The Care and Keeping of Your Ph.D. Candidate Family Member or Friend

For Ph.D. students, the holidays can be a dreaded time because it means inevitable questions from old family and friends about a lot of stressful topics, from their long-term projects to their future career outcomes. Believe me, Ph.D. students do a great job of worrying about these issues for themselves; they don’t need anyone else to remind them of everything they need to get done!

I understand that family members and friends want to show support for their Ph.D. friends or family members and, you know what? There are a lot of ways you can do that without causing undue stress! While I know it can be hard to show support for someone who’s doing work that you may not understand, that you may not relate to, or that you may not see the importance of, one thing Ph.D. students could use in spades is the feeling that people support them and think that the work they’re doing is valuable.

Here are some handy tips for the holidays on ways that you can kindly show that you care about your friend or family member working on a Ph.D.:

  • Mirror their excitement. If they’re excited about something, affirm it! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve enthusiastically explained something I’m working on to someone outside of academia, just to see them wrinkle their nose and go, “So… why does that matter?” That’s probably the biggest possible enthusiasm buzzkill for your Ph.D. family and friends. Even if you don’t know why something matters, couch your questions first with mirroring the excitement: “I’m so happy you’re so excited about what you’re doing!” A statement like, “I’d love to hear more about that” or a question like “What part of your work do you love the most?” is going to go a lot longer way to getting your friend to open up about her work than “What does that mean?”
  • Don’t make disdainful comments about the jargon or specialized terms your Ph.D. friend uses. OK, so your friend’s new and confusing Ph.D. jargon might drive you crazy, but chances are, the reason they’re using that jargon is because they don’t know what else to say or they don’t know how to express their ideas in another way quite yet. It can be tempting to say something like, “Um, can you talk in PLAIN English please?” but nothing is more alienating than expressing disdain about the new ways of speaking your Ph.D. friend has picked up. Even something as simple as “I’m not really sure I understand what you’re getting at. Can you tell me what you mean by [x]?” shows that you’re listening and that you care, even if you don’t understand the jargon or specialized terms.
  • Never ask, “So what’s your dissertation about?” Instead, ask “What kinds of things are you working on?” One of the biggest stressors in your Ph.D. friend’s life is how he or she plans to focus his/her project. This is a source of huge contention – particularly if your friend is in the early stages of working on the dissertation – so if you want to ask about your friend’s work, get them to talk broadly about what kinds of things they’re exploring. That’s a much more stress-free way to get them talking, and it’ll give you more room as well to ask more specific questions if you’re curious.
  • Don’t joke about how little money your friend makes as a Ph.D. student. You might have seen TV shows or movies that joke about graduate students’ impoverished lifestyles, but unless your Ph.D. friend offers a joke him or herself about finances, don’t joke about or discuss money. This is a source of real concern for Ph.D. students; making light of it is not only disrespectful, but it can be downright stress-inducing for your friend. Try not to make their situation more uncomfortable by pointing out something they’re already quite aware of.
  • Avoid referring to their work as “school.Ph.D. students see their work as work. One of the most common misunderstandings of graduate student work is that it’s an extension of what students do as undergraduates. Once Ph.D. students finish their courses, their work actually becomes a lot more like what freelance workers or research associates do; they’re not students so much as they are apprentices to professors. The stakes of graduate student labor are a lot higher than undergraduate student work, as what they produce in graduate school will dictate much of the work they do beyond their graduate training and into their future professions, whereas undergraduate student work typically amounts to a course grade that has little to do with their final professional outcomes. Respect the labor graduate students do and ask about their work the same way that you would ask a friend with a desk job about their work.
  • Never ask, “When will you be done?” Instead, ask, “What are you most excited to do next?” Ph.D. student timelines, contrary to popular belief, are often out of students’ control. Their timelines depend immensely on the needs of their advisors, the results of their experiments in labs, or the availability of historical or archival material they’re attempting to explore. This is perhaps the most irksome question of all because it suggests your impatience with their work and how eager you are to move on to talking about something else (even if you don’t mean it that way, that’s how a lot of Ph.D. students will see it). Asking what kind of work your Ph.D. friend is enjoying will show that you care much more about his or her wellbeing than the timeline at which he or she will complete that work.

