Friday, 6 May 2011 § 2 Comments
All But Dissertation. (Or, in the re-wording of a friend, All But Dead.)
You say Masters, I say Mistress. This is what a mistress of history looks like:
After the exams, I invited some fellow historians to my
adviser’s office for a little drink. Eileen brought a fabulous hat from the theater shop, which will make a repeat appearance at tomorrow evening’s Harlequin Romance themed party.
The weird thing about these exams, and that I guess nobody can ever know until they’re over, is that the anticipation is so much worse than the actual exam is. The couple of days before my orals were hellish. I went through approximately a third of a box of tissues. I re-read my essays and chased down citations and rehearsed answers to questions I imagined might be posed to me. I frantically re-read notes on Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg and the Bourbon restoration and the 1905 Revolution and Flaubert. I read book reviews for some of the books I skipped. And I cried. A lot.
And then the exam came. I wore my ass-kickin boots. There were moments that really sucked. The Absolute Professor asked me one question that I really should have known the answer to — it’s [apparently] crucial for my dissertation. And I had no. godforsaken. idea. what the answer was. She said something to the effect of, “I can’t believe you don’t know this.” I hung my head in shame. We moved on. There were other moments where I felt totally in control. There were a few where I was frustrated by what was going on but knew it wasn’t actually about me. And there were even a couple of really funny moments. Like when I was sort of fumbling a question, and one of the people on my committee, who is fabulous and was clearly thinking along with me, made a comment about an idea she had. The Absolute Professor turned to her and said, “[that prof’s name]! You already have your PhD! Keep your mouth shut!” It was hilarious.
And so anyhow, we spend three years in reverent dread of these exams. And then they happen. And then they’re over. Weird. Maybe the worst part is knowing that you won’t fail, but still feeling like maybe you actually deserve to. I said this to a professor yesterday, and he said anyone worth their salt feels that way. Which is sort of reassuring, I guess.
The Barefoot Rooster became a mistress of history today, too. This is what the lush life of mistresses looks like:
And this is what te world looks like:
Sunday, 1 May 2011 § 2 Comments
Debut, les damnés de la terre!
Nous ne sommes pas les forçats de la faim. Parce que nous avons brunché. (Seriously? How can the French not have a word for “to brunch?”)
Oh hai! I’m back. I finished my last written exam last Wednesday night and have been a slothful wretch ever since. I was doing that thing where you hide under a rock with your elbows out and have ’60s protest music playing on endless repeat. (You mean you don’t ever do that?) So I invited my buddies over for May Day Brunch this morning.
It was the absolute best way a person could spend a May morning. This week instead of baking my bread dough into loaves, I rolled it out into a half-sheet pan, retarded it in the refrigerator, and stamped out english muffins. I couldn’t find my round cookie cutters, so I used flowers. Clearly. (Then the Barefoot Rooster reminded me that canning jar lids work very well when one can’t find cookie cutters, so I made some round ones, too.)
I used these to recreate my favorite breakfast sandwich from a restaurant in Providence: toasted english muffin, olive tapenade, goat cheese, roasted red pepper, griled tofu. Mmmmmm.
Anyhow, socialism and socializing: perfect post-exam-funk remedy.
My oral exam is this Thursday, and while I meant to spend the intervening week preparing — I just can’t bring myself to. I definitely put at least two books I haven’t read on the syllabi I wrote for two of the exams, so I figure I probably ought to read them. But oh gosh. My eyes are still bloodshot from the last few weeks. I ran into an anthro comrade a few times in the wee small hours at the library last week, and each time he asked if I was okay, because it looked like I had been crying. And — at least directly before those encounters — I hadn’t! But I’ll have to force my eyes to read again soon, at least to review what I wrote, I guess.
And so what have I been doing in my slothful days? Knitting! I’ll post a picture tomorrow once I weave in the ends, but, inspired by the lovely Eileen’s shrug, I knit a similar one. Because (I can’t believe I’m admitting this) I’ve decided what dress I’m wearing to my orals, and it’s sleeveless! And any southern lady worth her pearls knows that you don’t go to places of worship or places of work with bare shoulders; it just ain’t fittin. So I knit a little sweater-ish thingie to go with it. Gender: ur performin it right, lulz.
Thursday, 21 April 2011 § 1 Comment
When I finally sat down and worked out when I would take my
godforsaken, hateful exams, my planning had mainly to do with spacing them out with enough time between the respective rounds to cram in as much reading as possible. Also, Mercury is in retrograde until 23 April, which, if you’re a Gemini like me, is particularly bad news. And yet, as the math fell, my second exam, and the one I’m most worried about, still fell within the retrograde: it’s tomorrow.
