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I didn’t set out for this to be a year of saying yes to everything that scares me, but I have intentionally, unintentionally, and somewhat haphazardly taken some big and small risks this year. Since I spent last week, as Dr. Brene Brown describes it using the Franklin Delano Roosevelt quotation, face down in the arena, I’ve spent this week trying to take stock, figure out what got me there, and how to get back up. Fortunately for me, the universe sent along a few reminders.
Though I find the “just get through it” mentality generally serves me well. One of the downfalls of this mentality is that sometimes I get so busy “getting through it” that the things I need to process, and actually deal with, tend to stack up.
As someone surrounded by friends and family who face daunting struggles with depression, I consider myself blessed that my own bouts of depression tend to be short-lived, and in some ways purposeful. Sometimes it takes me a while to figure it out, but generally if I am feeling depressed it is a sign that in “just getting through” stuff, I’ve also let things pile up. So, last week when I reached a particularly low point, I knew that part of the process of getting back up would have to be taking stock of things and figuring out how to deal with them.
Please, don’t run screaming, this is not going to be a post where I give you a three step process for solving all my (and/or your) problems. This post is more about identifying the things, taking risks, and their rewards. If you want to run screaming from that, well, now is the time; and, it won’t hurt my feelings if you do.
For me, getting through things often means narrowing my focus and concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. This a great strategy for the day to day, for things like being fully back in the class room for the first time in five years, or for immersing myself in a sub-field I’ve only dabbled in before, or for re-adapting to life in a smaller, more isolated community. The problem with this narrow focus is it means that when I do stumble I lack the perspective to help me recover. Since I have always managed the day to day stuff fairly successfully, it is natural for me to be hard on myself when I start not coping well with the day to day.
I did all of that to take a job I’d applied for in April, and interviewed at in May. A job that carries a similar title and some similar day to day work, but that in reality has vastly different expectations. Basically in about 8 months I changed nearly everything about my day to day life. Yet, my day to day, get through it, coping strategy doesn’t really account for that. Basically, it tells me, “You did this to yourself. Now, suck it up and get going.”
As my last post revealed, it is hard enough for me to admit I miss the people and community I had, I haven’t even started to think about how I miss my standing desk and dual monitor set up, the window in my office, the restaurants I could walk to for lunch. All of those things I know are affecting me physically and emotionally, yet I’m not taking the time to consider them. Really, I am actively berating myself for not dealing better. (Yeah, I know … that is some logic there.) As silly as it sounds, this week I’ve been thinking about / accepting that this move, this new job, this new life they all constitute a very big risk I have taken. Funny, it wasn’t until last week when I felt completely flat on my face that I realized I was even in the arena in a very big way.
Actually, it was a combination of feeling completely defeated, and taking smaller risks that helped me to better accept the big risk I have taken, and to be kinder to myself in this struggle. Last week, I sent a draft of an article to a colleague at another institution. It doesn’t sound like much of a risk, but this is the first time I’ve shared my work outside of my friends and graduate school co-hort. (No, the dissertation does not count, and why is a different discussion.) This colleague graduated from a more prestigious university than I did. She is insanely smart, and I feel like I work to keep up with her in conversation. Though I knew it would ultimately help me, I worried about sharing this not quite first draft with her. It felt like showing my warts. I was worried she would tear my work apart, and that she would be right in doing so. Of course, I didn’t share any of this with her, so today when I received her feedback it felt like a gift. She praised and loved parts of my article, and she gave me wonderful feedback and tips on the other parts … the parts I knew needed more attention. My reward for this risk isn’t the praise an positive feedback she gave; my reward is that she pushed in all the places I knew I needed pushing. She confirmed my own instincts about my writing. Right now, for me, this is a win, and a small risk that I hope will lead to bigger ones.
