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.

Composition and Contagion and Decomposition

What do I even say? As Costco sends me the nine-millionth email featuring products I either don’t need or they don’t have and the sheer volume of “How We Are Dealing with the BLAH BLAH BLAH” emails would be overwhelming if complaining about didn’t focus on the unimaginable privilege I have at my own situation and how fortunate I am to be safe.

It’s been hard to write. That’s why this daily blog is on episode three after a month. I wanted to chart what I did, how I changed teaching, how I adjusted my lessons, but that would assume I had an idea in the first place. After only two years of teaching I realize that I’m not a very good planner or syllabus maker and that since I teach a discussion-based composition course, I have been largely relying on the charisma and charm.

And I ain’t all that charming.

I am thankful that I’ve decided my major field for my comprehensive exams will focus on composition and rhetoric as there is so much I have to learn. So much I have to understand about teaching and lesson design. In fact, I was excited to drop $250 on the Digital Pedagogy Lab this summer, but when I realized that was per course, I had to say no. There’s no way I’m going to ask for funding when some of my peers have just lost their summer funding. I’ll follow the speakers, take a look at the free events, and get to know some of the recent journals on the subject. I may need that money.

The struggle with writing though has infused every project. Sometimes I can fall back on research, reading over journal articles and chapters, or, as is more likely, hoarding more texts that I’ll never get a chance to read or skim but will languish in my citation manager among the 2,300+ sources that I have and haven’t used over the years. Forcing myself to writing this post is an exercise in breaking through that anxious block we’ve all been dealing with. Having a writing group helps, work/writing sprints gets some words on the page. Cutting myself off with research also helps me shift gears.

Look how happy she is. I bet she gets her stuff in on time.
(Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels)

The biggest burden is feeling as if I can’t completely immerse myself in my work while at home. I haven’t shaken the need to keep an ear out for trouble. My noise-canceling headphones sit charging, unused. There are things I’m listening for, but rarely hear. Things I hear but rarely need to intervene. It’s only been within the last two weeks that I’ve felt comfortable just shutting the door to my office when not in a Zoom session.

This is progress.

For now, I think I’ll just keep plugging, checking off little things on my to-do list (the big projects broken down in order to gain momentum) and worry less about productivity and more about process. As a composition teacher I want to be about the processes: the process of reading and thinking and writing and discussing. This time requires us to renegotiate our process on a daily (if not hourly) basis and that flexibility, I think, will surely be helpful in the long run. The product is just the record of work done.

The process is the reward.

A Playground Metaphor for Jumping In

Once again I have been allowed to use a metaphor. This is what happens when you won’t give me a megaphone.

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.