Should I Blog My Research?

Let me start with some Obvious Things:

Obvious Thing #1: I’m pretty good at starting and abandoning blogs. Why is that? Well, here’s an obvious reason for my obvious fact: writing is hard. I’ve come to accept that (and embrace it on my best days). This is, of course, coming from someone who likes to write, but who can be intensely critical of her own writing especially when it’s – yowza! – public!

When I teach writing, I like to analogize writing with exercise. It’s easy to talk yourself out of doing it and even easier to come up with excuses not to do it. When you do it, it is painful, but gradually (graaadually) it becomes something you like to do, even when it’s painful. I’m past stage #1: I like writing and I always have. I’m now on stage #2: how do I train myself to become a “marathon writer?” How do I keep myself writing? These are questions more for me than for you, but I’m stating them anyway in the hopes that some (many?) will relate.

Obvious Thing #2: I’m in an industry (i.e. academia) where blogging is becoming an increasingly important part of one’s identity. Web presence is not only “a thing,” but a big and important, potentially career-defining thing (The Guardian has written about this, Henry Jenkins sees blogging as a good way to connect with a broader public, and some folks from the LSE find that blogging is the best way to communicate ideas that won’t make it through the traditionally slow academic publication timeline very quickly). As someone billing herself as a specialist in digital culture and rhetoric in particular, I’ve got to be extra-super (supextra?) aware of how I present myself online, how often,and what sorts of things I’m writing (i.e. more relevant hot topics in my field, less whining probably?).

Obvious Thing #3: I’m working on a dissertation.

Given these discrete obvious things, I’m at a cross-roads where I must make a choice: should I blog my dissertation progress? I’ve read a lot about the process at this point, from this open thread on GradHacker to the Remix the Dissertation webinar last week. Because I like lists, I’ve decided to lay out some more personal pros and cons, based on info gathered and my own personal circumstances:

Pros: 

  • Re: Obvious Thing #2. Here’s a way to show people that I know how to do the blog thing! I’ve got a knack for it! I can write about my work for a “general public!” This is valuable and highly encouraged!
  • It’ll keep me reflective and thinking about my writing process the whole way through. The dissertation is a long haul, and there’s real value in having an informal space to reflect on ideas that may make their way into a project, but may not.
  • Low stakes. Let’s be real: how many people are actually going to read my work-in-progress dissertation blog (to be hosted on a site I’ve just set up with a free WordPress URL)? Probably my dissertation committee (that’s 3), and maybe my boyfriend on a day where he’s feeling particularly generous (OK, 4), and my mom will skim it and tell met that I’m smart (So, 5?). This is a good thing. It makes me feel like I’m not revealing to the entire world my trials, pitfalls, and potential mistakes.
  • It’ll give me a space to hash out nuggets of ideas that really could turn into potential articles and blog chapters.
  • Choosing which topics to blog about may help me see which ideas for my dissertation are actually useful and interesting. This seems like a potentially silly advantage, but I tend to think that everything is interesting (my co-chair had to tell me to STOP collecting primary texts for my project)… until I actually start writing about it. It’s when the metaphorical rubber hits the metaphorical road that I actually can sit back and assess my ideas more clearly.

OK, so Cons: 

  • Re: Obvious Thing #1. I don’t want to contribute more blog detritus to the world if I don’t write regularly (though this is really my own problem and not necessarily a “con” to the whole venture).
  • There’s potential for ideas to be “scooped” by random readers and could potentially jeopardize the ability to distribute ideas in things that people have to actually buy, like journal articles or books.
  • I don’t want to look like an idiot?

My pro list looks certainly more compelling than my cons (especially since 3/4 cons are enveloped in personal concerns). But what do you think? Should I blog my dissertation? Why or why not?

My Hesitation to Talk about Research is Not About You.

Whenever I am asked, “So, what’s your research about anyway?” my stomach dips. My mind goes blank for a moment; what is my research about? Do I even know? Sometimes, I feel like the project I’m working on is so big that I don’t know where to begin and there’s a certain dread I experience in trying to capture this project in a few sentences. So, my answer typically meanders through some qualified, fuzzy statements, like “Well, you know, it’s like…”

Let me just assure you of this: my hesitation is not about you. It’s all about me.

