Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Romance and Reality

I considered closing this blog up and starting a new one, now that I'm an advanced graduate student with "research interests" and a prospectus and all that.  But I reconsidered -- I am, after all, still A Student of English.
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I began this blog eight years ago because I am curious and writerly, and one of the things I was most curious about back then was grad school. I romanticized it, as so many undergraduates do.  Early career graduate students do it too, even as they get hit with the realities of long readings, self-conscious writing, endless grading, and low pay. Every semester of my master's program I had a romantic vision of what was to come next -- scenes of collegiate lounging, library lounging, reading-chair lounging. Boy did I expect a lot of lounging! But also scenes of classroom victories,  professorial connections, and important assignments.

All these scenes came true. And even better ones too. I edited journals, I ran conferences, I presented at an international forum, and I even pissed off a famous academic with a book review I wrote! But was all that romantic? Not in the way I thought it would be.

The other day I walked across the campus of my undergraduate alma mater, and I recognized a certain tall tree, and a bench where I had once sat and looked at that tree. As I sat, I had written about that tree and about Hawthorne. (I think I even posted it here.) And now I was walking across the same campus to fetch the books for the classes I am teaching there this fall, and to find the key to an office I'm borrowing. An office in the same building where I took my first philosophy class, years ago.  I realized then that graduate school is not what is romantic. College is what is romantic -- that is, the undergraduate years of not knowing what to expect, of being fascinated by everything, and of looking to the future with wide eyes and silly hopes.

I am not one to argue that grad school is a bad experience. But post-coursework it is not romantic.  I'd even lost the romance by the last semester of coursework, and I was the "senior" in the back of the room rolling my eyes at the new grads who were afraid to talk. (Yeah, I'm an asshole sometimes). But even though grad school is not romantic, I'd say it's noble.

There are still somewhat idealized pictures of the graduate enterprise in my head, even as I live it. I still treasure the smallest things as proof of my status -- my name on a mailbox, my pile of keys to various university office doors, the 30 library books I get to keep for months, for instance.  I still have a stupid pride about my low account balances and automobile struggles. As I write, my left sock is wet because I finally wore a hole in my shoe this rainy morning. I use the hashtag #adjunctlife when I want to point to that ambivalence many of us have about doing important work that we love while getting paid shit for it. I fiddle with my signature lines because I'm so much more than a TA now (I ended up just naming my department without a title, because I don't want to claim to be more than I am or less than I am). But these dumb feelings of pride are all mitigated by taking myself with a grain of salt -- I know what grad school is now. It's a noble pursuit, but it's a hard reality too.

I have friends who are master's students and first year PhD's who still have the romance in them. They love books so much. They can't get enough! They take pictures of their coffee and laptop setup as they crank out their term papers. But hey-- they're not any sillier than I was, even though I went though those stages before instant sharing was so much a thing. (Instead I journaled about all of it, or posed with my Beowulf books for pre-selfie self-portraits). I'm still excited about my new office(s), and my ever increasing responsibilities (with slightly increased pay).  But reading books? Writing? Staying up late to do research?  So over it. It's not romantic. It's just reality.

Does this mean I'm burnt out? No. Does it mean students who still have that little glimmer are all wrong? Nope. It's just that I realized the other day, because of that big beautiful tree, that junior-year-in-college-Robyn was an important and necessary stage of my development as a scholar. Without her romantic temperament, without her excitement for "graduate study" (whatever that is!), and without master's-degree-Robyn's continued, earnest idealizing of the hard road she had begun, PhD-Robyn never would be here, post-coursework, post-exams, working on her prospectus. Maybe I'm all business now, and maybe I can't keep that old sunshine-y shit up. But no amount of romance is gonna write this dissertation.

Now if you'll excuse me I have some office work to do, two meetings to go to after that, and I have to get these 30 books back to the damn library.




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