How to Be an Undergraduate Again

Our instructor faced the class, arms crossed over his chest, stern face piercing us all into extraordinary guilt. Most of us had bombed the latest French quiz – a pop quiz, mind you –  and he adopted that distinct teacherly Not Pleased tone.

“I’m going to talk in English,” he says slowly. “Because this is serious.”

We get a stern talking-to on how we must study, on how this is French 21, guys, not French 1 or 2 or 3. This should be review. We have to study, don’t we get it?

I know what he’s doing because I’ve done this move before with my own students. It’s the Bad Cop move, one I only employ after a particularly dour night of grading, where every single student response seems to be utterly off, and ugly feelings start to sink in: “These students are so lazy!” “They don’t care about writing at all!” “Haven’t they done the reading?” “Why did they submit this at 3:00 A.M.?”

I can see these same ugly feelings on his face; for him, it seems ludicrous that we wouldn’t get these concepts. I get it. Hence, the Bad Cop comes out.

Now that I’m taking on the role of an undergraduate in his class, I’m quickly realizing that Bad Cop never ever works; it just turns all of us students into puddles of shame. Another student I’ve befriended who – bless her -studies much harder than I do for this class, turns to me and whispers, “I’m so scared.” Me too, my dear friend, me too. I’m not scared about the quiz outcome though (frankly, another part of this trick is to pull out the Bad Cop on low-stakes assignments, like quizzes, so that the high stakes ones don’t result in similar failure). What I’m scared of is knowing I might fall into the temptation to do the same thing. And I don’t like that.

First, a little bit of context: I’m taking an undergraduate French class right now because I’m required to do so. All English department graduate students need to demonstrate “proficiency” in two different foreign languages. Don’t get me started on the journey that got me to my little desk in a little dark classroom with the grimiest of chalk boards and weathered carpeted floors in all of UC Davis. All that you need to know is that I’ve got to take this French class in order to take my qualifying exams and write that, like, dissertation or whatever.

So, here I am: the only graduate student among a group of undergraduates being taught by other graduate students. I’ll occasionally get some knowing nods from the graduate student instructors; we’ve got a kind of solidarity going on where they recognize that I recognize all of the “student engagement” moves they’re trying. Work in small groups! Think pair share! Yep, got it. I went to the TA Training Orientation too.

I realize I sound a little embittered, but all of these rehashed undergraduate experiences – the shame of the failed pop quiz, the lost dignity after performing an impromptu skit, the swelling of pride when the instructor tells you you’ve done something right – have given me some new perspective on my own teaching and have helped me to appreciate what my own students go through all the more.

Simply, I forgot how stressful it is to be a college student in a college class environment. I forgot how many little assignments that are to keep track of every day. As a graduate student, one has to be a time management expert, but an undergraduate education is its own kind of time management training grounds. So, there’s a lot more I can say about what I’ve learned about teaching again, but here’s how I’ve survived being an undergraduate. Again:

  • Do homework every day right after class. As soon as class is over, I go straight to work on the homework while the ideas are fresh. OK, so, maybe I check my e-mail first, but then it’s homework time. It’s condensed and I get it done to have the rest of my day free for other work.
  • Chat with my classmates about the assignments. So, at first, I wanted to adopt this stand-offish “I’m older than all of you an I know what I’m doing” persona, but as soon as I got my ego in check and realized that I need to actually practice the collaborative learning I preach, I realized my classmates were awesome resources. Not to mention that they’re all fresh off the heels of AP French, so they all know a whole lot more than I do.
  • Flashcards, flashcards, flashcards. Language classes require a lot of memorization, so I’ve been whipping through flashcards, cutting them into fours, and carrying them with me everywhere I go. When I have a minute, I flip through them, keeping the knowledge as fresh as I can. I don’t know how any undergraduate in a language course could survive without these.
  • Participate like no one’s business. Again, I wanted to be too cool for school for a while, especially since I was such an eager beaver in my actual undergraduate years. But then I realized that it’s not that much fun not to participate; I get way more out of my experience by speaking up, even though I say something wrong 90% of the time. Being wrong and failing is learning.

I’m still collecting tips on how to do this better, though somehow, I realize that by the time I’ve got all of this figured out, I’ll be on to the next quarter, on to the next project, learning instead how to be – well – a graduate student. That’s still one I don’t have a checklist for.