After I passed my qualifying exams, I thought that I would finally feel comfortable with the big research question. After all, I managed to convince a committee of five professors of my competence; surely, I could convince others of the same. Yet months after my qualifying exam, I somehow feel more insecure than ever about explaining my research.

The reason for my insecurity is simple: the more I learn, the more I know that I don’t know very much at all. The more I start to probe my research questions, the more depth, complexity, and texture they seem to take on. I feel as though I’ve hatched open a large egg and have just discovered that the creature hatched is not just a lizard but a fire-breathing dragon. I’ve got to get myself one hell of a shield.

Feeling like an incompetent nincompoop is a classic learned person problem. It’s impossible not to feel like one when your days are filled with reading, writing, reflecting, and asking questions. In fact, at the beginning of every graduate seminar I took, the professor always asked the participants to introduce themselves and their major fields of interest, and every time, my peers and I would have to qualify our interests with statements like, “Well, I’m not really an expert or anything, but…” Arguably, all of us in that room were well on our way to being experts, yet none of us could own that title. It felt uncomfortable. It still feels uncomfortable.

The thing is, the only way I’ll be able to convince other people that I’m doing more than picking lint out of my navel these days is by giving the dreaded 2-minute version of my research. People like Nicholas Kristof have called for making academic research accessible to the public and I completely agree. I don’t struggle very much with colloquial language and making ideas accessible, but I find I struggle with condensing an argument and making it clear without either obfuscating the point or over-simplifying it. In other words, I don’t want to misrepresent an idea, but I also don’t want to bog down.

What’s the solution here? I’m not sure yet, but here’s my call to you if you’re reading this (and if you are, it probably means you know me in person because – let’s be real – this blog is mostly getting circulated through my Facebook friends): ask me about my research. Keep asking me. The more practice I get, the less uncomfortable I’ll feel, and hey, maybe the more coherent I’ll become too. I want to be able to share ideas and discuss them with you, whether you’re an academic or not. I might be afraid to do so and I might seem a little weird about it, but ultimately, I’ll be grateful. If I don’t seem grateful, just point me back to this blog post and allow me to eat my words. They’ll be delicious.

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.

Teaching Diary Day 2: Writing about Writing about Writing

She had the “OK, I get it” gaze. One of my students – I’ll call her “Abby” – sat in the back of the classroom and she just had that look: the set jaw, the arms crossed, the eyes just a little glazed. She got it. She got this “steps of the writing process” lecture. She’s heard it all before. Whether she realized it or not, a score of experiences were reflected in those glazed eyes, all of those bad high school lectures describing these very stages that never helped her and were, in fact, something of a waste of time. I didn’t see this look on anyone else’s face, but I experienced a moment of silent panic the moment I recognized hers. Was this useless for everyone?

I think I’m still figuring out how to be an instructor and not a tutor. I don’t get nervous lecturing (in fact, speaking in front of large groups has never particularly bothered me; I think I’ve lost my concern with dignity long, long ago), but I’m sensitive to my control over the discussion. My training has been in maintaining constant dialogue, in building individual rapport with students and creating an equitable relationship. But the truth is that once I’m in front of the room as the primary instructor, the relationship is no longer equitable. I am not their peer; I am their instructor. I am not a dictator, but I can’t attempt to be everyone’s friend either.

I think my desire to maintain this balance, to be more like a peer and less like an instructor is what made me feel uncomfortable with Abby’s somewhat wearied expression. But perhaps more important than my feeling of discomfort (for I’ll get over this with time) is my impulse to question the efficacy of our course’s approach to content.

Here’s the tricky thing about first-year composition: the content of this class varies significantly from campus to campus. In fact, the content of first-year composition is one of the biggest contentions in the field of writing studies. This is primarily because writing studies have not traditionally been grounded in any one academic discipline. Of course, literature has frequently been the disciplinary focus for writing courses (for reasons that go all the way back to the 19th century), but the trend in the mid-twentieth century has been to push away from the teaching of literature and towards the teaching of a variety of texts from different genres.

