balance · coping

Bad dreams

Lately, I’ve been having been have bad dreams. I am not the only one. Mine aren’t all that interesting, but I’m interested in how so many of us seem to be having them. They aren’t necessarily about the political moment but they probably aren’t disconnected from it either.
Sometimes, lately, I’m just scared. I mean, I find a lot of courage and balm-for-the-heart-and-soul in all of the resistance and in the knowledge that this resistance is working. But, just for a moment here and there, I’m also scared. There is no real reason except for, oh, you know, all the reasons.
It feels sometimes like there are no grown ups around. Even though I’m a real grown up (that’s what I keep telling myself), it’s hard to shake the flash of vulnerability that these bad dreams open up. As Aparna Tarc writes in her beautiful essay on the nightmares of a Fatima, a Syrian child who witnessed so much horror, “A Child is Dreaming”: “ we all were once children with nightmares, we may still be too close to the violent truth of feeling vulnerable at the mercy of grownups in charge of a big scary world.”
This disquiet, this vulnerability, reminded me of the dreams of terror that Charlotte Beradt collected, with considerable difficulty, in Germany between 1933 and 1939. I found myself rereading them last week. These are the dreams of ordinary people who knew that something bad was happening even if they couldn’t quite pin down what that bad thing might be. This structure of anticipatory knowledge, of knowing before knowing, strikes me as something to hang onto in a time when things can feel really scary really fast.
And when things happen so fast, it’s hard to hang on to the small moments where something bubbles up, reveals itself to us, especially when they don’t feel that great. I’m not a fan of waking up from a bad dream and staying with all those bad feelings. But maybe we can recognize that this disquiet is also a kind of knowledge. As Sharon Sliwinski so brilliantly recognizes in Mandela’s Dark Years: A Political Theory of Dreaming: “Dream-life is one of the key points of contact with this unconscious knowledge that each of us carries but does not quite possess.” Sliwinski’s distinction between possessing and carrying knowledge is important here. There are some things that we know and we know them because we will carry them, maybe only for a while, but we don’t have to keep them. Possession is its own kind of entrapment. We don’t have to fall in. We might just need to hold on for a bit.
Hold on and also remember that there are other dreams too. I had been driven to reread the Beradt dreams of terror because I wanted to remember that one is not alone in one’s bad dreams. Then I remembered that there was another great collection of dreams out there that connect, albeit obliquely, to this moment. During the 2008 US Democratic Primaries, Sheila Heti collected “real dreams that people have had about Hillary Clinton.” I reread a bunch of these too and remembered how funny and charming this project was back then and thought about how strange it was to read them now. It is tempting to fall into nostalgia, to feel as though these dreams captured another, sunnier, time. But we all know better than to think that the past is ever really just about the past. I don’t have a grand theory about the dreams Heti collected but I do know that they helped me remember that not all dreams are bad. I know that seems obvious. But, when you’re scared, even the obvious can seem stupidly out of reach.
Waking up from a bad dream is one of the loneliest things I’ve ever known. And then I lie there in the dark and remember that we are all dreaming and it is not all bad.
coping · DIY · emotional labour · empowerment · grad school · teaching · writing

#tacitphd: On Letting it Go (when it’s not perfect)

Last week, Aimée wrote an important post about graduate education and the tacit knowledge that is required to achieve success in the PhD. She wrote: 

“Graduate education is a complex social universe with a lot of moving parts, and the heavy and numerous explicit obligations disguise the substantial amount of tacit knowledge and cultural competence required to succeed at it. We know the what of grad school: coursework, TAs and independent teaching, area exams, dissertation proposal, dissertation, and some professional activities like publishing and conference-going. Applying for grants. Applying for jobs. But the how and sometimes even the why is mystifying.”


Aimée’s post asked readers to join the conversation and make the implicit explicit using the #tacitphd hashtag, and several people took to Twitter to comment, in addition to commenting on her post. Both the tweets and comments are great, ranging from simple protocol, to deeper discussions on how to think about your thesis proposal, exams, and work/life balance. You can see the Storify here:

