(Post)Academia

Infinite Recursion

I remember, during my first year of T.A.ing a writing-intensive course, asking the exasperated rhetorical “who taught these kids how to write?” It was one of our favorite things to complain about in the T.A. office. Why couldn’t these college freshmen understand the concept of a thesis? Why did one particular student insist on ending every single paragraph of her paper with a summary sentence? (And why did she believe so thoroughly that she was right that it took confirmation from six other T.A.s before she would accept that I was onto something when I told her to stop doing that.) We blamed teachers. We blamed testing and the bizarre standards that go with it. In short, we blamed high school for college problems.

Now I teach middle school. The other day I listened to a colleague explain in detail how she could tell exactly which teacher her problem kids had the previous year. There’s a temptation to blame elementary teachers just as thoroughly as we used to blame high school teachers in the T.A. office. (We also blame parents, mind. Especially for discipline problems.)

I’m sure that if I end up teaching high school, I’ll be immersed in complaints about middle school teachers. That’s the way it goes: when you find a mess, you blame the last person who was in the room. We could run it all the way back to “why weren’t you reading to your kid when she was six months old.” (Seriously, though, read to your little kids! And your bigger ones.) And when we run it back that far, we can start going bigger: Why were you born poor? Why did you inherit that poverty from your parents? Why are achievement levels at your neighborhood elementary so bad that you can get an academic all-star just for meeting grade level expectations? Why?

“Who taught these kids how to write?”

That’s the wrong question. Not entirely wrong, because if we are going to change outcomes and improve the system, we eventually have to get at the systemic questions. Right now, though, we need to shut up about whoever had our students last. I’ve known good teachers and bad ones. I can’t think of a single one who didn’t care about his or her job. Some care more than others, but you don’t stay in teaching if you are not trying to help students learn.

We have students for a few hours each week. That’s it. Regardless of the level we’re teaching at, the students will spend more time outside our classroom than inside. We have to work with what they bring in with them, warts and all.

The question we need to ask ourselves is “how are we going to teach these kids to write?” (Or to understand science, solve math problems, understand history, or whatever.) Blaming other teachers won’t answer that question. Sometimes, when you walk into a messy room, the only real answer is to start cleaning it up.

Coming Up for Air

It’s hard to believe this is my fourth week of teaching. As with most high-intensity projects, it feels simultaneously like I’ve just started and that I’ve been doing it forever. The days have their rhythm, the gradebook is never caught up, and there’s always some conversation (or six) to snuff out in the middle of teacher talk.

Last night, though, I managed to squash catching up into the same evening as going out. For the second consecutive day, I stayed at school until 6. Monday I was setting up my classroom. Yesterday I was grading and catching up the gradebook so that my students can fully understand just how many assignments they have failed to turn in. Somewhere along the way my (awesome) wife talked me into getting a ticket for the Texas debut of Laurie Anderson’s Landfall (written for and performed with the Kronos Quartet).

I first ran into the Kronos Quartet while learning the ropes of composition as an undergrad. Along with the Bartok and Shostakovich quartets, I spent a good bit of time listening to the Macalester library’s selection of Kronos albums. They became my favorite ensemble, a status that persisted through grad school and only began to wear off when I moved out of the new music world and deeper into the dust of historical musicology.

I had never seen them live before. The year after I graduated from Mac, they played a concert in St. Paul. My wife went. I’ve managed to just miss them a few other times either through busy-ness or penury. Both were the case last night, but I went anyway. Going was harder to resist after I heard David Harrington and Laurie Anderson interviewed on my way home on Monday. I hadn’t known that Anderson was part of the production–she featured in the latter chapters of my dissertation. So…there were a lot of reasons to go.

I sat out the traffic (still thick at 6:15) in a Mexican restaurant an exit up the interstate from my school. My server spoke no English, which kept things interesting. (It was also interesting to discover that the long green strips with my carnitas were jalapeno and not bell pepper.) The food was good and I felt slightly less lame about my Spanish as guests from the neighboring hotel wandered in. Sooner or later, though, I’m going have to get my foreign language centers adapted to not break into German in the middle of trying to speak Spanish.

Traffic remained annoying even after I finished my dinner, but the U.T. campus was not far. I managed to find the parking garage without getting lost, even. (I stubbornly maintain my flip-phone usage, so I couldn’t fall back on GPS.) I still had time to wander around campus a bit before going to the concert hall.

