Tag Archives: dissertation

The Old College Try(ing)

The fiction reading list expands to fill the time allotted, then overflows: literary Great Stuff oozing through the cracks of the intellectual shack I’ve cobbled together. Great Stuff expands, fossilizes, resists whittling down. Okay. I’ll say it. I’d be an idiot not to postpone comps until fall. I’ve got ten weeks before the exam and my particular reading list is a string of electrons pinging between servers. Even an English major with dyscalculia can do that math.

Here’s what studying great literature at a public university involves nowadays. See how well this squares with the ideal Oxbridge tutorial, that Ivy League privilege-anxiety foremost in current anti-intellectual discourse, that “Dead Poets Society” cave scene before youth, freedom, and discovery expanded into a synthetic blob of backstabbing, suicide, and kangaroo committees.

First, I’m lucky because I’m fully funded through Year Six. This is the middle of Year Five. Twelve years was, until recently, not unheard of for doctorates in the humanities, although that’s the outer limit of one’s scholarly welcome. Now, we are being prodded to finish in half that time or less, as opposed to the seven-year norm. For grad students in the humanities, being fully funded entails teaching. In the current academic climate (everywhere, not just at my alma mater), that means we are responsible for planning, running, and grading multiple introductory sections. We also have to attend this meeting, that meeting, the other meeting, in a kind of dry run for tenure-track Valhalla. One thing you’ll get at my institution is professionalization in excelsis. I admit that’s a good thing. All that extracurricular training gives us a sliver of an advantage in the academic job market, which itself is pretty thin.

Teaching assistants’ take-home pay may be about 1/3 that of a convenience store manager, but tuition is on the house. To make ends meet, I gamble on the future: I take out student loans to cover the rest of my (well, actually, our) very modest living expenses and to pay for conference travel once, possibly twice, a year. The People’s Universities no longer pay for their graduate students to present at regional or national conferences, which is where grad students go for the elusive academic job interview. That’s because The People’s Universities everywhere function at the pleasure of elected state officials, many of whom think “the gubmint” (reminder: that’s you and me, folks, not them) shouldn’t pay for anything (but sweetheart-deal private contractors). What little money comes the grad students’ way trickles down through layers of administrators and warrens of managers, many of whom (but not all) manage the university as a private corporation, not as a public trust. When the annual budget cut or the mid-year budget cut strikes, as it always does, our non-degree-program workload increases. Academic trench warfare means holding the line for graduate funding while finding more ways to justify graduate students’ presence at The People’s Universities everywhere.

It’s been this way for over a decade. It reminds me far too much of the oil bust that interrupted my undergraduate studies in (hello) the early ’80s. I know what it means to work three crappy jobs and go to school full-time, or to work one real job all night and then go to school 2/3 time on the quarter system. I hardly lack motivation. I just want to finish my reading and get on with whatever’s next. High on the list: paying off my student loans and trying to mitigate all those years of lost income/retirement savings. I’m not 25. I’m not single. I have grown folks’ bills. I will never sell my soul, but I will sell my time to the highest bidder.

One hungers for the idealized graduate life of yesteryear. Did it ever exist? Whither the corduroy-elbowed denizens of library carrels? Whither library carrels, for that matter? I’m not sitting around smoking a pipe and debating the merits of Hemingway’s vs. Faulkner’s prose in the campus pub with my three closest pals. (Whither the campus pub?) I don’t smoke a pipe–I don’t smoke anything–but I remember, by proxy, how grad school was in the 1970s and 1980s. My mother was one of those housewives who went “back to school” and is now happily doctored, published, and tenured. I watched her study; I studied alongside her; sometimes I even helped her study by reading manuscripts aloud while she transcribed them. My father, who never finished college but has read more than anyone I know, was a muckraking journalist. My family, it seems, was not the norm. They let me play with typewriters. I watched the Vietnam War three times a day. They did not censor my reading. By the time I was ten, I had read Wordsworth’s poetry, The Tempest, and The Godfather (wedding party and horsehead and all), all of my own free will, and my mother had vouched for me with the librarian because I’d read just about every book in the kids’ section. I was also writing poems and stories from first grade on, producing and peddling my own magazines in elementary school, and binding books by junior high.

