The Myth of Academic Leisure

Every semester will be different, yet every semester is the same. With all due respect to the Charlie Foxtrot that is the Spring of Covid-19 I think it’s time to disrupt the myth that a life in graduate school is one of relaxed reading, occasional writing, and laid-back teaching. I don’t know who needs to hear this…wait, I do. It’s me. I need to hear this, and I need to hear it from my own, lying mouth.

It’s a joke I have made several times in the past, to various graduate classmates. “Every semester we say, ‘This semester will be different!’, and by week three, we’re back to our usual selves.” The hope I bring to the start of semester, the desire to start early and work toward big projects a little every day, all disappear like mist as I struggle to keep up with the reading and chase down a million different research interests, not a single one tied with my current classes. By the end of the semester the ambitious scope of big projects have been scaled down to “what I can get done now” and, within recent years, the idea of taking an Incomplete becomes a real possibility. Ever since entering graduate school in 2016 it’s been the same, though, I admit, the incompletes only happened while working on my PhD. Looking back, I have no idea how I actually wrote a thesis and completed my M.A. on time. It’s almost like that Heather is a completely different person.

There have been some outside obstacles since joining my PhD program — none of them school related and I’m not going to go into them in this post. That’s for another time. However, the mental energy pool from which I used to pull my focus seems all but depleted these days. Perhaps because I’m getting older (planning to make it to my 50th birthday in December) or perhaps because this fall will be my seventh year in academia (two years to finish my B.A., two for the M.A and two to get through my coursework before comp exams). I’ve never held a job for longer than 8 years or so. Could this be the seven-year itch?

Nah. I love teaching too much. I love researching too much. I love talking about weird shit with people and talking about writing with students and telling kids, for the first time, what great writers they are. Man, that’s a feeling that’s hard to be, I tell ya. So no. It’s not the itch. It’s not the Covid. It’s not the zoom. It’s me.

I spent way too long playing with Zoom backgrounds.

All my workarounds, rough-hewned, jerry-riggings, MacGyveritierations cannot save me anymore. As we near the drop-deadline of the end of the semester, I’m hurting more and more and, to be fair, I’m still one of the lucky ones. I’m not necessarily looking at an uncertain future or trying to teach kids while worrying about rent. I’ve got it good in the scheme of things. My biggest battle (possibly) is with my brain and, land-sakes, is it fighting with me now.

(This took a turn into the neuro-diverse space. And while, yes, I agree with you and yes, I will look into it, I think there is a larger conversation to be had, if I could just refocus and have it. Dammit.)

The thing is, I never seem to be able to achieve that leisurely pace**: writing a couple of hours a day, reading after teaching, taking some color-coded notes into a leather journal. The real work of academia is much faster and grungy. As the semester moves on you start bargaining between primary and secondary readings. You find ways to teach articles that you haven’t had a chance to read yourself. Writing becomes an aggressive act the night before a deadline. Professional development? I don’t know her.

The woman I do know tries, she tries real hard to get it right each time. She fails (I’m sensing a theme this week) every semester, but she keeps trying. Maybe this summer will be different and I’ll work on side projects and writing and reading for my exams. Maybe I’ll take some time off and get some projects done around the house that will make my life a little less stressful. Maybe I can take this time of self-isolation (which is default for me anyway) and be productive on my own terms. Maybe maybe maybe.

I have read so many productivity blogs, listened to so many productivity podcasts, that I am an expert on this stuff for other people. Teach me how to focus that onto my own life. Show me how I motivate myself. Give me the strength to stop writing this post and finish my projects.

My apologies for the lack of cohesive theme or narrative. You know me by now.

**I think the fantasies of academic leisure come from four sources: 1) people who feel themselves outside of the academic world and think summers off mean no work; 2) people who only exist in an academic world and have nostalgic memories of their grad school days; 3) people with MBAs; 4) white men.

Post-Ac-Life: Sleeplessness and Productivity

Last night a friend and I texted back and forth about the “waiting game.” All of our PhD applications are in and now it’s just a matter of sitting by while committees of people decide our fate. While texting, I was also checking out thegradcafe.com for information about wait times, acceptance/rejection ratios and general conversations about applying to graduate schools for Literature, Composition, and Rhetoric.

I had made the conscious decision not to check these forums before getting my applications together. That was both a wise and unwise decision.

Had I known that one of my schools only accepts one student with an outside M.A. I would have saved the money on the application. (A similar realization for my friend was what spurred our conversation in the first place.) Also, had I known about the terribly low stipend from another school (information not easily found on their website) I may have skipped that one as well. Foreknowledge is forewarned, I suppose, but at the time I was adamant to keep outside influence out of my decision process. Sometimes I forget that some influence is helpful. Lesson learned.

