It’s the First Day of School!

It’s the first day of school! Again!

I love being a student, because it allows me to love the first day of school like I never have before–not even when I was a kid (too nervous). Being a university professor also involves first days of school, and lots of them. But, like most academics, I approach first days with dread.

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 2.25.06 AMFor a professor, the first day of school means the end to languid, flexible days when you are responsible to no one. It means 16 straight weeks of lecture prep, boring faculty meetings, endless service commitments, an unrelenting tide of email, and grading grading grading. The first day of school also brings with it the Crushing Awareness: no meaningful progress will be made on your research agenda for another four months. The weight of projects left unfinished settles over you like some combination of deathly pall and nettlesome hair shirt, ensuring that every free moment is tainted by a  gnawing guilt: “I should be working.”And when I say “every free moment,” I mean, when you’re on the treadmill, or in the shower, at a party, eating breakfast, having sex, crashing your car, writing your blog, walking your dog, caring for your mom, suffering a heart attack (or stroke, in my case–true story), walking the beach, or opening Christmas presents–that feeling is always there.
Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 2.31.58 AM

I have had homework every night of my life for 22 straight years.

But, as a student once more, I love first days of school. The classes I take are like a well-made play: they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Most significantly of these, they end. And then a pleasant feeling of accomplishment sets in. Every moment leading up to that, starting with the night before the first day of school, is relished in anticipation of that simple, golden realization: I finished something I set out to do.

That happened to me once, as a scholar. I finished my book, sent the final draft off to the publisher, and eventually–after dealing with permissions, cover art, galleys, and feeble attempts at marketing–there was no more work to do. At last–7 years since it was a dissertation, and 11 years after I started it–I could cross “Finish book” off my list of things to do. Then, almost immediately, pressure started to mount to begin the illusive “second project.” And the guilt set in again..
IMG_4973Tomorrow I start Introduction to Nutrition. I am excited! I bought my textbook early–brand new, but something called “looseleaf,” meaning I had to buy a binder for it. No matter–I got a sassy green one with a clear cover. I’ve already packaged it up, inserting the textbook’s fruity cover into the sleeve, and it all looks fabulous. I got a matching folder, for handouts, and I bought a new sheaf of college-ruled, 8.5X11″ (none of this 8X10.5″ bullshit the kids are into) notebook paper for my notes. I cleared my A&P notes (nearly 100 pages, taken by hand) out of my Grand Teton binder, printed out my new syllabus, and packaged that up too. I also restocked my mechanical pencil with lead and a fat new eraser. Finally, I cleaned my A&P I books and note cards (100s of those too!) out of my school totebag. The best part was when I found a flattened, but still totally edible, Reese’s Peanut Buttercup in the pocket. Score!

Perhaps when I have finished Introduction to Nutrition, I will no longer be so romanced by candy. I hope so!

The totebag, btw, was purchased at a street market by my friend (since middle school) while she was on shore leave in the Philippines. It has weird cartoon cats on it, and polka dots, and its broken-English captions read, “Plip!” and “My heart will is about to burst!”

That sounds about right. My hear will is about to burst, because it’s the first day of school!

Plip!

 

Nervous System

Digging deep today. We are in that part of the semester, when everyone is bored and exhausted and overwhelmed. There are just a few weeks to go, the weather is nice, and no one wants to be in school. On sunny days, the campus commons devolve into a flesh show of bare legs and shoulders and mid-drifts, and the students constantly try to con their professors into having class outside.

It’s never a good idea. Wet butts, wind noise, a million distractions. One time, my students were attacked by an aggressive squirrel. It’s actually one of my proudest teaching moments, when my skills as an extemporaneous speaker fused beautifully with my skills as an ultimate frisbee disc handler. Mid-sentence on a lecture about human depravity, I whipped a 2-inch piece of mulch at the aggressor squirrel from 12 feet away. Beaned it right in the head. I never paused, never commented, just kept going. My students were in awe of me that day. Which was also the last time I ever agreed to have class outside.

But since I am a student now too, all I want to do is have class outside. Or not at all. Because my brain is full, and I am exhausted.

Speaking of brains, we recently dissected a fetal sheep brain in my Anatomy & Physiology class. We never get to do fun stuff like that in a humanities class, which is all, “As so and so says” and “perils of the human condition” and rhetorical masturbation, blah blah blah. In addition to being boring, the classes I teach are also extremely depressing. In fact, one of my students was so upset from material we discussed last week that she told me she cried for an hour afterword.