Guys, being on campus on a fall evening as the sun is setting? It is awesome. It reminded me of all the fuzzy reasons that I wanted to be a professor in the first place. Green lawns, trees, big buildings full of books and classrooms and practice rooms…it’s heady, idyllic stuff.

It’s also stuff I was never able to notice as an adjunct, when I was busy rushing from parking lot to classroom and back. None of the campuses were ever mine to hang out on or soak in. My offices–when I had them–were borrowed, and I never really got to do the meditative staring out the window thing. Being on a university campus made me simultaneously miss my nonexistent professorship and glad that I got out of the biz when I did.

Missing the concert hall was less complicated. I spent so many years in and around halls as a performer, as a tech, as composer and student… Even a huge hall like Bass feels homey. Hell, I spent enough time laying out concert programs that even the smell of the ink in the series booklet felt like home. As ambivalent as my relationship with new music got, I still miss being part of that world.

The concert itself was good without being great. It was definitely Laurie Anderson’s show, with Kronos sometimes wholly subservient to Anderson’s electronics and multimedia. The moments in which the quartet got to play on its own were brilliantly clear. Anderson’s music wavered (as it usually does) between ambiance and melody. There were recurring motives and spoken word. The overall effect was dynamic but only intermittently pulled me out of my seat. The lighting and sound design, though, were awesome.

I got home late, and felt the short night this morning. I was almost happy that today was a designated testing day and thus short on the usual coaxing 13-year-olds into learning. I’m still tired. I still have heaps of work to do to get this 9-weeks wrapped up and lay the groundwork for the next one. By tomorrow, it might feel like drowning again, but for one night I got to come up for air.

Now all I need is to get back onto an ultimate field and I might even feel like my human self again.

Zug Zug

I’ve been struggling to figure out how to write about my experiences with my new teaching job. Last week—my first week—I did a lot of smiling and shrugging and saying “eighth graders are eighth graders,” as if I were some street corner philosopher channeling Gertrude Stein. This week? This week the same shoulders that I shrugged last week are so knotted with tension that my range of motion is limited.

The biggest stressor has been catching up with and catching onto my new workplace bureaucracy. There’s a lot of it. I have to document just about everything I do during the day, from lesson plans to grades to whom I work with during tutorials. I have to enter student behaviour—good and bad—into a point-based monitoring system. I’m required to deliver school and district-mandated assessments every two or three weeks. They cut into my teaching time. They require more grading. I also have mandates about how many grades I am supposed to take each week. If I don’t hit that target, I get automated e-mails reminding me I need to remedy the situation. There are also meetings that invariably happen in my prep periods.

Starting four weeks into the school year has exacerbated the problem. Too often, I find out about things after they were supposed to be done. My administrators and instructional lead are supportive, but the stuff still has to get done sooner or later. (And it is always preferably sooner.) I have parent-teacher conferences after eight instructional days with my students. I’m still learning names. I also won’t get paid for another 30 days.

The solution to every problem seems to involve more. More time. More photocopies. More visuals. More choice for the students in what they read and what they write about. Most of all more time, when I’m already hauling my whole show from room to room, the photocopiers do not reliably work (and even small copy jobs become big ones for 85 students across three sections), and the projectors I’m supposed to use for those visuals do not work in some of the rooms I teach in. I’m on campus at least 9 hours a day, and even when I’m caught up I expect to have at least another 10 hours of work to do at home.

Eventually, I know, I will get caught up. Eventually, I will be faster at all the stupid little jobs that are part of the package. But like “eventually, I’ll get a job,” these eventuallys are small consolation in the moment. I think I am doing a reasonably good job given the circumstances. I feel like I was an idiot to decide on this career, that there’s no way to make this transition happen without my shoulders knotting hard enough to literally twist me in two.

But I have good people around me at home and at work. If I could finish a dissertation to spite my institution, I can damn well adapt my teaching to 13-year olds to give them the education they deserve. I will force vigorous exercise and writing into my schedule to help cope with the stress. My awesome spouse will get to cook dinner once in a while. Because I won’t see my kids as much, I will make them hug me every time I do. I will somehow learn to get up at 4 a.m. so I can write, and I will appreciate how quiet the world is when most people are sleeping.

I will remember that when I was 17 I went down to the jousting field on moonless nights and walked on ledges. And that I did it because they were there and because even then I understood we’re made more by our trials than our victories.

