Do Me a Favor

As a graduate student/adjunct, I ask for a lot of favors.  I ask for recommendation letters, I ask for comments on my writing, I ask that my class be scheduled at a particular time — gimme, gimme, gimme.  And when I don’t get what I ask for, I get upset.  Case in point: two months ago, I asked a colleague to write a recommendation letter for a job that I’d really like to land.  That letter has not yet arrived, which is pretty damned frustrating.  But I started thinking about this from my colleague’s perspective, and all he sees is demands: write me a letter, get me a course to teach, send me your syllabi, etc..  Same thing goes for my adviser, whom I constantly assail with requests for advice, letters, chapter critiques, and so on and so forth.  It must be exhausting.

But here’s the thing: at this point in my career, I have absolutely nothing to offer these people.  I have no influence, no power, no nothing.  I’m not smart or witty enough to keep around for interesting conversation, and I bring no ancillary benefits, like knowing how to fix plumbing problems or something.  You scratch my back, and I’ll…ask you scratch it again in a few days.  And so I constantly rely on the kindness of others, hoping two things.  First, that the people of whom I ask favors understand this situation.  Surely they’ve been in it before, and now it’s their turn to pass it forward.  Second, I hope they feel like me when someone asks me for a favor: a little bit flattered.  When an undergraduate asks me to write a letter, I usually blush a little — “Aww, shucks, you want help from li’l ol’ me?”  It not only feels good to help someone out, but there’s a certain realization of power; the request for a favor reminds me that I do have some influence, however small.  And that sensation — of power? — can go a long way, at least for me.

The Idealized Life of an Academic

I’ve decided to pursue the idealized life of an academic for the next week or so.  An imaginary construction, the Life of an Academic is a conglomeration of ideas about academia from people with real jobs, pre-graduate school students, and geezers in the Ivory Tower who fantasize about the good ‘ol days.  It looks something like this:

  • Get out of bed late, then fetch your coffee from either a friendly barista or an expensive espresso machine in the kitchen.
  • Spend an hour reading the New York Times, preferably in the confines of a mahogany-clad at-home office.
  • Muse for an hour or so, perhaps about your latest writing project, or nothing in particular.   The State of the World, maybe, which is surely in dire need of your wisdom and guidance.
  • Write for a bit.  On a typewriter, if at all possible, or at most on minimalist word processing software.
  • Afternoon: take a short lunch, then write some more for a little while, but spend a lot more time reading wonderful history books and the occasional journal, if necessary.  And when the brain is absolutely fried, finally get around to grading some papers.
  • Evening: read some more, and maybe draft up an op-ed on this-or-that.

We’ll see how much real work I get done over the course of the next seven days.  My guess: not much.


So...that was interesting.

Last Thursday, I (apparently) took a bit of a knock to the head while mountain biking, and ended up with a concussion, a ride in an ambulance, some time in the ER, and about ten stitches.  I don’t remember the crash itself — there’s a gap between a memory of me thinking, “gee, I’m going pretty fast” and the next memory of me moaning for help.  Thank God I was (a) wearing my helmet, which now has a nice little crack in it (plus a bit of blood for effect) and (b) riding with friends, who were ahead of me, but were thoughtful enough to turn around and look for me when I didn’t catch up with them.  They called the ambulance, woke me up, kept me from going into shock too terribly bad, etc.  Everyone was stellar: the EMTs, the emergency room doctor, resident, and nurses (well, except one nurse — Steve — who didn’t share my concern about the blood gushing out of my knee), and my spouse, who kept it together in the ER despite the disturbing image of me strapped into a neck brace and back board.  CT scan and X-ray were fine; in fact, the only long-term damage is a chipped tooth.  And my confidence, of course — I’m sure I’ll be a bit gun-shy the next time I go riding, which, I’ve been instructed, will not be for a few weeks.

One of the memories I do have from the accident is talking to my friend about my dissertation while waiting for the ambulance.  My friends were checking my cognitive functions, and they decided to ask about my work.  To which I thought: “Shit, that’s hard enough when I’m totally awake!”  I mumbled something about the topic and the time period, but I don’t think I generated a thesis statement.  And that’s too bad, because wouldn’t it have been awesome to come up with a great thesis while coming out of a concussion?  Now that’s a good way to introduce a book.

