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    Sobriquet 49.6

    Saturday, December 6, 2008
    Today was one of those days when, if the lingering pain from my accident hadn't kept me from doing so, I'd've spent ten or more hours working on my dissertation. And, to be honest, this would not have been a wholly positive thing. You see, my urge to work as much and as long as possible today does not stems from the sort of sublime scholarly joie de vivre academics occasionally experience when the pleasure of his or her work renders such activity less work than bliss. I have had the pleasure of meeting a few such individuals, the sort of men and women for whom the dusty stacks in some forlorn corner of a library are as beautiful a sight as the Taj Mahal or St. Basil's. They're usually wonderfully quirky folks, from what I have seen.

    But, at the moment, I am not of that admirable clan and, while I derive a great deal of satisfaction and pleasure from learning about South Africa and J. M. Coetzee, I did not feel the tinglings of that great scholastic joy to which I referred earlier. No, my desire to work is essentially a desire to close what has become a long, tedious, and largely unpleasant chapter of my life.

    My concern with the purgatorial liminality in which the average doctoral student may find him- or herself is certainly not something new to readers of this blog, but I find myself particularly unsettled by it tonight and would like to address the topic again.

    The dissertation or, more specifically, the stage in one's life the dissertation represents, is often a highly isolating one. It is the stage of one's academic life when he or she sets out to walk a path hitherto untrod. I recall a friend of mine in Montreal, a doctoral candidate in physics, speaking of the difficulty he had in relating to his family because they simply had no way of comprehending the esoteric nature of his studies. Now, of course, one needn't share everything one does with one's relations, but my friend's predicament expresses a bittersweet truth: the deeper one delves into his or her studies, the fewer and fewer the people with whom he or she can share that passion. For many doctoral candidates, the dissertation literally marks the charting of new ground. We are encouraged, if not outright forced, to go where no man has gone before, thus placing us in a situation where we have no one with whom to commiserate except other people who can relate not to the subject of our work but merely the experience.

    Now, this would not be so bad if it weren't for the fact that so much of our mental energies are devoted to the dissertation that we cannot always leave it behind when we go about our everyday lives. I mean, ninety percent of the time I am delighted when some bit of wisdom from Levinas or Coetzee illuminates some bit of my day at the supermarket or the bowling alley, but there are times when I struggle to shake the dissertation out of my mind. If I am out with friends, say, and some nugget of insight unexpectedly alights on my brain, I am prone to drop out of the present moment to mentally note whatever it is I so serendipitously realized. Likewise, if I am anxious to finish some task or another, I find it rather hard to do anything else or, at the very least, I do not enjoy things as thoroughly as I would if I feel the dissertation looming over my shoulder like a cartoon conscience steering me towards right behavior.

    But that's not really all that bad. The liminality of it, though, can be annoying. It's difficult for me to fully disengage myself from the dissertation. I live as if I am two beings at once: the dissertation Erik and normal Erik. We share the same space but, in many ways, we cannot coexist. Dissertation Erik wants to work all the time while normal Erik wants to sleep in, listen to punk rock and, most tellingly, not work on a dissertation, ever.

    More broadly, the dissertation-writing student is a liminal being in the sense that he or she is neither fully a student nor fully an academic. We teach classes, sure, but we (or, most of us, at least) are most assuredly not professors. We may teach the same classes, we may publish articles in the same journals, we may have the same male pattern baldness and crow's feet, but we earn a fraction of the money and rarely have the fringe benefits of bona-fide (i.e. non-adjunct) faculty. And there are, obviously, legitimate reasons for this. Still, we find ourselves in the sort of financial situation that someone much younger than we might expect. Accordingly, many of us live in the same relatively ramshackle environments, imbibe and ingest the same questionable nutritional fare, drive the same clunkers, and dress similar to college students. This isn't necessarily bad, of course, but when such circumstances are not freely-chosen (yes, I know, attending grad school is a choice, blah blah blah. . .), we may feel a bit like Billy Madison in the dreadful Adam Sandler film of the same name. Especially when our non-grad student peers can afford, say, napkins with their ramen noodles.