I’m not sure if that realization led to my sleeplessness last night. I can’t remember anything other than the general self-loathing and self-doubt that normally invades the bookends of my nightly unconsciousness, but dang if I didn’t have a heck of a time getting to sleepytown. I woke up at the usual “stupid-early” o’clock to the smell of coffee being brewed by the programmable coffee machine (my life, my love) and am strangely lacking in the normal exhaustion that would accompany a short bout of sleeplessness. I’m sure this will catch up with me later today.

In the meantime, I will be productive. I have freelance work to do, thankfully, and I’ve decided to create a bibliography of my own work over the last four years. Time and again I will come across a paper I wrote and think, “when did I do this?” Moving forward with other research interests is my priority, but I think it will be beneficial to take a look back on what interested me in the past. Perhaps I’m hoping to rekindle an old flame. Perhaps I’m just procrastinating.

Either way, I need to get words on the page today; different words on different pages. Let’s hope the coffee holds out.

The State of English Studies: Scatalogical Addendum

I occasionally wonder if I take my work seriously. Sometimes, when I’m researching or writing, I find the thread of a theme and I grab on for dear life, pulling, stretching, and, ultimately, tying myself up in knots. Then (and it always happens) I get a big “shit-eating” grin on my face and slice through everything like I’m Alexander the Great and my paper idea is the whole fucking world.

I never wonder if I take myself seriously. I do not, and sometimes, that comes through in my academic work. I worry that eventually someone will ask me, “are you making fun of what we do?”

Not really, but I can’t deny, that occasionally, I like to, as the French say, take a piss.

See, what we do in English studies is terribly important. The critical thinking necessary to navigate the sheer volume of rhetoric attacking our faces every day is mind numbing. From Twitter feeds to car commercials, the ability to evaluate intent and disregard manipulation has never been more important that it is today. Our current political environment is the result of two generations of voters ignorant of the psychological projection of half of our governing body.

I blame Freud, because fuck that guy.

But our job isn’t just deconstructing the morning news. Our job runs the breadth of human history. It is the job of telling a story, the entire story. We read, write, evaluate, deconstruct, disassemble, disrupt the full volume of narratives; from the first cave painting and the epic of Gilgamesh (the sexiest bromance ever told) to the latest fanfiction on Tumblr. And if we do our job, if we collect and combine and coalesce all the words, from all the worlds, and compress them into one knowable text, we must come to only one conclusion:

Humanity is ridiculous.

We expend huge amounts of labor in order to tell a story, to amuse each other, to fall in love, to gain something from another human being and those efforts pile up in papyrus and prints and still we haven’t learned how so silly we are. Innovation and invention have brought us to the brink of total destruction (and for many cultures, complete annihilation) and yet our greatest accomplishments accumulated over time add up to little more than a babbling of slightly intelligent monkeys shitslinging with words instead of actual shit.

Most of us.

So yes, what we do in English studies is important, and while we carry that responsibility let’s not forget we are a subset of those smart, shitty monkeys. We should not take ourselves so seriously we forget to turn our critical eye self-ward. We need to take a piss occasionally. Otherwise we will be standing on the edge of discourse, hopping like a juice-filled toddler, our intellectual filters slowly filling with poison before failing altogether.

Maybe that’s my role. Maybe I am the designated English Studies Piss Taker. I gladly wear that golden crown while I peruse the stacks for some great story to completely destroy with my mishandling of theory. Let it be me, monkeys, cause I’m good at it. And perhaps what I write will be a good story, and maybe it will entertain you.

Perhaps you’ll even fall in love.

Enyaraya!

While I was in Seattle, I got a chance to do a little research at the University of Washington. Their library is huge and intimidating, yet everyone was wonderfully accommodating. In their Special Collection area I was able to go through two volumes of Japanese school readers from 1908 and 1903. Near the end of my browsing, with unlimited enthusiasm but limited Japanese, I came across this scene (pictured above) from “Momotaro” in one of the katakana readers:

 

I reads (if I translated correctly):

The cart had treasure.
The dog pulled enyaraya.
The monkey pushed from behind enyaraya.
The pheasant pulled the rope enyaraya.

It’s a simple stanza that uses a familiar scene from a popular story to help children learn katakana (the syllabary used for foreign words or emphasis, as opposed to hiragana). And while I am a definite neophyte in translating, I came up against the phrase “enyaraya” and had no idea what to do with it. Was it an onomatopoeia? Was it an exclamation? What the heck (一体!)

Quick searching showed that it appears to be part of the Momotaro folk song, sort of a repetitive phrase at the end of the sentence. I liken it, in this instance, to a “heave ho” or “Let’s go.” Yet there’s still more research to do. Even in this four-sentence grade-school lesson, there is so much to learn. This story uses “enyaraya” in a way that I imagine is being depicted above in the illustration: “Upon the signal shout of “Enyaraya” by the float leader, the Naginata-hoko float, which is traditionally exempted from the ticket-drawing and fixed to the lead position of the parade, started from Shijo-dori Karasuma.