Recurring Dreams, Real Dreams

I’ve been sent to an administrator’s office. The hallway is long, sterile, inevitably linoleum. I’m ushered into a room with taupe walls and stock art. A secretary barely notices me. Then, it’s time to talk to the Man in Charge.

“There’s been something of… a mix-up in the records,” Man in Charge starts, folding his hands on the desk in front of him. He looks me straight in the eyes, somber.

“What do you mean?” I ask, feeling the room shrink smaller as the knots in my stomach grow larger.

“It appears as though the scores on your eighth grade exit exams were never put on your academic record,” Man in Charge lowers the glasses to the bridge of his nose, clears his throat. “Without those test scores on your record, it appears as though you never graduated from the eighth grade. Your other degrees are nullified unless you take those state exams.”

I lean back, appalled.

“But I’m working on my doctoral degree! I graduated from college Phi Beta Kappa! I was in the top fifty students at my high school!”

Man in Charge shakes his head.

“None of that matters if there’s no proof that you finished the eighth grade.”

I slump back, defeated.

“There’s nothing I can do?”

Man in Charge purses his lips into a thin line. He sighs audibly.

“I’m afraid not.” He pushes a stack of papers towards me, one emblazoned with golden cursive words that spell, “Welcome!” “I’ve arranged for your enrollment at your former middle school. Golden Hills?”

I nod, dreading all of this, every moment of this.

“You’ve already got your class schedule here. You’ll need to start tomorrow at promptly 7:30 A.M. Your home room is with Mrs. Shepard. School ends at 2:45 P.M. Lunch is at 12:00 P.M. You understand?”

I nod, eyes stinging with the welling of nascent tears.

Some time passes in a breezy drift and then I’m there: school uniform, backpack, three-ring binder. The eighth grade all over again.

It is usually at some point between hearing that fateful news from Man in Charge and stepping into an actual classroom, squeezing into a desk made for a body much smaller than mine, that I wake up from this nightmare. It is a recurring dream, this dream of having to repeat a grade. It is not always the eighth grade; sometimes, it’s the fifth grade. Sometimes, it’s high school. Either way, it’s a return to a regimented day, divided into school periods, always involving a state exam or an exam I forgot to take or never took at all.

I have a number of recurring dreams; this is just one of them. It’s perhaps the most striking one at this point in my career as I anticipate taking more exams of my own, exams that first prove I have basic knowledge of my field and then more exams that prove I have the ideas and chops to write this itsy-bitsy dissertation project thing. Me? Nervous?

If the thoughts from my dreamscape did not make it clear enough already, I hate exams and rarely perform well on them. Perhaps this is why I like writing; it’s an assessment that I can reasonably control. I know how to fix writing to make it clearer. I know when an argument is faulty. I don’t always know when I’ve given a wrong answer. I don’t like anticipating what someone might ask me. In other words, I don’t like giving up my control over the material.

That said, I’m not taking any loathed multiple choice exams. The first exam is my preliminary exam, a two-hour oral exam that tests my knowledge of literary history and media technology theory. I’ve got roughly 150 books of poetry, fiction, drama, and theory to complete before some time this fall (I will not know what date I’ll be taking the exam until roughly six weeks before the date I’m assigned).

I will sit at the end of a long table in a large, hollow room with a cup of compensatory water set in front of me as I answer a series of questions aimed to test how quickly I can think on my feet. I call this “graduate student hazing.” If I pass, I’m on to the next step. If I don’t pass, the punishment is as simple as re-taking this test until I pass. There’s no getting around it.

I’m not exactly reading a book per day, but I’m probably reading anywhere between 200 and 400 pages each day. This seems daunting on paper, but is quite lovely in reality.

Given my life on the screen, an excuse to sit with a book with PAGES on a couch in the summertime is – well – a treat. When I realize my job is to sit on the couch with a book with PAGES (reading carefully and critically and taking good notes and reading critical essays in tandem and ensuring that I understand the literary terms and movements applicable to the text, mind you), I can’t complain. None of these books are “beach reads,” but they are all ones I’ve somehow meant to read, the kinds of books one puts on a bucket list and then, when the time comes to pick it up and actually open up the pages, find something more pressing to do or to read. But I’ve got my external motivation to push me: that long table, those questions, that cup of water I’ll hope not to choke down in a fit of nerves. So, I’m reading. I’m reading a lot.

