would pan out–for a reason even though it’s difficult to nail down.

The truth is that even though I live in a city that–like Portland and Denver and Brooklyn–most people consider a final destination, I can feel myself rotting here. Based on anecdote, I’ve come to understand that this is common among people who are finishing up grad school. Even though it’s been the center of your life for the better part of a decade, it’s difficult to feel sentimental about a place that has been the scene of what I can only describe as so much trauma. Don’t get me wrong, I would do it all over again, but as with any mountain climb, I’m glad it’s over and I’m ready to get the caked mud out of my socks.

But if I had to summarize why this all appeals to me in one word, it would be “surrender.” Relocating to a new country is an enormous undertaking that involves navigating the bureaucracies of two immense nations, unloading of most of your worldly possessions, re-homing your pets, and flinging yourself into a culture that is almost completely alien and where you do not speak the language. In other words, it involves reversing what is usually thought of as the prescribed trajectory of adult life, which typically involves the accumulation of competencies and things. Everything I own now fits in a 7 foot POD, which means that we are leaving Austin with less than we brought (and will be leaving the US with even less as most of it is family keepsake stuff that will be left in my parents’ attic). My list of big adult responsibilities, like maintaining auto insurance and buying pet food, is diminishing. And having made my proficiency with the English language my bread and butter, I will now be headed for a place where that means precisely dick when it comes to buying groceries and finding a mobile service provider. I will become a hapless foreigner. Having trained to become a professor, I will find myself in the position of learner once again.  And yet this is a role in which I find myself most comfortable.

And I know many people wind up seeking or stumbling upon the transformative possibilities of helplessness at many points in life. Some find it in having children. Some find it in moving from the suburbs to the city or changing careers or going to graduate school. In many ways, it probably was this same impulse to be awed in the face of what you don’t yet know that drove me and many others to graduate school, though grad school has a weird way of both cultivating and crushing that out of you. The realities of academic labor are such that words like “marketability” and “job security” occasionally crowd out words like “discovery,” and while I’m now hating myself a little bit for saying that so cheesily, at bottom I’m trying get at the fact that in the face of the academic career trajectory and its immense challenges, it becomes difficult to sustain the kind of curiosity and even risk-taking that got you there in the first place. A PhD does not promise a secure middle class existence, but I’m starting to think that while we should be fighting for better working conditions for grad students and adjuncts, there are some appealing alternatives out there to tenure, though they demand a kind of faith that is often difficult to muster.

I guess this is my long-winded way of saying that I am simultaneously terrified and thrilled about what I am preparing to do. It is like cresting the first hill of a roller coaster and waiting, breathless, for the drop.

I Have Questions

James Franco wearing glasses and smoking a cigarette I hear that James Franco was attending his graduate seminar on Byron, Keats, and Shelley at Yale when it was announced that he is currently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor.  Good for James Franco.  Perhaps he is going to make having a PhD in English seem sexy and relevant again.  Or something.

I have questions, though.

Do the other graduate students in that seminar take pride in the fact that they have never seen a James Franco movie and try to work that fact into pre-seminar small talk whenever possible?

How will James Franco complete a dissertation what with all the acting and directing and appearing on talk shows and all that stuff seeing as it will probably wind up taking me a total of three years at this point with very little else to do?

Who is going to be James Franco’s dissertation director and will that disseration director take months to get chapter drafts back to him?

Is James Franco going to be showing up at Marriotts and Hyatt Regencies around the nation delivering fifteen minute papers on the British Romantics?  If so, will he stay at the conference hotel or commute from The Four Seasons?

Assuming, as this Daily Show clip tells me, that James Franco decides to pursue a tenure track career, is he going to quit all of that other stuff in order to work for $60,000 a year (at best) churning out articles and books that exactly six people will read?  Is he going to have to adjunct for a couple of years with the prospect of a full time position tantalizingly dangled in front of him until it becomes clear that no such position is ever going to be created?  If the latter, will James Franco return to acting?

Will James Franco put his Oscar nom on his curriculum vitae?  And if so, will the cynical sneers of hiring committees be visible from space?

Will James Franco be attending MLA in order to give interviews in a crappy hotel room with faculty from regional colleges in Pennsylvania?  If so, will his bodyguards be allowed in the interview room with him?  Will he be wearing a Prada suit?

Has Yale English been getting applications from people who say they want to study the British Romantics but really just want to study James Franco?

Until I get answers to these questions (and more), I won’t go see James Franco’s movie 127 Hours.

Ok.  I lied.  I won’t be seeing it anyway, because the whole cutting off one’s crushed and probably necrotic arm squicks me out so bad that I can’t even watch the previews.  Also, the more I think about James Franco’s possible academic career the more I suspect that the answers to the above questions might make me hate James Franco a little bit.

James Franco.

Image Credit:  c. sexowski, Flickr Creative Commons