Invasion of the Information Snatchers: How the Internet Taps into Our Fear of Malleable Identity and Authority — and What We Can Do About It”

invasion of the body snatchers

As a child, I had a recurring bodysnatching nightmare. In the nightmare, I would be safely tucked into my bed, but I would then sense a glowing presence moving down the hallway that separated the front door to the house from my bedroom door. I would stay frozen under the sheets of my bed, pulling the blanket up slightly so that it covered my ears, but my gaze would remain on the hallway as the presence drew closer and closer. The presence would eventually approach the frame of my bedroom door and its full form would become clear: it was a humanoid creature, but with tentacles for legs and arms that were merely wisps of cloudy air. Its face had only eyes and a mouth but no noise. While its outline glowed, its body was the color of smoke and its presence just as seemingly ephemeral. While I pretended to be asleep, the presence entered my bedroom and eventually hovered over my body and, somehow, I knew that it deigned to inhabit my physical presence so that it could snatch a body and take on a solid physical presence of its own. Just as the presence was about to attempt invasion, I would wake up, startled. I would often double-check to make sure my bedroom door was actually closed (my real life self thought that if the door was shut, the nightmare presence couldn’t possibly make its way into my bedroom).

My particular body snatching nightmare eventually faded from my nightly rotation, but the deep, ingrained fear that my identity could somehow be taken away from me, that my body could somehow be filled with someone else’s thoughts or that my thoughts could somehow be put into a different body continued to disturb me. The notion of body snatching has long been a popular fear in the American imagination too. How many stories of embodied possession and zombie takeovers have we encountered in the Western world? (A lot, and many other people have theorized these stories better than I. See, Jesse Stommel on “The Dead Things We Already Are,” Joe Fassler on Zombies, and Sarah Juliet Lauro on More Zombies). 

The idea that anyone could willingly take over my body without permission was a fear, I see now, of losing agency and not having the ability to determine when I could use my own voice and how (this is not an uncommon fear or one unique to me). I realized when I was young that my voice was essentially all that I had; my body was certainly a vehicle for that voice, but it only mattered insofar as it was attached to the voice. Once that voice was gone, well, the body was merely a shell.

I’ve been thinking a lot about body snatchers as I’ve been thinking about the Internet and the crisis we’re facing at this moment in the early twenty-first century about credibility online and how people distinguish and understand information. I’m realizing that it’s a “body-snatchers” problem too. Online infrastructures take various forms and disguises, but without knowing who’s writing on the other end, anyone can take any amorphous form to represent any idea from any voice that they so choose. As a popular cartoon from The New Yorker concludes: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

"On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog.'

The joke of The New Yorker cartoon is predicated on “body-snatching” anxiety: that if any dog can write online as an authority, the fact that you are a dog doesn’t matter in building your potential online persona. That said, this “body-snatching” anxiety is nothing new; we can trace back the anxiety with “body-snatching” all the way to the disembodiment of spoken voice from physical body with the simple act of putting pen to paper. That is, the rise of print culture – and the subsequent technological revolution of mass printing and mass literacy  – made it very easy for someone’s words to become something far, far removed from their own bodies. “When you write a book, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

To overcome the anxiety that dogs could be writing printed books, we developed a really strong connection between printed literacy and the educational system. Basically, around the same moment that books, newspapers, and printed materials were distributed in the Western printing world, so too were children being sent to school, not as laborers but as learners. Mandatory public education became a hallmark of the Western world at roughly the same moment that print literacy as social practice became ubiquitous for anyone of any social class. Print literacy was made authoritative in the classroom: teachers passed down the proper books for their students to read so that students could learn (mostly) about how to become good Christians. While plenty of adults received their access to writing through newspapers and paperback novels, the authority for those sources proved exceedingly questionable. These sources were sinful, sensationalistic, and not vetted with the authority of God. In other words, when there wasn’t a body present to assure individuals that the source was trustworthy, we used another body transplant of authority, like a teacher or priest, to help us understand what was OK and what wasn’t.

The main difference between the era of mass print literacy and conceptions of authority then and the era of mass digital literacy and the conceptions of authority now are that we have started to lose trust in our authorities and are not sure who to turn to in order to reclaim that trust (David Roberts’ piece in Vox on America’s epistemological crisis is tied not only to the authorities behind news media, but authorities behind any research-based institution, in my opinion). News outlets and “mainstream media” sources are no longer authorities, are no longer trusted bodies that can communicate disembodied voices. Even schools and universities are no longer perceived as fully authoritative or expert spaces. So, what do we do? What happens when material and infrastructural frameworks slip away and we fear that all of the expert bodies have been snatched by inept ones?