As I inked that into my calendar, I realized with horror: that’s Good Friday. Now, I was raised catholic, but my catholicism has lapsed into a healthy heresy (when I had surgery last autumn, the admitting nurse asked what my religion was; I told her, “Marxist.” She said, “Okay, I can put that.” “There’s a box for that?!” “No, but I can write it in.” “Well, I’m not an orthodox Marxist…”). Exhibit 2: My post-it-note prayer shrine.
The way it works is this: I draw pictures of my (and other people’s) intentions on post it notes, pop them beneath the blessed virgin, and she usually works her magic. The top picture is of me passing my exams. Other prayers in there include job market success for friends, good mammogram/biopsy results for a family member, and funding requests (because the sweet baby jesus is more forthcoming with that stuff than our department sometimes).
But still: it seems like taking an exam literally the day and hour the christian world marks the murder of their messiah is bad news (book plug: read Paul Verhoeven’s Jesus of Nazareth. It’s brilliant and snarky and so fun to read, and I imagine much better than Pope Benny’s book of the same title.). And Mercury in retrograde to boot! So I called my Auntie M, who is a a very liberal sort-of-catholic — the kind who likes the mysticism of the church but thinks the moral of the story is that Jesus pretty much just wants us to love everyone and make love not war. She assured me that instead of inviting god to smite me dead, taking the exam on Good Friday is in fact the epitome of the lenten experiment: taking on and reflecting on the suffering of christ. And oh, will this exam be sufferance. And I very well may descend into hell, but then there’s that whole rising again on the third day — just in time for my last exam — bit. (Have y’all seen the new order of the mass? “Consubstantial with the father?” Farewell, Vatican II.)
Luckily, Auntie M, who has really gone above and beyond in sustaining and supporting me mentally, spiritually, and heretically throughout this exam season, has sent me a couple of very helpful apotropaics in the mail. Not pictured: the maxwell house passover hagadah, a card with a nun (a beloved family trope). And this “prayer rug”:
It contains instructions (the fine print on the bottom, if you will) to kneel on the rug and look into Jesus’ eyes, which appear to be closed, “But as you continue to look, you will see His eyes opening and looking back into your eyes.” It’s a holy magic eye! And, as luck would have it, I got one of these sent to my house directly from the church that sent them out, too!
The envelope contains a prayer that Jesus will “bless someone in this home spiritually, physically, and financially,” “make changes in this one’s life and give them the desires of their heart,” as well as instructions that you’re supposed to kneel on the prayer rug, check off your prayers on a card, and mail it all back to them — because “this very old church loans this to you, to bless someone connected with this home. Then it must go to another family that desire’s God’s blessings.” The lesson: blessings work according to the logic of chain letters.
Anyhow, today’s Maundy Thursday, which was always my favorite day in the liturgical calendar. I do not like feet, but I think the washing of the feet was probably closer to the radical message of love and forgiveness than anything else I ever learned in church. Also, my favorite song in the entire catholic hymnal is one of the two songs that’s almost always sung during the washing of the feet: Ubi Caritas. No mass for me tonight, though, on account of needing to re-read Origins of Totalitarianism and a chapter from Sex After Fascism. Also, colloquium interferes, and I’m footnoted in this week’s paper, a kind and also kind of hilarious gesture from a friend. So maybe that’s sort of like the washing of the feet.
I hope all these sacraments return me to some sort of state of grace, because y’all, I’m despairing, and we all know that despair is one of the deadly sins. These exams are making me crazy. And even though I know the crazy will pass, it’s actually sort of hard to believe it. Because all the hoops I’ll spend the rest of my career jumping through will make me this kind of crazy, too. And when I read discussions like this over at the ever-brilliant Tenured Radical, I can’t help but wonder whether the argument of Prof. X’s book (basically, higher education is wasted on some people [an argument elitist, nihilistic, and dubious and problematic at best in his formulation]) isn’t more applicable to grad school, and maybe I just am just a massive waste of resources. Luckily, I know that now is not the time to make rash decisions. So, with that, and knowing that it is not through grace alone that we are saved in the academic world, I return to my studying. Go: be the salt; be the light, and I’ll see y’all on the other side of exam #2.
Friday, 15 April 2011 § 4 Comments
Briny. Pitted. Dark.
Anyhow, I wrote a whole long post processing the first round of exams, but it was the sort of dark and whiny and wallowingly despairing thing that, at second thought, is not really meant for public consumption. (Insert big melodramatic sigh)
On the upside, I guess, instead of drowning my despair in alcohol, I’ve sublated it through stress baking. Two nights ago after I decided to give up on comprehending anything I was reading, I whipped up a batch of — wait for it — olive biscuit cookies. At first you might think, “quoi? Olive cookies?” But just run with it. They’re the perfect grown-up cookie: a mix of savory and sweet; a little pouty but also indulgent.
