Tuesday, March 02, 2010

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Friday, February 26, 2010

The past week has been full of academic highs and lows, fluctuating so rapidly that I hardly have time to find equilibrium enough to just get my work done.

The biggest high was presenting at the conference last weekend. It's so rewarding to return to my college and see the new and interesting things my old professors are doing with the department. They're always innovative and trying to rethink the way the English major will work and how those changes will benefit their students. It's inspiring. And the students! An addition to the schedule this year (from the first conference, two years ago) was a writing workshop of sorts where another presenter and I worked with four students who will be presenting papers at a local undergraduate conference next month. Their papers were interesting and insightful, critically engaged, and well-written. We got to talk about some ways to strengthen their paper in the oral format, and tightening up thesis, but for the most part I felt like I was basking in the glow of really creative and intelligent undergraduate work.

And then, at the Saturday morning brunch where we talked about graduate school, I found myself saying something like this: You'll no doubt hear a lot of gloom and doom reports about the future of academic jobs, and I can't deny that these reports are at least partially on the mark. But I think there's absolutely no substitute for choosing to do what you feel called to do. In this economic climate, jobs in most sectors are threatened. Don't do something you don't love or feel passionate about--but the converse is also true. Don't go to graduate school unless you're truly passionate about what you're studying and about what you could be teaching.

And when I read my paper on Willa Cather and was able to talk articulately (I felt, anyway) about the topic and some of the cultural issues surrounding it, I felt that passion that reminded me that I'm not just slogging through this...I love it, and I feel like I have things I can contribute to the profession.

But that high was countered by some low lows this week. More and more articles about the abyssmal future of the academic job market, plus potential threats to my current job (very remote threats, but the fact that the possibility is even out there is frightening enough), led to my posting of these two tweets yesterday: "Feeling depressed about the future of the academic job market (and thus my future) today." "Like I've piled my whole family into a leaky boat and said, 'Hey! Come with me! It'll be a bumpy ride with potentially no landing, ever!'"

Part of what keeps us going through the impoverished years of graduate school is the mythical promise of a hopeful future. Don't get me wrong--I'm not so delusional that I ever thought a tenured position was a guarantee. I know, of course, and I have always known, that it's more likely that I will have to work in other short-term positions before I get a job I want to stick with...that seems to be the way it works. But now even that scenario seems less attainable. I mean, perhaps it's a little too blindly optimistic of me, but I always sort of thought that if I worked my butt off, took advantage of the resources available to me, and was a generally friendly and kind person, I'd eventually find success. The possibility that all my hard work and sacrifice could lead me exactly nowhere is a little bit frustrating and sad. And since my children, husband and I have piled all our eggs in this crumbling basket, I think I have reason to be a little down.

Of course, that's the lowest low point. Most of the time, I'm somewhere in-between, feeling little daily excitements (when a student's eyes light up as the material really clicks; when I feel like my comprehensive exam list is sort of...maybe...coming together; when I have an "ah-ha" moment as I write or read) interspersed with daily mundanities and frustrations. And I can handle living in the in-between. It's when the lows outnumber the highs that I start to wonder if we should abandon ship/egg-basket (oh, my mixed metaphors). But I guess what I told the students at the conference is still true: this is the only basket I want to be in, and I'm going to work really hard to stay here.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Sorry for the long drought. It was unintentional. I (well, we, really...the whole family) left last week Wednesday for a conference in Chicago and had fully intended to post prior to leaving, but the insanity of trying to get everything ready and packed and prepped and washed and diapered and out the door on time was a bit overwhelming. And then the conference and all the travel associated (KS to Pella, IA to Chicago (suburbs) then back to Pella and finally, today, back to KS) took most of my time. The rest of it was consumed with the busy activity of trying to keep kids fed and clothed and sleeping on a somewhat normal schedule while staying in a hotel. Fortunately, we had Jeff's parents and one of his brothers and sisters-in-law there to help, which was immensely helpful indeed. That meant I got to go off to my conference events without worrying about Jeff and the two kids sitting sadly forlorn in the hotel room. And on our way out and our way back, we stayed with my parents, so the kids had a grandparent hat-trick weekend. If only the CA uncle and aunt could have been there, and it would have been all the uncles/aunts, too.

My conference was a really great experience, one I'll write about more when I don't have several loads of laundry to do.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Breakfast with Charlotte:

gif maker
Gif maker

Friday, February 12, 2010

Some recent Charlotte-isms:

Charlotte and Jeff are listening to “Lovesick”

C: So, Bob Dylan says he’s sick of love.

J: That’s what he says. I’m not sure I believe him, though. Do you?

C: I believe him.

J: Don’t you think he’s being a bit disingenuous? I mean, who really gets sick of love?

C: He just doesn’t want anyone to love him anymore. He’s sick. Of love.