I never had a chance. I was doomed to be a writer, a reader, a thinker.

Where I do this is immaterial; that I do it is vital.

I say this using my fancy college words. But I also know about smoke-filled rooms and lying politicians and putting my bus money in my shoe and acting crazy on the street when a shifty-looking guy is about to mug me. I sought my first craft training in newsrooms, not workshops. Like my dad, I can and do read on my own time because reading is its own reward–just you and the (in)glorious mind on the page. Seems to me, though, that a university oughta be the best place to read a lot in a short time.

So here I am, mixed diction an’ all, dawl.

My street sense tells me The People’s Universities are getting mugged, conned, jumped, jacked, and hustled by the folks with the purse-strings. And they never, ever will say, “Okay, I’ve got enough money now. Here’s your temporary fee increase back. And let’s expand the arts programs. Those guys in the Sports Palace have enough. It’s time for Our Fair State to develop world-class writers.”

This is why I have taken a 1.5 graduate courseload while teaching a .5 FTE load (plus professionalization, teaching portfolios, tutoring portfolios, editing publications, serving on committees, presenting at conferences, publishing, and all that professory jazz). For folks keeping score at home, that’s the equivalent of two full-time jobs, not one. When I started, I looked at how many years of funding I was guaranteed. Then I counted backwards from there and took the required core as quickly as possible. I had planned to take a year to study for each comp exam and a year for the dissertation (only because I’ve written a master’s thesis and a book already, have had the concept in mind since before I applied, and have been picking at the research and planning in odd moments). Sure, I “lost” a year or so with “unnecessary” forays which are, in fact, completely necessary supplements of or complements to my research interests. I flog my “advanced” Spanish whenever I can. I took a doctoral-level ed psych. I took a master’s-level screenwriting class. I took Old English, because I believe no self-respecting English Ph.D. should escape at least the rudiments of Old English. I took various lit courses which I never got around to during the previous two degrees, nearly all of which count as requirements. Other than that, I’ve gone straight through with no break. I teach every summer. I do the “voluntary” work required, in light of budget cuts, to maintain my preexisting level of funding.

And Lord have mercy, I have to reread every freaking novel and craft treatise I’ve read in grad school and a handful more that I’ve heard of but never read, much less studied.

This is not going to happen between now and ten weeks from now.

Part of me says, “Oh, hell, you’ve read most of this stuff more than once or twice, even if it was in 1992. Or at least once in the past five years. Maybe you can go get a trot like everyone else (surely not everyone relies on trots–do they? Grad students?!. . .).”

My real self says, “No way. This is not a capsule plot recitation. You gotta deal with some bad mofos struttin’ around with all their kaleidoscopic plots hanging out. You have points of comparison to consider. Swann’s Way. Moby-Dick. Your boy García Márquez. And you’ve never gotten around to Midnight’s Children. Or Housekeeping. And you want to read Tres Tristes Tigres in translation. And the incremental perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a complexified equilibrium. And you need to make fresh notes on all of it. Girl, you might have enough time between now and October. Maybe.”

So after several e-mail exchanges with my fiction advisor, I think I’ll need to apply a little TV news horse-sense to the situation: Restack the show. Dedicate this semester to reading and note-taking, and to generating the working draft of the diss, which is the working draft of what I prematurely describe to all as “my real book”–meaning my over-48-page-minimum-for-full-poetry-collection-status-in-the-world book–and take the fiction exam this fall. It makes more sense. I have all kinds of strike-force research trips planned this spring and summer, and there’s no law against working on the diss before finishing both exams. Plus, I’m itchy-antsy to stay in poetry mode while I teach poetry this semester.

Because no one (well, almost no one) is going to say, “Here, O Poet-scholar–take $30K and a year off to travel and work on your beautiful dissertation-real-book-manuscript,” I squeeze in tiny side trips on the way to and from other places. I become a poet-field reporter in full crash mode. I use my reporter brain and my poet brain, my emergency brain and my scholar brain.  (I also keep a backup light-up brain in my office, but that’s for real emergencies.)

Now I just have to keep all the Great Stuff from oozing out between now and October. And keep my dollar in my shoe.

