I have been falling behind on my blogging. It is interesting (to me, anyhow) that no sooner do I make a space for it at mayoreric.com, I seem to lose interest in it. It may well be that I have been busy with things, e.g. getting MT installed on my server space and developing my new webspace. As usual, school is interfering with my plans; statistics keeps me on campus four mornings per week, and I typically put in some hours afterward.
Now that I have ultimate control over the files that I upload and can find paths to them, I am tempted to integrate the blog into the rest of the webspace. There are good reasons to, and good reasons not to, I suppose. I recognize that blogs are public reading, and that that is their raison d'Ítre. Therefore, the more traffic the blog sends the way of the site the better. But I think I might be serving more than one public. Putting the site under one roof is a great start to figuring out what I am really about. At least digitally.
I am not sure what the significance is of the fact that the people that know me as a person rather than as their great hope for the future are most supportive of my next Lunatic Business Venture. I am sick to death of being a lousy grad student, and equally sick of providing no reason why I might be considered otherwise.
I am mindful of the story of a neighbor's nephew, a freshman at the U. He was snowboarding in Colorado recently, and had a terrible fall, breaking three vertebrae. Everyone is hopeful that he will walk again, and the preliminary signs are better than they were a week ago. That being said, within days of being told that he would miss his classes due to being traction and on a respirator etc, the U. called his mom and told her to pack up his stuff subito. The U. might have had some good reasons for doing so, like they were worried about its potential liability for the theft of his possessions or that they really needed the space. I would have hoped that they would have respected the busy schedule of a mother whose son (a customer of the U.) is on life support. In contrast, the ski resort where he fell sent a representative out to personally deliver his snowboard and personal effects that had been found on and near him. They told the mother that they knew he had not hit a tree after all, because they did not find any bark on him. The things one learns from the Ski Patrol.
The point of all this is that I should not expect the U. to allow me to exit gracefully. I think my departure will be more of the sort "Give us the keys and the laptop NOW. You will be escorted out of the building." And this is why I keep attending classes and registering for non-existent classes (thank God for pre-thesis credits!).
Shermanilla has been writing about the various places she would consider living, should the opportunity ever arise to get the heck out, at least for a while. Recently, we have been looking at Merced, California, of all places. Merced is a Central Valley town ala Fresno or Modesto that lies at the approach to Yosemite. It is also where a brand spanking new UC is going to open. Perhaps she and I are both something of real estate speculators. Every family has at least one, I suppose, and hers more than their share.
One of the nice things about a personal webspace, untethered to the U., is that the people who may want to follow up on me will be able to do so. One preserved friendship will be worth the expense and the effort.
Yes it is true that I have had my nose to an academic grindstone for a long time. As an undergrad at Maryland, I took summer and winter courses each year in addition to a full courseload during the semester (except for the first, when I was terribly unsure how much I could handle and I took 12 credits—still full time—instead of 15).
I had Spring and Summer 2002 off, but I sold a house, bought another one, and moved. Hardly relaxing. I took a week off last summer, after finishing up a summer class in German. Then came my boss' departure, the new boss' arrival, and less time than I had expected to prepare for my prelim. Then Mookie died. It was a pretty horrific semester, all told.
I have taken three courses each semester since I began grad school. I was told that this was a normal load, but I am beginning to realize that most grad students do not take this many courses each semester. Of course, it is hard to finish all the requirements in time to finish both prelims inside three years, as is required in order to guarantee funding. So far, I have not heard of anyone being denied funding as a result of failure to complete exams in a timely manner.
The big question remains: Is it fair to me expect that the nature of the stress or the amount of it will differ in any significant degree as a junior faculty member? Granted, not all colleges are not Research-1 universities, and the need to publish is not so great. But still, I will be expected to publish occasionally at least and to teach. And the stress of another large uncompleted project will inevitably loom ahead. Will I be happier then? THAT is the question.
At one of the many low points of the past semester, I entered a seminar. This seminar was one where openness and honesty were actively encouraged. While the course is intended to be more practical than theoretical, the conversations often returned to the ethical concerns of doing research. I liked the professor, and when he had asked how things were going in the past, he sounded like he was genuinely interested in an honest answer. So when he said "How's it going?" I responded "Not so hot."
—What's up? School troubles?
—That too. But I just learned that a friend of mine committed suicide. We weren't close or anything, but the town we lived in has so few people that are willing to do anything to serve the community.
