Thanks so much to Mike Chasar, of the excellent Poetry & Popular Culture blog, for inviting me to write a guest post on a LeBron James Nike commercial that doubles as a poem. I had a lot of fun with this. I typically don’t dwell on poetry in this blog, but for those of you who are curious, this is kind of Liz’s Dissertation Lite.
Also, Mike Chasar wrote one of my favorite pieces of poetry criticism EVER, “The Business of Rhyming: Burma-Shave Poetry & Popular Culture.” So you know how happy I am to be on his blog! ;)
I’m serious. Is there anything more glorious than a professor? Forget about his molding the minds, the future of a nation–a dubious assertion; there’s little you can do when they tend to emerge from the womb predestined for Grant Theft Auto Vice City. No. What I mean is, a professor is the only person on earth with the power to put a veritable frame around life–not the whole thing, God no–simply a fragment of it, a small wedge. He organizes the unorganizable. Nimbly partitions it into modern and postmodern, renaissance, baroque, primitivism, imperialism and so on. Splice that up with Research Papers, Vacation, Midterms. All that order–simply divine. The symmetry of a semester course. Consider the words themselves: the seminar, the tutorial, the advanced whatever workshop accessible only to seniors, to graduate fellows, to doctoral candidates, the practicum–what a marvelous word: practicum! You think me crazy. Consider a Kandinsky. Utterly muddled, put a frame around it, voila–looks rather quaint above the fireplace. And so it is with the curriculum. That celestial, sweet set of instructions, culminating in the scary wonder of the Final Exam. And what is the Final Exam? A test of one’s deepest understanding of giant concepts. No wonder so many adults long to return to university, to all those deadlines–ahhh, that structure! Scaffolding to which we may cling! Even if it is arbitrary, without it, we’re lost, wholly incapable of separating the Romantic from the Victorian in our sad, bewildering lives . . .
The above excerpt is from the delightful coming-of-age/who-dunnit novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl (pages 11-12). The table of contents actually says “Core Curriculum” and is organized like a syllabus. This novel has as many references as any good work of scholarship, but unlike a good work of scholarships, they inspire laughter. Plus, how awesome is the title?
Joan Bolker, my dissertation-writing guru, says in Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day that you should reward yourself each time you reach a milestone. You reward youself in a small way at the end of each day that you’ve reached your goal ( in my case, with an episode of Northern Exposure). You reward yourself in a bigger way each time you finish a chapter (with an expensive dinner, maybe, or a weekend trip to see a friend). And you reward yourself in a big, big way when you finish your dissertation. You plan out your reward early so that you can look forward to it the entire time you’re writing.
After I read that book, I decided that I wanted to go to Japan after graduation. I want to see some of the most seriously awesome aquariums in the world.
But recently, I changed my mind. I’m going to Alaska. Partly because Northern Exposure has been such a pleasant part of my last year of grad school. Partly because I want to rest, and the small towns of Alaska seem less challenging than Tokyo. Partly because there’s not a single thing related to poetry or art that I want to see there (please don’t mistake me: I’m sure there are things of that sort to experience. They are just not the reason I’m going). Partly because I have developed, in the last few weeks of writing the dissertation, an obsession with what my niece Cate calls “bearses.” I don’t know why, but all the sudden, I need to see bearses for myself.
By the way, you don’t have to leave bear-sightings to chance in Alaska. There are small planes that take you to places where bears are guaranteed to be hanging out. In June, they’ll be taking advantage of the salmon run.
I also considered buying a fancy new bed, getting a massage for seven days in a row, and going to a fancy pants spa in Palm Springs for a weekend.
You’d think graduating would be it’s own reward, but the celebration is a nice thing to look forward to, and surprisingly comforting when the work is not going well. No matter where you are in grad school, I encourage you to make some plans.
We all know the type: the grad student (or non-grad student), who, when asked whether they have seen a certain movie, read a recent book, gone to a museum exhibit, or tried the new restaurant across the street, invariably responds:
I don’t have time.
Maybe some graduate students replace that excuse with “I don’t have money.”
As graduate students, we do not have the monopoly on limited time and money. Having a constant pity party in our own honor for seven years is certainly not the way to happiness or professional success.
My mother said about relationships that one should start as they mean to go on. In other words, if you do the dishes for your spouse the first few months of marriage, it’s quite likely you’ll keep doing them until one of you dies.
I would suggest to you all, as we enter a new year and a new semester, to start our relationship with academia as we mean to go on. If we love movies, eating out, rock climbing, or reading our kids bedtime stories, then we should never use grad school as an excuse not to do those things.
Our priorities in life should include relationships, hobbies, and work. Maybe not every relationship, every fun activity can be given equal time. But we own these choices.