wherein a slim blue book makes me ponder my entire life plan...

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.


weaker vessel said...

Joy, I know exactly where you are coming from on this. I think that if you have been a smart, motivated, academically-oriented person for most of your life, it is so difficult to see choices and paths that deviate from the monolithic Master Plan (i.e., tenure-track professorship) as equally valid.

What finally kicked my ass out of the ivory tower was recognizing that I hate the person I become in academic settings. I morph into a nasty, ego-driven tearer-downer. I want my life to be about creating and appreciating things, not overanalyzing them to the point of absurdity. I also hate the petty power struggles and bitchiness and small-mindedness that permeate many humanities departments.

My husband's brother went all the way through with it, graduating from a top school with a philosophy Ph.D. His experience confirmed that the tyranny of the academic career track, particularly in the humanities, is really not worth it to me. He's brilliant, and it took him literally years to find a suitable position, and the one that he finally landed entailed moving from one tip of the continent to the farthest opposite point.

What I am trying to say with all of this self-referential crap is that 1) you have to be able to recognize that 'success'is subjective and it comes in many forms, even if it doesn't look exactly like you always expected that it would, and 2) if you like what you're doing and where you live, please don't feel compelled to get back on the hamster wheel of academia for no real reason other than momentum.

God, woman, what is it about your blog that compels me to compose 5000 word comments on a daily basis? Must. Stop. Blathering. Now.

neva said...

i'd like to echo the sentiments of weaker vessel, because i think her words are wise & her advice is sound.

success usually does look different than you thought it would when you first set off on your academic journey... you have a fabulous job you like, you make good money, you're happy with your personal life? uh... am i missing something here, or are you pretty freaking successful for a gal who just turned thirty-five??

as for publishing your work in order to qualify for tenure? my sister approached that very same dilemma in a rather unique way. by way of background, let me say my sis started teaching at her university when she was, but, 23... in central california. basically, she worked full-time as an assoc. prof. and pursued her doctorate in her "spare" time... within a few years she had graduated magna cum laude from USF (she's a psychotherapist)...after that, she started doing "guest" shots on television. so, by the time she was thirty, she had her degree, a full-time teaching job, and the part-time tv work.

still, she wanted that tenure. so she successfully argued that her work on tv was, in many ways, the equivalent to having papers published! the board agreed, and she got her tenure. (eventually, she shifted gears, worked full-time in tv (with me) finally did write a book, and now works as a life coach).

what is my point here? you're talented and, as far as i can tell? you're creative. you're also published! now, i'm guessing the content of your blog is nothing like your doctoral dissertation, but, what's to keep you from starting one that does. another option is self-publishing... lulu.com is a good resource, tho' i'm sure there are others.

the bottom line here is that you do have options... and you have time to do whatever it is that you ultimately want to do. i say step back, take a breath (or two)... and take your time. allow your gut to guide you... not your head, which is really too full of those memories of bickering advisors to do you any good!

joy...you successfully completed your doctorate! you have a PhD!!! my god, woman... you are awesome! enjoy your accomplishment--one day at a time.

ozma said...

Your story sounds like an amazing success to me--and not because you have such a cool job and not even because you have a Ph.D. but because you did IT and you are still a cool person with your own voice and creativity and all the rest.

(Sorry I'm not being that articulate even though that 1/2 hour nap on the floor was so refreshing!)

Happy Belated Birthday by the way!

I want to say more (but of course after 2 hours of sleep last night I have another whole night to stay up to work) but from where I stand your life looks pretty damn nice to me. The other commenters had better things to say.

I wish someone had saved me before I jumped on the tenure train. (And yet I don't because I am obsessed and miserably obsessed but obsessed nevertheless. Hence, needing a deus ex machina to prevent the current chain of events.)

sweatpantsmom said...

I applaud you and anyone else who has pursued an advanced degree. I think that you should feel a huge sense of accomplishment now, and try not to pressure yourself to do anything that you feel you 'should' be doing.

I am a designer and was only a couple of credits shy of graduating when I was offered a dream job with an ad agency. I left school to take the job but got nothing but grief from everyone - family especially. It was the best decision I ever made, though, and was a huge step in my career.

sweatpantsmom said...

P/S Anne Lamott - one of my favorites.

zeldafitz said...

I too echo the comments, especially Miss Weaker Vessel. I think the reason we so often torment ourselves is because we seem to be locked in on ongoing battle between what we SHOULD do versus what we WANT to do.

This argument rages at all levels.

I say supafine congratulations on the Ph.D. and on your slim blue volume. It sounds like it needs to set for awhile and let the demons come to rest within it, and within you.

I think in life we are far too inclined to think it terms of one thing automatically leading to another--I have my Ph.D, THEREFORE I must now become a tenure tracked professor and then work for seven years and have a sabbatical, etc. etc.

There's more than one script AND more than one way to skin a cat.

gingajoy said...

i seriously can't thank everyone enough for such thoughtful and supportive comments--it's quite taken me aback. more to the point, it's really given me a different slant on all this. one we don't tend to get when we are closeted in the ivory tower (or the tower's outhouse) as we are.

thank you...

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Lisa b said...

Hey Joy I know this is old but I just wanted to comment.
Mine's blue too! Though not a Phd.
I managed to get the feuding committe members on my undergrad thesis so I was fearful to do the MA and am now even more fearful of the Phd.
It is so funny to think of it as your life's work yet not want to ever look at the words again.