The exchange got me thinking about the role of honesty. Is it possible to be too honest? I don't think the professor was looking to start the seminar off on a depressed note, and really, neither was I. But he asked, and I was too tired of lying, telling people that everything was OK when it felt that the world was collapsing on top of me, to tell him that everything was fine. My need to be honest at that moment was greater than my concern that the class get off to its normally innocuous start. So I told the truth, and made everyone else feel awkward.
Sometimes life places us in the uncomfortable position of trying to strike a balance between telling people things they are comfortable hearing on side and saying things that square more completely with our own sense of reality on the other. I am not sure that any "rule" can be made that will cover when, how much, or to whom honest answers can be conveyed, but at this point if you ask, expect an answer.
Last year, I and a colleague met with two professors for lunch. We went to this Chinese-Vietnamese place across the street from the Carlson School. It was cheap, and they had a buffet. This indicates that the professors were buying. One of the professors astutely observed that most fortune cookies nowadays are not fortune cookies but rather "aphorism cookies." They provide no clairvoyance but rather sagely advice. I wonder which role the tiny messages are meant to provide, and if anything is really Chinese about them.
I remember seeing fortune cookies made through the window of a fortune cookie factory on a rare family trip to San Francisco when I was a child. A women wearing a hat peeled of round disks off a turret and expertly folded the cookies as they came around. She tossed them in a bucket, presumably to be wrapped.
Recently, I opened a fortune cookie containing the aphorism "Example is better than precept." This seems to capture one of the problems I appear to be having with graduate school. Theoretical work is all about precept, to the extent that some political theorists (like Habermas) avoid examples altogether in their published work (even though they may and often do advocate in the outside world) and empiricists are criticized for using case studies (wherein entire situations can be understood in terms of the interrelated workings of their components) by "quants" who contend that for a theory to be valid it must be falsifiable. To sum up my longstanding of this latter stance I answer that human behavior does not follow exogenous "rules" as does celestial or atomic behavior. To be human is to understand, and to be incapable of understanding everything. And that includes understanding the forces that lead us to act and think the way we do.
On the obverse of the aphorism was a "Learn Chinese" phrase "Mayor &mdash Shi-zhang." Roomie took this to mean that I was destined to become active once more in the political capacity in which I once served. I prefer to think of the omen as a mere confirmation that the aphorism was meant for me and no one else. Who the heck needs to say "Mayor" in Chinese?
I heartily endorse a visit to the Mental Health Clinic as a source of literary inspiration. Since silence is implicitly (at least) imposed on clients, they have the opportunity to observe humankind at its most frail. The people a writer observes there are not there to have a good time. Including the employees.
I have a favorite receptionist at the Clinic. She seldom smiles, is matter of fact and dresses plainly. I think the way she has her hair cut is the only thing that really intrigues me. When I was there, she answered a phone call from someone scheduling an appointment. What I could hear of the end of the conversation went something like this:
—How are things going? [Pauses, stares expressionless, straight ahead.]
From this I took it that the person scheduling the appointment was talking about something other than his or her mental health.
—How are things going with the meds?
The receptionist's eyebrows raised, as if she were hearing a description of halluncinations. Then her lips tightened and its corners moved to the side of her face as her eyes opened wide, as if she were hearing most unpleasant descriptions of possible symptoms. At that moment, the problems which have been consuming every iota of my free time (and a good portion of my blogspace) seemed quite minor. By the time the psychiatrist came out to retrieve me for my appointment, I was more certain than ever that I was not going to walk out with a prescription for SSRI's.
People cannot know whether Ph.D. programs are right for them until they try them. Period. Even if all your friends can have Ph.D.'s, only by sharing seminars and discussions with peers genuinely suited for the task can you see whether you are their peer. Sometimes I am there, and sometimes I am not.
I envy my cohorts' interest and talent. And as much as I like the idea of a Ph.D., I am not so sure I like the reality of academic life. Giving up on one's dream is not an easy decision to make.
It is hard to say "I am not a quitter" when one is quitting.
I have been receiving a lot of counsel this past semester. Some of it has come unsolicited, notably from people who are not academics. One well-meaning person, who has exactly one year of graduate school under her belt (albeit from Harvard) gave me the following "pep talk."
I remember when I graduated the last thing I wanted to do was study any more. I wanted to be out in the world, doing things. I had been working hard for four years and I was tired. But finishing my degree was the smartest move I could have made: Every door that opened for me in my career is due to having that degree.
Although her degree opened a lot of doors for her, it took 20 years or so for it to do so. Following that patterm, I should start making use of mine by the time I pick up my first Social Security check or mandatory IRA distribution.
