Getting Ready to Bring the Ax Down (Finally)

by - Tuesday, November 05, 2013

When I was young, maybe 12 or 13 (maybe PAG knows a closer estimation), I fell in love with art through an angel named Sister Wendy. Sister Wendy is a nun who has her own art history television program, but I got to know her through her art history overview books. I loved that book for a million reasons, but the greatest was that a nun, the ultimate good girl, could spend her days talking about naked people, and that was totally ok, because it was art. I was so enamored with the art I saw in that book, as well as the suggestion that art allows us to talk about things that good girls just don't talk about (I love talking about those things, but I have found that it mostly gets me in very big trouble). It seemed like a space where you could say what you needed to say, without offending family members.

By high school, I was convinced that I would be a professor in art history. I can still remember explaining it to my now-mother-in-law in her kitchen. I was a teacher, I wanted to teach, but the demand for art history classes was pretty low on the high school level, so I would have to get my PhD in art history so I could teach in the very competitive area. That was the plan.

I can still remember getting the message from my Dad that my adviser had called (he thought the name was funny) and that I needed to call her. I dialed her up in my senior year apartment, and was absolutely overcome to find out that I made it into Stanford. I wrote the details she gave me into the front cover of an edition of Othello I had nearby for a class. Two days later, while walking onto Penn State campus, a bird shit on my head. At the time, I laughingly considered it a good omen (in retrospect, I am not sure this is true). I agonized over the decision of where to go, because I had a hilarious and fun conversation with a young professor at Johns Hopkins. I really wanted to be her advisee, but my Penn State adviser told me that Stanford had universal recognition so I would definitely be able to get a job if I went there. I had recently returned from living abroad, was balancing a full time job (that I loved) and an honor's thesis (also, I pretty fond), and was feeling like I could handle whatever came at me, so I decided to go to Stanford. Sigh.

Stanford was rough from the start. I went to China with my adviser and her older advisees. They instantly began hammering me with advice- Pam openly favors her male students, she is not warm and you should ask other people for help, she is not a very direct communicator, but be sure not to bug her, etc. I also had allergic reactions to most of the meals we ate, and spent a good chunk of the trip throwing up in bathrooms. I would love to say the rest of my first year was an improvement, but that would be a lie. I was absolutely miserable, in a panic, and struck essentially mute. For the first two quarters, I was sure that everyone else there was so much smarter than I was (I now know they are just incredibly and vociferously full of shit). My adviser mocked me in front of groups more than once, and I never knew what to say to her- I used to joke that if she asked me what I had for lunch I would not know how to answer. I actually started this blog because I was careening into some very dark thinking.

Then, I took a class on John Wayne. I am pretty sure John Wayne and Scott Bukatman saved grad school for me. Even if this whole thing has turned out to be a wash, it was worth it to watch the opening of the Shootist in Cummings 103. The course was a turning point, and I began to figure out my space in the cohort. I knew I was not as polished as my peers, but I found my blunt discussion to be refreshing because I was so bored of listening to dudes waggle their dicks around by waxing poetic. It was also an opportunity to watch a professor teaching because they really loved what they were seeing, and it helped me remember how much I love art history in the first place. Courses got better and better, and in my second year, I started teaching and my adviser was gone. It was a wonderful combination, and things improved. The rest of coursework went along well enough. I had a plenty high enough GPA, seemed respected enough by my peers to be voted Grad Rep, and loved the teaching. I felt again like I had found my place. I had some nasty run-ins with faculty- a highlight being that the head of our department told me I "write like a poor person."

I never felt more like I was good at the academia thing than when I took my exams. Though they were stressful, I really felt like I got it and I could hold my own. The strange thing was that by the time I reached that point in the program, it was also clear to me that I had greatly misunderstood what a career in academia was about. I prided myself on being a caring and talented teacher, but I found that my investment in teaching was a liability. The things I liked most about myself as a thinker are not always considered valuable, and they certainly aren't valued by my adviser. I also began to hear a lot more conversations about life after grad school, and I will be honest, it sounded awful. As a 22 year old, I thought I would push hard through grad school so that I could have better balance as an adult (to have time for family, that sort of thing). This assumption is crazy pants. Academia prepares you for more academia, and you will only ever get busier if you stay on that path. I noticed how neurotic, self-centered, and insecure older academics were from a lifetime of criticism and so-called meritocracy.