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Creative dissertation financing (in both senses)

I have scoured the Foundation Center databases and library, and I assure you that no one (as of this writing) offers a grant for a doctoral student over the age of 40 (a supposed liability based on outmoded assumptions) to hang around beaches and write poetry (no matter how noble the project or qualified the poet).

The Muse willing, I am about five months away from being ABD. Because I chose to attend a state R1 university during the most brutal economic downturn since the Great Depression, I’ve had to hone my financial survival skills. Like many other graduate students, I’ve been fortunate enough to earn my tuition (and some of my bills) through teaching undergraduate classes part-time. Unlike many other graduate students, especially at the doctoral level, I haven’t been as fortunate in securing research funding for my own work.

The problem is not any flaw in the project itself. The problem is that I am studying poetry in a culture which sees poetry as a hobby at best and as a break with reality at worst. This culture openly applauds hostility to the systematic study of any humanities or art. This culture lionizes the professional dilettante. This culture parrots McCarthy-era scripts, in which professors are “eggheads” and students “dupes,” and fancies it has said something original. This culture believes that pseudo-intellectual attention-seekers like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, who rely on ghostwriters, are “authors.” But I digress.

As one of the “optional” duties our financially-strapped department has assigned graduate teaching assistants, I tutor students who want help with their writing. Some of these are graduate students in other disciplines. I help them fine-tune their research grant proposals and job dossiers.

There’s no small irony here.

I think of my partner, who once traveled the world and held diplomatic clearance and now works part-time as a medical interpreter, but who cannot get the same coverage her workmen’s-comp clients get because her at-will employer doesn’t offer health insurance. I help graduate students in the “STEM” disciplines write funding proposals for their own research, at the cost of my own research time and energy. QuikTrip managers make more than we do, possibly combined. Together, we are living in a Dickensian novel, pressing our cold noses against the glass and watching other people eat–sometimes not in only the metaphorical sense, given two part-time incomes between us.

* * *

As for my work, my research, my reading, my writing, my poetry, I feel as if I am carrying the dissertation, wrapped in a threadbare sheet, while forging head-down against a bitterly howling snowstorm:

“You missed our mandatory meeting!”
“Please get the (makework) in by (date).”
“Have you graded my paper yet?”
“My friends and I wrote a sestina a day for a week and self-published an anthology!”
“Your poetry isn’t _____ enough!”
“A chapbook isn’t a real book!”
“You don’t publish enough!”
“Is that self-published?”
“You don’t schmooze enough!”
“How are you going to pay your bills?”
“Can you help me with something?”
“What are you going to do with a Ph.D. in… poetry?!”

The winds are whipping and my fingers and toes are numb. But I clutch my idea more tightly against my chest and forge ahead. The work itself drives me. The weather changes. The grail does not.

* * *

Therefore, travel light and trust your compass. If one path proves treacherous, find another. If you find none, make a way. Blaze a fresh trail through the undergrowth. Read the signs–a snapped twig, a print in the mud–and track silently. One needs provisions for the journey. A packing list:

1. Set up a donation site. Explain precisely what your dissertation research involves and why you need outside funding. In exchange, offer acknowledgement in the manuscript and a copy of the future book itself. Keep good records and follow through. Also consider alternative funding sources like prosper.com, but be aware that repayments begin immediately and that interest rates may be significantly higher than those on your existing credit card, depending on your financial snapshot at any given time.

2. Clear the credit cards whenever possible and check your credit rating regularly. Use them as The Spike Lee School of Arts Funding has taught you, not as speculative investments. It’s tough finding any leftovers in that student loan check, especially because it covers basic living expenses and conference travel during grad school, but try to earmark at least some part of it for your research budget.

3. Do as much of your dissertation research as possible within driving distance of your home. If this relegates you to weekends and breaks in some cases, plan to hit as many of these, as efficiently as possible, on one trip. Leverage conference travel by building in solo time at any suitable archive, museum, historic site, natural landmark, or interviewee’s house. Skip the drunkfests and use that hotel room as a short-term writer’s retreat.

