New Year Resolution

I have a common New Year’s story for you. It starts with an evening of carnivalesque revelry, of glitter and alcohol, of photographs and finger foods. It ends with a chorus of declarations of hope for the New Year, of promises to do things better and to make the next year even better than the last. It’s an evening with a lot of hope; there’s no one who doesn’t love the idea of a fresh start.

The fresh start begins with closed shop windows and quiet streets. Everyone sleeps off the night before. People bustle in their kitchens, cleaning up the messes, eventually floating over to big desk chairs in front of their computer screens to keep refreshing the e-mail inboxes for work e-mails that won’t arrive, at least not until tomorrow. The hope still lingers, and it’s supplemented by the creeping reminder that the very next day – January 2nd – will be another calendar day where we’re all still responsible for the things we promised we would be even before a New Year began.

The resolutions we set and remain mindful of on the 31st and 1st don’t disappear entirely perhaps, but they go forgotten. Yet this is not the kind of forgetting one does with misplaced car keys. This is often a willful forgetting, a forgetting done because it’s much more convenient to forget than to remember. It’s much easier to say, “I forgot my last year’s New Year’s Resolution” than to assert “I didn’t succeed” or even worse, “I didn’t feel like following through.”

These aren’t stories with resolutions of their own. Rather, they’re beginnings to familiar stories, cliches really, that remind me how much I, too, fall into the typical traps and patterns of New Year traditions. On the one hand, I find New Years’ Eve, the idea of celebrating all of the possibilities of the year to come, to be one of the most joyous, reflective holidays of the year. Yet it’s one of these holidays with a severe letdown, a booming crash after skating through holidays. Above all, it’s sobering.

I’ve been particularly sobered by the realization that this coming year is going to mean much more than the years prior. This is the year where I really will be forced to define for myself who I want to be in the university. How do I want to define myself? How will I produce work to show that I can define myself in the ways I so desire?

I’m afraid. So, my New Year’s Resolution turns out to be quite simple: Don’t Be Afraid. Be Courageous.

New Year’s Resolutions have a particular way of sounding maddeningly cliche, and my resolution falls into this unfortunate trap, but I think I (and I don’t think i’m the only graduate student in this position) have been so caught up in anxieties of who and where I will be in the next few years that I have not tackled who I am and want to be right now. I have been afraid of the outcomes of my choices before I have even made the choices in the first place. Hence, I resolve to tackle my time in graduate school with courage, to make it through and finish what I’ve started, and not worry about the outcomes, not yet. This doesn’t mean I should turn a blind eye to the reality of higher education, but that I should still make the most of the opportunities I have, relish them, and allow these opportunities to be positive, proud moments for me in 2014.

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.