As several people pointed out, the how of the dissertation-writing process is one of the more difficult things to understand. Part of this is a normal not-knowing, in the sense that you can’t really understand how to do something like write your own original work until you start to do it. But part of this knowledge is, for whatever reason, little taught and infrequently discussed. I had furtive conversations about writing the dissertation with newly-minted PhDs, and occasionally my colleagues, and then, happily, I took a grad course from the Writing Studies department, which helped me think and write about the writing process, and pointed me to some great resources (How to Write A Lot is one of those essential books.) 
This summer, coincidentally, I’ve spent nearly all my time (aside from a few conferences/courses) writing writing writing writing the dissertation. And, as is normal, the Writing has been Hard. It is hard to piece together hundreds of different historical, literary and theoretical sources, and build an argument based on the evidence you discover. It is hard to shift your argument when it doesn’t seem to match what you thought when you first read the source two years previously. It is hard to revisit an author you read in your first graduate degree, and rethink what you thought then. It is difficult to make sure all the ideas you have cohere, and that they flow logically over hundreds of pages. It is hard to know where a section of writing should go: this chapter, the next, the introduction? It is also very hard to pass on that writing for someone else to read, especially when you feel it still has some major problems to be worked out.
There are, of course, the easy writing weeks, where the words seemed to fly out of your head and onto the page, where every morning you get a thrill opening up the computer, because you know exactly what you want to say next. These weeks are amazing, and exciting, and will make you remember why you started this PhD in the first place.
But the easy parts of dissertation-writing are not necessarily the parts that need the implicit made explicit. So, with that in mind, I’m offering one bit of advice with regards to dissertation writing, probably what I’ve found to be the most difficult: letting it go (when it’s not perfect).
One of the things we tend to think about the dissertation is that is has to be perfect. And, it seems, the longer we take working on something, the better it must be. Contrary to what you may think, however, the Dissertation is not the final product, the book ready-to-be-published. The dissertation-as-publishable-book-model is not a particularly useful one. Instead, it’s better to think of the dissertation as a first draft, something to return to later, a hoop to jump through to finish the degree. And get in the practice of being okay with your draft-y work being seen by many before it is as “perfect” as you think it needs to be. 
So, how do you get in the practice of letting go of your writing?
1. Join a writing group: meet up with a couple of colleagues/friends to exchange draft-y writing. If you don’t have a writing group, ask someone in your PhD cohort if she would be interested in exchanging her work with yours and commenting on it. One of the best experiences I’ve had in the PhD was exchanging writing with a friend while we worked together to write papers for a workshop. It helped keep me on track for the workshop, months in advance.
2. Send your stuff to your supervisor before you think it is “perfect”: If you’re anything like me, you would rather be stuck for weeks trying to fix a problem section of writing rather than sending it to your supervisor for comments when it is a mess. Don’t be like me. You will waste days, or perhaps even weeks, of your life. If your supervisor is willing to look at draft-y work (and most are, or should be), send it away. Don’t tinker for ages trying to make something perfect when what it really needs is another set of eyes, and some sage advice.
3. Trust your supervisor when she says it is ready to go to your committee: If your supervisor says it is ready to go, it is ready to go. Don’t wait for days to press send on that chapter. Your committee will thank you for giving them the extra time to read it, and your time to completion will be reduced.
How have you learned to let go of your writing? Do you have other dissertation-writing advice? Leave a comment, or add to the Twitter hashtag #tacitphd.
coping · DIY · emotional labour · empowerment · grad school · teaching

Tacit knowledge and graduate education

I suspect one of the reasons I became an English major is that I’m so terrible at reading social cues.

Oh, the gaffes I have gaffed in my life! I was a very awkward child, considered weird by others, and I never managed to fit it. I was pedantic when lightness was required. I mistook flirtations for competition and fought too hard. I approached interactions from my own raw needs rather than consideration for others or the social contract. I lurched from one failed interaction to another, from misread cue to inappropriate behaviour to puzzled ostracism, for years and years.

Books helped me figure out the tacit rules of social life. Books showed me patterns. Books offered models of behavior. Now, a lot of this was implied or inferred, but at least a reader was not directly acting within those social worlds, but could observe and assess. Determine patterns. Slow down the scene. Reread. Figure it out. Literature was the textbook through which I was taught all those social cues and processes I had no natural knack for.

Eventually, I learned how to act like a high-functioning social being (even if I sometimes have to ask myself directly, in the middle of some interaction or another, “What would a human do at this point?”) and I’ve learned a couple of other things as well.

First. How things happen is sometimes more important than what happens. Many social situations are governed not explicitly by the content addressed, but by tone and turn-taking, and carefully deployed deference, or smiles. In Canada we spend a lot of time talking to friends and family and strangers and acquaintances about the weather, and it’s not reallllllly about the weather, is it? It’s more a ritual of attention, or a sort of “I see you,” or “I would like to say something pleasant to engage you while we stand in this hallway waiting for the maintenance worker to find the extra key for the door.

Second. Good intentions do not always equal good outcomes. I spent many years in pretty grim social isolation, never sure when I would alienate my one remaining friend, and feeling lonely and nervous pretty much all the time. I wanted to fit in more than anything, but I just couldn’t. It was pretty awful, the mismatch between effort and outcome, but working harder when you don’t know what you’re doing wrong is never going to yield different results.

Now, this is an academic blog, not therapy, and I’m going somewhere. Where I’m going is this: graduate education is a complex social universe with a lot of moving parts, and the heavy and numerous explicit obligations disguise the substantial amount of tacit knowledge and cultural competence required to succeed at it. We know the what of grad school: coursework, TAs and independent teaching, area exams, dissertation proposal, dissertation, and some professional activities like publishing and conference-going. Applying for grants. Applying for jobs. But the how and sometimes even the why is mystifying: can I just email a professor about being my supervisor? If this work is about my solitary writing labour, why do I have to go to all these department events? Am I supposed to be a good teacher, or is that a bad thing? Am I allowed to talk to my professors if I see them at the grocery store? Isn’t it a better idea to ditch that first year teaching gig for a better class at the local college?

