Four years ago this May I completed my PhD. It was momentous, certainly, but it was neither the best nor the most memorable day of my life. I was proud of my accomplishments, I was nervous and excited about the future, but mostly I was simply exhausted. Four years have passed, and I have not yet turned my dissertation into a book. I have published, yes, and I have been (very) busy with teaching, research, and service. However, this unpublished dissertation is both a source of shame and a site of extremely conflicted and confusing feelings for me. Given my propensity to mark time and my attempts to recognize my own emotional/professional patterns, I figure there is no time like the present to bring this conversation out of my head and onto the Net.
Good morning everyone! We have a guest post today from Kaarina Mikalson. You might remember Kaarina from my post on the brightness of the future. I have had the great good fortune and privilege of getting to know Kaarina for the last three years. She is graduating with a humanities degree. Here’s what she has to say about that.
In just a few weeks, I will be graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English. I will set aside my modesty for just a moment and confess that I am pretty proud of myself. Not that I am alone in my success–I have many friends who have worked harder than me to obtain their own degrees. And I certainly didn’t do it alone. I received support and encouragement from my family, friends, and, most significantly, the wonderful professors and grad students in my departments. All the same, I approach graduation day with much relief and much pride in my accomplishments.
So it is still a little galling how many people readily cast doubt on my accomplishments. First and second year students still struggling to choose their own path are always reminding me just how useless they think the liberal arts are, disparaging my choice as well as their own. Strangers and family friends impolitely question my life choices, asking the old familiar question, “And what are you going to do with that?” Recently, I took the time to explain the awesome work I do as a research assistant to a family member, only to be told, “Oh, that’s just busy work. Nobody really cares about that.” Only a few days ago, I argued with another family member, who insisted that you gain no practical skills by completing an arts degree, and all it really is is a piece of paper marking you out as mildly competent.
But if there is one thing my undergraduate degree has helped me develop, it’s confidence, and as a result I can confront these criticisms without backing down. Reflecting on the last four years, I have no regrets, and I can recognize the value in what I have done. Besides, any good liberal arts student knows that what we do have are critical thinking skills, and I can use these to see through the negative criticisms flung my way. Younger students most likely speak out of nervousness and self-doubt, and maybe what they need is an upper year student who will encourage them and support their choices. Many people have different values and priorities than me, and perhaps in blatantly questioning my life choices they are genuinely interested in hearing my ideas. Some people’s criticisms are just a projection of their own anxieties. And that comment about busy work? Well, as far as I can tell, that was just plain rude. If you can think of a good retort, let me know.
What I find most interesting about the debate surrounding university education is how focused it is on academics and career training. Many of those outside of universities easily forget that studying and teaching is not all that goes on there. A university is a community full of smaller communities. When you enrol, you have so many opportunities to learn and engage outside the classroom. I have many friends who will take a bit longer to finish their degrees because they were coordinating whole seasons of theatre, managing campus bars, fighting to lower tuition fees and reduce student debt, organizing fundraisers, founding orchestras, and working as activists for the environment, for women’s rights , for LGBTQ rights. Some even find ways to balance all these other interests and their full class loads in order to complete their degrees on time. If our degrees gives us access to these kind of opportunities, then who can say they aren’t valuable?
Of course, these kinds of communities exist outside of the university, but the university enables and supports this kind of engagement. And though we graduate and leave the classroom behind, I am certain that these students will continue to engage with these communities. I have alwas been more academically inclined, and my activities outside the classroom have been minimal. All the same, I have received tremendous opportunities, including being accepted into the digital humanities community and learning a whole new range of skills. Because of all this, I approach my graduation with hope, pride, and absolutely no doubt in the value of my degree and the institution I receive it from.
How much of the life of the mind is solitary, and how much is social?
I got incensed yesterday by an article by William Pannapacker in the Chronicle of Higher Education on introversion and extraversion and the contemporary university. I admire Pannapacker: he’s a great writer, and pulls no punches, and it’s been interesting to watch him describe what’s happening in one of my fields, digital humanities, in which he’s an interested beginner. I have, in fact, written him fan emails years ago when he was still writing under a pseudonym there. So I was dismayed to see this particular piece, and the comments it engendered: it’s introverts versus extraverts, with some name calling.
I said my piece in the comments there, and even I got derailed into some essentialist arguments. What I want to think about today is a little different, distinct from who has what personality and such. I want to think structurally.