This is getting long, I know, but just one more thing. The other risk I took this week is having my faculty mentor, who is from the professional education department, observe my class. Being back in the classroom this year has left me all kinds of vulnerable, but this last couple of weeks I have really been feeling it. Listening to other people in the department talk about their composition classes, it’s become clear to me that I have a very different pedagogy, and structure my class quite differently. The most obvious way I have done that is by making my class read, think, and talk about race. (I did mention that I moved North of North, right?) Since they are all working on their own topics and projects, we needed an example to talk about in class, so I structured a series of readings focused on race in America, which started with whiteness and ended with Rachel Dolezal.
Whenever I talked about the readings and discussions our class was participating in, my colleagues would talk about how brave I was, or seem incredulous that I would bring these issues up with my class. There were conversations that were a struggle, but, for me, it all paid off as I listened to this class talk about Ta-Nehisi Coates The Case for Reparations. (Yes, they read it, and yes they owned the discussion.) The reactions of my colleagues began to have an effect though. I worried, was I forcing my view on them. I’d done my best in class not to impose my opinions, but, given my authority in the classroom, even bringing up this issue could be considered imposing it on the students. I also worried if I’d gotten too far into the readings / discussion, and neglected the writing. Last week, in a meeting before class one of the students thanked me for making them think about and talk about race. I won’t lie, that made me feel good.
Last night, when I was talking with my mentor about the class she shared two things. First, the class said they enjoyed that I was making them talk about hard issues. (The student who’d thanked me last week was absent, so this was coming spontaneously from other students in the class.) Second, the feed back she and the class gave me about where class / my teaching could improve, confirmed what I’d already been thinking. Again, that the class didn’t hate me for making them wrestle with a difficult issue, was important good feedback. More important for me though, was the confirmation that what I suspected needed work was also what they felt needed work. It was another confirmation that the risk was worth it, and of my own instincts.
Yes, I took these small risks, and in doing so I learned I am not the perfect writer or the perfect teacher. I also learned, however, to trust my own instincts about how to become better at both. I can also hope that the positive results of these smaller risks are good omens for the much bigger risk I have taken with this move. I am definitely not comfortable right now, so I guess the least I can do is be courageous.
Well, that didn’t take long.
I have been at my new job for just over a month, and already I feel a little like I am struggling to keep up, and swimming in self-doubt. Intellectually, I know that is just a function of the new job territory. As usual, though, knowing it doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to live through.
Moshe usually does a pretty good job of helping me live through it. He is generally pretty attentive to our moods, and is a wonderful snuggler.
My to-do list, which I know is currently no more than it was at my last job, feels overwhelming. Consequently, I have spent the last week beating up myself up for not getting enough done, while I find ways to keep myself from doing the things that would make me feel like I had accomplished something. Yes, feeling overwhelmed makes me less productive instead of more productive. We all have our silly ways of making ourselves miserable, and this is mine.
Typically, this is about the time in every semester, when I go through something like this. This time just feels bigger than normal, because I am also feeling the pressure to prove myself at my new job, to adapt to life in a new region, a much smaller town, and to support the DH as he tries to do the same and look for a new job. Do I have a conclusion for all this? Not really, the only thing I know to do is what I do all the time. Just get through it.
I know this is something that many people go through when they take a new academic job. I would guess also that people working other places go through it too. There is always a point in the first year when the reality of a new job starts to wear away the shine on the possibilities of the new job, and that is why I wish I could say, “I did these five things, and it helped me through this funk.” The reality though is that I don’t have anything better than I just get through it because I have to. Sure, I have tactics to help me get back on track, but mostly they just involve tricking myself, and faking it until I make it.
The primary way I trick myself is by abandoning my To-Do list in favor of recording things on my Emergent Task Planner. It helps me focus on what I got done instead of what I thought I should get done. Usually, this tactic allows me to feel a little less overwhelmed, which helps me ease back into a productivity that I am comfortable with.
Remember that one time I said, “Things should slow down in the next couple of weeks ….” Yeah, that happened.
Seriously, every time I get busy I look at my calendar and pick some random date when things are magically supposed to slow down; the truly crazy part is that whenever I hit that magical date I am genuinely surprised when I remain as busy as ever.