Yea. 😦

brain 4
You can see the arbor vitae in the round structures on either side of the brain stem.

I loved dissection. Brains are fascinating! My favorite part of the brain is the arbor vitae (“tree of life”), which is a formation of white tissue inside the cerebellum that looks like a tree when you cut it in half. It is so beautiful and mysterious. I am in love with brains.

But, as I said, mine is full. I have yet another exam–my 7th or 8th, I’ve lost count–tomorrow morning. I should be studying now, but I don’t want to. I should be studying always, but I don’t have time. Between teaching and research commitments and a taxing administrative job, I squeeze my studying in when I can. I have developed a ritual for that purpose: waking up at 4:30 AM on the morning of my test, studying in bed while the dog sleeps beside me, then arriving at school by 7 to study in a commons area. It’s quiet for the first hour, then other students filter in. I get to glare like a mad woman at people who disturb my peace, and I have been known to interrogate students before they sit down.

Brain 2
This is what education looks like in the 21st century: everyone uses phones to document lab activities, but drawing would probably help us learn more!

“Are you planning to talk?” I ask them. “Yes? Well, would you mind going to the lounge down the hall?” They comply, because I look and sound like a professor. Or just a crazy old lady. I would never have done such a thing when I was their age, but now I am old, and I don’t have patience for their noise. If all else fails, I listen to Chopin on my headphones. If you’re wondering, yes, I have wadded-up Kleenexes inside my sleeves and hard candies in my purse. My driver’s license says I’m 44, but all other evidence points to 80.

 

Finally, at 9:30 it’s time for the exam, which requires more intensity and focus than I have mustered in years. If we have class afterwards, I finish at 12:15. Then I start my grownup day.

Last week, I got to experience the extremes of the examination continuum. In the morning, I took a lab practical in my freshman-level biology class. Then, at 2 PM, I helped to administer an oral comprehensive exam to one of my doctoral students.

I used to say, with relief, that my orals were the last exam I would ever have to take. I reveled in that fact: I had summited the pinnacle of educational advancement, and oh, what a fantastic view! But, eventually, sitting at the top of the mountain started to feel less like an achievement and more like a sentence.

“Does anyone know how to get down from here?” I find myself wondering. “Because, um, I’m kind of stuck.”

Last week, when I took a freshman-level exam and administered a doctoral-level exam, I was palpably aware of which I enjoyed more. I loved learning about brains, poking them, memorizing their features, and demonstrating my mastery on an objectively measured test. It was challenging, but exciting too. I was proud of myself afterward.

By contrast, I hated delivering the oral comprehensive exam, because it combines the worst features of my job: literature review and performance. I was worried about how my student would perform, for her sake, but also because orals are a literal performance, of her abilities and my teaching, for the benefit of my colleagues. Oral comps also tend to get conversational, meaning, I had to perform smartypantsedness for my colleagues. The problem is, I don’t actually like to read in my field of study (more on that some other time), and I am not up-to-date on the literature I should know. Faking my way through these exams is intellectually and emotionally draining. Plus, I internalize all of my students’ stress, so I am a nervous wreck for both of us. I was relieved when it was over, but I did not feel the least bit proud. In fact, I felt like a fraud.

A friend of mine pointed out that acquiring a competency is always exciting, for people who love to learn. Someday, if I change fields, I would eventually have to account for my expertise in a similarly stressful setting. So it is illogical to compare my enthusiasm for a freshman exam with my weariness over an orals.

“Apples and oranges,” she said.

Brain 3
So lovely! You can make out the olfactory nerve bulbs on the left and the optic chiasma in the middle. Anatomy is a dream come true for people who love big words!

“Sheep brains and human brains,” I say. They have more in common than you would think.

Still, I don’t take her point lightly. It is hard to know what it would feel like to move into the medical profession and be accountable for other people’s health. New stresses, bigger stresses, I am sure. But new rewards, too? Perhaps. Whether they would make me happy, I cannot say.

Right now, though, I feel like I climbed a mountain without much thought for what I would do if I arrived at the top, and with no plan for how to get back down. I need a rope ladder, a helicopter. Or maybe just another mountain. Either way, as the title of this blog suggests, I can’t stay here.

I’ll figure that out later. Right now, I have a dog to walk, a nervous system to master, and an exam to take in the morning.