I didn’t bake them off that night because I didn’t think any of my cookie cutters were up to the task. I stopped by the kitchen gadget store on my way to campus yesterday, though, and found the PERFECT one:
Yes, dear readers, that is a screwdriver. For Screw This cookies. The end result:
Yeah, sure, they look a little wonky. I blame the olives (which in turn blame me for not chopping them finely enough). And is it not fitting that I sort of screwed up my screw this cookies? (nb: Heidi over at 101cookbooks suggests baking them for 12-ish minutes for little tiny cookies; my screwdrivers wanted closer to 17)
I wish I had time to muse more over the semiotics of screw this cookies, but alas: time to conquer the day and the reading list. With a screwdriver.
Sunday, 10 April 2011 § 2 Comments
Have no self-control? There’s an app for that! No, seriously, there is: it’s called Freedom, and it only costs 10 cashdollars. I’m using it to sequester myself pretty much around the clock as I write this first exam. Also, I’ve picked a name for the chair of my committee, the adviser for this first field: The Dubious Oracle. People who know me/him in real life, does this seem fitting? (And is it too obvious who he is?)
Anyhow, the experience of writing this exam is disconcertingly surreal, and is something that I will process at greater length later. I’ve been having a lot of those “what the hey-nally am I doing” moments, and unsurprisingly, they don’t really help when one is trying to write a syllabus. All this to say, I’ve spent entirely too much time fantasizing about my alternate life plans. One of them is just to marry rich and become a trophy wife (again, more on that another time). Another, and likely more viable one, is to live in a VW Bus at the dog beach at Ocean Beach in San Diego. I stumbled upon this plan when I was visiting my older brother there during the AHA last winter, and it seemed like a really good idea. Like something I could manage. I’m not even much of a dog person, but still — it seemed appropriate. (The not-funny backdrop to this story is that I was very seriously considering dropping out of my program because I was so. godforsaken. unhappy. On the lighter side, part of my criteria for what I wanted in my ideal life involved being closer to the sea. I first considered becoming a pirate. Said brother: “Pirates are terrible people.” Said I [choosing not to make reference to the excellent Marxist historiography on pirates to my military law enforcement brother]: “No, not the Somali/boat hijacking/killing people kind. More like the yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum and sea shanties kind.” “I don’t think they’re hiring.” “Damn.”) Piracy thus rendered untenable, voila: VW Bus.
My obsession with that escapist fantasy was intensified when I stumbled upon the blog I Live In My Van. I don’t know him — I found the link through another blog — but this man is pretty much my hero. Last year he was denied tenure and then had his house burn down. And so he’s taking his insurance cash-out, moving himself and his dog into a VW Westfalia, and goin’ drivin’ for a while. He has emerged from the scenario that for most of us is our worst nightmare and is literally living out my wildest dream.
I’m saving the files for this first exam as “VW” and “dog beach.” I’ll change them before I send them to The Dubious Oracle.
UPDATED TO ADD: This tumblr makes me really. happy. and also assuages some of my ideal-life fantasies. Oh hai kitteh!
Friday, 8 April 2011 § 1 Comment
Colloquium went really well yesterday! Not least, I think, because I wore my ass-kickin’ boots:
(Also, the game only really progressed into its earliest stages. I was distracted by the pesky necessity of fielding questions, and by the time I worked up the nerve to go for it, I didn’t trust myself not to break into a fit of giggles. And you know, that just ain’t fittin’ when you’re talking about Nazis.)
And I’m on such a roll — and so. desperate. for part of my exams to be over — that I’m starting them… tomorrow. I wasn’t going to start writing until late next week, but I think this will be like a pressure release. I hope, anyhow. The first round, for my major field, is a 3-day, 3 part exam, the components of which I’ve known for some time. (As in, since I was a prospective student.) So here goes!
My sweet friend Barefoot Rooster, as some of you know, is knitting the funkiest, coolest shawl during her exams. At first I had planned on not knitting during mine — I’m too easily distracted even on a good day. (This is why I sit on a balance ball when I write; it alleviates my need to get up and fidget and fuss.) But then I decided… why punish myself? It will be good for me to have something to do with my hands while I step away from my impassioned argument that not only does Hannah Arendt advance a philosophy of history, she does so in a way that is useful for intellectual historians. So today I cast on my exam project:
Best part? The leaf detail is in a skein of handspun yarn the Rooster gave me for my birthday last year! I had been saving it for something good; this is fitting, no? Also, this will keep me from my other fall-back break activity, which would have been obsessive checking of the government-meltdown-news-orgy. And y’all, I just cannot abide that clusterf*ck.