Another well-meaning fellow made the following tautological argument: "If you finish the degree, then you will have something that you didn't have before."
Both comments share the following premise: All things being equal, it is better to finish up than to bail. And I agree with that, so long as all things are indeed equal. But they are not. It is not equally easy, fun, or productive to engage in something that makes you so miserable that you contemplate suicide or become unable to do the remaining things that bring you joy. As I had to point out to the latter interlocutor I have little sympathy for those people that stick with things merely because they have started them, willfully or ignorantly disregarding their own happiness.
I have no doubt that these two have my interests at heart, as do my friends who consider me generally competent to teach—on questionable bases, however. The problem for me is that I am not so sure of what I really want. One friend thinks that I have already made my decision, that I am a goner.
I give more credence to people who have been through the academic wringer. (And I don't mean people with a one year's Master's—sorry.) Here, the experts are split: One Ph.D. tells me that I should stick with it: she gives the same advice to her own daughter, an ABD who is struggling with two small children, a looming dissertation, and a job that cuts deeply into the time she would like to spend on the other two missions. Her advice resonates with my non-patented "regret prevention" approach. Having made some horrendous personal decisions in the past I fear most of all arming myself with the "If only I had stuck it out for another couple of years; I had funding, I was almost done" bludgeon.
A second Ph.D. specifically rejects the blanket "stick with it" advice. He tells me that he has seen more than a few academics sacrifice non-academic aspects of their lives—family, friends, relationships—upon the altar of pursuing a career in the ivory tower. He himself regrets similar decisions that he has made. Since making those decisions, he has committed himself first and foremost to his family. In a sense, he has committed a quiet professional suicide. Which is what I am contemplating, really, though much sooner in the process.
The third Ph.D., whom I pay for his counsel, appears to think that pursuing a Ph.D. may not be the right thing for me. The hours are long, the work inherently isolating, the benefits—in terms of things which I value, like friendship and service—fleeting and abstract. In response to my regret prevention argument, he tries to show me that some of the decisions I made were not really blunders: I managed to live a good life because of not in spite of, the decision to abandon or delay an undergraduate degree. Still I lived under that particular cloud for a long time, and I fear that not finishing this degree will put me a under a similar one.
A young woman grinding through her first year of law school told Roomie her father's tale: He was in an Ivy League history Ph.D. program back in the 60's. He did so poorly there for a while that he was placed on academic probation by the graduate school. He did, eventually, graduate, go on the market, get a job, and obtain tenure. My wise young friend put it succinctly: graduate school makes you face your demons.
And this may be where I am now: continue to do poorly until they force me out. This can take a long time, as in the case of the grad student who basically made the department go through every conceivable hoop to get her out of the program (blogged about here). She eventually matriculated.
It may be that the particular work I am doing this semester is about as far away from my research interest as I am likely to get. Perhaps once I start the Big D., things will improve. The only possible way to test the hypothesis that researching a dissertation will improve my mental state is to complete my incompletes, get through the theory prelim, and get that Master's en passant. And from where I am standing, it is a steep hill indeed.
As I posted earlier, blogs both allow and force us to delineate the boundaries of our public and private lives. Today's New York Times Magazine has an article on this very point. I am six days ahead of that particular curve and dangerously behind on my final paper of the semester.
Sometimes life throws the most unexpected and wonderful surprises. I had two recently.
The first was the result of a fortunate confluence of interests. For as long as I can remember, my brother has always gotten us music for Christmas. He is a talented musician, and he listens to a lot of it. Unfortunately, his tastes run more to Celtic folk music or way out there stuff like Anna Domino and Blaine Reininger. The thing is, once he gives you a cd and you are polite and say that some of the songs are OK, by ten Christmas' later you have the artist's entire catalog, half of which have not been opened. But this year, this same sibling gave Roomie the new John Waters cd. Not only was the cd JUST WHAT ROOMIE WANTED, but included was a signed Polaroid of John Waters with my brother, almost on his lap. (We need not go there.)
Needless to say, we were amazed by the appropriateness of the gift, since Roomie adores John Waters. My brother went to an opening of John Waters' photography at a gallery some time back and has gone back to catch up with him each time he is in San Francisco.
The other surprise was that I met with an instructor who actually had positive things to say about a paper I wrote. Sure, he knew as well as I that it was theoretically weak (I could see in his comments a large "UNCLEAR" scribbled in the margin to my introduction). My gut sense is that he is kind and supportive to all the students in the class. I know for a fact that he used the exact same line "You need to start getting serious about research design" to another student. Still, he said that I am ready to actually go out and do this kind of research. It was a much-needed shot in the arm, but I felt numb at the time, so traumatic has been this semester.