Unfortunately, this has put me a bit behind.  I meant to have my last chapter sent off this week, but I don’t think that will happen.  I also want to get a panel proposal ready for the ASEH, which is due this Friday.  And there’s some summer school grading and this and that and the other thing.  On top of it all, it still feels a little weird to look at the computer screen and type.  There’s a slight disconnection there, and it’ll probably take some time to heal.

Crazy stuff.

Life Gets in the Way: Do Advisors Get That? Do I?

I’ve made diddly-squat progress on my dissertation over the last couple of months.  A lot of that is my own fault — mostly by choosing instant gratification through teaching, housework, blogging, etc. instead of writing — but I blame some of it on extra-curricular events, a.k.a. Life.  The holidays, of course, take up some time, and the Thanksgiving-to-NYE period always leads to a slow-down in graduate productivity.  But then there’s big stuff: my spouse getting laid off, and, just last week, the death of my best friend’s dad.  The latter has taken up all of my time, and rightly so: offering what pathetic help I can to my friend, traveling to the funeral to speak and be a pallbearer, and reflecting on it all.  It’s hard to get my brain and energy into my dissertation, and I wonder to what extent my advisor gets that.  My advisor is an uncommonly decent and very understanding person, and I know that my advisor would sympathize with and even share in my sorrow.  But my advisor also (a) wants me to get done and get a job and (b) works in the rarefied and weird air of Research-I academia, where the point of life is to produce scholarship.  I can’t help but wonder if, deep down somewhere, there’s a part in my advisor that wants to say, “Suck it up, slacker.  Get the work done.”

This speaks not to my advisor — who, again, is empathetic and kind and would never say such a thing — but to my own insecurities.  I constantly wrestle with my fears that I’m not good enough for this project, that I’m not good enough for my discipline, and that I’m not good enough for my advisor.  I’m not alone among graduate students in this insecurity (I refer you to kungfuramone’s life saga), and that helps to know.  It may, in fact, be necessary to feel this way in order to get through graduate school — to push and push and push so as to silence, even for a second, that voice of doubt inside the head.  But this can also produce distortions in perspective that aren’t just weird (e.g. absent minded professors who bump into trees while walking with their noses in books) but also, perhaps, immoral and inhuman.  If, in the face of death, I worry about the progress on my dissertation, then surely something has gone a bit haywire in my spiritual coding.

I suppose this could all be neatly summarized as: don’t lose your perspective when in graduate school or academia.  But I’m feeling something more on the edges — that, perhaps, through the weirdness of graduate school, dissertation writing, advisor relationships, etc., we have the opportunity to reflect on how our life fits with our work and vice-versa.  I know that’s an inelegant way to end this post, but there it is.

The Long Farewell To Grad School Friends

Last weekend, my spouse and I took a trip back to Grad School Town.  Since moving hundreds of miles away from campus a few years ago, we’ve made a few such visits so that I could meet with advisers and see the good friends we made during the two years we lived in town.  But those trips have become increasingly less frequent: about six in the first year away and two last year.  And this trip was, in all likelihood, our last.  It’s getting to that stage in the graduate school journey, and it’s more than a little sad.

Of course, it shouldn’t be unexpected.  You go into graduate school knowing that you and the rest of your cohort won’t be there forever — or shouldn’t be.  But you make friends, anyway, because you’re human and because these people are weird just like you.  You can talk about Marx and your funding anxieties and your love-hate relationship with your adviser and your dreams for yourself and for the profession.  And these people get it in a way that your family, your non-academic friends, and sometimes even your significant other, just don’t understand.  It’s a precious and, I think, unique relationship.  My friendship with my teaching colleagues is similar, I suppose, but there are other dynamics at work — families at home, professional aspirations, the need to put up appearances of expertise and confidence.  The great thing about graduate school friendships — when they’re good friendships — is that you can all be vulnerable and naive together.

