Tag Archives: Ph.D. studies

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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Dysfunction of the Day: Flaming Rant Alert, or Grad School/Recession/Midlife Crisis Meltdown

I am sick and damn tired of living in daily dysfunction. Here is the crisis du jour, which actually is in mid-week status since the raw sewage backed up through the shower for the second time in two weeks this Sunday:


I am trapped here for the duration of my doctoral studies. I can’t find a quiet place on campus or in any restaurant or coffeeshop in the Atlanta metro area to do my homework. Strange men in muddy workclothes or members of my family continually waltz through my living room and interrupt me. If I ask not to be interrupted, everyone wants to know why I’m in such a bad mood, or it is pointed out to me that this is someone else’s house (even though I pay rent for the use of three small rooms and a 3/4 bath for two adults, a dog, and a cat). If I point out that there is something completely dysfunctional happening here every single day, I’m told that that’s the definition of life. I say bull. I say we can do better. In isolation, any one thing is no big deal. But around here, SOMETHING is always amping up the crisis/ just-one-quick- interruption level, and I just can’t take living in a Skinner box anymore.

So forgive me if I am in a foul mood, exhausted, completely distracted, or otherwise not smiley when you see me around campus. THIS IS WHY. And believe me, there is ALWAYS something like this going on that is clearly of far greater importance than my reading for my doctorate or writing or having any semblance of my own damn adult life.

On the bright side, the work guys killed the copperhead that bit the dog.

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New semester, new adventures

Today is the first day of spring semester. I don’t actually have class today, but will head on down to take care of paperwork and such. On the rundown: a 8000-level ed psych class called Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. I’ve already read the first few chapters of those textbooks, and it’s really, REALLY interesting. Our subject matter, apparently, will touch on the Dark Side of the University, among other things. One textbook is thick with passive-voice business-management rhetoric (at one point, reducing the entire history of formal education to one sentence…I’m still reeling); the other is an emperor-has-no-clothes critical analysis of various “theories” upon which many false assumptions are based, and takes the view that there are three theoretical approaches to adult ed: humanist, behaviorist, and postmodernist.   The devil is, as always, in the details. How do you define “adult education?” The simplistic answer would be “Any way I want to.” The serious answer is that there are various types of adult education, largely based on (as I read it) environment and purpose. (“Whose purpose?” you ask. What a smart question!) The big book seems to consider it a fait accompli that adult education (with the exception, it claims, of “higher” ed, which has a “mission” — I swear, I’m not making this up) exists to create worker bees for business and industry. Period. It does contain half a dozen suggestions for creating successful learning environments for adults, heavy on the collaborative approach. I’m not sure that this approach is effective in more than small doses for college freshman comp classes, however. When I let my kids pick from a short menu, they do well; when I throw an assignment open to their choosing, controlled chaos ensues. For example, allowing them at semester’s end to choose between media formats is far more successful than is throwing open the topic for an essay early in the semester. The little book insists that far too many programs, policies, and decisions about curriculum and instruction are based on fallacious reasoning. However, the author does not harangue RYS-style; he details the arguments and evidence, then watches the weak ones crumble and die.I can’t wait to see how this class goes. Then, there’s workshop, which is the main event. I have not been writing a lot lately, and am about to sneak out of here to get some of the new stuff down on paper. I’m going to experiment with a few things this semester. I’m also going to submit something somewhere each week this semester. It doesn’t matter where. I need to publish at least twice as much as I have been. Finally, there’s form and theory of fiction. The reading list kicks butt, and she gave it to us early, whic his always a plus. I’m supposed to have finished reading Swann’s Way by tomorrow–it is some of the very best writing I’ve ever read and, from what I gather and from what La R. says, Lydia Davis‘ translation is extraordinarily good. If you’re interested in class, significant social glances, and why some people mistakenly think that they are others’ social betters, or if you’re interested in how writers play with time, you will love this novel.* * *According to the checklist, I need two fiction classes and one poetry class and that’ll be it for coursework. However, I may succumb to the temptation to take History of the English Language (and other such linguistic goodies which I have not yet gotten around to taking) during dissertation time. I’m not taking any classes at all during comps. None. And I have an extra pedagogy class that I’m required to take this summer. La R. and I are also going to take an intensive CELTA certification course this summer. We’re going worldwide, baby. I’m determined to place a chapbook with a small/literary press this semester. It’s long overdue, and I have enough material. That will take off the pressure of not having a book, while not gutting my supply of new material pre-dissertation.  OK, time to get out of here. Santa showered me with e-toys, not the least of which is a new car stereo, which plays both CDs and my iPod. Being able to study in my car is mission-critical. Now I can do it. 