Everything’s Coming Up Milhouse

Saturday, I finished the first draft of Ghosts of the Old City. There’s another post percolating about finishing a novel draft versus finishing the dissertation draft (a descendant of the NaNo vs. Diss post). For now, I’ll leave it at “feels pretty good.” That capped off a week in which I finally got a job, the weather was moderate, and my son finally began to settle in to his new school. As a bonus, I discovered that the pan-Asian place up the street is good enough to go back to repeatedly. It was the best week I’ve had in a long time.

It was also a long time coming. It’s only been a fortnight since I was stuck wondering just how long I’d be waiting. It felt like ages since I’d left academia, and a long time since I’d started applying for teaching jobs (even though it had been about five weeks). My wheels were spinning and spinning and it did not seem as if I had gone anywhere. Then I suddenly got some traction and everything moved quickly.

Over and over for the last few years, I heard variations on “Keep working. If you do, something good will happen.” Eventually. I understand why I heard it: there really isn’t much you can say to a person who is stuck in limbo. Keep working. Something will give. Don’t reconsider your past choices, reconsider your current options. True and true and yet absolutely unsatisfying when you are in the middle of nothing.

I would love to be able to turn to the postacs who read this blog and say “look, something good really will happen!” I can’t bring myself to be quite that valedictory. This is not to say that finally starting a new career is like the actual Simpsons moment that led to the title (in which Milhouse is super-excited that the flood pants he’d just complained about are keeping his cuffs “bone dry” while his room floods). It’s a significant step…and an exhausting one. The reward for working is more work. In my case, it’s work that I love despite the commute, despite eighth-graders who will erupt into conversation quite literally whenever I stop to take a breath. It’s good.

From here at what feels like the other end of the tunnel, I would not say “keep working and something good will happen.” That’s too close to the adjunct treadmill for my comfort. I will say two things. The first is this: ask yourself what you can do right now to get yourself moving in the direction you want to go. And the second: surround yourself with people who will support you.

As much as I fumbled with that first bit of advice, I have been incredibly lucky with the second. For the last few years, I’ve been surrounded by friends and family who said the things I needed to hear (whether I wanted to hear them or not) without judging me. I have, like so many happily married people, the absolute best spouse on the planet. Without her, I couldn’t have drafted a novel or completed my teaching certification or done a hundred of the other things that have gotten me to this point. She is awesome and I hope all of you find somebody you like as much as I like her.

My mom and my brother heard more of my complaints than anybody else, and they never hung up on me. They were my best cheerleaders.

My in-laws help me forget all of the things I dislike about Texas. They’re that good. From watching the kids to playing RPGs, from coming over for dinner to helping us move into the new house, they have been a constant and welcome presence for the last fourteen months.

Last but not least, thanks to my kids. You might not ever read this, but you’ve kept me going.

Hired!

Today, almost two years since I started looking for full-time work, I found some. I’ll be teaching 8th grade English at a charter school starting Monday morning.

“Two years” is a long time, but it’s not as though I spent 100 weeks constantly pushing out applications. No, the first stage of the job hunt was job-hunt academic style: compiling ridiculous portfolios, forking over money to Interfolio to manage and send the documents, then sitting on my hands for months waiting for any hint of broken silence. (And looking at the job wiki to discover when candidates had been invited to interview and the silence was meaningful rather than negligent.)

I took some time off from job hunting, too, once my spouse and I decided to move the family down to Texas. I was recovering from my decision to leave and taking care of the kids full time. There was no reason (I thought) to begin looking for a job 1200 miles away. I had not even decided what kind of jobs to look for. Soon enough, I was busy with the move.

Once we got to Texas, I started hunting work in earnest. Despite an initially rosy job outlook for my significant other, neither of us had landed steady employment in our first six post-move weeks. My spouse started doing some face-painting gigs, and I started substitute teaching. Reluctantly. We needed the money. My daughter was in pre-K, home at 10:45 in the morning. We could call on relatives to help out watching her (and my son when he got home around 3), but for a long while parental responsibilities kept me from subbing every day, especially once my spouse found a full-time job.

I kept applying for jobs in that stretch. Technical writing. Copywriting. Advertising. Intro-level design jobs. Proofreading. Editorial. One coordinator position that I particularly wanted that was nearly identical to the one I’d had between my master’s and doctorate. I got zilch. As with the academic searches, the “answer” was almost always silence. The few actual rejection notices I got were HR boilerplate. The situation was disheartening (and I commented/complained about it regularly here on Walking Ledges).