We refer, often, to the profession of professor as dedicated to the life of the mind. But what exactly does that mean? What picture does that call up in your mind? For me, I usually see some American looking Ivy League style library, or a well-appointed faculty office lit by an incandescent bulb ensconced in a tasteful table lamp, and sitting there is a man in a tweed jacket, reading a book. (Really, I am a professor, but my mental image of the idealized case of the life of the mind is some dude from the cliché). If I stretch, I see someone leading a small seminar with a dozen students, or lecturing to a big hall.
So the life of the mind in my imagination doesn’t actually match my experience or my own ideals, really.
Most of our reward structures in higher education are geared toward rewarding the fruits of solitary endeavour: peer-reviewed articles and scholarly monographs are the primary currency of faculty assessment from “R1” universities and increasingly on down to community colleges. Plaques and pats on the head are awarded for good or excellent teaching, and teaching ostensibly constitutes 40% of what we are assessed on at year end. But it’s telling that there’s no prescribed format on a CV for documenting teaching, but Victorianesque gradations and hierarchies of research output and its documentation. And when’s the last time anyone but a student evaluated your teaching, by actually witnessing it? And it is significant to note that when a university wants to be taken more seriously on the world stage one way it does so is by reducing the number of courses that faculty members have to teach. Service work, I think we can all agree, is something that matters–in the assessment sense, which is where the rubber hits the road–barely at all, unless one takes on a major administrative post where suits and regular business hours are required.
So the life of the mind that the university promotes and rewards looks pretty solitary, too: most important is solo-authored writing projects, less teaching is better for everyone, and being good at meetings matters hardly at all.
Let me reframe: in the way the university generally rewards (and thus seeks to shape) faculty behaviour, it pushes us away from the collective or the interpersonal and towards isolation and solitary work.
Is that how universities actually best function? I would put teaching at the centre of what a university is for, and teaching is among the least solitary activities I can imagine. Teaching, for me, is trying to win the hearts and minds of 40 individuals, while pushing them hard to conquer difficult material. Teaching is about figuring out the audience and plotting how to get them where I need to know: I have the knowledge, but if they don’t get on board, the ship of knowledge I’m trying to pilot is a ghost vessel. And service work. I don’t want to talk about meetings (much less go to them) but it’s hard to overstate how much the conditions of our work are debated and set in committees: curriculum, policy, new programs, new buildings, discipline. Pretty much all of it.
And this work is all social. You need to work with other people to get it done.
What I really wanted to write about today is the sociality of scholarship and the opportunities presented by social media. But just reading my (really long) setup above, I begin to see why many, many in the profession look askance at professorial blogging and tweeting and even conference-going or workshop attending. It’s of a piece with the more general elevation of solitary scholarly production and the deprecation of anything taking place in rooms (virtual or otherwise) with more than one person in them.
Hm. Maybe I’ll have to come back to this. But for now, I mostly think the idea that the institution discriminates in some meaningful way against solitary practices is bunkus: it looks like there’s a lot of teaching and meetings and events that we’re all supposed to go to, but at base these are all secondary or tertiary to the main thing.
Someone asked me on Twitter why I blog under my own name. (Hi Jane!) It’s a good question. The short answer is “a lot of reasons.”
First the caveat: I don’t always blog under my own name. I have a pseudonymous mommy blog, now on hiatus, to which I posted for four years, usually more than once a week, and developed a daily readership in the dozens, mostly bloggers I read, who wrote under pseudonyms, but whom I came to know personally, often in the flesh. I used a pseudonym there for a couple of reasons. One is that I wanted to keep my private life private, in the sense that someone googling me wouldn’t have the gory but hilarious story of my daughter’s birth come up as the first hit. Another reason is that I was writing about another human being, my daughter, and she never asked to be a public figure. So I made a silo, where I could hang out with other moms, talking about bodily functions and swapping martini recipes, while maintaining a public face that held to a different standard of decorum.
Note I’ve said “pseudonymous,” rather than anonymous. I have never ever written anything on that blog that would rain misery down upon my world if I was somehow outed from that space. The internet is never really anonymous–someone can always figure out who you are, and in fact, someone from my past who knew me IRL totally figured me out when she happened upon my blog.