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I’m a Gryffindor!

So stick it, all Slytherin who tried to thwart me this semester. 🙂

If I didn’t have a left-eye migraine, I’d bust a bottle of Veuve Cliquot. Instead, I’ll just chill with my-buddy-my-pal Keith “Best Person In The World” Olbermann. Cheers!

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Anti-Intellectualism on Campus

The root of the problem is anti-intellectualism. Part of the solution, at least, involves explicitly examining and teaching this phenomenon. Here are some places to get started, which I’ll add to periodically in anticipation of EPY 8070, my freaky elective class this spring.

Trout, Paul. “Student Anti-Intellectualism and the Dumbing Down of the University.” In Montana Professor .

Hofstadter, Richard. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.  (Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.)

comments in 2001 by former USG Chanceller Portsch about Georgia’s “culture of anti-intellectualism”

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Old Poems, Old Articles, New Inspiration

I didn’t realize that I was sonnet-obsessed twelve years ago. Supporting evidence: in the first-semester packet from Warren Wilson. I did a LOT of work that semester–and not nearly as much as I’d hoped to. On the other hand, I also was working full-time as a writer for CNN. (Let’s see. Breaking news in Fall 1995?. . .)

The poems I found as part of this file were some I’d wondered about, but which I had apparently done quite a lot of substantive work on and then abandoned. At the time, I didn’t have the skills, but had plenty to say. Now, when I have the skills but feel I have so little to say, what a great Christmas gift to find my old work-in-progress. I can do a lot with this stuff. I might even actually finish my first book without exhausting whatever I come up with for my dissertation. Oh, joy! Oh, thank you, personal organizer who makes me clean out my office! Oh, thank you, Muses! Oh, thank me, person who refuses to throw away writing for years on end!

Another self-explanatory goldmine I found was a file labeled “Best Clips.” This also puts me squarely back in the freelance business. (I see lots of document scanning over the break.) I have a magazine article, possibly series, that I need to nail down. I miss writing for magazines. One thing I’ve promised myself as a reward for all the doctoral suffering is a regular magazine gig–the first nanosecond it becomes practical. Blogging is a temporary (and, thus far, unremunerative) substitute for the pleasant pace of print journalism.

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Where Intellect Trumps Grading

Here’s a short list of places that eliminate the whole grade issue in favor of actual intellectual development:

Reed College (?)

New College of Florida

Evergreen State

Bennington (?)

Warren Wilson College (?)

Downside: A narrative transcript can be slanted (accidentally or deliberately) in much the way a job evaluation can be. Perhaps an ideal would include some combination?

Some of these schools can/do include letter grades alongside narrative transcripts.

Maybe if the state universities started adding narrative transcripts for each course. . .

“X is quite charming, but prefers to text-message while others take notes during class. Knowledgeable end user of Facebook/MySpace; however, has no marketable web design skills. With demonstration over time of good work habits, could become a productive member of the academic community; at this time, does not yet demonstrate the level of responsibility required of entry-level office intern. Needs to get serious about the intellectual enterprise.”


Wait a minute.

Suppose a written evaluation of the student as student, carefully worded, along with a prescribed course of action, were handed out at midterm?

We already write evaluations on each paper. Why not an overall narrative evaluation of each aspect of the grade, at midterm?

That’s a lot of work.

That might require an “attitude rubric.” Attitude, after all, does affect one’s grade. Perhaps it should be graded.


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How to save 40-50% of weekly expenses next semester

Don’t go to campus on Mondays and Fridays. Instead, dial in all online work and use the free public library (which is quieter than the campus library) to study in peace. This will save $6-10/week in parking, $10-20/week in pocket expenses, and $5-10/week in gas. $40 x 16 = $640/semester saved. That alone will pay for books, copies, and office supplies.

Stay off campus until 4pm Wednesdays and pay only $2.25 instead of $5 to park in certain places. That’s a savings of $2.75 x 16 = $44/semester in parking alone. Don’t eat on campus and save another $10 x 16 = $160/semester. That’s $204/semester.

So, I’ll save at least $844 by avoiding campus as much as possible this spring. That’s almost an entire month’s pay.


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