If you want to measure things purely in word counts and/or days written AcWriMo didn’t go so well for me. I set a pretty low goal of 12,000 words and probably didn’t write more than 3,000. (Next time I am counting all the damned emails I write at work!) I am, however, declaring November a success! What I didn’t do in terms of word count I made up for in ideas! No, I don’t have 9,000 ideas laying around right now, but I do have three little embryos of projects started and that makes me happy.
Finishing the dissertation left me so wrung out I really wasn’t sure I’d ever be excited about an academic writing project ever again. What changed? Well, for one I have co-authors: two of them. These women are super smart and will challenge me to do good work, and most importantly my fear of letting them down will keep me going. The second thing is a research project. I know! Me? A research project? But, yes it is true, and actually exciting because I’m learning so much in this process. (Remind me about this excitement in a few months when this project really gets underway and become hard. 😉 )
Yes, I am as busy as ever, but I think I must secretly like it that way since I keep coming up with new ways to keep myself busy.
The truly fun part of November using the pictures Ouiser took for us to make our first ever personalized Christmas card. Here’s a sample. No, it was never possible to get the dogs to look at the camera at the same time. We probably should have given Ouiser an industrial sized jar of peanut butter; that would have gotten their attention.
My friend Casie posted this today.
I have a couple of responses to this piece, but the primary one is … yes! Just, yes! That I agree with Casie really isn’t a surprising thing.
We first met at her job talk when I walked up to tell her how much I enjoyed her presentation, and before I could get two words out found myself in tears. True story. Honest-to-God tears, accompanied by those “I’m trying not to cry, but it only makes it worse sobs.” She was gracious enough to give me a hug and let me stumble through my little speech. It was my first year on the job and to describe myself as mortified would be a little bit of an understatement. Still, there were few happier moments in that first year then when I heard she had accepted the position.
What could make someone cry at a job talk?
Some of it was probably the stress of my first year. Few periods in my life have been as lonely and as exhausting. The commute, adapting to a completely new work schedule & environment, being the primary source of income for my family, and on top of it all still being a graduate student — I’ve talked before about how all those things add up, and how for me when the stress adds up it usually results in tears. I’m an equal opportunity crier – if I’m sad, I cry; if I’m angry, I cry; if I’m frustrated, I cry; if I’m happy (you guessed it), I cry. In this case it was recognition.
These days it seems like everyone and their second cousin is talking about what it means to be a working class academic, and about the working conditions for graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty. Three years ago, however, it wasn’t exactly the same. Three years ago being a working class academic was just something Ouiser and I talked about sitting on the garage couch when we were in our cups. Ouiser was the first person I knew to start talking about alt-ac careers and the irresponsible mentoring of graduate students. Consequently, when I sat listening to Casie’s job talk about her research with working class academics, it touched something in me. What I meant to say, and what I hope came out between my tears, was that hearing about Casie’s research was like finally being seen. It was the first time I’d heard an academic describe graduate students who could have been me. It was a naming and a calling into being.
So, I guess you can imagine why three years later I find nothing out of the ordinary about once again seeing Casie give voice to thoughts that have been floating around my head. The only thing different is, perhaps, the context. In her post Casie outlines this great list of questions for graduates to consider as they ponder pursuing a PhD and the academic life.
What is it you like about academia? Specifically, what practices make you happy?
What parts of academia stress you out or make you upset?
Is it important that you live in a specific city, state, or region?
What kind of financial compensation do you need to be happy?
What sort of daily or weekly schedule do you envision as your ideal?
Is teaching/research/administration a practice that you could envision yourself engaging with over time?
What feelings do you experience when you think about not working in academia?
What kind of job could you imagine yourself doing and being happy?
Do you like to research and write?
How do you deal with timelines and independent goal setting?
If you had to describe your ideal day at work—from waking up to going to bed—what would that day look like? What challenges might you encounter? What high points might you experience?
What identities do you call on when you consider your self-worth? Your values? How do you prioritize these identities?