So, enjoy the holidays ahead and the thoughtful conversations you’ll have with the academics you love in your life!


Citation Woes

I sheepishly admitted something  embarrassing to a member of my dissertation committee yesterday: I still use Microsoft Word to take notes and keep track of citations.

“Jenaaaaae,” he groaned. “Seriously? It’s time to get with the twenty-first century.”

For those of you new to the citation software game, Microsoft Word is not twenty-first century. It’s kind of like the AOL of citation management; if you’re still using it, it means you’re old or incompetent.

For those of you skeptics wondering, “Why should it matter where citations get stored? Can’t they just be copied and pasted from document to document? Wouldn’t that be easier?”

The resounding answer to that is: “No. No no no. Why would you do that to yourself? No.”

Why is the resounding answer a series of emphatic “no’s?” Well, because it takes way longer to hunt down various citations from random files in random places on one’s computer. Copying and pasting citations from various documents (rather than storing them in one place) is kind of like putting your clothing in a bedroom closet, in a bathroom medicine cabinet, and in the refrigerator. Why would you ever do that? You wouldn’t.

And I know this. I’ve known this. I downloaded EndNote, a citation management program that our library lets students download for free, when I first started graduate school. I felt very pious about it and I quickly learned the basics. It wasn’t hard to use, but it felt cumbersome, like an additional step in the already-long and concentrated process of writing up research.

Here and there, I’d halfheartedly enter in some citations for papers I was working on, telling myself, “You’ll thank yourself for this later.” The problem was that I never got into a habit of it, and I found that for my seminar papers and my prospectus, I was often working against deadlines that made the simple task of entering the citation into EndNote feel like an enormous chore. Though I recognized the looming, long-term disadvantage of copying and pasting citations for the rest of my being, the short-term incentive to finish up writing to do anything else sounded better.

It also doesn’t help that I’ve found great soothing comfort in a Word document. It is, after all, the only word processor I’ve ever known, and it’s pretty much done everything I’ve ever needed it to do (except crash on me on several occasions; it never, never had to do that).

So the thought of abandoning the warm familiarity of a long, blank scrolling page (ha, who’d have thought I’d ever describe a blank page as “warm?”) has just made me want to cuddle up in all of its mainstream, moneyed glory even more. In other words: old habits die hard.

But indeed, it is time to get with it, this twenty-first century business, and actually manage my citations in a reasonable, organized, deliberate, and totally un-crazy way.

During this meeting, my committee member showed me Zotero, and while it is in many ways similar to EndNote, I think it may actually suit my working style a whole lot better (and one can only hope) actually motivate me to store my citations in a reasonable and systematic way.

The biggest advantage to Zotero for me is the fact that I can save readings I’ve accessed from my browser and store them immediately to Zotero. With the version of EndNote I got from the library, this isn’t possible (though perhaps newer versions of EndNote do this?).

Another huge advantage is that Zotero includes a note-taking tab along with the citations stored that allows me to write endlessly in a vertical view along with the citation. In EndNote, the “notes” section is a single bar that also scrolls endlessly, but it scrolls horizontally rather than vertically. This might seem like a totally nit-picky thing, but as a reader, it is much less cumbersome to read down than across.

Zotero also features a dynamic tagging view that will allow me to sort my articles and books by tags that I determine. Again, EndNote does this too, but with Zotero, the tags look a lot more like ones I’d seen on a blog.

In the scheme of things, these might seem like some small differences, but learning and becoming attached to new tools is part of becoming a better researcher. The more flexible I can become in how I write and store information, the better!

What Makes a College Education Valuable?

Over the weekend, I saw the documentary, Ivory Tower, and was prepared to be completely depressed.