J: Yeah, but –

C: Maybe he just doesn’t want his parents to love him anymore.

J: Hm. That could be…

C: That’s sad. That would make his parents sad if he didn’t want any love.

J: It would.


Charlotte and Jeff are having some breakfast

C: There’s something under the table.

J: What is it?

C: I don’t know.

J: Well let me look a minute. Oh, hey! It’s Bob Dylan. Hi there, Bob.

C: No. It’s not Bob Dylan. It’s a Boomka.

J: Really? Oh boy. Did it have its plotchky with it?

C: What’s a plotchky?

J: Exactly. That’s the question people have been asking for as long as there have been Boomkas.

C: Well he doesn’t have his plotchky with him.

J: That’s good. Amazing, but good.

C: What is a plotchky?

J: Exactly.

C: Actually, I think he has a plotchky in his backpack. He’s going to school.

J: It’s a wonder he managed it.

C: He got lost on the way to school, so he hid under our table. But his teacher came to find him, and showed him how to find the bus.


Jana is getting ready for school; Charlotte is playing with a novelty tie of Jeff's.

C: Careful, mama! Don't step on my snake!

J: Oh, this is your snake?

C: Yes, of course. His name is Hednul. It's his birthday. Do you know what kind of birthday cake he's going to have?

J: No, what kind?

C: I don't know either! We're waiting to open the box and find out!

J: Oh, the cake is in a box?

C: MAMA! Don't step on Hednul's cake box!

J: Oh! Sorry, Hednul.

C: (to herself) Hednul was almost in tears.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

It's probably a bit cliched to note that pregnancy and childbirth take one's body from oneself. I mean, pregnancy features months upon months of symptoms ranging from nausea and vomiting to insomnia to epic flatulence to insane jimmy leg syndrome, not to mention the fact that you've gone from Jana, Party of One to Incubator of Tiny Human. Then you spend anywhere from a few hours to (gulp) days expelling that tiny parasite, and it goes without saying that they typically don't leave the premises unscathed. No housing deposit for you, infant!

But I have found with both of my pregnancies and immediate postpartum periods that it is, in fact, the second full year post-birth that is most difficult physically.

Let me explain.

Year one, you've got a free pass. "Oh, don't worry about it," people say as your saggy, pizza-dough-textured muffin-top* flows unencumbered over the top of your largest pair of stretchy pants. "You just had a baby!" They look past your frighteningly massive, lumpy lactating chest-twins to the sweet, cooing child drooling in your arms.

It happened post-Charlotte, and again post-Sam: I get the "You Just Had a Baby" line right up until about the first birthday, and then, somehow, that line no longer becomes legitimate. The side and back-flab is no longer postpartum extra and is now just muffin-top. The strangely robust yet sadly gravity-stricken bosom is now just...well, matronly.

And yet my body still belongs so much to my child, as much at thirteen months as at one month. My son dictates my wardrobe. Going to be spending a period of time with Sam? Don't plan on accessorizing, unless you want to test the strength of that necklace against your neck flesh, or those earrings against your earlobes! And unless you want your sweater festively bedecked with epaulets of half-masticated graham cracker and snot, I'd suggest maybe wearing that same old ratty sweatshirt you always change into when you walk in the door.

And then, of course, there are the undergarments.

Poet Beth Ann Fennelly has an amazing book, Tender Hooks, that is, in part, about mothering. In it is her poem "After Weaning, My Breasts Resume Their Lives as Glamour Girls," in which she likens the breasts of a nursing woman to the Rosie the Riveter women who worked in factories during the war:

Initially hesitant, yes,
but once called into duty,
they never looked back.

they never dreamed they'd have so much to say.
They swelled with purpose...

Fennelly likens nursing bras to "Ace bandages / thick-strapped, trap-doored, / too busy for beauty—" while the bras housing the Glamour Girls are "tissue-thin and decorative," ultimately rendering the breasts "seen and not heard."

Her description of that divide that separates the nursing bras from the lacy lovelies is so wonderful that I can add little to it, except to say that the phrase "too busy for beauty" is such an apt description of parenting the one year old. I often feel as if I am outfitting myself for an expedition into Toddlerland: comfortable stretch pants and t-shirt that I don't mind staining, backless slippers that can be unshod at a moment's notice in case I need to run to retrieve a still-unsteady boy from harm's way, unaccessorized except for my daughter's hello kitty barrette keeping my hair from Sam's grasp. My bra: sports. My face: make-up free. My nails: unpolished, uneven. My legs: be-stubbled. My life: unglamorous.

And yet I no longer have that "Oh, You Just Had a Baby" free pass out of schlubbville thing going for me. Instead, I just look frumpy, rumpled, befuddled and frazzled.

