Hello earthlings. If you haven’t heard this discussion on the Brian Lehrer show, it’s pretty good. Nothing new if you’ve been living the dream yourself but a lot of the callers have interesting personal stories to share.
I’m in a bit of a personal non drug induced haze these days but will be writing some new shit soon.
This post is long overdue.
But every time I’ve sat down to write it, I come down with a terrible case of ennui. And boredom is so much worse when its french, no? The whole thing was so strange that a month later, I still don’t think I’ve been able to process my feelings about it.
So the viva, defense, simulated drowning, whatever you want to call it wasn’t actually that bad. I ‘studied’ for weeks, which mostly involved torturing myself by rereading my thesis several times and alternately praising my own genius (rare moments, let me tell ya) and mostly crying about how dumb I am and how the examiners are going to see right through the thin veneer of my ‘expertise’ which is in fact more narrow and insubstantial than the ‘wood’ part of an ikea dresser. Then I reread 5-10 of the books I relied on most heavily to do my research, and beat myself up even more about all of these good bits that I didn’t quote, or realized that I didn’t actually understand the author’s argument, and shit, what if they ask me about (insert random theory I could care less about here), because I will have nothing to say and look like a fool.
So basically, the month or so I took preparing for the viva was like the condensed soup version of the last 3 ish years. All of the emotions you experience during the course of your phd timesmushed one last panic bursty rush. And the worst bit is the knowledge that you can’t really really prepare for a viva. Rereading your thesis and being really familiar with your own work is really all you can do. I have a friend who went though her entire bibliography and wrote a paragraph sized summary of every single thing she read. (I was too lazy, too disorganized, and too disinterested to do that.) In the end, did they end up asking her about any of these fucking sources? No. Although you could get caught out by some dickhead examiner who will ask. So yeah. But anyways, the only bit of my manic preparations that helped was rereading my own thesis, but I do say that with the caveat that unfortunately this advice ended up working in my situation but might not in yours. YMMV and other internet acronyms. To anyone preparing for their viva, I’d suggest doing whatever level of prep will help alleviate your anxiety and not make you feel worse, whatever that is.
The viva itself was actually kind of fun. My examiners had both clearly read my thesis and were familiar with a number of the primary texts I used. They started off by telling me how much they enjoyed (?!?!!!?!) reading it and asked me a whole bunch of interesting questions that either asked me to clarify my position on something or asked my opinion on something else. There was only one part where I metaphorically shat myself- they asked about some obscure philosopher whose name I never fucking heard of in my life, but I was able to explain why it didn’t occur to me to go there, and they accepted that just fine. But for the like 5 minutes while ze went on and on about the works of this person, I was imagining that I was chained to a desk like Bartleby the Scrivener in some room made of algae covered stones with iron clamps around my legs, reading shitty books about this philosopher and writing yet MORE crap until I squeezed myself between the rusty window bars and jumped out the window to my doom.
But here I am still, so obviously it didn’t come to that.
I will say that the university’s impartial moderator (whose function was to fill out the paperwork and make sure nobody got stabbed?) was very fucking rude. Ze was texting the entire fucking time and after about an hour, started making throat clearing noises, because this was probably interfering with hir SimCity or feeding stray cats time or whatever the fuck they wanted to go home and do. Which ok, I get that this isn’t particularly fascinating for you and its one more shitty administrative duty you have to do for your shitty tenured job with amazing benefits and good pay, but seriously sit the fuck down because this is the only time in my life I will be in the same room as people who have read my thesis and want to fucking discuss it with me, bitch.
The final result is that I passed with minor corrections, so just a few typos to fix. I still can’t believe it. I do know how lucky I got with my examiners. Really fucking lucky that they 1. read the thesis 2. behaved like compassionate human beings 3. had totally reasonable expectations for a phd thesis and realize that I am not a 73 year old wizard guru with infinite knowledge. And thank Allah for that, because after all of the shitty experiences I’ve had with various advisers, I needed a fucking break.
My brain is still trying to process the mindfuck though. Because according to these people, my ideas were original and convincing and my writing was GOOD and INTERESTING and shit. And I’m not saying this to sound like I’m up my own ass, but to hopefully provide some reassurance for anyone out there that has heard nothing but how stupid they are for the last 3,4,5 years that it’s not fucking true. I was told up until the time I submitted (for the parts of my thesis that my adviser actually claimed to have read) that there were chapters where ze just ‘didn’t buy the argument.’ Guess which chapters the examiners liked best? And based on the very specific things said examiners referenced, I knew they took the time to actually read it. So after 3+ years of being told that my ideas weren’t deep enough, that I needed a writing tutor, and never getting any kind of positive feedback, these independent examiners evaluated my work in detail and felt that it was good enough for a phd.