And as I’m reading, I remember how good it is to read again. It slows me down. It makes my brain lift weights.

A quick digression that will return to the main point soon: I use a lot of analogies with my students when I’m teaching writing and one of my favorites is to compare writing to running. When I first start running, I often feel OK. The adrenaline is rushing. I’ve put myself in the mindset that I’m going to run. But then, after about ten minutes, I’m tired. My breathing is heavy. My thighs and hamstrings feel tight. I’m thirsty. I mean, I’m really over the whole thing and can I go home now? But I recognize that I need to build my endurance in order for the run to be effective, to keep my heart rate high and my body strong. A longer run means that I build more strength. After I get past the pain and the exhaustion, running – at a certain point – feels like exactly what I need. I’m refreshed and my mind is clearer after a run. I’m proud of my efforts.

Similarly, writing for longer and writing more frequently makes writing come more easily; it strengthens one’s ability to articulate one’s thoughts and make an argument. Even when “writer’s block” kicks in and it’s HARD to keep going, writers have to write more – more of anything – in order to produce something of value. Writing is about production.

I struggle with producing words, even as I claim that it’s my craft. This is an everlasting struggle or me, one as wrought as tying on tennis shoes and hitting the pavement. The funny thing is, once I’m invested enough in both activities, I can do both with relative ease; it is the anticipation and fear of both that chokes me up more than anything else.

Even more similarly, reading can be difficult. Sure, reading is much more passive than writing is, but the kind of reading I’m doing – rapid reading of intensely dense materials – requires a concentration and endurance I’ve never had to exert before. While I’m eager to get into my research and to stat my preparation for my next set of exams – the qualifying exams – I know that I have to work through the preliminary exam stage carefully and show that I can absorb hundreds of ideas in a short stretch of time.

I need to prove that I can be an efficient learner, a learner who can synthesize an enormous amount of information and synthesize it well enough to chat casually over tea about it all.

“Why, of course, I can give you not only a clear but an engaging definition of naturalism! Oh, posthumanism, you ask? Why, let me call upon my dear friend, Mark Hansen, to bring that definition to life (pun very much intended!). Perhaps let’s talk time-image while we’re at it. Oh, Deleeeeeuze!”

What will all of this “tea-time” literature knowledge amount to in the long run? The right answer is that I will acquire a basic ability to converse in academic circles. The other and equally as right answer is that I will have the foundational knowledge necessary to understand the critical perspectives that inform whatever kind of dissertation project I pursue. Another equally right answer is that all of my media and technology theory reading will spark ideas for that very same dissertation project and will legitimize the inquiry I pursue. And all of that is very cool even though I’ve been somewhat glib about it.

But I can already imagine the day of the exam itself. I’ll pace around my apartment, then go outside and treat myself to a large mocha and instantly regret the sugar and the caffeine. I’ll be paralyzed with the not knowing what to do and find small things to do until the exam hits. It’ll happen and I’ll forget almost everything about it (unless I fail) and then it’ll be over and I’ll be hit with the crushing anti-climax of it all.

But I think knowing that I can do this, that I can read and read and read and prove myself worthy of being a part of an institution of higher education may quell those dreams, those thoughts of somehow being undeserving or being a clerical error. I know that I can do graduate work and I know that I can do it well. I’ve always wanted to write a book and I’m going to. I hope, I think.

But I’ve got to prove myself first. It’s the first check point. It’s go time.

On Work and Time

I’m growing accustomed to that rhythm of a working day. I can predict almost exactly how long it will take me to become quickly distracted (i.e. after my first couple of hours), the point at which my stomach will rumble in the afternoon for a lunch break (i.e. at approximately my day’s halfway point), and the anticipation of the day’s last thirty minutes, the time where mental fatigue clouds most efforts to continue on a single project.

I’ve been trying to pay close attention to the fatigue I’ve experienced after an office day. It fascinates me, this mental malaise.

I had somehow thought that at the end of each work day, I would still have many more hours to come home and create; I had this fantasy that I would come home to my computer, reinvigorated to learn that coding I wanted to learn, to revamp this website I’ve been dying to revamp, to write like the young ingenue I am! This clearly has not been this case. Why? What’s stopping me?