Going in, I knew the documentary was about student loan debt; the trailer for the film revealed that the amount of student loan debt in the United States is now higher than credit card debt. This is a terrifying fact, of course, and one that has led news pundits, columnists, students, parents, and even scholars to ask, “Is a college education worth a lifetime of financial struggle?” What is the “value” of a college education?

As a college-educated, PhD-pursuing individual, I often recoil from questions like these. Of course a liberal arts education is valuable. Of course we’d all be better off if we had the kind of education that would make us effective communicators, critical thinkers, and stronger problem solvers. College is of course the place to do that. Where else do students have a safe and protected space to experiment with ideas and be in a community of supportive individuals who have devoted their lives to scholarly pursuits?

The more I think about my initial reactions, however, the more defensive I realize I can be. My bias is clear: I’ve invested my 20s in staying within an academic institution. I love the work I do and I want others to see the value that I think is to be gained from writing in a formal setting, in reading literature that’s challenging (and new), and learning how to read with an understanding of historical contexts, theoretical frameworks, and audience differences. I think school is a great place to do that because – well – that’s where I learned to do that. As a college student, I was lucky enough to have fantastic mentors.

I can still remember sitting in the office of one of my college mentors, crying after I was rejected from a fiction workshop I applied for. He was sympathetic without pandering to my needs; he offered to read my fiction for me the next time I applied for a workshop and later, even suggested that I try something new: poetry. Having a mentor to help guide my choices, to steer me in productive directions, and to help me move forward from failures was, in no hyperbolic terms, life-changing. I felt empowered by a mentor like this; I saw that I could change directions in my work and find new opportunities for success.

Throughout my college education, I was lucky enough to attend classes (at a large public research institution!) that frequently had fewer than twenty students enrolled. This might have been a result of the fact that I majored in English – a relatively small degree program – but it was within the context of those small seminars with faculty who I knew were invested in my education and writing that in many ways inspired me to go into academia. Of course, I can’t ignore the influence supervising a large writing center and conducting my own research had on my choices either, but the point is that I think the formal community I was a part of and the encouragement I received within that protected community gave me greater confidence in my skills and affirmed within me my interest (and I hope talent?) as an astute reader, writer, teacher, and researcher.

I think these kinds of institutions and structures are still important; where else can learning for the sake of learning be protected from diverging interests?

When I walked out of the theater, however, the thought that loomed for me was: “We need better college teaching.” I know that my college education wouldn’t have been nearly as valuable for me had it not been for the professors I had who were not only fantastic researchers, but were above all, mentors and educators. A student going into massive amounts of debt for their college education gets little out of the experience of sitting in a large lecture hall and passively absorbing a “sage on the stage’s” experience.

As a PhD student, I’ve received very little teacher training. Before I was a TA as a first-year graduate student, I attended one three-hour workshop on “teaching” that wound up mostly being about how to report student plagiarism and what to do if students get hostile or violent. While I’m glad I was prepared for an emergency situation, I learned very little about pedagogy until I took a writing pedagogy course in the last quarter of my first year. While that course was useful, I know that I could have used more training about classroom management, lesson planning, and mentoring from the day I stepped on to Davis’s campus. I was not totally unprepared to teach since I had received ample training as a writing center tutor and supervisor, but without that experience, I would have been completely lost.

Nothing can replace individualized education, and the whole reason we have institutions of higher learning is for people to connect, interact, and collaborate. Without that connection, there is no reason to fork up thousands of dollars. Sure, universities can offer networking opportunities and resources for professional development, but what I remember most from college are the small interactions I had and the opportunities to learn within smaller groups and  directly from faculty.

As someone who has designed and taught in hybrid (i.e. partially online) learning environments, I also see potential for capitalizing more on this technology and allowing students greater “flipped” learning experiences. But I think that this doesn’t replace good teacher training and opportunities for professors and professors-in-training to know what it takes to engage and motivate students to push themselves and their thinking even more. Working in groups and communicating is key no matter what profession students enter into, and college can be a place to cultivate those skills in a safe space.

