Tag Archives: social media

Writing Time and the Ph.D. Poet

Recently, I’ve gotten a couple of e-mails from poet friends inquiring as to my digital and 3-D whereabouts. I’ve been teaching a compressed-semester writing course. That means I’ve had exactly zero time for anything else. Unfortunately, “anything” includes my own studies and writing.

All those poets who warn that the Ph.D. kills poetry are correct, in the sense that the Ph.D. demands so much time and headspace for so many things that are not conducive to producing new work. Envision the unholy marriage of repeating your MFA workshop without the fun of making the reading circuit, while simultaneously adjuncting, writing two major proposals a year, and being hazed regularly for five to seven years, and you’ll get some idea of what a creative writing Ph.D. is like.

Is it all bad? No, not unless you allow yourself to get sucked into the vortex that is teaching in the 21st-century university. I finally got to take Spenser and Old English, courses which never were available to me in programs past. I got to pick up a few goodies on the side: ed psych, screenwriting, technical writing, Spanish, historic preservation, a scholarship for a research trip to Cuba.

Every semester, I learn something more about myself, about the students I work with, about building and delivering a solid course, about some great book or study I might not have sought out on my own. I learn what’s worth putting precious time into. I also learn how to say no–to time-wasters, to manipulations, to worthy causes, to counterproductivity, to saboteurs, to bad energy. I learn to say yes–to my research, to my writing in all genres, to my life beyond the university.

Meanwhile, I regroup for the next exam, the next conference panel, the next course syllabus, and Whatever’s Next.

Whatever’s Next is serious business for doctoral students in the liberal arts these days. All options are open.

In my twenties, with no degree and lots of raw talent, I wrote for a living. In my forties, with 2.85 degrees, one small-press book, and lots of experience and education, I grade papers for a living. Projects on hold include two nonfiction books, the dissertation and book to follow, and my freelance writing business.

I would much rather be writing any one of those books. Or producing a documentary. Or filing stories from any number of datelines. I have reached the stage of Ph.D.-dom at which many grad students throw up their hands and say, “I’m going back to work!”

Each day, I remind myself that I’m almost there. Others counsel that the decision to quit the Ph.D. is highly personal, that quitting is not a sign of failure to follow through, that quitting is the best course of action for all those laboring in non-Ivy programs, that the economy and student loan repayments don’t mix, that far too many Ph.Ds compete for far too few tenure-track openings, and any number of suggestions specious or sensible.

My solution: What do I have to do today? Of course, I don’t have to do any of it. So I rephrase: Am I committed to doing this today? Like an alcoholic chasing the sober life, I deal only with today.

Do I write a poem every day? I do not. Do I commit to working on a poem every day? I do.

It’s that simple.

Any project, any problem, I tell my students, is doable if you figure out how long you have to finish it, count backwards, and divide the work into small, doable parts.

This basic time-management principle is a revelation to many of them, especially the younger ones who get caught up in their own anxiety and mistake high stress for hard work. To protect my own sanity, I have had to learn–the hard way–to meet their Velcro with Teflon. (I’m still learning.) All graduate students who teach must learn the fine art of setting and maintaining boundaries between themselves and their students. For poets doing the Ph.D., protecting that space can be extremely challenging. Lately, I think a lot about what I did to finish my B.A. while working full-time at CNN. I read photocopies at lunch and index cards in the ladies’ room. I listened to French tapes in my Walkman between CNN Center and Georgia State. And I refused to deliver updates on the Gulf War when I walked into poetry workshop.

The grades are in. My parents wants me to move my things out of the basement they’re having remodeled. My dog flings himself down in the middle of the living room and bicycles his back legs, begging for belly rubs. My partner is exhausted and needs me to pick up my end of all things neglected. I had planned all year that I would use this time to drive out of town and work on the dissertation–in the field, away from people and in the marsh, on the coast, under the surface.

Will I say yes? Will I say no?

Bear with me.

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A year without Facebook

A herd of sheep as metaphor for Facebook users

Baaaaaaah humbug! I'm tired of Sheepbook's data-fleecing!

I’ve given my thousand-plus friends and “friends” fair warning: If they want to find me online in 2011, I won’t be on Facebook.