Having finally finished and received the PhD (which I somehow still think will be rescinded every time I find another mistake in my dissertation), I find myself looking at the academic job market. I’m considering which jobs and which locations would be right for me, without necessarily thinking about whether or not this is really want I want. Yes, at this point it is what I’m trained to do, but does that necessarily mean it is all I can do, or that it is even really what I want to do? Technically, I am already in academia, and I don’t know that I could answer any one of those questions. I think I am at a point, like the MA student, where it is necessary to decide do I stay or do I go?
One of the best pieces of feminist writing on the internet inspired this post. Melissa McEwan’s post “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regrettably Struck” is always worth a re-read. The post is a heart-rending examination of what it is like to be a feminist when negotiating relationships with the men in our lives. McEwan points out that while feminists may not hate men, it can often be difficult to fully trust the men in our lives. This isn’t a set up designed to make you think great things about what follows, I don’t pretend that my writing will reach McEwan’s level. I reference “The Terrible Bargain” because it is a piece of writing that carefully considers the consequences of living within the existing structure. In this post, I want to consider what it means to live within the existing culture at the intersection of class and the educational system. As McEwan points out in her post many other people could write this post equally well from different perspectives. I, however, can only speak from my own position (as a working class white woman with a Ph.D. in Rhetoric & Composition, who currently works coordinating a writing center) and in McEwan’s own words work to “make myself trustworthy” by striving to acknowledge and be respectful of those other perspectives.
While McEwan’s post inspired this piece, the point I would like to discuss isn’t necessarily a direct analogy, but in the same way that McEwan questions the cost women face when choosing to take a feminist stance in the world, I want to explore the cost to working class students when they choose to become a part of the educational system. Working class students receive very specific messages about education and they are expected to play a particular role within that system. For example, as a high school student in a small, economically challenged, logging town in the Pacific Northwest. Education was always considered good. Going away to college represented a chance to get “Off the Harbor,” to find somewhere with more opportunities. Additionally, more education was always better. If a BA/MS could get you a better job/life, then an MA/MS would certainly provide you with something even better. I can honestly say that during high school I couldn’t even fathom having a Ph.D. The underlying “more education is always better” message certainly got through, however.
Who knows, maybe in someone else’s experience, this all pays off. In my experience, though, I can’t say it has.
As the conversation about working class graduate students and faculty expands and becomes more visible, I’ve noticed a trend. Someone writes a piece about some aspect of the working class experience in graduate school, which gets published somewhere like The Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed, and while there maybe a few supportive comments, invariably they devolve into a chorus of, “X should have known better.” “They should have known x, y, or z about graduate school.” The most frustrating part of it all is that generally all the comments miss whatever the point was in the article. The commenters fail to engage with the larger critique of the educational system/institution. Although I learned early on Never to Read the Comments, and I’ve almost got to the point of just not even reading the articles, I just don’t want to ignore, what is to me, a vital aspect of who I am in this system. Consequently, I have been trying to why it is so disturbing to so many people to hear working class graduate students/faculty talk about their experiences. The answer I have come to is, as I think you get by now, wholly informed by my own experiences; but, I think the discomfort and antagonism comes from when working class individuals stop being consumers of the educational system and attempt to become members of that system.
As with many of the ideas snarled up in the American myth of class mobility, “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” and “getting ahead,” education is supposed to get you ahead, but only so far. Working class students are supposed to be users of the educational system, but only to a point. They should pay to take those business, nursing, accounting, elementary ed courses, and then they should go out an get the appropriate job. The problem stems from those of us who aren’t good at business, or accounting, and don’t want to teach in the K-12 system. For those of us who find out that what we are good at is “school” and have the temerity to want to teach at a college or university, we make the dangerous from users of the educational system to participants in the system. Becoming, or trying to become, a part of the university system is a mark of reaching too far, of getting out of our place. The X should have know comments are a way to try to maintain a boundary and distance between an “us” and a “them.”