With that said, these kinds of interactions are not for everyone, and I also think that high school students could receive greater guidance on whether college is even the right choice for them and their ambitions. Every student should have the right to an education, but every student should also be educated on whether higher education is right for them. Greater financial literacy and an understanding of the effects of loans and debts on a student would be incredibly valuable.

Scholars could be a part of this conversation to educate college students. Much of the “humanities crisis” has revolved around the question of articulating the worth of our studies. However, I think scholars from every discipline could do more to articulate in concrete terms what their studies provide and communicating the value of their work to a broader prospective audience. I’ll admit that I occasionally still struggle to articulate clearly and concretely why my work matters; this is something I hope to get better at in the years that follow.

So, I still don’t if a college education is worth financial burden for every single student. What I do know is that as educators, we can make a college education worthwhile for our students if we continue to value our students, their contributions, and their learning. The more respect we maintain for our students, the more we can work with them to help them grow and make their experience meaningful.

The #alt-ac Conversation I Wish We Could Have

“You know, what you really want to do is create a personal brand,” the career counselor announced, a PowerPoint display glowing behind her with the image of a man in a suit shaking hands with a woman in power heels. I looked at the audience members around me, and I saw eye rolls, wry smiles, and head shakes. I heard groans, whispering. We were an audience of humanities PhD students, attending an event on non-academic career paths, a hot topic given the changing academic job market and its move towards privatization and “adjunctification.” In this moment, looking around the room, it was clear to me what the problem was: this counselor did not know her audience.

After all, this was an audience intensely critical of corporate models and language; we’re inclined to critique and unpack phrases like “personal brand” and its neoliberal implications. We’re also an audience that has a “personal brand” already; we’re scholars and instructors. That’s how we’ve identified for years. We didn’t want to be in power heels and suits. That wasn’t the point of getting a PhD.

And yet here we all were, wondering whether we were looking into a future of hand-shaking in power suits. Certainly not all “alt-ac” conversations are about branding and marketing, but I’m increasingly aware of how many seem to elide what seems to be a central issue: how does a group of people whose identities are so enveloped in their work, change their work, and consequently how they identify themselves?

So, I want to propose some points of conversation that I wish #alt-ac communities could have. Personally, I’m excited that there’s so much open conversation about pursuing alternatives to academia with PhD, and I feel comforted knowing that it is possible to pursue stimulating work using the immensely valuable skills I’ve developed in graduate school. With that said, I still have questions…

  • How do I prepare myself for multiple careers without going crazy? There’s a large part of me that thrives off of doing a several things at once. I currently manage a UC Davis undergraduate student blog, teach, and consult with graduate student writers while – you know – preparing to write a dissertation. Frankly, I couldn’t be happier; I love everything that I’m doing and in a perfect world, I think I probably would want my “ideal job” to be something that combines all of these interests. With that said, I don’t quite know how to be a “perfect” academic alongside all of these other interests too. How do I churn out articles, attend conferences, and network in several industries at the same time? Is it possible? Somehow, I feel like that’s what I’m expected to do, and I’m not sure if I can actually meet those expectations. I’d love to hear if anyone else had insight on this.
  • What industries value the PhD in the humanities? Where can I go to avoid “PhD stigma?” I find myself continually troubled by the stigma I experience when I tell people I’m getting a PhD in the humanities. I’ve been shocked by a lot of the backlash I’ve received when I’ve explained my choice to people; responses range from mocking derision (a smirk and a statement like, “Good luck with that”), to confusion (“What are you going to do with that?”) to dismissal (“Oh, so you’re going to become a teacher. Great.”). I know these attitudes are pervasive and, like all stereotypes, they are rooted in some truth. That said, I have no regrets about going to graduate school. I know that I’m a better project manager, communicator, and collaborative worker than I ever was as an undergraduate. My perspective on communicating with different audiences, of refining my writing for different purposes, and of working in teams has deepened considerably. That’s not to mention how positive my work environment has been; I’m constantly inspired and motivated by mentors and colleagues who are engaged, positive, and thoughtful. So, where can I go in the future, who can I talk to about these immense skills I’ve gained, and perhaps most importantly, who will actually listen?
  • How do I find ways to re-identify? I’ve always thought of myself as a student and writer. My work has always been really enveloped in my values. There’s not much I enjoy more than hashing out ideas with another writer, working together to clarify their thoughts and deepen their insights. Though I know that I am more than my work, my work – as an instructor and as a learner – is largely how I self-identify. So, choosing a career beyond academia seems challenging in some ways because it forces me not just to look for new forms of income, but also to identify myself differently. So, how do we shift our expectations? How can we find some ways to maintain that core of who we (think we) are while still being able to – well – eat and pay rent?
  • How do I remain part of an academic community even if I’m no longer in academia? I’ve found that I really enjoy being a part of academic communities; I feel like I’ve found “my people” in many ways. I know that I always want to surround myself with people who value academic thought in the ways that I do. Are there ways to identify without feeling like an outsider or a fraud?