The combination of creepy face-recognition and geotagging was the final straw in Facebook’s series of ever-more-invasive presumptions. I grew sick and tired of hearing after the fact about new settings to turn off, new terms to opt out of, and new layouts to navigate. No longer do I feel conflicted about leaving the marketing orgy disguised as a virtual non-stop cocktail party. At first, I worried about losing track of what various far-flung friends were doing. Now, I have nothing to lose but acquaintances. I let folks know that I’m out as of 1/1/11. For one solid year, I vow not to update my status or to check into Sheepbook in any way whatsoever. At the end of the year, I promise to write about the experience. If I were not in grad school, where I’m obligated to respond to student e-mails and to tutor online, I’d swear off the entire digiverse and retreat to Walden, but this will have to do for now.

John Allemang’s “Technocurmudgeon: Confessions of a Facebook Heretic” in the Globe and Mail, here also tweaking Twitter, frames the effect nicely:

I don’t need to accumulate friends in quantity, but I want to know what drives my fellow beings. And what I discover in Twitter is the curious disconnect of all this connectedness: People I know as morally obtuse find the meaning of life in a cottage sunset, people I admire as artists can’t stop nattering about their frappuccinos, newbie political organizers I hoped would succeed get so caught up in Twitter self-congratulation that they forget to fight the real election on the streets.

What are we missing in life that makes us settle for these faux-social gatherings? You tell me. Except for the enforced sense of alienation in the workplace that comes from opting out – but boss, I thought you prized non-conformity – a life freed from the social networks’ demands should be a better way to pass the time.

And BBC Radio’s Rory Cellan-Jones did a great series, in which he interviewed EFF founder and WELL denizen John Perry Barlow about the virtues of meatspace versus the online mutton-pen:

Throughout our interview, the man who founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation kept harking back to his life in a small town in Wyoming, where he spent years as a cattle rancher.

Ever since, he told us, he’d been trying to find the same sense of small-town community in cyberspace. The Well, whose members met in “meatspace” as well as online, had been a great experience. He told how, at Well parties, the members of the community emerged blinking into the real world, and discovered the faces behind the words.

John Perry Barlow seemed disappointed by today’s social networks, and in particular the one that has really taken the online experience to the masses. “Facebook is like television, the opposite of what I was looking for,” he grumbled. “It’s the suburbs, not the global village.”

Way back when, say, in the early 1990s, when very few people had Internet access, launching an “app” meant typing ~vi, and the Web was text-only, I dipped briefly into the WELL. Eventually, I found cyberhomes at CREWRT-L and WOM-PO, and those friendships continue today–both in real life and online, if not necessarily via listserv. Today, I also listmom FORMALISTA, which is a closed list precisely because we wish to stay on topic, because we wish to avoid unproductive distractions, because we share a common interest in formal poetry by women and all considerations which the phrase implies.

By contrast, CREWRT-L has always been a heavy-traffic list, our discussions punctuated by news of spouse’s health, grandkid’s arrivals, and birdfeeder’s traffic, and we like it that way. The difference between CREWRT-L and Facebook is that a sense of community actually inheres. We see each other not only at AWP, for example, but also because we’re passing through town. We make allowances for our differences and we genuinely care for one another. We may “toot” a small success, but we don’t continually harp on our magnificence every time we finish a draft.

Facebook was originally conceived as a marketing platform, a tool for manufacturing popularity, and popularity is the fetish of the insecure. It allows one to post commercials about oneself in real time to an adoring circle of dozens. In short, it makes one feel special. Temporarily. Until one needs another hit. The first step, say anonymous addicts everywhere, is to admit one’s powerlessness.

If you want to surrender control, you’d better know to whom you’re capitulating. Some people say, “Privacy is dead.” Let’s assume such is the case (which I don’t actually believe to be true.) Discretion, however, survives.

So what’s your story? Are you sick of trying to keep up with Facebook’s periodic flux in terms? How much online data is too much? Would you like to punch Mark Zuckerberg in his smug little face? Are you ramping down, swearing off, or otherwise reorganizing your “online presence” in 2011? If you could have only e-mail and ONE other online means of communication, what would that be? Have you considered unplugging entirely? Confess your techno-conflicts below.

And if you’re reading this via Facebook, please consider responding on Every Poet Needs a Patio instead.

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