So I’ve always considered blogging a public act. On this blog, “Aimée Morrison” is really me, in the sense that I write all the posts, and fully hew to the opinions I share here, really want to know the answers to the questions that I ask, really have the experiences I relate. I am, also, a natural shit disturber with few boundaries on information sharing, so it doesn’t feel particularly out of character to make public statements about the shell game that is grad school, about how my students need to suck it up and read the textbook, to share pictures of myself looking like death warmed over. To hide that stuff behind a pseudonym, I feel, would be like saying I’m ashamed of those ideas (or pictures) or that there is something taboo or illicit about them. I don’t think so. I think the academy would really benefit from more people telling it how they actually see it, that we would all become stronger for sharing our weaknesses and finding them common.
I think blogging is valuable. And part of the way I put my money where my mouth is is by signing my name to it, and putting it on my CV, my bio.
Are there people who think that blogging is a waste of time and that blogging makes me less of a scholar simply by dint of my participation in this sphere? Yup. Are there people who find the opinions I express here annoying, and think less of me for sharing them? Probably. Oh well. People used to think that writing stuff down rather than memorizing it was the end of the world, too. But all the major higher ed news sources feature blogs now. In digital humanities, some of the best scholarship, networking, and pedagogy happens through blogs. More and more people are signing their names to their blogs–including our wonderful guest contributors here–and finding that good things follow.
I have tenure, and I work in new media. Both of these factors make it both easier and more attractive to use my real name to blog. And of course, there are things I don’t say, stuff that I save for after-work drinks with my meat-space network, a much tighter, more discreet, and un-archived discussion space. Some of these things I don’t say because, like writing about my daughter, they expose an individual person to a kind of publicity they didn’t ask for. And because my version of events might not be theirs. Some of these things I don’t say because they have to do with issues in my employment that are confidential, or that have a process associated with them that is not helped by internet publication. Some things I don’t say, frankly, because they reflect so poorly on me that I’d prefer you not know. The trick I aim to perform is always to be specific enough to say something that is actually true and ponderable at the level of engaged conversation, without endangering anyone’s privacy or process or turning this space into a bully pulpit where I get to shout louder than the people I might disagree with.
So if you want to blog, think about using your own name. You will never be anonymous, no matter how hard you try, and it’s foolhardy to write as though you are. Good things might flow into your life from signing your name to your writing online. Oh — and use a real photo of yourself as your avatar, so I can recognize you when I see you across the crowded beer tent at Congress.
|My name is Aimée Morrison and my giant thumb approves this message.|
My teaching semester ended on Thursday at 2:30. After I gave my final lecture I packed up my belongings and walked back to my office. While I was walking I ran into a student I know, a lovely, smart, kind student who asked me how I was. “I’ve just finished my last lecture of the term, and I am feeling a little lost” I replied. Poor fellow, sometimes I’m too honest.
But the truth is that I seem to have a pattern every spring: finish an intense teaching semester and crash. Hard. This past term was the most difficult one I’ve had in my relatively short teaching career. I was teaching four courses (all different, no repeats), I was teaching my first graduate course, I submitted a large grant application, I travelled to two conferences, and I had a job interview. Our faculty nearly went on strike, and for the weeks leading up to what seemed an unavoidable strike action I, like others, spent extra time meeting with stressed students, grading papers much more quickly than usual in an attempt to prepare students for working on their own should faculty have to walk off the job. All in all it felt like an especially trying term.
I know I should feel justified–even entitled–to take a bit of a break before the grading begins (not to mention the fact that I am teaching a new course in May…) Indeed I’ve encouraged friends and colleagues to take a break. “You need to recharge!” I tell others. So why is it so difficult for me to take my own advice? This weekend I had brilliant plans for a mix of work and relaxation. I planned to grade a few papers each day, to spend a little time doing cursory research for a new article, and to spend the evenings cooking and hanging out with my partner in crime. Instead I took three hour naps each day, woke up feeling groggy and disoriented, and then felt horrible for not grading any papers. What gives?
I got a bit of a hint on Saturday evening when my partner and I watched two movies in a row. I didn’t even feel I had the mental capacity for a complex narrative, so we watched an action film and then we watched Conan O’Brien’s documentary about his post-NBC-firing stand-up show. As I am an early-to-bed-early-to-riser I didn’t really know much about the Leno-Coco debacle, so I went into watching the film with what began as cool detachment. Cool detachment quickly changed to concern and frustration: O’Brian appeared stressed, angry, high-strung, and exhausted. But what bothered me most was not his increasingly dark circles, what bothered me was that he was getting it done. Clearly the emotional toll of being fired as well as the emotional and physical toll of performing were getting to him, but ultimately he was killing it. The show was good.