So, I’m aware of the number of resources out there, but it’s worth unpacking questions about identity and work and how we – well – can view work positively without being delusional. There’s a goal!

Zoom In, Zoom Out

When I went to college, I remember purchasing a digital camera for the first time. Its functionality was pretty basic, but all I really wanted to do with it was create brag-worthy content for my brand new Facebook account. Of course, I also had some serious archival reasons for wanting to photograph my first year; I was acutely aware of the fact that my college experience would be a precious moment in my life that I would want to remember in detail. Nostalgia tends to dictate a lot of my choices, and I could somehow foresee that I would want the visual data to trigger those memories.

So, for the first few weeks, I used the camera all the time. I took pictures of my dorm room, my lecture halls, the views from different parts of campus. I still have a picture of one of my friends posed in my dorm room with hands on his hips and my bright pink laptop case planted atop his head.

As the weeks wore on, I stopped carrying the camera with me. I abandoned it in part because I befriended fellow photographically inclined types; I could count on them to take the pictures and do the archival work. However, I think a part of the camera abandonment had to do with my own insecurity and frustration with taking the photos. I never took particularly GOOD photos (in spite of my attempts to angle the camera towards the sky and get some shots of some angles and skylines). In fact, I often took bad photos – many, many bad photos – and I didn’t have the patience or motivation to become a better photographer on my “Coolpix” camera. So that was the end of that.

Do I regret not taking more photos? This question is the stuff of greeting cards and teenage Tumblr pages, I recognize, but it is one that confronts my regrets about agency. I often regret not DOING more, saying more, or being involved more. And as I’ve been feeling a bit of that familiar surge of nostalgia, that longing for a time past, I do – yes – I do sometimes regret that I didn’t take more photos.

Part of what makes a good photographer is the ability to find one interesting thing to focus on and to take dozens of pictures of that one wonderful thing. With this in mind – and my own mild pangs of regret for not dedicating myself to archival efforts more fully – it is my goal to become more like a good photographer and not be afraid to take many metaphorical “shots” of that which interests me. I am learning to be patient with the tedium involved in looking at the same thing many times over. But I think that patience is part of what makes a researcher skilled at her craft.

I may no longer have my digital camera, but I’m feeling increasingly prepared to equip myself with the right equipment – and philosophy – to keep myself moving, zooming in and out and finding the focus I need to accomplish this writing thing I keep talking about doing. At least until then, I can keep taking snapshots and collecting stories.

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.

A Hazy Shade of Summer

In elementary school, I used to create binders for each class I took. I slipped hand-drawn covers into the plastic pockets at the front of each: “MATH!!” swirled in purple glitter or “HISTORY!!” emblazoned with heart stickers and rainbows. The start of the school year was always an occasion for promise, a moment where classes were nothing but organizational shells, binders for which the glittering hopes of learning could be tucked neatly into a backpack.