In March, I got my first long-term sub assignment. It was at a pretty “easy” school with a reasonable socio-economic mix of students. Some were startlingly wealthy, but the school stopped short of being a suburban island. Getting to teach, to have some control over the lessons and deliver content rather than worksheets…that was good. Combined with the fact that I had finally realized I needed more (or different) qualifications on my resumé, my experiences as a long term sub were enough to push me into an alternative certification program that I had rejected when first looking for work.

At the beginning of the summer, everything looked rosy. We bought a house. I was certain that I’d get a job before the school year started. When that didn’t happen, I started to worry. I was, this week, ready to go back to substitute teaching and stoically get through another year deferring the full-time work I’d been seeking for so long. I was pondering supplemental entrepreneurialism. Then I got an interview invitation. I was invited back to do a teaching demonstration. Twenty minutes after I wrapped up a short lesson on predictions and expository writing, I had a job offer.

A year ago, I would have been skeptical if you’d told me what I’d be doing now. Two years ago, in the final throes of my dissertation and before I’d discovered how chilly the job market is, I wouldn’t have believed you at all. I did not spend most of a decade studying music so I could  teach 13 year olds about expository writing. Here’s the thing, though: that time is already spent.

I could cling to that investment and try to fit life to a Procrustean bed. I tried that for a while…and it only made me miserable and angry. I’ve come as close I’ll ever be to being a professor. I try not to spend too much time on regrets. I got to spend a lot of time with my kids. I completed a doctorate. It’s time for the next thing.

It is exciting and it is daunting and everything that a new opportunity should be. It’s not perfect, but it is in so many respects a first job. Those aren’t perfect. This one is Pretty Good. If there’s anything I’ve learned in getting through and out of grad school, it’s that you take Pretty Good when you can get it. Even if it takes two years.

——

Full-time employment will mean some changes here at Walking Ledges. The three posts I’ve managed each week for the last month will drop back down to two. Nicking from Novels will run on Mondays. The other post of the week—on writing, postac, teaching, or maybe even music—will come out Wednesday or Thursday. I am not abandoning my writing. I’m doing NaNo this year and should have my first novel drafted by the end of this weekend. This is still the place to come if you want a first crack at my writing. With fewer blog posts, I plan to post short updates via Facebook  and Twitter . Feel free to follow me there if you’re keen on the latest news of me.

Unrequited

ESTRAGON: I can’t go on like this.
VLADIMIR: That’s what you think.
― Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Academia-as-romantic-partner is one of my favorite metaphors. We fall in love with our fields, and it’s easy for the heart to rule the head. We plug away as adjuncts because surely, some day, academia will pull out the ring we’ve been waiting for all these years. Maybe it will even put together a flash mob and the whole thing will go viral on YouTube. We all know people who got dumped, and we all know at least a few people who got the proposal, cleared the paperwork, and are now complaining about how their spouse can’t load the dishwasher properly.

Breaking up with academia, for me at least, had an emotional trajectory pretty similar to the one terrible romantic breakup I had. The lady was ahead of me in school and moved across the country (to go to graduate school!). We were in love, but not in so much love that we were willing to derail our life plans for each other. (Again, pretty similar to what happened with academia and me.) When we called it quits I was miserable for months. After a bit of flailing, I found somebody else to love who loved me back and was, actually, willing to rearrange her life plans to better fit with mine. We’ve been married eleven years now. To the extent that our relationship was my decision, it’s probably the best one I’ve ever made.

So what has come next for me as I’ve escaped the miserable phase of my breakup with academia? I love teaching. I remember being surprised at how honest it felt to write that back when I was applying to master’s programs. It’s still true. Once I overcame my resistance to going back to any form of school, becoming a certified teacher seemed like a great idea. That’s what I spent my summer working toward, with the full expectation that when Labor Day rolled around, I’d be a week or two into a full-time job. Labor Day has come and gone, and I’m still laboring at…finding a job. And working on my novel. And mentally preparing myself to resume subbing next week.

This gets tiring, the waiting. Waiting on applications. Waiting on phone calls and e-mails, on appointments. Waiting for the grinding away at my writing projects to break on through to the other side. It’s kind of sad (and a sign that I have young kids) that the Disney song I sympathise with the most these days is Rapunzel’s opening number from Tangled. I am not just hanging out in a tower until some dashing stranger shows up to whisk me towards destiny, but I am wrestling with the sense that I should be somewhere by now.