4. For more distant locations, try to double up during a Study Abroad trip. Seek out graduate-level programs whenever possible–and remember to look outside your university. While in country, make quick notes of impressions that can’t be imagined or researched. Take photos to jog your memory. Talk to people who share a passion for your research topic. Make genuine contacts (not just ugly-American po-bizzy ones) with poets and writers. Be aware that poetry is serious business in many other countries. You might bring a few extra copies of your work to give as gifts.

5. Volunteer. While the words “unpaid internship” may make a dissertator’s flesh crawl, search out opportunities at agencies and organizations that lend themselves to your project and see if you can negotiate a mutually agreeable arrangement. Use your work time to learn more about your dissertation subject and your free time to write. Another alternative is to seek out a suitable volunteer-abroad program. You will have to foot the cost of your travel, but it’s often less costly and more schedule-friendly than figuring out who’s going to watch your house, car, and dog for a year.

6. Act locally. If your project has an inglorious local component, make a date to investigate that dull little thing which no one notices. Make them notice it. Make it your writing exercise. Show how it’s part of the larger, more exotic project you’re doing. Find another. And another.

Creative funding is a necessity for the creative dissertation. The fact is, our country does not support doctoral-level poetry research. For decades, our leaders have chanted the mantra of “greater funding for science, technology, engineering, and math,” pouring more and more money into that research while ignoring or cutting even the most modest arts funding.

Yet I persist. Before I became a graduate student, I wrote for a living. My words put food on my table, a roof over my head, and a decent amount of money in the bank. I was nimble, brazen, and fearless. Then I decided to go to grad school. Graduate study tends to beat what is broadly termed “personality” out of its apprentices.

For artists–especially for poets–the real test is escaping with these qualities intact. They are what distinguish poets from people who studied poetry. Turn those skills to your advantage and figure out how to write for a living. I’m not talking about writing grants–or, God forbid, ghostwriting–for other people, although those are options. I’m not talking about whether or not to apply for teaching jobs, return to Corporate America, or join a monastery, assuming any of these will have you. I’m talking about following your writing where it takes you. I’m talking about the Buddhist concept of right livelihood. Trust the writing. It will make a way, one poem at a time. The funding project is the compass for the dissertation. The dissertation is the compass for the book. The book is the compass for whatever comes next.

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Put a bow on it; rent some tanks

The Semester from Hell is over. After this spring, I’ll need three more classes and then I spend a year taking comps.

Meanwhile, I must set for myself this task:

Soon after completing written doctoral examinations, a doctoral student must submit to his or her dissertation committee a written dissertation prospectus that should include the following:

1. A description of the subject, including a statement of the way the proposed approach to the subject differs from, contributes to, or modifies the existing scholarship on the subject;

2. A description of the proposed method of treatment and an account of the research necessary to complete it; and

3. A preliminary bibliography, including a discussion of the availability of materials.

The question is how I am to do this for a creative dissertation. For my MFA, I wrote a lengthy introductory essay explaining my aesthetic choices. I suppose I need to do the same thing on a more detailed level, but look at #1. Am I to write a sweeping claim along the lines of the following?

“My poetry will revolutionize the English language itself.”

“With this collection, I hope to put an end to aesthetic Balkanization, positing myself as leader of a united poetic front.”

A more down-to-earth approach seems called for in #2:

“I will write whatever the hell I want, whenever the hell I want. This approach is best accomplished on the beaches of various Caribbean nations, researching a wide range of imagery on various coral reefs while using an underwater slate to make notes. I propose a $50,000 research grant to cover six months of investigation. To minimize expenses, I will use my own equipment; however, given post-9/11 security concerns, I will need to rent a knife, weights, and tanks.”

As for #3, I plan to take an interdisciplinary approach:

Adrienne Rich’s ‘Diving Into the Wreck’ contains minor factual errors about the speaker’s gear; tendentious theorists may make the case that these invalidate the resulting larger metaphors. I argue that these ‘errors’ may or may not be poetic license, but in any case do not embolize the larger poem. Research at the Historical Diving Society should turn up fruitful leads. In addition, reading every diving poem written in or translated into English will help contextualize the Deep Hidden Meaning of metaphors and similes based on inner space. Oh, yeah, and ‘The Kraken’ by Tennyson, if you like that sort of thing.

If only I could celebrate the end of the semester with a few good dives. I’ll have to be content with having taken myself out for an overpriced dinner last night.

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