This stuff can tank people. The hidden curriculum–networking, professional communication, how to spend each day, which tasks and relationships to prioritize, and how–supports the overt one. Tacit knowledge greases the wheels, and in its absence, the wheels grind and spark and fail. Good intentions aren’t the problem.

I would say this is my main work as Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in my department. I make explicit the tacit. This can be jarring–in polite society we prefer some things to remain unsaid. Things like: when you email me a question you could look up in 10 seconds, I get angry because you don’t value my time and I think less of you. Things like: it is not better to burn all your bridges in the department for nominally “better” teaching gig somewhere else. Things like: you need to take the lead in gently reminding your dissertation supervisor you exist, because you need her a lot more than she needs you.

For me, this is an equity seeking gesture. Those of us not to the library born are at a significant disadvantage, navigating new social worlds and trying to figure them out at the same time as the explicit curriculum bears down so hard on us.

I think I’m breaking some rules by being so forthright about some of these things. Maybe I haven’t totally outgrown my awkwardness and maybe I still don’t fit all the way in. But it is very rewarding to see a lightbulb go off for a student when I can reveal the inner workings of some mysterious process so that he understand it.

And now I ask you: can you share a piece of tacit knowledge, hard won, so someone else can win it a little more easily? Please leave a comment, or share on Twitter with the hashtag #tacitPhD

coping · empowerment · grad school · mental health · PhD · righteous feminist anger · systemic violence

Mental Health and the PhD (Part II)

I’m a fifth-year PhD student, finishing the seventh year of my graduate studies overall. I’ve been trained in pedagogy, in writing a thesis, in publishing articles, in archival research, in networking, in library research, in organizing conferences, professionalizing, in mastering a field of literature.

But never have I been trained in how to deal with the emotional and psychological stress of writing a dissertation.

It has been difficult, to say the least. My mind is constantly hovering around the exigencies of the imminent job market, and on where my academic partner and I might find ourselves the year after next. Will we find jobs? In the same place? In the same country? WHAT WILL HAPPEN?! Needless to say, these persistent thoughts and questions do not inspire passion or motivation to write about fourteenth-century apocalypse prologues written in Anglo-Norman. They do not push me to delve deeply into my dissertation material, or traipse gleefully through bibliography items. They make me question the point of it all, and they are deeply and profoundly unproductive.

And there are other things. At this advanced stage, many in my cohort have become isolated with our projects, rarely crossing paths and engaging in the fun, collegial decompression and emotional support that occurred frequently during coursework. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one gripped with fear and anxiety about The Future; we all develop our own coping strategies, sequestering ourselves with our work, pouring all free time into surfing listservs for networking and publishing opportunities, simply attempting to stay sane with television and other hobbies and relationships. (I frequently insist that we need to maintain lives outside academia, to enjoy these years as funded [hopefully, if insufficiently] graduate students, not because doing so will make us more productive as academics [though it will], but because “academic” is not the sum total of my identity, as much as the academic superstructure attempts to inculcate our identities differently.)

A little over a year ago, Jana reposted this article from The Guardian about the “culture of acceptance” in academia over mental health issues—not only is mental illness rampant in academic culture, but it becomes almost a marker of accomplishment, as though if you don’t push yourself to the brink of depression or alcoholism, you’re not doing it right (in the follow-up to this article, various PhD students suffering from mental illness share their stories as they battle the attitude of “if you can’t stand the heat, you shouldn’t be here”). A post on The Professor Is In assesses the paralyzing effects of academia’s uniform dependence on “the principle of external validation. You are good only if others in authority authorize that you are good. Your comps, your diss, your job docs, your job talk, your book, your article, your grant proposal, your tenure case…all live or die based on the judgment and approval of people ‘above’ you. And the properly socialized academic makes that approval the core of their identity.” I really do want to follower Dr. Karen’s [edgy] advice to “write like a motherfucker”—to “say no to the less-than status, the linking of your identity to others’ judgment, the servile dependence on others’ stamp of approval.” Sure….I’m all about empowerment and fierceness, but–barring leaving the profession (a perfectly viable choice, of course, but I’m still holding out hope here), how do we do that, exactly?

I wish I had more answers to such questions, but I guess I’ll just keep striving for a healthy work-life balance while fighting against the complacency fostered by the #DWYL neoliberal dictum, as Melissa has so eloquently blogged about. Despite my whining, I have some wonderful, brilliant, and supportive friends, both inside and outside the institution, and I’ve been part of productive academic communities, such as the online writing group that Christy Pottroff described a couple weeks ago. I have library buddies, yoga buddies, and cat buddies. I think I’ll be okay, but the point stands: there are some serious structural changes that need to happen in order to begin to reverse the endemic guilt and anxiety that thrives in precarious academic communities, and a simple bulleted list of coping mechanisms and facile individualized solutions just ain’t gonna cut it for me right now.