For better or for worse, “a variety of texts from different genres” means a myriad of different things to the writing program administrators in charge of first-year composition program development.

UC Davis’s UWP 1 courses use an approach called “writing about writing,” most famously explicated by Downs and Wardle. In theory, I love the writing about writing approach; it makes sense for students to take a writing class where they learn about what it means to be writers. After all, isn’t writing itself an emerging discipline? Why should we treat writing simply as a kind of technical skill when, in fact, the study of writing is a discipline with an increasingly robust scholarly presence?

Yet I felt our discussion going in circles on Wednesday. I gave a mercifully brief presentation on the four major stages of the writing process: invention, outlining, drafting, and revising and, in UWP 1, we give these stages cute names: the “madman” stage, the “architect” stage, etc. The students seemed to like the idea of the names; in discussing which stages they spend the most time completing, they repeated those names back.

But we seemed to keep winding up at nebulous answers: “I like to write in this way first, so I can write better in the long run.” “I think that if I outline sufficiently, I will be a better writer.” Perhaps it’s helpful for students to express these things. After all, most of them probably don’t think much at all about their writing practice. But… isn’t this all very obvious?

I felt like I was some part of a riddle: how do I get these students to pin down and identify what makes good writing?

Once we have some substantial readings to discuss, this problem may be alleviated. But I am a little disturbed by the fact that most students seem to have a very limited vocabulary for how to talk about their work.

Of course, I shouldn’t expect them to have this vocabulary. High school English classes are literature classes; they don’t think metacognitively about their process. They’re told they need to write clearly and thoughtfully and analytically, but somewhere along the lines, no one explained to them what those terms meant.

In fact, I’m not sure I learned what those terms meant until I started working at a writing center and had to read writing pedagogy as part of my training. As someone naturally inclined to writing, formulating “clear” insights came pretty naturally to me. Of course, I still had to revise (nothing comes out perfectly the first time through), but I had a knack for handling abstract thought and could just… do it.

So OK, maybe I shouldn’t be quite so critical. We’ve had two days of class. As a whole, the group is charming and delightful, task-oriented and hard-working. The trick to staying mindful of my pedagogy is to avoid negativity; there’s no point in being judgmental until I’ve seen their writing.

 

Goodbye Until Tomorrow

http://explodingdog.com/title/holdontightanddontletgo.html

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.”

Life in the Cube

For the first time in my life, I have a punch card.

That’s right: my hours inside an office are tracked.

Punch in. Punch out. Present. Absent. Working. Not working.

Shifting from a life of complete flexibility and fluidity to one with rules and set hours is jarring. But this kind of experience – a life where work is at work and coming home means actually being at home and no longer thinking about work – is something I’ve always kind of longed to experience. It’s funny; there’s a part of me that had this glorified vision of what it would mean to work an office. I’ve perhaps seen one too many films where nicely-dressed women in crisply-pressed suits flounce into desk chairs, receive incredible praise for writing memos and reports, and then earning oodles of cash at the end of the day. I somehow imagined that I could be this kind of “career woman,” one with professionalism, grace, and intelligence!

Of course, I chose a life of academia, one where I don’t ever wear crisply-pressed suits (and if I did, I’d likely garner more than a few strange looks) and one where my professionalism is not reflected through the ways I interact with my co-workers, but through the intellectual labor that I produce. So, to have this opportunity to live another life, to be another “Jenae” who negotiates office politics, who sits at a cubicle, and who does work that is not concerned with literacy, literature, or abstract theories, is one that’s important for me (if for no other reason than to dispel myself of that office life myth).

As it turns out, working in an office is kind of like working anywhere else, except that you don’t get to see too much sunshine during the day (though I have scouted out a prime lunch spot overlooking a canyon). Oh, and you’re also in front of computers a lot. That’s hard. But my tolerance for screens has improved, so that’s a plus?

In spite of the fact that this internship is very much a way for me to do some career exploration, a week on this job has inevitably informed my academic interests. My mind can’t help but veer to digital literacy concerns!