I maintain this desire to compartmentalize, to draw neatly the lines between the different “subjects” in my life. If I could, I think I still would create these binders, but I am not sure I would have any idea how to organize them.”UC Online Educational Project!!” I may have scrawled on one, but is that where I’d also place my readings on multimodal pedagogy? And what about my notes on new media theory and cybernetics and intellectual labor? Do these all go in the same place in my mind? Should they? And in what ways do I continue to divide them or link them into some larger project?

This is the question looming for me as I make my way into my second year of graduate school. I’m eager for a project, bouncing between early reading for my preliminary examinations (which I’m trying to view as membership into the biggest, baddest book club imaginable), tinkering away at my supplemental job of editing college personal statements (a task that, after reading and editing over 2,000 essays in three years feels relatively breezy and – dare I say it? – fun), and course planning for my teaching in the fall. This niggling desire to organize, to get everything in place, to build the pieces of something larger remains unfulfilled; in short, in this transition, I’m having trouble settling down.

And I think I’ve got to be OK with this unsettled feeling (perhaps a lesson for surviving my 20s, too?). The first stage of a project, after all, isn’t always pulling out the compartmentalized pieces; it’s about floating through big ideas, about seeing strands of things, noticing them, and simply setting them aside, not yet writing them in permanent marker (see how far I can take this extended metaphor – or is it a conceit?).

Besides, shouldn’t this noncommittal part be the fun part? The low pressure part? The part appropriate for a slow summer ending where I refuse to give up sundresses even when the need to shrug on a sweater becomes increasingly clear?

While I may not be able to anticipate the things I will learn this year in new, neat compartments, what I can anticipate (with great eagerness!) is the opportunity to simply experience, to practice mindfulness, and to keep figuring out where I want to be. This is a luxurious thing, indeed.

Goodbye Until Tomorrow

Endings discomfit me.

The recognition that I will likely never return to a particular place again tends to evoke within me this slight surge of panic, this almost instinctual desire to reclaim my ownership over that place (or at least reclaim my control to be in that place whenever I want to be there). In other words, I hate to see doors close, opportunities disappear, and – well – moments lost.

So, here I am at the end of this summer internship. I am  debating whether to say “goodbye” to the ocean or to simply leave our relationship open-ended, as if to fool myself into thinking that maybe – just maybe – this space will remain within a brief drive over the freeway in the future. It’s cool, ocean. We can still be friends.

More significantly than ending my (brief) stay in a new city is, of course, ending my foray into this alternate Jenae reality, this life in the cube. I’ll admit that I did not reach as much closure as I would have liked at the end of this experience. I had somehow hoped that this internship would convince me one way or the other about whether I truly belong to academia or to industry. Alas, I still have a lot of questions about both of these spaces and about how I could contribute best to either one of them. These are things I probably should have figured out two years ago when I graduated from college. Alas, these are things I couldn’t have figured out two years ago when I graduated from college.

This blog may have looked like a lot of complaining over the past six weeks (and I’ll admit that I did not often feel as though the work or the environment was “right” for me), but I’ve come to grow more accustomed to the routines of the past few weeks. I’ve come to find ways to make the work day meaningful for me (even if that meaning was not necessarily derived from accomplishing work tasks themselves). The truth of the matter is that I could imagine surviving in a world outside of academia and being OK with it. Were I to enter a space outside of education, I would need to find a place where I truly felt at home, a space with a mission and a cause about which I felt strongly. For if I’ve learned nothing else, it’s that I truly have to invest emotionally in my work in order to feel that that I am contributing in a valuable and useful way.

Granted, that perspective is perhaps problematic; most people do not have the great fortune to “do what they love.” It’s one of those “echo boomer” adages, the assumption that every individual has this special mission and that, no matter what, each individual can accomplish that mission if she simply works hard enough. The fact of the matter is that I’m not special. I’m someone who’s pretty smart with a pretty organized brain who happens to have developed a few skills over time.

That said, at the end of this experience I am significantly more open to the understanding that I could find what I love in spaces that I least expect. Right now, that space is a writing classroom. But it could be somewhere else in the future and I’m willing not only to accept that, but to embrace it.