In other news, I have opted for the drug-free approach to my mental health. At least for the present. I have a return appointment scheduled with the psychiatrist, who told me that he could understand why two different therapists would have two different recommendations on whether drugs were right for me. It feels good, at least, to be doing something about my mental health.
Four days. One paper. Ten pages. I. Can. Do. This.
Early this week—Monday—I had some time to kill after a morning meeting but before an afternoon appointment. It made no sense to walk back to Social Sciences to try and cover Steve over lunch because I would have just enough time to walk back to the East Bank as soon as I got off the elevator, so I called Mom. Roomie and I never come close to using all the free minutes Working Assets gives us.
I told her about how I was deciding whether research and teaching was what I really wanted to do; if I am so unhappy as a graduate student, can I expect that the demands on a junior professor are going to be any better?
"Oh, I never expected to see you doing that!" she said.
"Oh, what then?"
"I always saw you in administration"
"Administration? Then what the hell am I going to all this trouble for?"
"Well, you need to pay your dues."
I'm sorry. I can be an excellent administrator without a Ph.D. in Political Science.
As the prof suggested, Week 11 is "the wall," and no theorist could be more appropriate for it than Habermas. So what if I am completely baffled by reading him? So what if I feel like the stupidest person in the room for two hours? I got my peeps.
Lunch I took with Natalie, who seems much happier in real life than in her blog. We are both taking the Theory prelim in the spring, along with this year's brain trust of Kartik, Isaac, Çigdem, and several others. "Um, theory is my second field." The highlight of the lunch was hearing about the travails of a fellow grad student, now ABD and on her way. Sometimes a touch of schadenfreude is the best you can achieve.
After lunch, while scanning an article I mistakenly thought I had to read, I talked with an advanced grad student — in fact the most advanced grad student in residence. She recounted the lemma a predecessor had postulated: "There are two ways I am leaving the department: (A) The Department will kick me out, and (B) They will give me a diploma. They have declined to choose option (A), ergo (B)." For myself, I am not entirely sure that they have not chosen (A). After oral exams, I may be more certain, and more hopeful. The advanced grad student also told me about the short memories of faculty: evidently, they do not remember if you low-pass or even fail. They do not remember the tears and the suffering. The relationship changes to one where they "produce" you as a scholar without doing damage to their own reputation.
After seminar —the one where I felt like a moron—I had another pep talk, this time from a fellow grad student who has had her share of suffering in the department. It turns out that her research interests are somewhat tangentially related to my own, and one of her fields is methodology. This could be promising. While entirely unsure of my ability to contribute anything to her project, I could see us working together. She was very encouraging, if not as enthusiastic as I about partnering up on an article. We talked about the inevitable and sometimes persistent dark times at the Department. "Grad school sucks" seemed to be a refrain. What was particularly encouraging was that she had really regretted coming to Minnesota, and now she was glad she had. Evidently, the good people in the department have come to her aid more than once. As she was doing for me. Sure, I was giving her a lift home. But still.
At the end of the day, I love talking about the reading, and I love talking about the work. But sitting down to do it, that is another matter. And that is why I am off to see the head shrinker.
There is nothing like going to the mental health clinic for one's self-esteem. Last time, just being there for a visit or two was enough to convince me that I did not really need to be there. This time I am determined not to leave without getting a prescription for some SSRI's.
A pretty looking blonde does her paperwork as far away as possible from anyone else. I feel for her.
I pick up the paper work to be completed from the tall (even when seated) receptionist. As I fill it out, a brunette mother with short brown hair fills out paperwork while her two blonde daughters play with the vertical blinds, bunching them up, releasing them, and generally squealing and gurgling the way a seven and a five year old do. Both of them are wearing pink pants. Mom is there, I suspect, as we all are, to get a prescription or get a prescription renewed. She reprimands one of the daughters: "The way you are playing with them is bad. The way Hildy is playing with them is OK." I can't tell any difference in how they are playing with the vertical blinds.