The result of this constant “us” and “them” positioning is that working class graduate students and faculty have a precarious relationship with the educational system. On the one hand it has gotten me away from where I was, and given me opportunities, but it has also not paid off in some pretty significant ways. More education is not always better. Maybe it’s true; maybe I should have known to stop when I reached the end of my MA degree. I should have thought — the PhD is a research degree, and because what I really want to do is teach I should just stop here. But I didn’t know that, and in the face of a lifetime of being told variations of “more education is always better,” I chose to continue on with my PhD. Perhaps I should have been able to tell earlier; I should have known how stupid it was to leave my full-time with benefits Starbucks job, to get teaching experience as an adjunct. But shift work at Starbucks looked just like the shift work my parents did for years without getting ahead. In many ways I won my gamble. I have a full time job at a university.
Now, however, I know. I know I should have stayed at Starbucks because I could be making the same life for myself without the insane amount of debt now hanging over my head. I know I could have/should have stopped at the MA. Heck, I should have gotten over my unease around rooms full of small children and become a K-12 teacher. Now, however, I am a part of system that I no longer trust, a system that won’t hear my experience, won’t accept my calls for change. I don’t know that there is an answer to any of the issues I have raised here, but I my experience, my feminist experience tells me there is value in recognizing and acknowledging the problem; my working class experience tells me the problem is that I’ve moved beyond the consumption of education and become a part of the production of education.
Every semester someone from the Writing Center visits all the ENG 100 & 101 courses at my school.
Every course. Every semester. Have I mentioned lately that I work at a large university?
Typically, I pawn off many of these visits on the consultants. It is good for the students to see the people with whom they will be working. This semester, however, things are different. For the first time in quite a while I have an almost completely new staff. The consultant training course I’m teaching actually has more than 3 people in it! I know I mentioned that before.
Being the soft hearted person I am, I decided this semester I wouldn’t ask any of the new people to do any of the classroom visits. Occasionally, students actually ask questions and I didn’t want anyone to have a bad experience. So, now I am looking at the first of many 12 hour days on campus. I really have to learn how not to be so nice.
The thing is though, as exhausted as I will be by September 12th, I kind of like getting to see the shiny new faces. Since I only teach consultant training now, I don’t really have the opportunity to see first year students much anymore. Sure, I know this is wildly altruistic, but I miss the wonder, excitement, and terror in their faces during the first few weeks of class. Remind me of this post when I am dead on my feet next week.
Did I mention that the big summer tutoring program started this week? How about that this requires me to be out of the office, but accessible by email/text, from 12:15 – 4:00pm every day for the next month? That time is spent attending meetings and observing tutoring sessions to provide the tutors with some continued development. We observe often, and give the tutors feedback, since we know how limited the training is at the beginning. The thing is that, like teaching, there is only so much that you can train for and the rest has to happen as on the job training.
Yesterday, I had to fill in for a tutor who had a Dr’s appointment that couldn’t be re-scheduled. This might be the second year of this program, but it really was the first time I had to do the tutoring work for which I was training people. I was oddly nervous. In the end though, it was fun. As challenging as they can be, this population of students can be really fun to work with. The biggest thing I learned, though, was just how difficult the job we ask the tutors to do is.
I did my best to practice everything from training, and I am happy to say — I think it worked. It made me feel good about the expectations we set.
Last night I submitted my initial materials to one of the jobs I determined would be a good test run. Of course that means the truly insidious part of this process has begun. Submitting an application in the academic job market is not the same, as submitting applications elsewhere. The long nature of the hiring process means there is a lot more time for uncertainty. Time for you to really imagine what it would be like to get the job, to live in the city, to decide you might really want this job after all. Deciding you might want the job, then leads to an increased amount of anxiety about application materials, and how far you might make it. Did I do well enough to make the cut for a phone interview, campus visit?
