So, last week, along with all the brown paper packages wrapped up in string that arrived at casa-ginga last week, another compact parcel arrived—this one containing a certain missive I wrote, revised, wrote, revised, defended, revised, and submitted last year. My dissertation, all bound up like an honest-to-goodness book. For those of you who have spared yourself the
trauma intellectual pursuit of an advanced degree, one of the lovely things about submitting that mother is that you get to pay a not small chunk of cash to have the thing bound so that it might languish in research library basements across the nation, nay the world. And if you’re like me, you might have a husband who is actually proud of your achievement, and who insists on ordering a copy for home and for one’s Mum and Dad.
So there it is, a (disconcertingly) slim volume, clad in blue, library-book style, sitting on the sideboard and taunting me with its presence. You sense a little ambivalence on my part in terms of all this, don’t you? Well what better place than this blog for me to try and undo all this for myself, and for YOU, my lucky, lucky audience! You in for a treat as Joy tries to figure out how she feels about the fact that she can barely stand to glance inside the pages of this, her life’s work (blegh).
Well, the first part is easy. My doctoral career can easily be read as a life lesson in “how not to pursue a doctoral degree, unless one has some serious masochistic tendencies, and then by all mean have at.” The plan is as follows:
1. Upon nearing completion of one version of your dissertation, and even receiving a fellowship to get done and get the hell out of dodge:
a. On the advice of your main advisor, bring in another co-advisor whose own work is very close to yours.
b. At request of new advisor, begin a whole new research trajectory, and ostensibly, a new dissertation.
c. Get pregnant
d. Take on a full time job in an academic field that is rewarding but not in any way related to your dissertation
e. All of the above [CHECK]
There’s a lot more to this plan. In addition to all of the above, you need to make sure that the two advisors who so adored one another the year before they wanted to share you, but who now hate one another with a passion that is both deep and vile. This means arranging meetings where the two will not have to be in the same room, and where you have to try and please both at once (and yes, I could have saved myself a lot of grief if I had dropped one, but the idea of that sort of confrontation when I was in the middle of this was enough to make me recoil into the fetal position).
One plus of this is that during the defense of your dissertation, your two advisors might well be too busy taking pot-shots at one another to really put you through the ringer.
(Sigh) there is so much more to this story, not least the part where it gets to be a success-story (because in so many ways, it really is—and I will tell that story one day, hopefully). But my aversion to the blue book that has made it way to my house tells me that I am not quite managing to see it in this way yet. And a lot of this fear stems not from what happened with my advisors, although that was flippin’ bad enough, but a myriad of other angsts yet to be tapped into.
First, it is a reminder that if I want to do something with this career, and get a tenure-tracked job as a professor, then I need to actually do something with it. Like, for instance, get portions of it published. That’s the normal plan for these things, right? This means revisiting, rewriting, and living with the words I wrote what seems like years ago. Words I don't even recognize any more (having excised the whole experience from my memory). This also means making a conscious effort to move on, consider upheaving my family, and leaving a place I have come to love (even while I hanker for something new professionally, or living up to some ideal potential).
And I realize, this is not so much a fear of moving on than a fear of failing to do so. Of throwing my life’s plan into the promise of that blue book and realizing that I come up empty. Far better to not even try, right?
And so what might be the steady stream of rationalization kicks in… I currently have a job at the same university that I graduated from (and this in-and-of itself can make you feel quite insecure at times--the eternal graduate student, and all that) and I earn a good chunk more than an Associate Prof would (boo-ya b’yatches!) and get to travel and work with extraordinary people. And even though I manage a lot of projects, I also get paid to think, which ain’t too shabby. I love my neighborhood (one of those transitional, gentrified pockets with old homes, rainbow flags, and a vocally liberal mindset) and I am continuously amazed at how you can live in one area for so long and continue to meet creative, hilarious, and irreverent people just like you to hang out with on a Saturday night.
So yes, these are rationalizations, but also pretty fucking good reasons to say “life is not so bad, so shut yer whinging.” And maybe, maybe I am putting too much onus on that blue book (I am an English Ph.D., after all, and so I like me a bit of totem and taboo now and then) and this is really not that big a deal. And I can work on publishing parts of it, or other research I am working on, and also grapple with that smaller demon of what feels like eternal procrastination. To use Annie Lamott’s phrase (one that is well-worn by me) to stop thinking big picture so much, and paralyzing myself in the process and get back to the quieter task of putting the puppy back on the paper…
“Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.”
I like the idea that my mind is a urinating puppy that just needs a little training, have to say. And with that, I will scootch off to the newspaper and get going on some of that there life’s work I keep deferring.