I didn’t get to see how the documentary ended because the DVD we had was scratched. He had just been asked what he would do if he didn’t have his work. I didn’t get to hear his answer because the screen froze on close-up on O’Brien’s face: tired, frantic, and, as he’d said a number of times in the documentary, unable to stop.
Now I’m no fool, I’m not Conan O’Brien, and while there might be some similarities to be drawn, my classes are not really anything like late night television. I’m struck though by the ways in which I feel like that frantic, frenetic version of O’Brien that makes up the majority of the documentary: unable to stop because stopping means the unknown. Stopping means dealing with all the other parts of life that have been put on hold to get the job done. Friends, that is a scary thought.
I offer this little confessional not (only) as navel-gazing wallowing, but rather as a conversation opener: how do your recover from an emotionally and physically exhausting term without completely shutting down?
One Wednesday, in January, despite my best efforts, I did not manage to shower. I wound up, at 4pm, at the local Fancy Pants Bar with some of my favorite colleagues, looking sort of like this:
|Exhibit 1: Eye makeup never helped anyone write better.|
And then I go to campus to pick up some books, looking like this:
|Exhibit 2: Sabbatical sweater. Hood keeps the ideas from falling out.|
Let’s just call that first picture “January” and the second one “February.”
So I shouldn’t have been too surprised when, in March, when I was showered with praise by grad students and colleagues when I showed up somewhere looking more like this:
|Exhibit 3: No, really, it’s still me!|
Today’s post is written by the wonderful and witty Lourdes Arciniega. Inspired? Drop us a line, you too can write a guest post!
Yes, dear reader, I am writing this blog contribution instead of writing a conference paper. But, I am also at that point where I just finished writing another paper, and felt I couldn’t tackle another heavy-duty bout of academic writing without taking a break. The irony is not lost on me. Are all English students and academics destined to take a bus man’s holiday? Do we read as respite from reading, and write to relax from writing? Let’s face it, we all play those rewards games with ourselves: If I write three pages of my dissertation, I can write a few emails. If I finish this theory book, I can read the latest bestseller lying on the swing in my patio. But what happens when we hit a writing wall, when you receive a nasty peer review, or when editors fire back comments that make you question your abilities as a writer? How do we overcome those blows to our self-esteem and look past a failed a project? In other words, how do we keep on writing, researching, and thinking about academic work when we have encountered rejection?
Some well-known fiction writers recommend having several projects on the go to keep the creative juices flowing. Certainly, if one article is turned down, I don’t panic as I have two more ideas I am developing which I can then submit to other journals. If one abstract is not accepted, I can tweak it and submit it to two other conferences. If a chapter is not working, there is always something I can salvage, and use it as a starting point for a revision. If I don’t feel like tackling an academic article, I will write a book review, or a blog posting, or work on formatting a bibliography.
All of the above methods work well for me, but the one thing that seems to work better at times is to do nothing. Nothing related to academic writing, that is. Sometimes when I have a deadline, I eat, live, and breathe the project without being truly productive. I burn out early on, freeze up, and then enter a vicious circle of panicking about not writing because I don’t have the energy to write, and I don’t have the energy to write because I have been thinking too much about writing. This is the point where smocking, embroidery, sewing, and gourmet cooking come in.
I recently spent weekend sewing a First Communion dress for my niece because I had hit a wall on writing a conference paper. When I was stuck for an idea on a chapter, I began embroidering the front piece of blouse. I prepared an elaborate four-course meal the week before a national conference presentation. These projects require following a lot of instructions. With my mind fully engaged and focused on them, there is no room for anxious thoughts about papers that may be due. Moreover, I get a great self-esteem boost from seeing the finished projects. These tangential results of my efforts reinforce the fact that I have not lost certain skills that I can produce some great work, and that I am able to follow a project from start to finish. When it’s time to get back to the academic project, I do so with renewed vigour, and sometimes one or two extra pounds, but overall with a more positive perspective.
So, if you ever come over to my house, and I offer you a triple-layered hazelnut chocolate mousse cake with coffee ganache and raspberry coulis for dessert, it is probably because I am in the middle of a major writing project!
Lourdes Arciniega is a PhD Candidate at the University of Calgary