The Perils of Marie

I haven’t posted in over a week, in part because I have been SUPER busy, with work, more work, and school, including two Anatomy & Physiology exams (lecture and a lab practicum) in the same week. It turns out, one cannot master the entire muscular system in a single study session that begins at 4:30 AM. I still don’t know my extensor hallucis brevis from a hole in the leg*, but I knew enough to eke out a B on the test. I am proud of that.

I am also proud to have been featured as an editor’s pick on WordPress Discover, which indeed resulted in many new readers discovering this blog. Your visits have been duly noted, your follows are most welcome, and your feedback has been truly humbling. Thank you for joining me here. 🙂

As a college professor in the humanities, my job requires constant creative output, yet at the same time scholars maintain an icy nonchalance about their work. It is considered gauche to crave public attention, and we are not supposed to need positive feedback (let alone compensation) for most of what we produce. Indeed, I have published an entire book, into which I poured my heart and soul, and it generated less attention in several years than this blog has gotten in a single week. (Unfortunately, I can’t tell you about my book, because I have to write this blog anonymously, lest I incur the enmity of my peers. Academia is a little like a cult and a lot like a gang. If I get jumped out, I want it to be my choice!) According to the culture of academia, I should be nonplussed by your interest in my writing. But I’m not! I appreciate and value your visits to this space and the time you have taken to read my words. And the kind words you have written about me, my family’s situation, and my writing have lifted my spirits like a warm spring day. I am grateful.

On the other hand, positive feedback is a little scary, especially in this format. My new audience of readers is free to come and go at will, unfettered by the hassle of climbing over other people to make their escape from the theater. There is no post-purchase regret to guilt you into reading through to the end, nor is there a teacher demanding a cogent analysis of the contents. If I don’t entertain you, you’ll drop me like a dull elective class. And I will watch the bar graphs that track my views diminish like a glass being drained from the bottom. Hence, the other reason I haven’t written recently: I don’t want to disappoint my new readers.

I’ve thought it over, though, and I’ve decided, “Screw that.” The project of the blog remains: This is a space for me to figure stuff out. Hard stuff, like:

  • Do I want to quit my job and blow up my successful academic career like, well, everything in a Michael Bay movie?
  • rotj-death-star
    How do you know when it’s time to get out?

    If I do flee from academia, like a rebel pilot fleeing the exploding Death Star, where do I land? What do I do for a living? How do I finally get a dishwasher for my kitchen?

  • If I stay in academia, how do I make teaching and research meaningful again?
  • In my personal life, how do I nurture my family through my parents’ final years?
  • How do I meet a nice man who wants to have adult wrestling time in addition to, not instead of, taking me to dinner?
  • If my life stories are so interesting to other people, why am I so bored?
  • And, most urgently, what will make me happy?

If I wrote this blog like I’ve lived much of my life, I would remain paralyzed by indecision over what would irritate a bunch of strangers least. Or, as I put it in a plaintive Facebook post during a low ebb last year, ” ‘I don’t want to let you down’ has been the operating principle of my life, but I’ve never actually said it to myself.”

That’s not where I’m at anymore, at least not all the time.

I am going to keep writing. And I am going to keep writing for me, because that’s all I know how to do. I can promise honesty. I can promise stories. They won’t always be interesting, but they will be interesting often enough. That’s just how life is.

Perilsofpauline
Oh my! How ever will she get out of this one?!

Though, my mother used to say that my life is like “The Perils of Pauline”–a cliffhanger at every turn. My dad used to say I was a shit magnet. In fact, he said it again last night. Sigh.

As I look back on the last 30 or so years, I do seem to have had a lot of drama.

That’s ok! I don’t mind being compared to Pauline. Whether you’re talking about the original 1914 silent serials, the 1933 serial remakes, or the 1947 film that charmed my mother as a little girl, Pauline is always a plucky, adventurous single woman whose dire straits are the natural consequence of trying to lead an interesting life. She survives dangling from a hot air balloon, being tied up in a burning house, being tied to railroad tracks, and hanging from a cliff–always just long enough for her beau to rescue her.

I can relate, except for that last part. I am usually the one who gets me into trouble, but I am always the one who gets me out. This blog, like the undergraduate courses I’ve been taking, is the present manifestation of that process: a bobby pin to pick the lock, if you will, or a shard of glass to cut the rope. That buzzsaw has gotten awfully close, and it may yet cause me a few split ends, but I am getting out of this sawmill one way or another!

Because I don’t want to let me down.