In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the body-snatching threat only stops when police authorities finally see the evidence of the seed pods that are invading human bodies. In zombie lore, the zomvie virus only gets destroyed when the zombie body is killed; the human body cannot be restored once the zombie virus has taken over. So, if we’re looking to fiction for our answer to this question, it seems like there’s only one option: annihilation.

When it comes to real world body-snatching, however, I don’t think annihilation of threatening information sources is necessarily the right answer, mostly because it’s impossible. If we are to maintain a free and open flow of information, we have to give everyone an opportunity to share and circulate ideas, even if those ideas are treacherous and tricky. So, one way we can annihilate anxieties over “body-snatching” is by disambiguating who or what is snatching our bodies from the start, making transparent the processes and practices that go into making information, whether that information comes from a book or from the Web. In other words, we need to distinguish between the appearances of alien seed pods and the appearances of – well – humans to regain trust in our bodies again. In non-metaphorical terms, we need to distinguish between trickster writers and trusted writers, and understand what these trusted writers do to find factual information and, well, why that matters.

There are a lot of resources to help readers understand what fact-driven, research-based writing is and how people do it, so I won’t rehash what others have described in better and clearer terms than me. Instead, here is my annotated list of resources I think are really useful about this topic in the hopes that you may explore them further and overcome your own fears of body-snatching and related anxieties:

So, why might it matter to see concerns with source credibility through the lens of body-snatching? Well, I think it helps us understand the extent to which fear and mistrust guide our decision-making. If we think that information is coming from people or sources we trust, we are more likely to follow them. When we discover that the sources we trust are not who we thought, we feel misguided, concerned, confused, and de-centered. It’s not that we can’t trust anyone, but if we are able to look for the signs that allow us to frame sources effectively, we can understand whether the bodies have been snatched already or not.

I still fear body-snatching insofar as now that I have a much more established voice in a larger online conversation, I know that my identity could be easily stolen or threatened. That said, I know that body-snatching is part of the risk of entering into public discourse without my body to advocate for me. It’s the risk we all take, all of us who dare to put ourselves online and out into the world. We have to trust that readers will come to understand who and what body snatchers do and how to distinguish the real voices from the fake ones. 

Today, I try to stay brave enough to keep my (metaphorical) bedroom door open and trust that I will wake up in time to blow the body-snatching smoke monster away. As an educator, I hope to give my students that same strength too, and the critical ability to understand when body-snatching is real – and when it is truly a figment of a nightmare.

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!

 

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!

How to Be an Undergraduate Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Noise

I’m having trouble turning off noise today. It’s all kinds of noise: cell phone noise, social media noise, inside brain noise. There’s something poetic about being consumed in this “white noise” considering I am in the postmodern phase of my prelim reading. I think my seeming inability to block out all of these dopamine-inducing noises is partially because I started today with finishing a good (well, yes, for my prelim exams, but come on now, what else am I reading?) novel and when that happens, I sometimes don’t quite know what to do with myself. When a novel has an ending that is just so perfect and final, so inevitable, it seems as though there’s nothing else to say either within or outside the world of the novel. Perhaps that’s why I’m writing now: to work out of this funk of, “How do I possibly write about or think about something that already seems so complete?”
To react this way is obviously to react to “good” writing; it is to react to writing that has communicated something surprising, thought-provoking, and insightful. And it is exactly this kind of writing to which scholarship is devoted. But it is also exactly this kind of writing that reminds me why I am sometimes intimidated by putting my voice into scholarly conversation. Sometimes, when I have a very emotional reaction to a piece of writing, I don’t know how to be critical of it anymore. Putting on a scholarly cap is easy to do when it’s a work that evokes nothing in me at all. Obviously, it is pleasurable to write about pleasurable things, but I have yet to determine how to apply an analytic lens to portrayals of love and loss and memory and all of those things that hit me straight in the emotional bits of my being.
I am perhaps feeling a bit emotionally wrought and a bit concerned with “inevitable endings” after today’s appointment of Janet Napolitano for UC President. Now I typically reserve political discussion for places offline (you know, places where my words won’t be stored forever and ever), but I just want to muse upon a few lingering thoughts I’ve had with the news: what does it mean for the head of Homeland Security to become a president of a public university? What message does this send to the larger academic community? In what ways are militarization, intelligence, and national security relevant to the role of the academy in the larger national fabric? There have been university leaders who have not been academics in the past, but never before has there been a university leader implicated primarily in national security. I’ve read a lot of angry editorials (and a lot of optimistic ones too), but I can’t sift through enough of the noise to really make sense of the long-term impacts of this kind of appointment. Perhaps we can’t know what these long-term impacts will be, but I see big changes to public perception of public education that I feel I can’t change, that I’m powerless to affect.
It’s normal to feel small and afraid and voiceless both in the face of large decisions and in front of awe-inspiring works. I’ve expressed this here before and I’ll express it again: I’m paralyzed by the not knowing of where my voice could actually affect change. But (and also again), what can I do but keep beating the oars through the water, hoping that wherever I steer this boat of mine, I’ll make it to some pretty sweet island.