Maybe I should feel vindicated? Run around with my spartan brushy helmet thing beating my gold plated breastplate, yelling incomprehensible testosterone fueled shit? I don’t know what to feel, besides relief. I’m so glad I don’t have to write anything else and that I can finally graduate and be done with it and that I’m free from that horrible sadistic relationship of submitting work and getting shat on for no reason. But I don’t feel proud or like I accomplished something. I just feel like I survived. Which is a start, right? But why did I put myself through this torture to begin with? Was it worth it? I honestly don’t know.
This is all made more complicated by the fact that I am now unemployed. You see, getting a phd really fucking impressed that shitty school I was working for. I want to say more about this but there’s some investigation thing going on surrounding my unceremonious discharge so I’m going to wait until that’s resolved to get into specifics.
I’m very very lucky in that I have a partner with a job and health insurance and a good support network. Thank god for that. I’m going to use the time between now and graduation to focus on getting my writing ‘business’ off the ground. More on that soon.
I’m trying to study for my viva, and by ‘try’, I mostly mean freak out and create post-apocalyptic scenarios that involve the examiners trying to eat my puny brains whilst my books gather a layer of dust not unlike that of Miss Havisham’s wedding cake.
I’ve reread my thesis and wrote one page summaries of each chapter. Rereading that shit was a very odd experience- one minute, I felt proud and kind of impressed with myself, then just when my head was in danger of getting too big, I’d flip the page and read something so embarrassing that I just wanted to crawl into bed forever like one of Charlie Bucket’s grandparents (not Grandpa Joe, obviously).
But since I don’t have any badass matching pajamas or a minion to bring me nourishing bowls of stew and crusty bread, I’ve avoided the comfort of my shitty ikea mattress. Instead, I’ve read the first few google pages resulting in ‘commonly asked viva questions’ and come up with what I hope are passable answers. Thank Zeus I am a trained academic with all of these skills at my disposal!!1
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this link, where a fellow blogger has written much more eloquently about this sadistic process:
I remember talking to a friend who had submitted hir phd a few months ahead of me and after all of the congratulations and buying of drinks, I asked how they felt.
“Eh, just the same as before,” my friend replied.
“WTF dawg?” I definitely did not say. “Don’t you feel relieved????”
“Not really. The whole thing is kind of anticlimactic,” said my friend.
I seriously could not understand this. But now that I’ve finally submitted my own thesis, my own catatonic state seems to reflect my friend’s experience.
I don’t really feel relief. I don’t really feel excited or proud. I do feel vaguely guilty that I’m not working on it anymore. Crazy, right? I think this lack of relief comes from the fact that I know I’ll have to defend the damn thing in several weeks time and then I may or may not have to make a few months worth of ridiculous changes. So this feels like more of a temporary reprieve than anything else.
I also feel guilty because the ‘finished’ version still had 87 holes that I know are there. A few things I couldn’t find for my bibliography, a few bits were I probably cited something wrong or didn’t elaborate when I should have. A friend who had been through this many years ago told me that everyone’s thesis has shit like this in it, and that nobody but me will be aware of ‘a few bricks missing from the cathedral.’ What a great mental image that is, no? I hope my friend is right. You get to a point where you can’t fucking work on the damn thing anymore, and it has to be over.
Hopefully the examiners agree.
It’s funny, because the disparity between the ‘oh the phd is a research exercise’ attitude schools officially espouse and the not on the university website attitude of ‘everything you’ve ever written sucks, gtfo of my office’ reality of advisement fuck with your head until you internalize your own shitty mediocrity.
Maybe that’s the real point of the phd?
Anyways hope all of you out there in blogland have a happy new year.
My life and mind are a completely disordered mess right now, so I will leave you with this tiny analogy.
My thesis will be submitted any minute now. As a result of continuous radio silence from my adviser, I am making some changes on my own before I cram this fucker into a bottle and throw it out to sea, hoping for one of this miraculous stories you hear on the news. Like my shitty bottle washes up at Bruce Springsteen’s shore house, so he randomly decides to give me 1 million Cashmoneys even though I hate his music.
As I try and fix this complete clusterfuck, I feel that kind of panic you might get a few minutes before you have to leave for an international flight. You haven’t packed your bags yet, you have no list of what you need to bring and you’re not 100% sure if you know where your passport or plane ticket is. So you’re just chucking random stuff into a duffle bag and hoping for the best, but pretty sure you are leaving out what is both obvious and essential.
