Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Spinning My Wheels -- Or, the Summer Funk -- Or, I Think I'll Just Nap Until August

My summer funk is palpable, folks.

I tend to fall into a funk every summer, especially since we moved to the surface of the sun (a.k.a. Phoenix). Summer was always a trying time for me, especially once I found my groove in school. Summers meant long stretches of unproductivity. Sometimes it was nice, but mostly it was boring. Since I've started grad school, though, summers are all about angst. Am I doing enough? Am I using this stretch of time effectively? (You may recall I addressed this in my last post...)

Summers here mean more or less the same, but I've never done well with the heat. I've acclimated for the most part, which means that I can comfortably sit outside in the shade at 100+, or even walk a few blocks without collapsing and dying. But summer around here means long stretches inside. It's basically just like winter for everyone else farther north, but with less snow and more sweating.

Conditions like this make me sleepy. And cranky. Coupled with this is the fact that my husband currently works overnights, which means my paranoid self only sleeps well four out of every eight nights, since I know he's home and my mind doesn't start awake at each small noise. In addition to that, despite my best efforts to be social now and then, I am lonely.

This is lonely work, right now. I'm spinning my wheels on a dissertation that is probably progressing normally, but I can't help but feel that I'm trying to run through oatmeal. Joe sleeps all day, and I work all day. He gets up to go to work, and then I watch TV or read until I decide that it's time to lie down and attempt to sleep. I toss. I turn. I tweet. I turn on my white noise app or some episode of a TV show I've seen ten-thousand times, and manage to drift off somewhere around 3:00 AM, only to arise cranky and a little worse for wear the next morning.

I write. Well -- I try to write. I chip away at a mountain of work I signed up for. I send drafts to advisers who are busy managing their own mountains of work this summer, so I don't hear much in the way of direction. All this leads to incredible angst --  an angst that I've never really felt before, to be honest. What if I spend this summer writing a dissertation only to discover that I was headed the wrong direction the whole time? What if I don't get enough feedback on my materials and waste yet another year not being that competitive on the job market? What if I can't get something picked up by a journal before I need to start sending out applications? Basically -- why bother?

Bottom line -- I know this funk. I've been here before, but this one feels a little deeper. A little more pointed. It's a horrible balance that I seem to have struck between feeling like I'm working too hard and stressing too much, and yet, somehow, I've never actually done enough to get anywhere significant.

I know, too, that everyone who chooses this career ends up here sooner or later. I've been lucky that I haven't been here before. It's awful. I'll do my best to muddle through, but I think that juncture is coming up -- the point where I decide if I'm going to soldier on, or if I'm just going to nap until fall convocation. The latter is starting to sound pretty damn good.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Higher Ed Holiday Syndrome -- AKA, "I-Didn't-Get-Enough-Done-itis"

For many years, I was blessed with actual summer and winter "vacations" once my regular semesters were finished. I was able to quit my retail job in 2007 when I picked up a TA stipend at the beginning of my graduate studies, and my lovely husband always insisted that I take my summers off in order to rest up for the next year even though it meant living paycheck-to-paycheck and skimping on some fun times between June and August. I still managed to have fun, though. A bestie and myself would plant our relaxed selves next to a full kiddie pool in my backyard. There we'd read, nap, sunbathe (always with plenty of SPF applied), chat. Come 5:00 PM and the imminent setting of the sun behind the huge evergreen behind my house, we'd pull out the beer, wine, or gin and tonics or retire to a local watering hole for beer, wine, or gin and tonics. It was amazing. About one week before school started, I'd frantically scramble to finish my new composition syllabus and gather my books for a new set of classes, but other than that, the whole summer was mine, mine, mine.

Winter breaks were always significantly shorter, generally lasting between three and six weeks. I was the master of the final grade-and-post, turning my students' projects around in a few short days and posting final grades less than a week after the semester ended. Then I'd take hot baths, read, enjoy the soothing glow of my newly erected Christmas tree, and retire to my favorite downtown IF spots for coffee and the occasional heavy winter warmer beer. Christmas would come and go, as would New Year's, in the blink of an eye before I had to contend with the week-before crush once again.

The later years of my PhD program, as well as the impending crunch of the job market, have given me a wretched case of Holiday Higher Ed Syndrome. My colleagues are very familiar with this affliction.