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 1: Early Birds and Eager Beavers

I glanced at the clock: 7:50 A.M. Everyone’s here? Now?

I teach UWP 1, freshman composition, in a computer lab this quarter and behind every monitor sat a student waiting to begin class. They were all ten minutes early at the already inhumane (at least by typical college student standard hours) morning hour. Even as a student, I don’t think I ever had a class where there weren’t at least one or two late stragglers.

True, I had heard tell that UCD undergraduates tend to be compliant and motivated. But I hadn’t expected this. I had somehow assumed that those enrolled in 8:00 A.M. classes did so of necessity alone, begrudgingly enrolling in a last open section. Yet everyone seemed sufficiently awake, too, with no desperate desires for coffee-sneaking, no complaints about exhaustion.

This was a stark difference from teaching an English class discussion section at 8:00 A.M. On a good day last quarter, only half of my enrolled class would show up and even the present students arrived bleary-eyed and full of fatigued excuses. Then again, I taught senior English majors last quarter, disillusioned and practiced in the art of truancy. Today, I had a room of freshmen and sophomores (and one rather bored-looking third-year probably stuck here after regretting not completing this requirement as a freshman). For some, this was their first college class. Ever.

But what I think impacted my experience most was not the students’ background, but my changed role from a T.A. to an instructor. Facing a room full of students as the instructor – not professorial support – showed me how much students’ expectations can shape the classroom experience.

Let me get one thing straight: students were very respectful to me as a T.A. However, a majority of students viewed attending discussion sections as a kind of “optional” help. The stakes are much higher for this class. For many, this is their shot at passing one of their major college requirements. The material I share with them is what matters to them. As a T.A., I could talk all I wanted about how I thought they could prepare for the test; it didn’t make much of a difference unless the professor corroborated that advice. As an instructor, on the other hand, I’ve already seen students cling to my words. I mentioned briefly that we’d focus in this class on audience awareness; lo and behold, in their first reflective writing exercises on course expectations, the majority of them wrote about audience awareness.

They… listened. They saw class time as something valuable.

OK, maybe not everything. But my awareness of my classroom as audience has changed significantly. Knowing what my students expect (roughly speaking) and seeing their attitudes (for a few hours, anyway) gives me a much better sense of how to organize days for them in the future, how to tailor my own style to their needs.

Sure, I won’t please everyone, but just as different writing genres themselves must be tweaked for different audiences, so must my teaching (as… I’m coming to understand it, anyway). I’m still hesitant to call myself a “teacher” in many ways. I think I still view myself as something more like a guide (a facilitator even, to hearken back to my former job as a “peer learning facilitato”). But I think part of this new quarter, too, will be overcoming that discomfort, accepting this role as a leader and embracing the opportunity to affect change.

For one of my students’ first assignments today they had to write a little bit about their past writing experiences. I expected to read a lot of disgruntled responses, a lot of complaints about high school English class and the difficulties of mastering grammar (a universal concern that somehow transcends issues like clarity, purpose, and organization). Yet I was pleasantly surprised to read that many students professed an interest in – nay, an enthusiasm! – for writing, but a frustration with the writing done in classrooms. I found this fascinating; how else have they developed their writing outside of class? In what other ways have they been writing prolifically? Is this interest in writing some product of growing up in a digital age, writing all the time? Obviously, relegating this answer to digital literacy would be really fascinating to me, but it could be any number of influences I suppose.

I’m going to do my best to maintain a regular chronicle of my teaching experiences this quarter. After all, I’m only a first-time teacher once. But even I, as my students have professed, struggle to put thoughts to words occasionally. Writing is messy. I’ll be reminded of that constantly this quarter. In fact, this is perhaps something I’ll mention to them: writing is always struggle. But it’s from that struggle that an ability to share and empathize and appreciate emerges.

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