Help documentation, as it turns out, is still something very much rooted in a logic of the print age: I spent two of my four days on the job simply combing through pre-existing help information in the form of “QuickStart” guides (which are basically step-by-step directions for how to complete certain functions within the software this company sells), “TechNotes” (which tend to give suggestions for “efficient workflow” processes using said software), and more traditional online “Help” supplements (remember Clippy? Like that, but not as invasive).

The company has tried implementing some Online Tutorials, too, which are Flash-powered slideshows with moving screenshots of different functions in the software, but even these cater to a logic that seems somehow incongruous with an experience working on a computer. All of these help guides suggest that there is one very particular way to go about completing certain tasks and using this software.

Now, again, as a newb on the job, perhaps I’m making a certain amount of unfair assumptions: indeed, it may be true that these kinds of linear, step-by-step manuals are the best way to teach people how to use software. However, given the fact that I’ve been so invested in pedagogy for the past… several years, I cannot help but scoff at the idea that this kind of passive learning could be effective.

Let me get this straight: the manuals are incredibly well-written and detailed. They contain so much valuable information for a new user. But is a user who relies upon this kind of help actually going to learn the ins and outs of the software? It seems to me that tinkering, toying, and getting your hands dirty in the process is the only way to truly – well – LEARN.

But how does one really learn tasks that are almost entirely reliant upon memorization and experience? After all, I’m used to helping people learn about writing, a nebulous process enveloped primarily in critical thinking and analytic skills. Using software like the one I’ve been learning does not require critical thinking per se; it just requires a little bit of logic (“So, when you press the ExamType button, you see codes for different exam types. Who knew?”) and some memorization.

I’ve been tasked with making a particular “modality” (i.e. mammography functions) within the software my company represents more “interactive.” I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that means (without suggesting the extreme intervention of a programmer to make me something awesome). Thus far, much of my time has been spent simply trying to use the pre-existing help myself to learn how to use this software. And you know what? I’ve actually found that a balance between the linear help and my non-linear playing has been the most useful for me. What has really helped me to learn this software is both reading, playing with the program, and re-purposing the information myself from taking notes to categorizing the software functions to imagining myself in different user roles using the program.

The only role I can’t seem to escape is one of a “digital native;” I’m unafraid to press buttons, to see what certain links do and do not do. I can imagine that many of the people using this software (i.e. radiologists transferring from print records to electronic) may not feel the same way. This, however, is the audience I have to remember as I consider re-purposing this work.

As I continue to punch in and punch out each day for the following five weeks, I’m hoping I’ll experience increasing clarity about how to best spend that time punched in, and keep myself even more “punched in” to thinking in an entirely new way.

Fear and Self-Loathing in the Humanities

Greetings!

It’s good to see you. Take a seat. Oh, you’re already seated? Well, grab yourself a cup of tea. Make yourself comfortable.

Ever since DML, this blog has been sadly neglected. This was not for lack of things to write about. In fact, I have a folder of bookmarks full of exciting links I gathered over the past few weeks from SXSW Interactive, a new (and very fascinating) advertisement from the Guardian, and the buzz over Curator’s Code. Oh, and don’t even get me started about the chitter chatter circulating re: Mike Daisey’s falsified Foxconn tour. For those of you who haven’t listened to it already, it is absolutely worth your hour to check out the “Retracted” episode from This American Life all about the fact-checking process on Mr. Daisey’s story and, of course the “defense” from Daisey himself. This goes not only for those interested in technology, but anyone interested in issues of journalistic ethics and – well – what it means to capture an experience “truthfully.”

The great thing about writing about technology is it seems that there’s no lack of things to talk about. New stories arise every day. Gadgets are exciting! The development of new technologies (typically) means the cultivation of new ideas or at least the streamlining of old ones.

But I don’t think I’m going to talk about those things today. Those things will (likely) emerge in upcoming posts, ones that will appear shortly after this one, not after a long hiatus. After all, what good is reporting on news that ever-so-quickly becomes old news?

I think this post will end up being more reflective because I’ve hit the end of (yet another) quarter. Two quarters down and one to go for completing my first year in a PhD program. It’s surreal. I’m sure this will feel all the more surreal once I’ve actually completed this first year. By then, I have even more right to say, “Well, NOW I’m 1/5 of the way through this whole graduate school experience.”