Instead, I’m stuck waiting, which brings me back around to the epigraph. Waiting for Godot has all sorts of cool things going on in it. Beckett works miracles with simple language, but the play is also as bitter as burnt coffee. Precociously cynical me appreciated that even in my first encounter with it during I.B. English. I’ve got a better sense of it now, and suspect that my understanding of the work will continue to develop as I age. But back to that first encounter. One of our assignments was to do a dramatic reading of a scene. My partner and I decided that the best thing to do was play Vladimir and Estragon as stoners. We turned them, more or less, into existential Cheech and Chong. It was both funny and justifiable.

When you do it for long enough, waiting becomes like a drug. Send out some applications and read infotorials and play video games until the kids come home, then make snack and dinner and clean until it’s time to go to bed. Repeat until Godot finally shows. It is tranquilizing. I fight it with my writing (and with occasional reminders of my bank balance), and I work to keep the hopes that have thus far been deferred from making my heart sick.

Heartsickness brings us back to the initial metaphor about academia-as-romantic-partner. For many of us, our love for our work and our field proved unrequited. Academia might have liked us, might have liked us a lot—publishing our articles, inviting us to conferences, maybe handing us a VAP that looked good at the time—but it didn’t like like us. Maybe we could be friends, but probably the kind of friend who promises to help you move then “forgets.” (Every time.) It isn’t like that for everybody, of course. There’s still that 1-in-3 chance that you’ll end up in a tenure track job.

Right now, I’m worrying that my love of teaching might also be unrequited. I don’t believe it is, but I worry. It’s only been a month and change since I became eligible for jobs. There were some wrinkles of the hiring process that could have been made a little clearer in my certification course. There were only so many jobs open late in the season, and I was reluctant to chase ones that would have involved 50+ miles of daily commuting in terrible traffic. Knowing there are reasons does not make the waiting easier, especially when I consider that I might be waiting a full year to make more progress. I’m not sure I can do a long-distance relationship with teaching for that long.

What about you, o gentle readers? If you were describing your relationship to academia like a romantic partnership, how would it go? If you broke up, did you make any terrible choices on the rebound? Found new love since escaping? How far can we extend the metaphor before it collapses under its own weight?

Published and Perished

Yesterday, nearly a year and a half after I decided to leave academia, I had my first piece of academic writing published. It’s just a book review (you can find it here, if you really want to), but it’s my book review. Coming as it did on a rather bleak Monday, the publication stirred up a mess of emotions I had hoped to have left behind. It’s everything I should have been getting out into the world six years ago, while my nascent doctorate still had a smiley-face sticker on it.

There’s not much to say about my publication history, because there’s not much publication history there. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that my advisor and I, no matter how cordial our interactions, amplified each other’s weaknesses. He was laissez-faire and I was independent. He never pushed me to publish (nor did any of the professors in my department). It was all about conference presentations—my track record on those was much better. I knew I was supposed to be getting stuff out there, but I had a small child and heaps of reading to do and no guidance on how to go about it. If I’d been on top of my game, I would have asked for that guidance. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t, and now I’m not in academia anymore.

Right now, I’m not really anywhere. I continue to tread water. The lightly baffled optimism of June has evaporated along with the summer teacher hiring season. I applied, I interviewed, I got a familiar mix of polite rejection e-mails and declarative silence. Next week I’m going back to the substitute mines, only with a longer commute. Oh, I’m still applying for late-breaking openings and the oddities that result from the firing/resignation/tragedy of current teachers, but few of the things that were supposed to happen last month did.

Sometimes things are slow. The book I reviewed was published in 2012, back when I was still officially a graduate student. I drafted my review back in December. I did revisions a month ago (accepting nearly all of the changes proposed by my awesome editor). Now that the review is out, a handful of academics will read it. Some might buy the book and/or consider using it in their courses…next semester or next year. More likely, the book will end up in university libraries and be cited by one or two students each year. Those students will pick it up not because it’s good (though it is), but because it showed up in their keyword search in the library catalog. The author’s research will thus diffuse, slowly, over whatever the half-life is for books on New York jazz.

I got to be a small part of that process. Part of me appreciates that. Part of me looks at the timeline and the number of people the work will ultimately reach and thinks “thank the FSM that I got out of that racket.” I mean, there’s a significant chance that my post comparing NaNoWriMo to writing a dissertation has, thanks to being Freshly Pressed, reached more people than my book review ever will. Writing for academia is not so different from blogging: laboring in obscurity and hoping that somebody gets something worthwhile from your work. I like to think I have done that here for a few people a few times.