Here's the scenario; you've got a large scale project with an indefinite completion date. It could be revisions on a journal article waiting to be sent back to an editor. He or she just told you to send it "sometime in the next twelve months." It could be that dissertation that you'd like to finish in the foreseeable future, but your teaching load, committee obligations, and the general state of your personal life kept you from making significant progress on it during the regular semester. The summer and winter breaks stretch out before -- glorious, vast expanses of time that boast no commitments beyond those you create for yourselves. You lovingly set deadlines. Some are generous and realistic with their deadlines. They'll finish an article and their new syllabus in three months, but anything else they get done is just gravy. These are the lucky ones. Most of us will set impossible goals for ourselves. We will, we declare boldly, finish two articles, a complete draft of our dissertation, and completely revamp our composition syllabi before the new semester starts. We'll even get all this done a week before the semester starts so that we have time to read those five for-fun books that have piled up on the nightstand over the past six months. (We don't talk about the twenty neglected for-fun books underneath those five.)

Such grand plans!

But here's the rub.

We are tired. We are so tired. We are exhausted after the semester ends. We've missed our friends and our loved ones, who haven't seen more than our downcast eyes over the top of our laptop screens for the last several months. We've missed heavy drinking. We've missed movies. We've missed watching a whole season of Toddlers & Tiaras in a single sitting.

We decide that we can take a week off without setting our schedule back too much, right?

Then there's a holiday, or someone's birthday. We can't work for that day, right? This person is a dear friend/family member/acquaintance.

Then it's Friday. Well -- we might as well take the weekend off. We'll start fresh on Monday and be three times as productive next week. Right? RIGHT?

As Mr. Vonnegut said, "So it goes." All. Break. Long.

This is not to say that we're not occasionally productive over breaks. It's about managing expectations, though. Higher Ed Holiday Syndrome tends to hit about two weeks before the new semester begins. We look at the goals we set for ourselves, and then we look at what we've gotten done. The two rarely match up. (If your to-do list is complete at the end of the break, please don't tell me.) Then we lose a day lamenting that wasted span of time. "We could have done so much more!," we cry. "We could have finished that dissertation if only we'd applied ourselves! Why-oh-why did Netflix have to upload all those episodes of Bridezillas?"

If you know someone who suffers from Higher Ed Holiday Syndrome, remind them that relaxation and fun are key components to enjoying life. Have them make a new list of deadlines that includes giving themselves a break and check that item off with a flourish.

The work will get done. It has to. In the meantime, let's not be too hard on ourselves, OK?

Happy holidays, all!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Next Steps -- Or, I Don't Wanna.

Wow! It's been almost a year since I last blogged. I'm not a blog expert or anything, but I think this makes me officially bad at blogging.

A lot has happened in the past year. I've laughed. I've cried. I passed all my doctoral exams. I tripped in some gravel at the local grocery store and ended up with a really gnarly scar. That last one seems to occupy most of my time at present. I'm still inwardly cringing with embarrassment.

Being done with coursework has been a mixed bag for me. On one hand, I love that my time is truly my own now -- sink or swim. I don't have to tear my hair out trying to read 300+ pages per class per week on top of grading student compositions and attending meetings. On the other, I miss the intellectual challenges of sitting in a room with my peers once or twice a week and discussing our reading. My cohort is officially 99.9% ABD -- meaning that we're all tearing our hair out individually, and we find time to meet in the office or at Solo to show off our bare scalps and weep gently into our four dollar coffees that some of us really can't afford.

As I sit here, blogging to avoid doing any real reading that would push me further along my route to PhD and the job market -- I wonder why I'm stalling now?

Oh, I know. Because it's terrifying.

The job market is bleak. As humanities students, we're told over and over again that no matter what we do, we're never ready for the market. We're never accomplished enough to stand up to candidates who have been in the field for years and are looking to change institutions. There are exponentially more candidates than there are jobs. The average humanities PhD spends three years on the job market before landing something they'll take -- or anything at all. Blah, blah, blah...

I'm currently staring at a pile of reading suggested by committee. Reading between the lines, they're trying to inject some modernity into my dissertation -- and I appreciate it. It will make me more buzz-wordy and knowledgeable. But part of me just needs to take a moment and bask in the fact that 1) I'm kicking this program's ass. I have two years of funding to finish what promises to be an excellent dissertation, and 2) that I. Can. Do. This. After a rocky first two years during which I doubted I was smart or driven enough to get this far, it feels great to know that I'm keeping up with the pack.

