Dissertation Update: Why Things Never Clicked (and Never Will Click) at Grad School

by - Tuesday, January 29, 2013

 So, I have been trying to figure out why after five years, I still leave my building bitter and miserable practically every time. I am trying to identify where I have failed in transforming into some academic butterfly and where I have effectively protected things about myself that I genuinely like and that I am not willing to give up so a bunch of people dressed like '68 will be friends with me. I have never gone through a phase in my life where I feel less connected to the people around me, and now that I am in the super monastic dissertation phase, the lack of connection I feel to the people feels even crappier. I feel like Punxsutawney Phil desperate to get back to the hole that I just got out of! The culture just has a lot of codes I understand but have trouble adapting to, and I think this had led somewhat to my failure as a grad student. 

1. First and foremost, it is a language problem- I am not articulate. I used to write in the same way that I spoke, and I can still do that on some level here (hence the pleasure of writing a blog, beyond the conceit that other people might want to hear my thoughts on graduate school and goldendoodle puppies). Grad school has effectively beaten me into acknowledging that my constant recourse to colloquialisms is doing me no favors, but fuck if I have come up with something to replace them with. My first two years of grad school I sat in a stupor, slowly translating academic jargon into something I could understand (not unlike living in a foreign country at first). I finally figured out how to sort of fake my way through the language, but God help me, I still can't bluff it in my writing.

 This language issue (paired with my nearly non-existent fashion sense, deep investment in Bravo's reality television, and baby face) has also had an adverse effect on how my peers see me. The worst are dismissive or condescending, but I feel I am pretty across the board underestimated by my peers. This is no one's fault but my own, but I have never learned the performance well enough, and I am stubborn that I want to continue playing my own part, even when it hasn't served me well.

2. I will never be cool- I think about 2 seconds on this blog makes this self-explanatory. I care about a lot of things. I care about visuality, archives, and the ways people use media to relate to each other. I care about how all visual culture is rich with politics and history and meaning, and I care about how you teach someone to see all of those meanings within the surface of a photograph or film. I care about feminism. The problem is I care way too much about these things to be cool about them, and the things I don't care about, I don't care about at all. I will not pretend, or give them attention, or play those games. I can find interesting things about most anything, but if I can't, I certainly don't sit back in disdain. I just don't engage at all. Therefore, a hipster disdain for everything is beyond my capabilities as a human.

3. People are actually suspicious of kindness, and nothing is ever reciprocated- When I was an undergrad, I feel like I felt comfortable being really generous with people. With my time, with my knowledge, whatever I had I would be happy to give. I don't think I am a particularly magnanimous or philanthropic person, but I understood the world to be a place where if you gave the shirt off your back, someone would be along to give you their shirt soon after. A simple example- I don't bother to split checks if given the chance, because I assume if I take it this time, my friend will take it the next time, and everything will work out about even in the end. Keeping score seems like a pretty pointless enterprise. In the same way in my undergrad academic life, I could maintain a job where I was constantly helping people with their writing because I knew I was learning from it as much if not more than I was. Even better, I was in an academic community where I got constant support, had the faith to be vulnerable, and got genuine and helpful feedback.

This is not the case in grad school. When I have made the effort to be kind even in little ways that I thought were normal like bringing treats to meetings or noticing when someone is having a rough day, my attempts seem to be rejected. Instead of having that instinct to reciprocate, when you encourage someone or thank someone here, they essentially respond with "Yeah, I am great, and therefore I will never bother with you peons again." Friendships in many cases are more about "networking" and use value than caring. Everyone is so focused on their own goals, that they do not have time to help each other, and if you do pause to help someone else or do something that will not immediately benefit you, people see it as weak and unfocused. This has very literally happened to me, when I was reprimanded for trying to hard at a job that the department gave me. It is a very hard place to try to make the world around you better, and you will absolutely go crazy if you think anyone will ever reciprocate your efforts in any way.

4. I am no Stanford Duck-This is related to the last one. The classic metaphor for a student here is that they look like the duck on the water- seemingly just floating and chilling, but if you can see underneath they are paddling like crazy. You hear this model a hundred times, but it either fits or it doesn't. One of the side effects of this is that when you notice someone struggling, the polite reaction is to pretend not to notice. One faculty member actually leaves the room when a student cries in their office; they genuinely see this as an act of kindness. So, as a student in the program, it is bad taste to just ask someone if they are ok. It makes people uncomfortable. On the same end, it is incredibly bad form to just say "hey I don't get this" or "I'm struggling" or to beg your adviser for some help as you drown in the puddle which is your dissertation proposal. You have to stay professional, and it is hard for me to not just say I don't get it when I don't. For a long time, I felt like this was something I liked about myself, but I think I am wrong on this account. If they are transitioning us into being professionals, we have to be discerning about who we tell we are struggling to.

5. I cannot do it 24 hours a day- I struggle with whether this is lazy. Here is my day- I wake up around 9 and work (usually read) until lunch using the pomodoro method, so I get a 5 minute break every 25 minutes. I then have lunch and usually poke around/ work on the blog for 45 minutes to an hour. I work again (more writing, usually though not today) until 4:30 or 5, whenever my brain is too tired to process. I then usually am done until after dinner is over with The Boy, so 7:30ish. Then I work at a more leisurely (read: television on) pace until 10:30 or so when I write this blog, watch a movie, or hang out with the Boy until bed time. You can guess how many days actually work out this way and on most weekends I am often a bum. When a deadline is coming up, it is looser. When I just made a deadline (like last week) I let myself be lazier. It is hard to be totally consistent, and I have colleagues who clearly work ALL the time and just live for this stuff. I am not that person. I think I was more that person once, but if I was like that now, when all I do is fail, I would probably kill myself. I have to put energy into stuff I don't suck at, like being a wife and blogging and teaching stuff and taking pictures, or I will go crazy. But I often think I am never willing to go far enough into the deep end to be what my adviser is looking for. It's that dang life balance thing.

So this was just inspired by a brief email from my adviser, not even the feedback to the proposal I sent in Friday before last, that managed to crush my soul as well as a day on campus last week that was a real downer. I am coming to terms with the fact that I will never belong here, but that doesn't mean I won't belong anywhere. It is my own fault, because I have refused to accomodate variations in this culture that I don't recognize, but I still think these are genuinely good people. Such is life, and this is just a (very janky) bridge to the next place I want to be. This week I am reading everything I can find about the first half of the 90's and post-feminism (this blog is a break from Tanya Modeleski's Feminism without Women) and writing a lecture I am giving for an MFA's class. I am supposed to get my proposal back sometime this week, so we can all look forward to a nervous breakdown when that happens.

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