I’ll update once I’ve boarded the flight.
Other job titles that I do not call my own:
1. Camp counselor
2.Cruise ship director
3. Airline customer service representative who will refund you 10% your ticket price because a sky waitress did not offer you a diet pepsi on your last journey
4. Asswiper for people who are, sadly, missing arms
There must be some cognitive dissonance going on somewhere though, because I feel like other people (ie my students and the Professional Student Enablers like Dr. University of Phoenix Online) think that I am being paid a pitiful wage to perform the aforementioned tasks.
It was brought to my attention recently that several “complaints” have been lodged against me. What was the numero uno complaint, you ask?
(wait for it. it’s good.)
I AM NOT FUN.
I can’t say it better than Capt. Daniels. First of all, like I mentioned earlier, it is not my fucking job to entertain you. Although on some level this comment does hurt me, because I try my hardest to make my class relevant and entertaining. But at some point, we are going to have to do some fucking work. When it comes time to do that work, I tell the students EXACTLY what I am looking for. I give out rubrics. I have examples of what an “A” paper looks like. I then repeat my instructions until I feel like a dried up old sitcom actor relegated to the dinner theater circuit, because half the class has arrived 30 minutes late and wants to know if they missed anything ‘important.’ And certainly I am not asking a lot from them. You could ask the same from a 6th grader and they’d do it with less drama. But when my instructions are ignored and they turn in something that was clearly done 10 minutes before class and, as a result, get a failing grade.. well yeah it’s not exactly a day at the fairground.
Also. not everything in life is fucking fun. I remember my own undergraduate experience being challenging and rewarding, and yes good times were had, but most of the ‘fun’ I remember involved underage drinking. Classes with my favorite undergraduate professor were difficult and exhilarating and fucking awesome. But ‘fun’ is something you have watching stupid youtube clips of people jumping off roofs onto trampolines.
This conversation with Dr. UofP Online was so infuriating. I am a fucking professional! I am a hair’s width from having my phd (sob). I do my work with integrity, and trust me, I take into account the limitations of my particular student population. Nevertheless, I was told that I need to ‘remember where I am.’
It’s impossible to fucking forget where I am.
I don’t see any cobblestones or marble or other building materials that imply ancient tradition or scholarly rigor. But I am still at an accredited college and I don’t see how a 10 page reading assignment and the expectation that people have their heads up and eyes open is asking too much.
“Not fun” is synonymous for having standards besides the ability to fog a mirror. So because I have some standards and don’t take shit from lazy fuckers, they think they can lodge complaints about me all the live long day. And they are right, because they can, and assholes like Dr. UofP online take their complaints seriously.
In many places, this is the reality of ‘higher ed.’
And I feel trapped, because why the hell else did I get a phd if not to dig in this mine?
Yesterday I rediscovered an old mix
tape cd from my undergraduate days. These songs were the background noise for a really exciting time in my life. I was getting ready to graduate, giving my passport a good workout every few months, and crizazy in love. I felt so fucking happy and hopeful about the future.
Hearing those songs again after such a long time really jolted me. I had forgotten what it felt like to be 21 and uncrushed by the world. That electric feeling, like you’re going to go out and grab the universe by the balls and do all of this cool shit, just gradually faded away until I forgot it ever existed. Then you wake up and it’s 10 years later and you feel trapped by the mundane nature of your daily routine and all the shitty things you don’t really want to do but you’ve convinced yourself that you have to. It’s easy to forget that you have a choice.
And this is fucking tragic. I know that I whine and complain a lot on this blog, and I’m grateful to have it as an outlet, but just because academia is stupid and my adviser is stupid and my job is stupid, so what?
SO FUCKING WHAT?
I have a place to sleep at night, food to eat, and someone to love. I am fucking rich yo! And as long as I’m alive, anything can happen! I can do the things I was excited to do before I willingly let academia fit me for cement shoes. I can change my job. I can change who I associate with and try to think more positively. Once I submit my thesis and finish teaching this semester, I can walk away from those things and try to find meaningful work that doesn’t give me restless leg syndrome. Or maybe I won’t find meaningful work. Then I can find something that I don’t mind and seek fulfillment elsewhere.
I AM ALIVE! And if you’re reading this, you probably are too! This just gets better and better!
I’ll leave you with two of the songs that, 10 years later, still make me feel very fucking lucky that we are here and capable of making such beautiful things.