But that, too, is slow and uncertain. Occasionally somebody clicks “like.” More rarely, somebody comments. Once in a while a post of mine is reblogged somewhere. (Once or twice,I’ve even been reblogged by actual human persons rather than aggregators.) It’s good to have that evidence that somebody has read and appreciated your work, that there is a distinction between publishing and perishing.

It’s a small distinction, and I can’t help feeling like I’ve done both. I published in an academic review. Sometime in the next year I hope to publish a novel. Yet I am still a failed academic and a teacher who, while hardly a failure, has yet to succeed. I thought I was over the former. Seeing my name in (virtual) print showed me I’m not there yet. I should have been proud, but mostly it just stirred an old ache. I liked more about academia than Friday happy hours and community in-jokes. I liked my work. I liked scholarship. As I continue to hang between my old community and wherever I manage to land, being published reminds me more of what has perished than the potential for what comes next.

-—*—-

That would be the poetic place to end this post. It completes a thought with a tidy bit of wordplay. But I don’t want to leave it there, because as much as what’s up there captures my feelings, it doesn’t wholly capture my thoughts. It is, among other things, too mopey. If I truly believed that publishing and perishing were indistinguishable—even mostly indistinguishable—I wouldn’t be writing this in a public venue. Maybe I’d scribble it in a diary. Maybe I’d compose it as a soliloquy in my head while staring moodily out the window. But I’m putting my words here, where you can see them, because no matter what vagaries I’ve gone through getting through and getting out of academia, saying something matters. A mopey blog post probably doesn’t matter that much. There are better mopers than me, better writers than me, and certainly far more widely-published examples of both. But I keep doing this small bit of publishing.

This is where things get a bit postmodern: publishing is itself the resistance to the suffering publishing prompted. Even when I feel mopey and down and useless, the way I fight perishing is to publish. That’s true of many artists I know. There are days when it feels like Zeno’s paradox, gaining (or losing) half the distance to the goal over and over again without achieving final victory of final defeat. I keep doing it anyway, because the alternative is to stand still.

And when we’re not where we want to be, standing still guarantees unhappiness. That’s why I work to get back to publishing when I’m moping. It keeps me from standing still. It keeps me, to force a second and less poetic final line to this piece, from perishing.

Things I Miss about Grad School

Grad school wasn’t merely a place for me to foster bad habits. There were parts of it I enjoyed at the time, and parts of it that I still miss. These aren’t the only ones, but they’re the ones I’m thinking about as the last few people head back to school for the year.

Lame Academic Jokes

I still make them, mind you, but mostly in my head. One of the perks (and consequences) of hanging out with people who are deeply immersed in a subject is that you share a deep and ridiculous well of obscure information. I mean, fauxbourdon. It’s a thing, an actual thing (and it’s kind of cool, and I could explain why, but—okay, okay…). There are counterpoint jokes. The critical theory jokes get even better.

All of them, though, are stuff and nonsense to those people who lack your esoteric knowledge. I’m prone to making over-referential jokes anyway (the kind that are only funny if you know Shakespeare and early 90s white-washed hip-hop). I got away with a lot more of them when I was in grad school.

University Libraries

I love libraries. I really like the public library in the town where I now live. It’s just not the same as a university library. It’s especially not the same as a subject-area library. I spent a lot of hours in the music library working, listening, stumbling across oddities in foreign languages. To be a graduate student in the humanities is to love books (and sometimes to hate them). It is to spend most of your waking hours with an open book in easy reach, and usually with a dozen more close by.

It’s also recall fights and discovering faculty overrides are keeping you from getting the one source you need to write the paper that’s due in 36 hours. (Related: the fun of asking every grad student and faculty member in your department if they recalled the book/if they have the book already.) I miss those, too, but only a little.

Friday Afternoon Happy Hour

Many of the classes at my doctoral institution were set up with two 90-minute lectures (taught by the professor) combined with a 45-minute “breakout session” of 20-25 students. TAs ran those sessions, which were invariably on Fridays. Some of us had back to back sections, others had gaps, an unlucky few had sessions that ran well into the afternoon. By and large, though, most of us were done with teaching by 3. (On the musicology side, most of us were done by noon.) We’d futz around with research or library errands we’d put off or hang out in the office watching cat videos. (Life of the mind, y’all!) By 3:30 or 4, though, we’d hit a critical mass of “done” and walk over to one of the bars just off the West Bank campus.