It’s not mental fatigue. I certainly do not spend eight hours of my day thinking intensely. I probably do not even spend half of that time thinking intensely. Looking back on my work day, I spend most of it assessing the angle of a particular screenshot (Is this clear enough? Can you see that button? Can you see that toolbar?), the placement of a text box (Is this going to block anything? Is my explanation concise enough?), the synthesis of a certain amount of information (Am I writing too many sentences? How do I write this as an imperative?).  I am an information processor, taking on the roles of people who I will never be and trying to understand their own 8:00 A.M.-4:00 P.M. work routines.

So, why do I come home exhausted? I’ve been blaming it on the exercise regiment that I’ve been putting myself through (there is nothing I feel more compelled to do at the end of an eight-hour day than to run, run, run), but I think what is tiring me is simply the weight of time.

I do not think I have ever felt time so heavily as this. In school, time is something fluid; my brain is always at work and there is never a moment in which it is truly sequestered from that identity of working. But here, my work day is quartered and segmented; I make to-do lists for tasks to accomplish before lunch, after lunch, the next day, the next week. My day is segmented by routines.

On the one hand, this is what I wanted. I am a master of lists, schedules, and charts. But on the other hand, I think that this fatigue is one of an acute awareness of time, of both its limitations and comforting order.

What do I make of this? I don’t know. I have no real conclusions to draw in this post other than my awareness of these curious feelings. No one likes to feel exhausted, sure, but I do not know that these feelings are uncomfortable so much as they are simply different. In short, I don’t know if this is what I want. Maybe it won’t ever be so clear.

Perhaps my observations have been affected a little bit by my reading of Neuromancera sci-fi “classic” (though I struggle to categorize novels as such because the word “classic” denotes so many other things than “esteemed” or “well-known,” but whatever). Neuromancer follows the story of Case, a “cowboy” (AKA a hacker/spy), who was fired for thievery. His body gets “re-programmed,” such that he cannot return to his former life, and he becomes a young druggie, wasting his life away in Japan. But then! He is granted a second chance at life! Yes, a mysterious crime boss, Armitage, implants in Case a whole new nervous system under one condition: he finishes a job for him led by the desires of an Artificial Intelligence bot known only as Wintermute.

Adventures ensue, etc. The point of all of this is that I feel a little like Case: I’ve been given this chance to experience a “different life,” hacking into the body of someone who made different choices than I did and, for the most part, I’m pretty disoriented by it. Granted, Case is returning to a life he once knew under these new sets of conditions, so our situations are not exactly parallel, but with Case’s return to his hacking/surfing lifestyle, he sees all sorts of things he never saw before. I suppose I feel similarly; I had made several sets of assumptions about this kind of lifestyle that I had not ever substantiated in the flesh.

In other words, I may be coming home every day weary, disappointed that I do not feel energized to balance all of the many pursuits I endeavored to complete. That said, these are the occasions to remind myself: “Hey, you know what, Jenae? You’re doing OK. Believe, friend, that you’ll keep making solid choices and, most importantly, have some damn good stories at the end of it all.”

The Sound of Silence

My office is a very quiet place. But for the mechanical gushes of air conditioning that grace the office airwaves on the half hour (I look a lot like this most days), the only other sounds I hear are the click-clacking of keyboards, the gentle shuffle of someone off for a walk, and the occasional, “So, you want to send me that…?”

I am an introvert. I live alone. I’ve tended to pursue work that requires much solitary time and attention (see: reading, writing, reading about writing), but never has a space so quiet felt so alien to me.

The quiet makes sense, of course: this is a work space. We certainly do not need a myriad of distractions. And within this space, efficiency is valued above all else. After all, we’ve got a product to make here, people! This is serious business!

But the work environments I’ve loved most are those that alternate between this essential solitary space and a vibrant, collaborative dialogue. Working alone, there is only so much I can accomplish. I don’t pretend to think that my Romantic, individual genius will carry me through tasks; if there is anything I learned in both college and graduate school, it is that I produce my best work when I have worked closely with others on formulating and thinking through ideas. I miss that dialogue and wonder whether this solitary space is something endemic to a business environment. Have I just been living in that “academic bubble” where ideas are exchanged freely and without suspicion? Does this… not happen in other places? I mean, are we only supposed to think like:

Or is this kind of solitary energy I’m experiencing something unique to this company?