And it’s sad when the inevitable break-up begins.  My cohort is entering year five, and while no one (I think!) is actually going to finish in what is supposed to be our last year, we’re slowly trickling away towards our own destinies.  My departure was a bit on the early side, but others have since followed: for extended research stays outside the country, for the opportunity to be close to a far-away spouse, etc..  And the process is now accelerating; a dear friend in the department is leaving for South America for at least two years, while other friends are applying for fellowships and grants that will take them away for a long time, if not for good.  Soon, we will have all scattered to the four winds.

It’s not the end of our friendships, of course.  I’ll see people at conferences, stay in touch with e-mail and the BookFace, and probably schedule vacations around friends (sunny South America is January sounds pretty good…).  My spouse and I have even talked about some day, 8-10 years down the line when I have tenure (!) and a sabbatical, we’ll load the kids in an RV and cruise around the hemisphere, staying with grad school friends at various idyllic college towns.  And I, in fact, do think that will happen.

But we probably won’t be all in the same room again.  Which is why I’ll always remember last weekend.  Everybody came out for one last round of beers together, one last chance to laugh about the ridiculousness of grad school together, one last time to encourage each other to stay after it, no matter how hard.  That’s what makes grad school so great, and what makes it so hard to leave.

Scared of the Scoop

Something I never expected: to be scared that someone would steal my dissertation topic.

I recently (okay, not too recently–a year ago, in fact) changed my topic–a massive change, actually, with only the smallest of threads connecting my new topic to the old.  The change came after an enthusiastic late-evening call from my adviser, who suggested that I consider this new topic because it hadn’t been done before, it’s a contained narrative, the sources are there, and it connects with a couple of the broader themes that I’m interested in (namely, the Cold War and late-60s/early 70s American liberalism).  This new topic also happens to have a bit more funding- and job-getting opportunities than my former, much more regionally-focused, work.  In short, it’s pretty much perfect.

I’m therefore scared to death that someone else is going to pick up this topic before I do.  Or, worse yet, that someone already is working on it, and I just haven’t met her yet.  Two people in my cohort started a project and headed off to the archives, only to find some other graduate student already hard at work and much further along in the project.  Horrible.  There have been a few results of this for me:

  1. I’m deliberately vague about my work for fear of someone stealing the idea.  This includes even to close friends in the field, and extends to this blog.  Which sucks, because I’d really like to get your ideas on this thing.
  2. Whenever I see an article or book that seems related to my topic, my heart skips a beat, I lose a little breath, and then my brain goes into panic along these lines: Oh, shit, someone scooped me.  What will I do now?  I suppose I could go back to my old topic.  Or drop out.  Yeah, maybe I should just do that.  I’m done for as a historian.  It’s over; time to go back to the tech world.  But that’s no good, because there are no jobs there.  What about the mortgage?  What about my dog?  What will she eat?  What will I eat? You get the idea.
  3. I’ve gained a bit more insight into just how fucked-up this business is.  See point #2.

Naturally, there’s nothing to be done but keep moving forward, hoping that I’m moving fast enough.  But it feels so damned slow sometimes.

Your Advisor: Just Not That Into You

One of the more depressing moments in a grad student’s life is when she figures out that she is simply not all that important to her advisor, at least compared to how important/influential the advisor is to her.  I–and I’m betting other grad students do this, too–idolize my advisor, and for good reason.  He’s written a brilliant book and finishing an even better one; he’s been published in academic as well as public-intellectual-type journals; he’s kind of famous, both in and out of acadame.  And I found out last week that my absolutely favorite historian, the Grand Poobah of my field, assigns my advisor’s book.  My first reaction was: AWESOME!  I’m that guy’s advisee!  Me!  And then I thought: who cares? I mean, who really gives a shit?  Certainly not the Grand Poobah or his students or their advisors or their other students or people who read journals or book editors or hiring committees.  And, sadly, probably not my advisor, either.  Not that he’s insensitive or mean; to the contrary, he’s probably one of the nicest people in this business.  But the fact of the matter is that I do absolutely nothing for him or his career.  I haven’t got my shit together and published the book and three articles I promised I would.  Hell, I haven’t even moved along in the program as fast as I thought/said I would.  All I am is a time-drain for him.  And it makes me feel like I did in junior high: the geeky fat kid who chummied up to the nice cool kid, who let me hang around out of pity.  What an icky feeling.