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 8.23.43 PM
Pauline and I share an affinity for curly hair, a strong lip, and new experiences. 

 

* Speaking of a hole in the leg, remind me to tell you about my one-legged criminal boyfriend sometime. He was (and looked) so much older than me that he pretended to have lost his leg in Vietnam! In fact, his best friend shot him on a drunken hunting trip. It strained their relationship, sure, but they were good by the time I met them. In fact, my boyfriend was impersonating the best friend–something about arrest warrants–when we met. The one-legged criminal was the first of two men I have dated who claimed to be someone else. Like I said, stories…

 

 

 

The Lost Hour

In less than an hour, it will be two hours from now–such is the wonder of Daylight Savings.

We will all wake up groggy and cranky in the morning. Those who use their cell phones as alarms, or who remembered to advance their old-school clocks, will awake on time but poorer for the loss of an hour’s sleep. Those who forgot about the time change will awake refreshed, but irritated as shit that they are late for brunch or church or Sunday Funday. The academics will simply go to work.

For all us college folk, Sunday is a work day, because there is school the next day. And for thousands of us, this particular Sunday marks not just the end of the weekend, but the end of spring break… also known as, The Last Time I Will Feel Rested Until May.

On my spring “break,” I worked every single day. The break part involved some long walks with the dog and a friend, but that was it–no dinners out, no drinking, no shopping, no gardening, no travel, nothing but work and a little laundry. For all of that deprivation, I have almost nothing to show. My kitchen is clean, I have clean underwear, and the checkbook is balanced. But the taxes remain undone, the basement still reeks of mold, and the floors need to be shaved, there’s so much dog hair floating about. And I barely penetrated The List–the epic list that all academics maintain of projects that must be managed, papers that must be graded, knowledge that must be produced.

Forty minutes left.

For a blog that is supposed to help me work out whether I want to continue in my current profession, it has not escaped my notice that I hardly ever write about my job. My feelings are too complex, and the task of untangling it feels too onerous. It’s just easier to focus on bad dates and old wounds.

Thirty minutes left.

Here is my to-do list:

  • Grade 41 undergraduate essays 3-5 pages in length.
  • Grade 9 graduate book reviews, 3-5 pages in length.
  • Offer 14 graduate students feedback on their research projects.
  • Read and offer feedback on a doctoral dissertation.
  • Read and offer feedback on a doctoral dissertation proposal.
  • Prep lecture notes for two courses.
  • Revise a syllabus for which I am hopelessly behind.
  • Calculate midterm grades for 20 undergraduates and upload them. Write an evaluation of a learning disabled student.
  • Send three thoughtful emails to job candidates about their interviews.
  • Write an apologetic, but not too apologetic, email to a bunch of scholars who are really mad at me for dropping the ball on a shared project.
  • Answer a bunch of emails and do a bunch of paperwork related to my administrative job.
  • Figure out if I want to resign from my administrative job.

Twenty-five minutes left.

These are the tasks I have to do by Monday. And they do not include the writing–two 7,000-character essays and a chapter-length essay–that are months over due. I told myself that I could not return from spring break without completing them, because I would never find the time until the summer. They were to be my highest priority. I haven’t even started.

And when I say I haven’t even started, I mean, I haven’t even started researching them.

Why am I so behind at my work? What do I do all day? Where does the time go?

I can tell you where it went this week, and every week. It went towards administrative responsibilities. Most people don’t understand how universities function, that they run off of the invisible, uncompensated labor of faculty (and staff) who are leveraged to perform this work through a variety of means that never seem to involve money: there’s guilt, that students will be harmed; the promise of tenure/threat of being fired; and the unwillingness to let friends and colleagues suffer as a result of one’s own recalcitrance. Most of us put our heads down and forge ahead.

Twenty minutes.

I joke that my administrative job is 10 percent of my salary but 50 percent of my time. It’s a terrible joke, because it’s true, and because I can’t pay my mortgage with terrible jokes. I was told that this job would involve “the least amount of work you can do and still call yourself an administrator.” That would have been true if I were constitutionally capable of doing a shitty job, if I had no belief in the integrity of my university or the sanctity of education, and if I constantly overlooked glaring problems of inefficiency and rank incompetence. But I’m not, and I didn’t, and I can’t. Someday I will write a post about the absurdities I’ve encountered in this job… like…

…the professor who told an applicant she was a shoo-in for admission to a graduate program she wasn’t remotely qualified to enter. And then the professor mishandled issuing the denial of admission. And then the applicant went bonkers. Bonkers. As in, 2,000-word emails in the middle of the night, “I’m being persecuted like Martin Luther King,” “You need to be punished,” BONKERS. That mess took six months to clean up.