I remember there was a brief window of time when Charlotte was almost two and I wasn't yet pregnant with Sam (at least not pregnant and constantly nauseated and/or showing) when I could wear whatever I wanted without living in fear that I would be covered by my offspring's bodily fluids and/or lovingly smeared foodstuffs, when I could shod my unmentionables in delicate lacy underthings without having to worry about having to air said body parts to be used as a food source, when I had the time (where? WHERE did I find it? And WILL I find it again?) to exercise regularly so that my body, while still a far cry (waaaaah) from my before-kids physique looked more like a loaf of bread post-baking than pre-.**

And I know that it's rather silly to be simultaneously looking back at the last year and crying "where did the time go!" and thinking "I'll never have my body to myself again! WOE!" but I never claimed to be unsilly. But I am tired of edging out (sideways, crab-like) of photos of my darling children because I don't want to be be caught, furtive and lurking like a frumpy, saggy Gollum, on the edge of the frame, like a creepy ogre behind two golden angels.

Someday, hopefully soon, I want to feel photogenic again, to feel strong and confident and not like I'm wearing the lingerie version of a Sherman tank under my utilitarian t-shirt. Until then, I'll be the one crouching behind the sofa while you snap pictures of my children.

*What is up with comparing body parts to food items?

Thursday, February 04, 2010

A few posts back, my mother in law (hi, mom!) left a comment asking about my schoolin'. I believe she specifically asked when I would be done (with coursework, I think) (I'm too lazy to go back and check to see what she actually asked, so sorry...no slander intended). And I found that question rather impressive, because it showed a basic understanding of graduate studies that the common person lacks. Um, that's meant as a compliment, by the way.

What I mean is this: the details that make up my academic life (what I do every day, for example, and what goes into my degree as far as work and preparation) are so clear to me and to other people in my degree program, but to most people outside academia, it's a great big mystery. To many people, saying I'm a grad student has as much currency as saying I'm an international man of mystery*.

And being a graduate student in English is very different from being a graduate student in engineering or law or business, or even German or philosophy or history, which as other humanities bear at least a faint resemblence to English. And, as if that's not enough, graduate studies in English at my university is most likely different in some small ways (and sometimes in rather large ways) from the same program at a different university.

So, I can't speak to graduate studies across the board, and I certainly can't speak to other programs at other universities, but I can tell you a little about the requirements at my university for my degree program.

The PhD in English at my university** has, essentially, three primary components. The first is required coursework, which consists of a minimum number of credit hours (18, in my case) to be taken from graduate course offerings in my department (and, in some cases, from other departments if the subject matter is appropriate to a student's area of interest). There are some stipulations, here: courses have to be at the 700 level and above, and must include at least two (I think) 900-level seminars. You have to take an intro to grad studies course if you haven't taken one elsewhere in addition to the 18 hours (I had taken one before, so I didn't have to do this). You also must fulfill the FLORS (foreign language or research skill) requirements, which I did by taking graduate reading courses in Spanish (done during my MA) and German (finished in the fall).

The second component is the comprehensive exams. Students must make a reading list for each of three different areas. The areas are time periods, major authors or movements, critical theory, um...rhetoric and composition, genre? I don't know. Something like that. There's a bit of flexibility. So, you pick three areas (again, there are stipulations that I'm not going to get into here) and make a list for each that can be considered comprehensive in the sense that you are hitting the major works for that area (plus usually a bit more that "caters" your list to your own particular interests). For the comps, you also have to assemble a panel of four professors, one of whom will act as chair. These people will be your examiners, and will also help you put your lists together, and must also approve both the lists and the rationales. The rationales are three separate documents of about six pages each that detail your "rationale" for the texts you've included on the list. These documents are meant to show your thinking about the list area as a genre/time period/whatever, how it all fits together and works, how it has been thought about historically and contemporarily. So, you put together your reading lists, you write your rationales, you read everything on the lists (which usually run to many, many pages...a dozen or so over the three areas), and then you put your academic career on the line and go sit in a room with your panel and answer their questions about the works on your list and drip flop sweat down your face and hopefully, hopefully pass.

So, once that excitement is over, it's time for the third component, the dissertation. This is a major piece of writing, typically book-length, and usually composed of five or so chapters, an introduction and a conclusion. It needs to be written about a relatively innovative or as-yet unexplored topic within the field of literature (or composition, if that's your bag). It needs to be written in a professional, academic manner, of course. This process is also composed of several steps: assembling your dissertation committee and finding a director from among them, writing and defending your dissertation proposal (something my friend Kristen is doing tomorrow! GOOD LUCK!), then proceeding with writing your dissertation, chapter after painful chapter, followed by your disseration defense in front of your committee. The dissertation stage is often the most difficult part of a PhD program, as you're not actively taking classes during this stage, and are sometimes working in what seems to be a bubble of unpleasant and unhealthy isolation. It can be paralyzing, and many students lose steam at this stage, ending up with a title of ABD (all but dissertation) instead of PhD.