The particular bar changed over the years, but that didn’t matter much because there were plenty to choose from. We adopted the ones that had the best beer lists. (Those got pretty good as the years passed.) It was best in the spring, when we could sit outside. There is nothing like sitting outside with your friends on a sunny May afternoon after a long day of teaching. We’d spent the week working, and we’d spend the weekend working too—that’s how grad school goes. That hour or two on Friday afternoons became the weekend, an island of mellow amidst the riptides and chop of the grad school grind. I haven’t found anything quite like it.

…So I Built It

So here I am trying to build something. Thanks for coming. I hope I do my job well enough to draw you back.” —The end of my first post

That was 77 posts and most of a year ago. I had sketched out some ideas for a blog in one of my moleskines (I think using a fountain pen, even). I jumped into producing content before I’d really designed the blog, setting it up using a grey and orange color scheme that unintentionally mimicked Steve Brust’s Dream Cafe. I intended that the blog be “something about writing.” A few weeks later, I published Of Dreams, Carrots, and Towers, which was picked up by Minnesota Public Radio’s Higher Ed blog. Suddenly I was a #postac blogger, too.

The last year has been a snake eating its own tail. The kids went off to school today—their first day in the new school. I am at home at my improvised standing desk, unemployed. At this time last year, I was busy hurling my resume at anything writing related. I wasn’t sure I’d get any of the jobs I applied for, but I didn’t despair. (That came later.) This year, I’m coming off three weeks of Not Getting Hired as a teacher. I had a few interviews—some went well, one went so poorly that I withdrew from consideration. There’s still a chance I’ll get a full time position for this school year (enrollment numbers continue to wiggle, and teaching positions with them), but there’s also a chance that I will be stuck as a substitute teacher for the foreseeable future. On the plus side, I don’t owe my program more money until I’m hired. On the minus side, substitute teaching isn’t the most remunerative endeavour.

If the snake has been gnawing its tail, it has also grown: I am happier than I was a year ago. Most days, I’m over my breakup with academia. Many days, I feel like a writer. I have not fallen in love with Texas, but I am learning to tolerate it, to appreciate that I can get decent avocados year round. I get to see one of my nephews and most of my in-laws on a regular basis. I can swap date nights with my sister-in-law. I haven’t managed to play ultimate year-round yet, but I know it’s possible to do without ever having to decide whether cleats or tennis shoes are better for the day’s snow and ice mix. (Next summer I don’t expect to be training for a new career and moving into a new house, which should help get me on the field.)

I would really like for something to go according to plan. The shine has come off the optimism of June. It was baffled optimism even at the time, but as little as two weeks ago I really felt that everything was going to work out and I’d be able to busy myself with day to day troubles and worry less about my personal trajectory. There is a hell of a lot going on in the world that needs to change. It’s hard to work on that when you’re swallowed in a job…but it’s also hard to work on that when you’re busy with the algebra of pay checks and due dates.

In the meantime, I am trying to take advantage of the quiet house to write. I have fewer than 10,000 words to go to complete my first draft of Ghosts of the Old City. I’d like to write them soon enough that I can make a pass through the draft in September, spend October planning the sequel, and then try to repeat last year’s National Novel Writing Month win. I still have the secret project that was supposed to launch in July and didn’t (because moving). There are many things to write.

As for Walking Ledges? It’s one of those things. I’ll continue to be up front about the challenge and opportunities I encounter as a #postac and as a writer. I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate my reading goals into the blog—more on that later this week. I may occasionally write about music. (I’ve only got a friggin’ PhD in it. No reason to schweigen about it.) I should have some cool announcements in the next six months.

In the meantime…that last line of my first post works well as the last line of this one. Thank you for reading, whether you got here from a #postac-tagged tweet, Freshly Pressed, or through a Google search for “who was the composer who was way too good.” (Really happened!) Thank you to my handful of commenters. Thank you for the clicks on the like button at the bottom of my posts. Thanks for the retweets and shares. I hope I can keep doing my job well enough to draw you back.

Bad Grad Habits

Graduate school is many things: an odyssey of the mind, a way to turn reading from pleasure into indentured servitude, a miserable trek toward an even bleaker destination… Okay, so it’s not all wine and roses. To the extent that it is, the wine is cheap and a means to an end, the roses probably already starting to wilt. Anyway. I come to bury graduate school, not to praise it. Erm, wait. I come today to write about three bad habits I took with me to graduate school…ones that graduate school made worse.

Letting My Life Revolve Around Deadlines

Grad school forced me to improve my time management, but mostly because it filled my days so completely. I’m a habitual procrastinator. Part of that is the way I work—especially with papers, I legitimately build them in my head before writing them fairly fast. A good bit of it, though, is just procrastination.