A good part of my thesis talks about this story, how it parallels events in history, how it was packaged specifically as children’s literature during the Meiji Restoration and how easily it was used as propaganda in an up-and-coming empire. I also discovered how “Momotaro” was one of the stories children had to rip out of their school readers during the Allied occupation after World War II.

As with many versions of the story, Momotaro, himself, doesn’t do much of the work here. With the help of his faithful dog, monkey, and pheasant pals, he is able to conquer the Island of Demons and return with all of their treasure. In some version the inhabitants are all killed, in others they merely promise to remain lawful. Sometimes the demons (oni) are cannibals, sometimes merely pillagers. Like all folk and fairy tales, their innocuous nature and proliferation allows for a myriad of reboots, each generation adding or subtracting what elements suit their current society. The details of Momotaro’s quest may change, but the Peach Boy persists.

 

 

A Playground Metaphor for Jumping In

Slides are scary.

Sometimes, it’s hard just to stand at the bottom of the ladder, looking up at your friend’s backside as it disappears into the summer sky. Then, there’s a hop, a bump and a screech as their ass hits the hot metal and they shed three layers of skin on their way down.

And then this crazy person comes back around to climb up and do it again.

You let them pass.

Here you are, at the bottom of the ladder, not even the fun part of the slide, looking up at the fun part. Never mind the hard macadam that surrounds the base of the slide, never mind the stench of burnt flesh as friend after friend has millimeters of their epidermis sizzled off like layers of Aqua Net on a curling iron.

They’re having fun and you’re too chickenshit to move.

See, the thing about slides is, you have to climb up. You have to put one foot above the other on the wrought steel, possibly stamped with your municipality name, more probably not. You have to haul your cowardly ass up and up and up until you’re standing atop a blazing tower of metal, buffed by the butts of heroes of the past.

You HAVE to do it, because right now, at the base of the ladder, you’re in everyone else’s way.

But the scariest part, the most terrifying, gut churning, knuckles to the knees, “Elizabeth I’m coming” moment is before you. It’s before you. It’s horrendous, it’s gob-smacking, it’s one thin parallel universe away from your first adult orgasm and it smells like fear.

It’s also brief.

Because as you sit there, butt squeezed in between the “safety” handles, sun baking down on your Mork and Mindy t-shirt, the weird ovals of worn chrome on the slide base laughing at you from below, you know that once you start, you won’t be able to stop.

Technically you could. You could thrust out your hands and feet and grip the edges of the slide and stop yourself mid-descent. You’ll shift hard with a squeak and a squawk and you’ll hike up your underwear so far into your “dark neighborhood” that you’ll never wear those Underoos again.

Sure, you could stop, but you’ll be in everyone’s way. Again. Worse this time.

See at the base of the ladder, you could just take a step back out of the way and play it off as consideration, courtesy, too-cool-for-the-kiddie-slide.

But, in the middle of the slide, you’ve got two choices. Do the long, embarrassing, butt-shift scoot back the top to the jeers of your friends and local wildlife?

Or slide.

Go.

Lies I Tell Myself: Week $$%#$@#

I had started with good intentions, truly. But like all things that crash and burn, the flame of inspiration is the start. As I’m nearing the end of my time in the Masters program, I am beginning to look forward: to a PhD program, to the GREs, to the continued deferral of my undergrad student loans.

I have also decided to aggregate my class posts under this one blog. From Introduction to English Studies, Indigenous Rhetoric and Postcolonial Studies, these three classes were outside the core of what I want to specialize in–late Victorian, non-traditional literature and fairy tales. Yet they provided me with a breadth of experience and stories that inform all of my work.

They are sometimes rough and rushed, blogging as an assignment not necessarily high on my list of desirable activities, in the end I realized I was underestimating the medium. The only difference between the handed-in response paper and the response blog post is access to readers, and there is where I found my weakness. I am the type of writer that usually writes with one reader in mind–what Stephen King calls his “ideal reader”–and had to rework my thinking for a larger audience.

It’s an important lesson, one that I learned early on for social media, that the medium you pick determines the shape of the message. It took a couple of semesters to transfer that worldview to my academic writing, but I think I’ve got a handle on it now.

More or less.

I’ll promise to blog more, but I’ll be separating them by interest. I plan to aggregate them in this blog, so if you’re so inclined, you won’t have to follow all of them. Or feel free to ignore this completely. You may be better off that way.

 

Lies I Tell Myself – Weeks 2 & 3

  • I will update my grad blog every week.
  • I will get all my reading done before the school week starts.
  • Using these principles, I bet I can revolutionize the way we teach English Comp.
  • I will not spend my first paycheck at Amazon.

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Lies I Tell Myself – Week 1

  • Oh, I’ll just breeze through this Joseph Campbell book.
  • I can get a lot of work done at the Writing Center
  • Three grad classes should be easier than six undergrad classes
  • I’ll make my lunch & dinner everyday. No more snack machine.

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