So! Off to enjoy the Last Supper, if you will (shaved asparagus pizza nom nom nom), and maybe do some paper journaling to the effect of “ohmygodicantbelievethisdayishere.” You know. The usual.
Sunday, 20 March 2011 § 1 Comment
In knitting, there’s this delightful term that belies the frustration of realizing a project is FUBAR: Frogging. It’s a play on the near-homophone when we say we’re going to “rip it apart.” Get it — rip it? Ribbit? Frog? Anyhow, when you decide that, for whatever reason, a piece is not to be salvaged, you frog it. Perhaps you’ll start over on the same project using your reclaimed yarn, perhaps it’ll be used for something entirely different.
Yesterday I saw a student from my year — not in my program, but also about to start her comprehensive exams — post on facebook something to the effect of, “I wish I could take everything I know now, go back to August 2008, and start all over.” I was about to “like” the statement, but then paused. To be fair, I paused trying to decide if I actually like-liked the statement, or whether it was more worthy of something like, “Amen, sister,” in the comments. (Darn you, Mark Zuckerberg, for only allowing me to “like” rather than “sympathize” or “agree” or “hear what you’re saying.” Why, WHY must you narrow the spectrum of my e-affect?) But anyhow, I was trying to figure out how to affirm what she had said and realized: I don’t.
On the surface, I agreed with the sentiment: If I had known three years ago what I know now; if I had had different strategies in reading and studying; if I had better foreseen where my interests would lead me; if I had had a different framework for deciding what was important and what wasn’t; if, if, if — then maybe these exams I’m staring down wouldn’t seem so daunting. Maybe it would feel like there had been a little more coherence, a little more direction, a lot more discipline to my approach to graduate school (or at least course work). Maybe I wouldn’t lie awake at night thinking about all the days or weeks or projects that felt like utter false starts, wondering if I will have made up for them or whether, because of those wasted few weeks in my first year of graduate school, I am completely. and. utterly. screwed. Maybe I wouldn’t feel such turbulent anxiety about all this. (Though honestly? Knowing me? I probably would, anyhow.) Maybe.
Since in general in life we don’t get mulligans, and since none of us would WANT to have to go through a second shot at our comprehensive exams, it’s sort of a moot point. But let’s pretend that we could — would we actually want to? Would we want to frog the project, soak and dry the yarn, wind it again, and cast on the project anew? Maybe make a sweater instead of a shawl, or maybe just not screw up the shawl so badly this time? I dare say — in the case of the graduate school project — no. The knee-jerk reaction is simple — for me, at least. My second year here was hands-down the worst year of my life. I was soul-crushingly and abjectly miserable, and I would not want to relive that year for anything in the world, thankyouverymuch. “But wait!” the reader objects. “You can frog out all the misery of that year, too!” Hm… maybe. I’m not sure. But still. I think at the end of the day — or, more precisely, at the end of the third year — the false starts have been part of (wait for it!) the process. (Why yes, this is a normative claim, and yes, I am trying convince myself of this as I write!) Perspective comes hard-earned, and while I wish this experience felt less like a medieval Ordeal or auto-da-fé sometimes, it isn’t exactly supposed to be easy. And I’m pretty sure that even if we had started with MAs in hand — the closest it gets to starting the PhD process with already-earned graduate school wisdom — other things would still kind of suck sometimes.
So, yeah. If I could go back and counsel first-year Ethel Louise, I would urge myself to read The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy a little more carefully the first time through. I would tell myself to follow my instinct and not bother with that trainwreck of a research paper my first year. But really, I doubt younger me would listen to older me. She’s one stubborn little pipsqueak. And anyhow, if she hadn’t agreed to present a second colloquium paper in her second year and then scrambled to pull it together and finally presented it, she wouldn’t have stumbled unwittingly onto her dissertation project. So there.
I think what I hear my colleague saying — and this is the part that resonates with me — is, “I wish I felt more confident about this.” And to that, amen. I wish this didn’t feel so awful sometimes. I wish my mind didn’t spend frantic moments harping on what in retrospect seem to have been wasted time and missed opportunities. I wish I felt a little more (okay, a lot more) confident heading into this — that my confidence didn’t feel like a facade. I wish I didn’t have to wrest myself constantly from this vicious cycle of guilt-anxiety-panic-paralysis. And so I’m trying to absolve myself of that guilt and redirect that energy to things like, oh, I don’t know, Franz Fanon.
“I wish I could take everything I know now, go back to August 2008, and start all over.” “I wish I felt more confident about this.” Mark Zuckerberg, why won’t you give me a button that lets me “kind of like, but more of a qualified like, because it’s really more along the lines of empathizing with a certain reading of what I hear you saying while also showing solidarity and support”? Is that really too much to ask??