When you’re reading 300 pages per course per week, there’s not much leeway for procrastinating. (There’s room for skim-and-bluff, though.) Instead of encouraging working ahead, graduate school pushed me (and many of my friends) to think of work as some horrible steeplechase of deadlines. With dogs chasing us. You see the deadline in front of you, hear the dogs behind you, and clamber over as best you can so you can get to the next obstacle. (Don’t ask me how the dogs get through the obstacles. The dogs, unlike the snakes, are a metaphor.) For all the work, there’s little opportunity to plan ahead. Come to think of it, the situation is also analogous to working in a restaurant during rush: there’s always something to be done and you just hop from task to task.

It’s not a healthy way to live over the long term. More importantly, thinking about life this way can screw you over when it comes time for the dissertation. First, you might not have been thinking much about your dissertation while you were reading hundreds of pages every week. Second, you suddenly have a deadline of (depending on your program) seven years. The dogs are still chasing you, but you’re in an open field now. Maybe you forgot your compass and maybe your advisor neglected to give you a map. You just pick a direction and start running…

This one has been tough to get over. I had decades to orient my work to deadlines. I’ve had to practice setting medium term goals and being mindful of them. It’s definitely still a work in progress. (As evidence, I point to my 88% complete novel draft that’s been mostly sitting since April.)

Assuming My Work Speaks for Itself

The meritocracy problem: I went into graduate school believing that the way to succeed was to do great work. That was it. There wasn’t a recipe. You just did quality stuff and it would, I don’t know, get out there somehow. I thought that 95% of finding success was being good at your job.

In the early years of my doctoral program, the emphasis was always on work. Write good papers. Be useful (or at least clever) in seminar discussions. Be an active presence in the department. Essentially, keep being good at school. That wasn’t a problem for me. If I hadn’t been good at school, I wouldn’t still have been in it. I read (almost) everything I was supposed to, got my papers in on time, and expected that the next steps in the process would happen on their own because I was good. Academia was a meritocracy and the best work would inevitably achieve the best results.

By the time I was dissertating, I had been disabused of this notion. I’d been to enough conferences and seen enough of my friends enter the market to understand that doing good work was, at best, 50% of finding success. The rest was some combination of hustle, luck, and connections. I understood that, but I didn’t really believe it. Not until I started applying for jobs.

I can safely say that I am more over this one now than I was when I graduated. I know, for example, that if I want my blog or my novel to get traction beyond my immediate community, I will have to throw time and money at getting it out there. Being on a different kind of job market has also helped. Nobody is going to look at my resumé and decide to hire me on the spot. They have to know to look for it, which comes back to the hustle and luck bit.

Winning Arguments Rather than Solving Problems

Man, grad school, you were awful about this. Seminar rooms are too often gladiatorial arenas for pedants. Graduate programs fill them with smart people who are used to being smart, used to being right. Then the professors usually turn the students loose on each other. Sometimes it’s more egalitarian; the professor participates in the melee, too. Admitting you are wrong is too close to admitting you are stupid and don’t belong, so it’s hardly ever done.

I was lucky enough to be involved in programs where most of us liked each other. We were friends rather than competitors. And it was still pretty bad. The worst days were the ones where we dealt with anything written before about 1960…which nearly always meant “written by a powerful white male.” (Early German ethnomusicologists, I’m looking at you.) We’d argue about how much we could or should excuse via historical framing. We’d argue about whether historical framing was a legitimate excuse at all. We’d talk and talk and talk in great spirals that never went anywhere except away from the text in question. We rarely came around to the question of “what can we learn from this and use to develop our own work.” All in the service of winning arguments. (Related: 80% of conference paper “questions.”)

I’m far more cognizant of this problem than I was when I finished grad school, but I still struggle with it. Comment culture doesn’t help—I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen (or been) the one trying to reason a true believer around to a different point of view using all of the rhetorical bludgeons graduate school builds for you. Grad school encourages us to pick apart arguments. We find the holes, force them wide, and rush once more unto the breach. We’re led to operate at a remove from the underlying problem.

As a teacher, this is also the habit I’m working the hardest to correct. Winning an argument with a student won’t help either of us. Winning arguments seldom builds knowledge. I’m working to keep myself and my students focused on figuring out what the actual problems are so we can work on solving them.

So. Three bad habits made worse by graduate school. I continue to wrestle with them. What about you, readers? Postac, altac, or still in, what sort of school-amplified habits are you trying to shake off?