But at 2/3 of the way through this first year, I’ve surprised myself with the number of apologies I’ve been compelled to make about my career choice. Why am I pursuing a PhD in English? I end up falling back on hackneyed lines:

I love to read! I love to write! I love to teach!

Heck, this is a great way to spend five years! The economy sucks right now, so why not go back to school?

Yet all of these reasons somehow sound like lies to me. They’re not. They’re abbreviations of the truth. Yet they’re stale and they somehow feel ridiculous to say aloud. Sometimes, I feel like telling people I’m pursuing a PhD in English is as remarkably dumb as telling people I’ll be an elephant trainer in the circus. And if I told people that, I’d probably get more positive response than a tight-lipped smile, raised eyebrows, and an “Oh, so what do you plan to do with THAT?” at the end.

Let me explain: I was at a family event this past weekend and it became starkly clear to me that no one knows understands how I spend my time and make a living. I was introduced to friends of family as a “teacher” or simply as a “writer,” but never as a student of English. Questions that followed included:

“So, do you like working with kids?”

“So, have you read any good books lately?”

I didn’t know how to answer these questions. Kids? Well, are college students “kids?” If so, aren’t I technically still a “kid,” only two years out of college? Am I simply a kid teaching kids?

And GOOD books? Well, I’ve read plenty of books. I read at least two books every week. Are they GOOD books? I don’t know; I thought about a lot of different things. Could I name you new favorite writers? Probably not. But, again, with the thinking. That’s how I spend most of my time. In my head. Thinking.

How do I explain the fact that I’ve chosen a career where my job is to think? I may have had final seminar papers to write (a primary reason why I haven’t written in here lately) but other than papers that one other person (my professor) will read, I’ve produced very little. Nothing, in fact. The other favorite question asked this weekend:

“So, when are you going to write a novel?”

I’m not producing a novel any time soon. This isn’t my job. But again, when one’s job is relegated to reading stuff, saying some smart things in a room with ten other people, grading undergraduate essays, and writing a little bit here and there, what does that mean precisely?

Well, here’s the short answer: I see this time as an investment. One way or the other, I’m investing in a future. Will that be a future in academia? Possibly. It doesn’t have to be. And I think that’s OK. I’d like to think I’m receiving some valuable training on how to be an organized thinker, how to communicate with others. These are likely skills I’d gain doing a lot of different kinds of things; I just so happen to be receiving this training while talking about things like literature and literacy.

Given this perspective, I still struggle with my compulsion to laugh nervously when someone asks me what I want to do with my future. I don’t like that I feel the need to backpedal and apologize for choices that I’ve (mindfully) made. This would not be an issue if I was a law school student or a medical school student. Without having to say a word, my accomplishments would be deemed impressive. But since I’m pursuing a higher degree in the humanities, I’m met with skepticism. This whips my ego into a tailspin; the inner former Honors student emerges indignant: “I’m making a GOOD choice that YOU simply don’t understand!”

Of course, it’s a good thing I don’t allow that inner former Honors student to emerge like the Ghost of Christmas Past too often because she says some awfully silly, immature things. However, whether I like it or not, she is still very much a part of me and very much a part that leads me to wonder, “Why do I pursue work that so few people understand?” If I care so much about communication, about clarity in prose and clarity in thought, why am I in a field that takes me a good five minutes to justify?

This does not mean that I regret my choice to attend graduate school by any means. I’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to work with bright, forward-thinking individuals in a major, public institution. My college experiences all indicated to me that the kind of work I’d do in academia would be work that would fulfill me, enrich me, and make me feel like I am contributing to something larger than myself.

Unfortunately, I often feel mired in recursive self-loathing/self-indulgent thinking. I want to remain open to questioning, open to seeing the bad for the bad and the good for the good in the field that I’m in. But I think that I also need to make sure that the bad I see in the work that I do is not influenced by  my fear of uncertainty or my fear of criticism.

Next quarter will be a time to remain open-minded, to pursue the work I love, and to be mindful of the fact that training (AKA graduate school) exists for a reason: to give me the space to ensure that I continue to make choices that will ultimately benefit both myself and others.