    And it is the financial difficulties that often hit me the hardest. I could take out loans, of course, but given the current economic climate as well as the notoriously competitive academic job market, I am not sure I could pay them off in a timely manner. So I choose the "honest" route and work my way through school. The problem with this is that, for those of us who want to work in education, the choices are limited and job security is pretty hard to come by. Many of us end up adjuncting, which can be wonderful if the situation is right. I, myself, have worked as an adjunct at several schools and have had really good experiences. However, adjuncting contracts are often offered on a term-by-term, as-needed basis, with no guarantee of renewal and no medical benefits. Another difficulty with adjuncting is that, frequently, grad students are stuck teaching the work-intensive classes regular faculty members pass on, some of which can be quite demanding. Balancing employment with one's own work, for some, is a very difficult task.

    I have been pretty fortunate, myself, having had the opportunity to teach many classes related to my field of expertise. Still, lacking a terminal degree, I have no way to ensure that I will find such employment in any given semester, which makes it difficult to maintain a comfortable, even when unabashedly Spartan, life. Sometimes I wonder if, despite my love of teaching, a wiser bet would be for me to find a more secure job so that I could finish my dissertation without having always to worry about whether or not I can afford rent or, you know, a burrito.

    Still, at times like this, when my frustrations come to a head, it is the dissertation that I turn to for some sense of accomplishment. If I can get something done on it, I reason, I can take a degree of satisfaction from having made progress. So, it can be a life line.

    And that's another thing about the dissertation: it has this dualistic quality of both giving and taking life. On the one hand, I feel accomplished and I have met a good many people as a result of my research. On the other hand, I am isolated from my friends and family, both in the physical sense that I am somewhat tethered to a location far from my closest friends and family, as well as in the metaphysical sense my physicist friend alluded to that chilly evening in Quebec.

    And it is this isolation, I think, that I find most troubling. Were I younger, I suspect that the distance would be more easily dismissed as a temporary thing. Now, however, I perceive myself as "stuck somewhere because of my dissertation. Naturally, I could find work elsewhere, closer to my loved ones, but after spending several years in this area, I find that I have unwittingly spread roots here. I mean, I had to establish residency here in order to study at the university and with that residency comes a slew of tethering factors: I have worked here and I know people here. To move, whether I like it or not, probably requires that I be offered a lucrative enough position to make the move worth my while. Until I finish the degree, then, it looks like I will be here, in upstate New York. And, if I move now, I will be leaving the friends I have made here behind. . . and that's not good for someone feeling isolated, now is it?

    So I work on this thing, every day.

    Because a sizable part of me wants to pick up and leave, to start my life anew, I work on this thing every day.

    Because I have hopes and dreams too long deferred, I work on this thing, every day.

    Because I want to teach literature classes for a living, I work on this thing, every day.

    But mostly, I just want to be done, close the book on this chapter of my life and move on, do something else, be able to travel and see the people I care about.

    And today, more acutely than anytime recently, I have felt the emotional and vocational lacunae that the unfinished dissertation bores in my soul.

    So I work, gritting my teeth against the frustrations and fears of what has been a particularly rough week, feeling as if the dissertation is both the ball-and-chain holding me back and the plough with which I can turn the earth into which I plant the seeds for my future.

    For tomorrow: More.

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  1. From Minxy:

    I wish there was something I could do to help you get through your dissertation more quickly. All I can do is tell you that you're going to finish it...it may take more time than you planned, but you're making progress. That's better than the stagnation that some people experience. And it's also more than a lot of people, including myself, have or will ever accomplish. Don't worry, it'll get done. :)

    By Blogger Sobriquet Magazine on 06 December, 2008
     

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