And through all this, if you have a GTAship, and unless you're fortunate enough at some point to receive a fellowship or some other funding, you're teaching classes and grading papers and holding conferences with your own students, which, of course, just adds to the time frame.

Where am I in this process? This semester I'm taking my last required class for my coursework, and I'm currently assembling my comps lists and asking profs to be on my committee (three of four so far!). This summer I will be reading my fool head off, and I hope to take my comps next fall, possibly the beginning of November. Some people take longer to do their comps, but I really would like to get this over with so I can move on to the dissertation stage and have more time for writing.

So that's my academic life in a nutshell. This is an almost ridiculously bare-bones explanation of the process, but I think it answers at least the major questions.

*which is how I plan on introducing myself from now on
**I'm trying to be a bit discreet here so that this blog doesn't show up on search engines. If you know me, you know where I am. If you don't and you are DYING to know, email me.

Friday, January 29, 2010

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed a little announcement yesterday, that Sam was "walking." I use that term as loosely as I used "crawling" back when Sam was first writhing his way across the carpet with anguished cries of exertion. Sam has taken three unassisted steps, but those steps were as wobbly as those of a rum-soaked sailor, and they ended, dramatically, with a face-plant into the carpet. Despite these inauspicious beginnings, Sam is filled with exuberant glee at the thought of forward movement on his own feet, so much so that that very glee turns him into a maniac with no thought to balance. Shrieking with joy, Sam falls over--that's how walking goes most of the time. But still: January 28, 2010, Sam walks. Ink pen + baby book.

In other news, boy, parenting is an exercise in extremes, isn't it? My children enchant me and exasperate me in equal parts. They are delights; they are horrors. We go from "Oh, look how adorable Sam/Charlotte is" to "PLEASE for the love of all that is holy and right STOP THAT INCESSANT WHINING" more rapidly than I would have thought possible, pre-kid. It's all "mama mama mama mama LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME mama mama mama mama" until I feel like my brain is going to liquify itself and run out my ears just for the chance to escape, and then suddenly it's bedtime, and I walk out of their rooms with an audible sigh of relief, sit down at my computer, and find that I want nothing more than to wake them up and hold and kiss them, or at least squeeze their fat little thighs just a little.

Nine nights out of ten, Jeff and I go to bed recounting little anecdotes about the children that the other missed during the day--funny things Charlotte said, crazy stuff Sam did, etc. And then the night speeds by like a time-elapse film and then it's (barely) morning and we start over again with the "mama mama mama mama" and the seemingly endless cycle of feeding and clothing and washing and playing and reading.

It all seems so monotonous and yet so unbelievably vivid and varied, too. How can these children be the same children we had a year ago? Three months ago, even?

With apologies to Whitman: Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. (They are large, they contain multitudes.)

They do. They contain everything, express everything, surround and hold and promise everything.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The kids, January 2010. Man, I love these monkeys.

Friday, January 22, 2010

This has been a pretty good week. And that's a relief, because it is the first real, full week of the semester...the semester which, you might recall, was supposed to be light-years better than last semester, which was in the toilet (to put it mildly). And if the rest of the semester goes approximately like this week went, then I think this academic year will redeem itself.

I'm busy, but pleasantly so, not to the point of feeling overwhelmed. I love love LOVE my Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, where I have several hours of work time in my office at school. This Tuesday, I actually got to participate in some of the on-campus events for a job candidate, one whose interests intersect with mine a bit. I mean, I realize that's the kind of stuff a PhD student is supposed to do, but last semester, my coursework and teaching load and home duties didn't allow for anything extra.

The real boon this semester is the enrollment of my classes that I'm teaching. I teach two sections of the second sequence of composition, and the classes are capped at 20 students for first-year GTAs. That's nice of them to limit the enrollment like that, but 40 papers is a LOT to grade each time, and 40 papers x 4 writing projects + daily activities + lesson planning = Jana going crazy. So I was hesitantly optimistic when I noticed that my enrollment at the beginning of the semester was relatively low, and I grew increasingly happy and more nervous the closer we drew to the last date to add classes without an instructor's permission (yesterday). Now that the date has come and gone, I can speak the wonderful news aloud: I have a total (TOTAL) of 22 students enrolled. Ten in one class and 12 in the other. Oh, happy day! That's half the grading! HALF!

Of course, a little voice in the back of my head is whispering "perhaps the word has gotten out that you're a horrid teacher," but I think the truth of the matter is that I teach early in the morning, a rather unpopular time for many students, and my second class conflicts with a big, required chemistry course. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

In addition to my teaching, I'm taking a grad seminar, which is my Last Class. I'm also working on my comprehensive exam lists, and...hey! WAKE UP! I know, this isn't terribly exciting, but some of you must be interested in what I'm doing, right? Hello?

Fine. More adorable kid stories coming soon. Geez.