My exchanges with my adviser after my exams just got worse and worse. First, she refused to respond to me for two months, saying I should "focus on my wedding" (I am not sure what she imagined I was doing- counting sparkles in my tiara?). She and I couldn't hear each other, and we were just a bad match. I actually think she could be a great adviser for some person, but that person wasn't me. Months went by, and I couldn't figure out how to give her what she wanted from me. I tried switching topics, but it was clear the main problem was my writing style. She had something very specific in mind, but I couldn't identify it or put it into practice. I think that writing a proposal, where you have to condense a book's worth of ideas into 6 paragraphs freaked me out, and I always became too general, having trouble pinpointing the correct specifics to use. By the time she (I can now see, mercifully) cut ties with me, I was a total mess. I was crying a lot for no identifiable reason. I started pulling out my own hair (I mean this literally). Things were just the worst, and I found myself staring at my computer for hours without actually accomplishing anything. It was a far cry from who I thought I would be.

I took the break (about 6 months of volunteering, camp, and art classes) with the hope that my absolutely popped tattered dreams would start to mend themselves and reinflate. I drug that popped balloon of a dream around behind me like a security blanket, so that when people asked, I could say I was a Stanford PhD student on leave of absence. The suggestion is that eventually I would go back. I kept moving forward toward that goal- I lined things up with a new adviser, a professor outside of my department who is incredibly kind and is committed to art-making as well as study. I tried to work on my chapters. I talked to everybody I could think of to talk to. I thought if I did everything right, that popped balloon could be blown back into life.

I was hoping that the last three months would be a reinvention of my inspiration. That I would come back wiser, but filled with intellectual enthusiasm. I was hoping that working with a new adviser, who is infinitely kinder and more supportive, would reignite my enthusiasm. I can see now that this was a pretty spectacular overestimation of my emotional abilities. I am not a fast healer, and the blow was so great that I still feel an incredible sting with every exchange with anyone from my department (in my defense,I can see objectively that they have been genuinely awful to me, but I want to be so tough that it just rolls off my back). The popped balloon, that dream of who I thought I was going to be, wasn't being pulled back together. It was just getting more holes in it as it drug on the ground behind me. It feels more and more like a weight, even if it is also still a comfort. When I let it go, it's gone, so the way I define myself and the way I see my future will also have to change. Cutting ties with Stanford is the death of the dream I have had since I was a kid. It is the death of the idea that I could push and keep to the path and that things would just work out. It may be the first thing on my bucket list that I just can't get.

It may not seem like this is a huge moment to anyone else, especially since I seem to have been gone for eight months, but it is so big, and so so so so sad for me. I know that it is the right choice for me for so many reasons, and I am looking forward to not being split between two mutually exclusive efforts, but I still feel really really sad that it is happening, that tomorrow I will have to write my current adviser to tell him the truth, that when we move to Seattle, I will have essentially nothing going for me. I am letting myself have a sad week.

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  1. Dearest Cousin,

    Don't let the man bring you down! I know that I'm just your silly little cousin who has never really excelled at academics, but if there is one thing I'm good at, it is knowing how and when to give a damn.

    Maybe Stanford won't be the University to give you your PhD, but I think it's important that you remember that you have, and will always have plenty going for you, no matter what city you live in.

    Maybe you don't have a PhD in Art History, but you've got an awesome husband, a strong willed family that's always willing to give you a hug or waggle our fists at jerks, and you have one of the strongest, most dedicated work ethics I have ever experienced.

    You've had the academic world looming over you for like, 20 years, maybe with a complete breakaway you'll be able to find a passion that will be just as fulfilling. Keep an open mind and you never know where life will take you!