I'm still waiting to hear back from Renaissance & Reformation regarding an article over which I lost blood, sweat, and literal tears. I still have a firm deadline of January for the first draft of my first (and right now, only) confirmed publication. I have a lot of reading to do, and even more revising to do on a dissertation that right now exists in ill-fitting drafts and my too-tired brain.

I am chipping away at this mountain. I will be a professor. Eventually.

But first, Hobbit Day.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Dispelling the "Ramen Noodle / College" Myth

One of the most surprising things I've realized about myself during my trek through graduate school is that I like to cook.  No, I love to cook.  And furthermore, I think I'm pretty damn good at cooking.  I suppose that's why I like it.  Preparing a meal successfully gives me a sense of accomplishment that may be a little inordinate, but an accomplishment's an accomplishment, right?

It so easy to walk the wide and easy path when it comes to cooking during graduate school.  Joe and I both work more hours a week than we'd care to count.  Sometimes, I really don't feel like cooking.  Most of the time, though, I can't wait to get into the kitchen.

I had only started to be able to cook well just as I started graduate school.  Poor Joe had suffered through years over over-done meat and under-done potatoes until I discovered Food Network, Martha Stewart, and Alton Brown.  The two former taught me that I wanted to eat beautiful, tasty food, and the latter taught me that in order to achieve said beautiful, tasty food, one must be armed with knowledge, and above all, patience.

Patience and knowledge.  Perhaps it was fortunate that the two primary qualities of any great chef are the same that we often need on the PhD track. 

At any rate, I've discovered as of late that cooking, baking, and all things culinary are not actually the respites from the day-to-day grind of grad school that I'd once imagined.  In fact, they seem to me to be beautifully symbiotic. 

I find myself honing my teaching skills as I work through a new recipe, talking myself through skills that seem implicit in the directions (deglazing, etc.) as if I am explaining it to an audience new to cooking.  I remind my invisible students (and myself) that we take the time to do things because each small step contributes to the excellence of the final product.  They're all miniature syntheses that make up the whole, marvelous alchemy that is cooking. 

It's also easy to slip into academic reverie while stirring a sauce, or dicing vegetables for stew.  I've written toothsome sentences, and even a thesis or two, while kneading bread or waiting for my rue to thicken.

I plan meals like I outline essays.  How do these components fit together?  Is simplicity the best approach, or should I lay on flourish after flourish and hope it all makes sense in the end?  I often start with the main course, and let my mind wander until I find an appropriate way to expand the flavor profile to other dishes.

And, finally, like the brilliant and self-affirming synthesis that is graduate work, there reaches a point where once-complex dishes become integrated into your repertoire so seamlessly that you hardly need to consult  a recipe before making them.  I note with pride every time I make white sauce or bread from scratch after simply drawing on the familiar list of ingredients and procedures in my mind.  I relish those moments I can look at the items in my cupboard, fridge, and freezer, and with a little thought, create something new and delicious because I instinctively know what flavors and textures will pair well together, and which will probably be less-than-appealing.

So, before you pick up that fast and easy snack one evening, I suggest you browse a back issue of Food & Wine, or whatever magazine or cookbook strikes your fancy, and take a chance on yourself in the kitchen. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I had a long talk with my body tonight...

I haven't been around here for a while. Mostly because I spend most of my life in a frantic race to complete a series of tasks so that I can get this thing they call the PhD that I've spent many years and more money than I would care to admit trying to get. In some ways, I feel like a nerdy real-life gamer. I live for the next quest so I can finally "level up!"

I paused my work tonight, however, to blog. Well -- not really blog but bitch. Yes, folks -- this is catharsis. I'm here to rant. To rave. To wail, and perhaps gnash my teeth just a little bit. Why?, you ask with breath that is bated.

Because I'm SICK.

OK -- I'm not just sick. I've been sick for approximately ten-thousand years. And by ten-thousand years, I mean a month. Which is still ridiculously long if you ask me.

Graduate students (and indeed college instructors of all shapes and sizes) are used to getting sick at inopportune times. Mainly because we work so intimately with germ factories (students). I get a double whammy because Joe works retail. The man has a constitution of an ox and rarely gets sick himself, but he's kind enough to allow any passing plague to hop a ride on the S.S. Kimbro, and as soon as it docks here in Queen Creek, that little feller sniffs the air, finds my scent, and says, "Ah -- there's a bonny immune-deprived lass!"

But I digress.