Then I did the really stupid thing of returning to the online application to review my submitted materials. I didn’t notice any glaring issues, but I did realize my cover letter is really choppy. Not quite a list, but there are no unifying themes tying everything together … and I worry it was too me focused, not enough “Look how well I fit the holes in your program.” But, it is submitted, so it is done now. The best I can do is forget about it.
On Saturday I met with Dr. Knitty Kay for a coffee and work date. We haven’t met up since she moved to the next town over, which feels like two states away for some reason. I see people in Greensboro more often than I see her these days. She pointed out the fun part of getting your materials together is seeing everything you’ve done, and really feeling a sense of confidence. And, yes, I felt like that all last night and this morning.
It was great, until I messed up at work. I thought several other people were taking care of one part of the great summer tutoring project. They thought I was doing it. The result was that we were halfway through a big meeting when I had to run down to the office to locate an essential item. It is like I was getting too confident in myself and the universe had to assume my mother’s role of knocking me down a peg or two.
Duly noted universe, duly noted.
Here is the thing about Virgo-style progress tracking, it requires honesty, and sometimes that honesty can be painful.
It was so tempting to just jump from the 19th to the 29th, which still demonstrates that I’ve not met my regular writing challenge, but doesn’t leave all that blank space in my pretty spread sheet. Here’s the thing about really tracking your writing, though … all that white space matters. Eventually when you track enough that you have scroll up or down in your spread sheet, the white space catches your eye. It makes you think about what was happening, or why writing was not happening.
Looking back at the goals I set for these five weeks, I think I did meet my goal a little more often than it appears. (If you really count any writing.) Remembering to track is, however, just as important as the daily writing because in the absence of printed pages tracking demonstrates progress.
Interestingly enough my focused goal for the second week of writing was to update my application materials, and just today I found a couple of reasons to get down to business. (Of course, now I am procrastinating with a blog post. 😉 ) Having a job, and a job that your not unhappy with, is a tricky place to be when checking out the job ads. There are several reasons I wouldn’t really want to leave where I am right now, but there are a few compelling reasons to keep my eyes open. Namely, I think both the DH and I would like to be closer to one family or the other. When I read a job ad, however, I really can’t stop myself from thinking, “Would I really give up what I have for this?” The question is difficult because yes, it does merit consideration, but it makes it all to easy maintain some inertia. “No, I don’t think I would give up what I have for this” leads too easily to, “Why bother applying.”
Applying leads to all sorts of messy things, discussions with supervisors about submitting an application, the work of updating materials, the endless mental pro/con lists about each position. It is easy to overlook the good that can come from applying, even if the application doesn’t make it out of the initial 600 applicant pool. Submitting an application packet is good practice. Now, I am not advocating for some sort of professional job hunt, but in my case I know that in the next 3 years changes are coming. So, yes, I am just trying to pep talk myself into submitting these two applications. Because, even if these aren’t necessarily the jobs for which I would give up what I have, practicing to get the job I really want isn’t a bad idea. Plus, submitting applications means I could create another spreadsheet to keep track of it all. (It’s the little things that make my Virgo brain happy.)
This is the first weekend in a while that I haven’t had to spend at least one day on the road between here and Greensboro. It feels like the first time I have not had ANYTHING to do. While that it certainly not the case, I do plan on cherishing this last weekend before the madness. Training for the summer program I coordinate starts next Thursday and the students arrive on 7/1 whether we are ready or not.
Since this was the last week when I could take things slow and think about one thing at a time I spend some time writing in my work journal. (Yes, that was my writing yesterday.) I’m not so great at journaling at home, but I have found the work journal to be tremendously helpful. In fact, I just finished one and started another. When I looked back at the one I just finished it was fun to remember that it was the book in which I had prepared for my campus visit for this job. The work journal is where I try to write through ideas, set down goals, and -ok- maybe I vent a little too. It works as a sounding board for me, and helps to get through any initial frustration and start thinking about issues in a new way.
I suppose I could do all of that in a file somewhere, but there is something very satisfying about my journal with all it’s sticky tabs and stuff stapled inside.
Do any of you keep a work journal in this way?