As a friend advised me recently, I would like to remain an “opportunist.” I would like to see the liminal moment that is graduate school remain this luxurious opportunity for exploration, not only the kind that emerges from sustained study, but from simply saying “yes” to whatever arises around me. I have the great benefit of flexibility upon my return to Davis; my days are relatively unstructured (aside from, you know, class and whatever. No big deal), and I can keep doing what I have been: keeping my eyes open, remaining mindful of my strengths, and acknowledging my weaknesses.

One of my favorite professors at UCLA once advised me to write two words on a sticky note above my desk: “Let Go.” The sticky note upon which I originally wrote those two words is long gone, but it’s perhaps worth recreating, if nothing else than to accept the closing of doors, the inevitable passing of moments.

Image Source: Exploding Dog

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.”

Three Months Later… And We’re Back!

I’m not used to waiting for things. I would wager to say that most of us who grew up in the digital age are not used to waiting for things either. Information is rapid, instant, and instantly gratifying.

Given this fact, it is easy to forget how much labor goes into the process of making the things that we hate waiting for. An example: I’m completely fed up with my smartphone at the moment. It takes a good several seconds for any information I input into the device to get processed. However, what I don’t see (beneath my frustrations with its pace, its cheap hardware, its inefficient and outdated software) is the programmer who spent hours writing the code for my phone, the manufacturers who put together the recycled plastic pieces that are its exterior.

This is a long and self-indulgent way of saying that I am sorry for your waiting on posts to this blog. Writing is a laborious process (just as most valuable things are) and I wrote so much about other things this year that… I’m sorry to say that I neglected the writing here. It’s a little disheartening that I set these great new quarter goals and ended up fulfilling not a one. Bummer.

So, here’s what happened:

I took on a significantly heavier course load this quarter than the last. Unlike last quarter, where I took a whole course devoted to Literacy and Technology, I took courses that were – well – unrelated and I got a little bit swamped.

However, the summer has officially begun and I am really excited for a few upcoming projects that I intend to blog about here:

  • In fall 2012, I will be teaching freshman composition in a computer lab classroom. Inevitably, there will be major challenges to working with freshmen planted behind rows of computer screens at fixed desks. I feel a little bit nervous about helping students to collaborate and engage in the kinds of friendly conversations they may have had in a more traditional classrooms (with movable desks, the “Socratic Circle” structure and all that). That said, working in a computer classroom will give me the fantastic opportunity to “test out” all sorts of online collaborative tools and help students apply their knowledge about writing to their engagement with computers. This summer, I’ll be working with Mary to adopt the UC Davis Writing Program’s “Standard Syllabus” (as we call it) for teaching freshman composition in the computer lab. Both of us have a HUGE challenge ahead of us, but it will provide great fodder for discussion!
  • For about five weeks this summer, I will be working as a technical writer at an electronic health records/health imaging company based in San Diego, California. One of my tasks as a temporary intern will be revising their help manuals and integrating more multimedia resources into their online help page. So, I imagine I will be thinking a lot about usability in industry and learning about what it means to write for professionals rather than academics. I’ve been entrenched in academia for so long that there’s a large part of me that is very excited to take on the challenge of writing for a different kind of audience and addressing issues that I am not familiar with. There is another part of me that is absolutely terrified about this experience; all of my professional experiences thus far have been in academia and education. Will I know how to interact with colleagues in an office? Will I go crazy working 8 A.M.-5 P.M. days behind a desk in a cubicle?
  • I know that this is turning into a bad joke at this point, but yes, the coding will begin again. I WILL make it past Lesson 2. Another great (?) part about going to San Diego is that I will have very few social distractions, so I should have plenty of time to do all of the ambitious coding work I set out to do earlier in the year…
  • I am still a part of what has now been dubbed “UC Online Education” (UCOE). Therefore, I will have some updates here, too, on our continued beta testing and how we’re adapting writing to the classroom. Nifty stuff!

So, impatient friends, I hope that I will keep you waiting for new writing no longer! Thanks for hanging in there. More thoughts soon!