I had a nasty case of strep throat upon returning from a trip to TN for Joe's b-day in mid-October. I knew it was strep because the sore throat, fever, chills, and headache were accompanied by my sniveling about how I couldn't f-ing believe that after all this time I had strep again. I went to the doctor, got my trusty antibiotics, and after a few more days of sniveling, I felt significantly better. Ten days of antibiotics ran their course, and two days later -- something came back. Something wicked. Something diabolical. Something disgusting and phlegm-caked that set up residence in my throat. For a few weeks, I lived on a diet of Chloraseptic lozenges, acetaminophen, and decongestants. I snorted, snotted, and sniveled my way through many days and nights. Eventually I had to add Tums to my diet because Chloraseptic, acetaminophen, and decongestants are evidently not the breakfast of champions. Not to mention the fact that in order to live without snotting all over myself, this combination of pharmaceuticals made it difficult to do brilliant scholarship on the coalescence of anti-Catholic rhetoric and mercantile ideology in seventeenth-century England. It made it difficult to do anything besides stare at a wall or the vapor trails coming off of my own hand. It made it difficult not to watch hour after hour of Sister Wives. (In my humble opinion, this is the best way to watch Sister Wives, actually.)

"Maybe it's a sinus infection," I thought. "I'll take decongestants until I get rid of whatever's living in my face." Things felt better for a while -- then it came back. I could sense it had grown weaker, but it was still annoying. It's harvest time here in Arizona -- perhaps I'd developed adult-onset allergies. I decided to add lortadine to the mix just for funsies. I was determined not to sit in the crowded waiting room of the student health center on my nearly 70-thousand student campus one more time this semester. For all I knew, I would hear those dreaded words -- "It's just a cold. You'll just have to let it run it's course."

Here's the problem with that. For the grad student, the "course" of the common cold at the end of a frantic fall semester with a full class load and two teaching assignments is not standard. It's like comparing playing the back nine with the whole damn eighteen-holer. Most people's colds are happy just to play those links right next to the club house, then shuffle off to the bar for a few Michelob Ultras before they head back to the office for the rest of the day. This demon-cold, this beast from another dimension that filled my face with every conceivable texture and color of phlegm, was the equivalent of four rheumatic old men playing so slowly that they frequently (and politely) stopped to allow other ailments to play through. A scenario:

My Demon-Cold: Oh, you look like you're in quite a rush today, 24-hour Stomach Virus. Why don't you just go ahead and tee up ahead of us. We're not going anywhere any time soon.

24-hour Stomach Virus: Why thanks, gentlemen. I don't mind if I do!



Migraine: Hey, folks. I've got someone else to plague later today. Do you mind if I just squeeze through here?

My Demon-Cold: Not at all!

Me: *whimper*

Add profuse sweating, vomiting, and other disgusting things to the snotting, sneezing, and sniveling that were already dominating my life.

Luckily, the gastrointestinal and cranial pyrotechnics were short-lived. The lortadine seems to be doing the trick, although I sense that my sinuses aren't too happy if I lay off the decongestant for too long. I felt fantastic today -- by comparison, that is. So imagine my dismay as I sat on the couch this evening, reading a fantastic novel for one of my classes, feeling the phlegm-beast creep back in at the back of my throat. That familiar twinge of discomfort that says, "Hey -- do you mind if I just hang out here for a few more days or a MONTH and make your life wretched?"

Enough was enough. I decided to take a shower and get ready for bed. While in the shower, I ended up having a little "discussion" with my body. It went something like this:

Me: OK -- listen up. Enough is enough. Put your f-ing WOMAN PANTS on. I've got a lot to do and less time to do it in, and you are dead weight right now. I don't care if your hands look all cool when they're vapor-trailed out. I've got things to accomplish.

Body: But I'm siiiiiiiiiiiiiick. *snivel*

Me: I don't care! If you don't pull your s**t together, I'm going to have to pummel you with a bag of oranges until you agree to stop being such a baby.

Body: But I don't feeeeeel goooooood. *whimper*

Me: Listen -- if you manage not to pull me down over the next three weeks, I can promise you wine. I can promise you chocolate. I'll let you sleep for three days straight and you won't have to wear anything but fleece pajamas. No makeup. No shoes. All the Sister Wives your tiny mind can stand!