Mom goes to the counter to explain her situation to the receptionist, as the daughters push Mom's patience. "Hildy, don't leave." As mom explains the goods her psychiatrist at the U. of Iowa gave her seem to be working, the older daughter smacks Hildy right in the mouth. Hildy begins to wail, genuinely traumatized by her sister. Mom tells the abusive daughter to sit down, and picks up Hildy to comfort her. Meanwhile, the older daughter doesn't sit down but rather begins to cry, or I should say, fake cry, because it sounds totally phony. Rather than sob like her little sister, a quiet, high-pitched whine emanates from her. She stands close to her mom, putting her forehead into Mom's hip.
"I'm so sorry." says Mom to the receptionist.
"I have two daughters myself."
While this is going on, a tall handsome woman with short spiky black hair comes out of the offices to (I assume) schedule a return appointment. After the mom is done at the desk, I submit my paperwork. The blonde will have to wait, since I have been there before and my paperwork will go faster. As I turn to pick up my grip, the spiky haired woman flashes me an ever so sly grin.
In the vestibule at the front of the building, Mom coaxes the older daughter: "Now I really want you to apologize to Hildy, so we can put this all behind us." Yeah right.
"Comment-ça va?" asked one of my fellow seminarians, as we waited for the down elevator, she to smoke a cigarette and I to make my way to the surface lot. "Ça va bien" I lied.
She nodded and fumbled with her Marlboro "Tres bien."
"Actually, I forgot how to say 'only so-so.'"
"Is something the matter? Like your health or something?"
The elevator landed at ground level.
"Actually, I am debating with myself whether I want to continue with the program, whether I want to give it up. But so much of the rest of my life depends on the decision, like what am I doing here at all. But I figure it is not such a great idea to make big decisions like this when I am feeling so lousy."
"Wow. So you are serious," she replied as she lit her cigarette.
"I used to get depressed during the summer. I would be so busy during the school year that I didn't have time to be depressed. Now I manage to stay depressed all year long."
"What's it like?" she asked.
"I seem to be suffering from a deep and profound unhappiness."
She seemed to like the phrase "deep and profound unhappiness," repeating it back to me.
"I feel bad that I am not really doing anything. Like, sometimes I wonder what I am doing here." she confessed.
"You mean academically? I know I do after taking [so and so]'s class."
"Academically, not really. But just the work itself. The writing, the reading, all of it. Everyone seems to be walking around like everything is normal. No one talks about it."
"I think we all depend on each other to keep our spirits up, and we are afraid that if someone speaks up the spell will be broken. Everyone else is so involved: MIRC, Theory Colloquium. I don't do any of that. I think the percentage of people in the department on anti-depressants is really high."
"You know when I went back home for a semester, and I came back and I said to myself 'I am going to finish this thing.' And now it's two semesters later and I am not so sure this is what I want to do. Not just the study, I love to read. But is this what I want to do forever?"
"Exactly. And there really is no end in sight."
"You know, I love the sunlight. I love being in the sun, waking up in the morning and seeing the sunlight, it just makes me happy. But now, it doesn't cheer me up. The other day, I woke up and the sun was shining and I didn't even bother to open the blinds."
"That's one of the signs."
"One of the signs, there are hundreds."
"But I think it is really common here. For the students, and for the faculty too. And I'm not sure if it is the time we spend doing the work, the intensity with which we do it, or the environment itself."
We both shivered in the night air. "You don't have to wait for me to finish my cigarette."
"I know. But I am enjoying this. There's no way I am going to cut this short!"
"You took one prelim, right?" she asked. "So don't give up: you are halfway there. I haven't even taken one."
"You'll be fine."
As I walked back to the car, the idea that what our department needs is some kind of collective gripe session came to me: no one who just got a job or fellowship or just defended would be invited. Just us losers.
Today is the day we are supposed to learn the results of our preliminary exams. Although I have reconciled myself to the distinct possibility that I will not pass, I have not given much thought to the feelings I would feel if I don't. First, there is the stigma of not passing. The last person to not pass the American prelim has scarcely been seen in the department since. Next there is the fact that the entire field will know that I failed and that I will have to retake the exam. Third, and perhaps most important, not passing will make me rethink just what the hell do I think I am doing in grad school in the first place.
Some of the folks in my seminars make me feel pretty stupid. Of course, many are silent altogether, so it is hard to know what is going on with them.
Another moment of truth awaits this weekend: our first playoff game in the intramural soccer league. I take a little pride in the fact that I got us this far. Last Saturday, I think I saved at least a goal or two playing perhaps the best game of defense I have ever paid. That being said, I was not aggressive enough to get the ball. I am afraid of getting burned when I am the last person back. The good news is that the other defender is Field Chair for the prelim exams; let's raise the unhappy goblet of hope to social promotion!