Nine minutes left.

At a university, they call this kind of work “service,” and it accounts for 20 percent of our performance evaluations. The  problem, of course, is that teaching accounts for 40 percent of our performance evaluations, and research activity accounts for about 80 percent. Granted, I’m in the humanities, but…I think there’s a problem with the math. So I grind out the service during the school year, I give my students the best of what’s left over, and I make up the scholarship (research, writing, publishing, presenting at conferences) on spring break and over the summer. I have taken perhaps a week off from work altogether–as in, seven days without doing so much as an email–in the last five years.

In two minutes it will be daylight savings time. The clock on this laptop will spring forward to three AM. And I will be one hour further behind.

 

 

 

Career: Academic Advising

career /kəˈrir/

verb [no obj.]

To move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way in a specified direction.

[Ed. Note: This is the first post under the category “Career,” in which I explore topics related to my current job and what I am going to do with the rest of my professional life. At present, I am so betwixt and between that I am thinking more in terms of the verb form of the word than the noun.]

I am trying to choose what course to take in the spring, and it’s complicated. First, there is the issue of what course to take, because I have six more prerequisites to pick up if I want to keep the nursing option open. I have done well so far in my human development class (straight As, thank you very much!), but I am terrified of stats and biology. Should I take nutrition or bioethics–the two I am more likely to do well in–and get my feet under me? Or should I push on to human anatomy & physiology? The difference could mean delaying application to a program by a year, based on when courses are offered, so it’s not an incidental decision. What should I do?

NO, SERIOUSLY, WHAT SHOULD I DO? Feel free to tell me in the comments!

The other concern is where to take a class. I can take another course at the local community college, but there are educational, scheduling, and financial considerations: I don’t think the instruction will be as good, I will have to spend more time in the car during what will be a crushing semester, and I will have to bear the tuition cost myself. If I take a course at the university where I work, the instruction might be better, the scheduling would be somewhat easier, and the tuition would be free. But this is a fraught option.

My main concern with taking a course where I work is that I might blow my cover. I am more likely to run into colleagues and especially students I know, who might wonder why they have a humanities professor for their lab partner. The biggest worry is that my department chair would have to sign off on the tuition waiver, which is standard for staff but highly unusual for faculty. He might wonder what I am up to, especially if I continue to register for nursing prerequisites. And he might later penalize me on my annual evaluation for not using my free time to pad my CV.

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 6.18.23 PM
Fun with autocomplete!

This is one of the things I don’t like about my current job. Being an academic involves the performance of scholarship and smarty-pantsedness under the constant scrutiny of one’s colleagues. And, despite their liberal pretensions, my colleagues are totally heteronormative about it! No one would bat an eye if I took time out to make a baby, but the challenges of being a single gal–emergency shopping to get ready for yet another first date, patching up your broken heart after yet another breakup, to say nothing of, say, picking up undergraduate prerequisites to start a new career–would not pass muster. Working where I work is like having ten sets of disappointed parents who judge you for not living up to their expectations.

You might be wondering, “Who gives a s**t what they think? Don’t you have tenure?”  I do, yes, and it is wonderful! But tenure doesn’t mean what people think it means. At a public university, it simply means “appointment without term,” which is essentially the condition under which most people work: you have a job until you don’t. The benefit of tenure is that they can only fire you for cause, not to save money or for the content of your research. Yea for academic freedom! Which, in all sincerity, is extremely important, and I will defend its necessity to my dying day.

Despite these blessings,  tenure doesn’t guarantee continued professional success. At my university, a professor’s research productivity is regularly evaluated for three reasons: promotion, performance-based raises, and teaching load. Spending time learning about human development is not helping me write my second book, which is the key to my next promotion. Also, failure to perform up to expectation will result in smaller raises, though it’s hard to imagine them being smaller than they have been for the last several years! Most concerning, if I don’t produce enough publications, my department could raise my teaching load to intellectual jackhammering levels, making my job no longer worth having.

In short, I have a lot to lose.

It’s ok (I tell myself). I will figure it out (I tell myself). I will be ok no matter what (I tell myself).

Career!

Don’t career.

drive-off-cliff-gaz