I’ll admit that I am hesitant to start dialogues. I suppose I could. That’s one solution. But I started out asking a lot of questions. However, one can only see so many beleaguered and/or bewildered expressions on their supervisors’ faces before deciding to figure things out for one’s self. This could have to do with the fact that I am temporary help; there’s very little need to invest in my full understanding or contribution. I’m sure this primarily has to do with the fact that my supervisors are very busy ladies. Granted, I’ll admit that I don’t really know what exactly they do and, when I’ve asked, I’ve received answers I am not sure I understand, interspersed with a lot of rhetoric from a discourse community of which I am clearly not a part. Perhaps this is how others feel when I retreat into that comfortable literary theory space and try to describe my own projects?

If so: yikes. Please let me do a better job of keeping my own work grounded. Will you (whoever you are reading this because you’re most likely someone who knows me in real life) feel free to tell me if/when I say things that are incredibly confusing?

So, I suppose that this is a long way of saying that I’ve been given a lot of time to fend for myself, which inevitably leads me to draw ever inward, and even more inevitably, perhaps gives me just a wee too much time to reflect upon why I am there in the first place and how this compares to my academic experiences.

Oh, and if you’ve made it here, you’ve definitely earned this (because come on, INEVITABLE):

In Which I Will Not Be Afraid!

“You’re going to come running back to academia,” a colleague assured me when I described to her my summer internship working in a Technical Communications department at a company in San Diego.

Maybe so. I received a whole packet of documents today with the types of reports I’ll be expected to write. And now? I kind of feel like this:

As in, wait: am I prepared to do something at which I could potentially fail?

So, OK. Wait. You need more information before you can understand my quick surge of panic this evening.

Potential projects for me include improving the usability of help information for breast cancer imaging software, creating a more interactive, educational platform for understanding electronic health records software, and collating a series of articles about electronic health records use into one more cohesive space.

This is all very cool stuff! These are the sorts of projects that could:

  • Make doctors’ lives easier!
  • Improve patients’ ability to get the results they need to be healthy!
  • Save HR departments from having to lead terrible training sessions!

So, real world solutions! Cool! I don’t often get to say that my work inspires tangible change in a working environment that – and we’re about to get real – SAVES LIVES. (Though come on, my understanding of esoteric literary theory should clearly impact your outlook on your digital reading/writing practices. I wrote this great essay on lolcats, you should read it some time).

But I’ll admit it: I’m scared of doing in a field with which I am not comfortable and familiar. This anxiety is clearly the vestige of some serious “straight A student syndrome;” I’m compelled to pursue projects in which I feel that success is within my reach. This is the first job I’ve undertaken where I don’t feel like I am comfortable with what I’m diong. I’m going to have to learn on the job and – well – maybe fail a few times.

I could go into any number of hackneyed aphorisms about this. One must not try; one must DO. (I’m on a Yoda kick tonight if you didn’t get that already. Looking for inspiration in all of the right places).

What am I going to do?

1.  Get over myself. And promptly.

2.  Look for some points of familiarity. I will say that upon looking through the project documents sent to me, I did see some places that I could contribute my knowledge. Many of the documents (especially the step-by-step help guides for using the mammogram software) were driven very much by the logic of a page. That is, while they are conversational in tone (typically a good start to making help text accessible), they’re a little – well – verbose. Clearly, I can sympathize. Verbosity is always my inclination.

But I thought a lot about my discussions in my Literacy and Technology class concerning the relationship between content and design and there are certainly design issues at stake here. So, I could certainly do some re-design work if nothing else.

3. Employ my love of organizing and re-organizing. There’s probably nothing I love more than a great spreadsheet or a clean table. A lot of the writing could probably be organized into the sweet, sweet symmetry of a table! I suppose this is still an issue of design, but if my background in literature has provided me with one practical skill it is the ability to distinguish main points from blocks of dense text. So, while the language of these documents is difficult for me to understand, I can typically distinguish the purpose of the pieces I read.

So, those are my strategies for not being such a fail-fearing wimp. Who knows? Thinking though ways to work through these challenges is compelling. Plus, I have a new work environment to anticipate. I happen to crave novelty. Maybe the office will even feel like this:

One can only hope.