Body: *sniffle* Well -- maybe. *physiological equivalent of crossing arms and pouting*

We seem to have reached a tentative agreement. I'm slightly phlegmy, but better off than I've been in a while. Here's hoping I don't have to defend a colloquium paper in a few weeks while hypnotized by the electric colors pulsating off of my own extremities. I sense my group of little old men are nearing the end of the course.

But they're going to be polite and let my period play through first.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

...Emerging from the Ashes.

Fitting title, no?

I suppose a better title would be "about to immolate," since we are once again headed into the heat of the year here in the Valley of the Sun. The winter was blissful, though -- no snow (which I honestly thought I would miss), and only three or four noticeably cold days. Joe is officially lamenting the end of sweater-vest weather for yet another year.

My first semester of PhD work ended well -- at least as well as I expected, and better in the case of my Shakespearean Fetishes course (oh, temporary bane of my existence). I am now once again in the fray, above the frenzy for just a moment to take a deep breath during spring break before plunging back into the mayhem of the final six-week push. My classes this semester are proving challenge, but extremely gratifying. I earnestly feel myself developing as a scholar. This semester afforded me the opportunity to meet with a very distinguished visiting scholar (W.B. Worthen, thank you very much), and I look forward to a shot at meeting Jean Howard when she visits in the fall. I presented at my first non-Idaho State/Utah State conference in February. I was the odd person out in my panel, since my presentation had nothing to do with Renaissance pirates, but my audience was patient and gracious despite an obvious lack of swashbuckling. I was even approached by a scholar from Princeton who found my work "interesting," and although our promises to get wine and discuss our research before the conference's end never came to fruition, it was nice to get an academic pat on the back.

I'm teaching two sections of English 102 this semester, which I assumed would be a piece of cake since I've taught two sections simultaneously before, but the combination of the early times, somewhat frequent early morning migraines, and a disturbing apathy displayed by my 9:00 AM class (ask them about all the lovely homework they had over spring break -- *tsk tsk*) has caused some extreme wear this time around. Perhaps I'm still somewhat "jet-lagged" after fall. I've applied for a much-coveted summer teaching position here at ASU, but Joe and I have been judiciously socking away money in case that doesn't happen, so that our summer fun will be fully funded anyway.

Speaking of Joe, the man has become a home-brewing machine! I bought him a home brewing kit for Christmas -- a gift which I assumed he would enjoy on a occasional basis, but I am delighted that he seems to like well enough to brew approximately once every two weeks. We've enjoyed some fine pale ales, an interpretation of 1554 (my favorite college beer), Rogue's Shakespeare Stout, and a variation of the same called Bottom's Dream, a molasses-spiked red ale inspired by Alabama football, and my very own raspberry-flavored heffeweissen for those toasty Tempe afternoons. Needless to say, there is always beer at Casa de Kimbro.

We've enjoyed a pretty steady stream of visitors since we've arrived here in Phoenix -- something we greatly appreciate since our schedules rarely coincide with one another to allow us to get away. We're hoping to make a pilgrimage back to the Gem State in late July/early August, and visit the Tennessee branch of the family sometime earlier in the summer. I imagine us as refugees of the heat...

Rest assured, blog readers, I am alive and well. Just insanely, but happily, busy.

More to come soon!

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Crunch Begins...

It's that time of year again, folks! The time of the semester when the grad student disengages from the world at large and morphs into a self-loathing, frantic mess. A creature only designated to be "human" by virtue of his/her shape, buried under a pile of yet-to-be-read research, unfinished papers, ungraded composition assignments, and the pressures of the long-neglected social life.

And I have a fairly light semester.

For me, the paradoxical thing about "the crunch" is how much I've come to enjoy, even rely on it. For two or three entire weeks at the end of each semester, I run on pure adrenaline as I finish every project that has lingered in limbo for most of the semester. (Some are "finished" better than others, but it always gets done.) I read. I write. I grade. I sleep (occasionally). And then I do it all again the next day. This is not to say that the frenzy is the same as it was when I started graduate school. Sadly, this thirty-and-some-months-year-old no longer has the stamina for even the occasional "all-nighter," so I've become infinitely more adept at spreading the work over the bulk of the semester.

The lighter side of "the crunch," however, is the feeling one gets when it's all over and done with. The relief. The utter joy. The looming sensation that in just a few short weeks it will all begin again, but for now, your time is yours. I bake. I nap. I take hot baths. I read books just for "funsies" and retain absolutely nothing of their content or larger themes -- because I don't have to. It's glorious.

Here's to "the crunch," and I'll see you again on the other side of it.