Friday, October 10, 2008

I'm Here

It’s been close to a month since I last posted. I know, I know, this inconsistency is annoying, especially to me. But in my defense, it’s been several months since I’ve done any academic writing so getting back into the swing of it in graduate school, not to mention the exponentially longer reading lists, has kept me from sitting down to write a coherent post. The adjustment has been difficult, but I think I’m reaching a reasonable stride and I’m learning to accept the roller-coaster of self-image that has me driving to class thinking “I don’t know if I can do this,” and has me driving home from class thinking, “I so rock, what a genius I am.”

Of course when I wake up the next morning and realize I have four hundred pages to read the genius image is nowhere around. Sometimes I make the mistake of reading my past-papers, ones that I went over with a fine-tooth comb for grammatical errors and typos. I still find more! The professors are patient, circling a redundancy or a grammatical error (c’mon Ian you’re in graduate school, grammatical errors?) and writing gracious prompts in the margin. They also write things like “well put,” “good,” “good point, but remember…” and the all important single check mark that shows that my paragraph is somewhat legible. It’s been a while since I’ve experienced what these little carbon marks do to your self-esteem, but I do remember how important it is to keep looking forward and not to obsess.

The graduate-studies building is a huge, brand-new, and somewhat cold monolithic structure. I’m getting to like it, but it’s taking time. Undergrads take classes there too, and you can tell the difference because the graduate students usually have their face in a book (“read, Forest, read!”) while the undergrads chat happily as they flow to and from the dorms. The stair-case always throws me off in this building. It’s designed somewhat like a doubly-helix, two twisting corkscrews that alternate directions at every floor as if the architect had had one to many tequila shots when he designed the building. If you happen to meet someone coming down while you’re coming up it’s like an awkward line-dancing exercise to pass each other without becoming intimate. When I arrive to class after ascending the steps I’m always out of breath and disoriented. The disorientation usually continues throughout the class period.

On my piano at home sit the books I’ve read so far. Before now, if you’d shown me the stack and told me I’d tackled all that heady non-fiction I wouldn’t have believed it. Some of the works are unbelievably brilliant. Some are dense tomes that contain brain-numbing theory. Some are little thin wisps of books that pack a wallop. With all this information being force-fed into my brain it’s hard not to feel like I know less than before because of the shear breadth of material. It's like over-stuffing a sausage until the casing breaks and all you have left is ruptured casing with ground meat oozing out. But something my professor said last night helped. She said that being in graduate-school is like trying to drink water from a fire-hose, if you stand in front you’ll get knocked on your ass, so you should try to stand to the side and take sips.

But it’s difficult to take that approach when it seems that those around you are managing to stick their head right in the stream and come out with mouthfuls of water. I’m taking a class called Atlantic World Colloquium where we look at the historiography of Atlantic history (it’s more complicated than that but forgive me, I’ve been writing, reading, and thinking about it all week and need a break). There are only four other students in the class, all second year PhDs. I’m a lowly first year—first semester—master’s. It is extremely intimidating. Last night I didn’t say a word for the first half-hour, and while I did jump in with some well received points later, it took time to let the brilliant classmates extrapolate from the readings so I could get a bearing and add to the conversation. They are all encouraging, as is the professor, and I love the class (in the way you love something that decides not to kill you but mercifully lets you live instead), but it’s a bit like going to class with five professors. They all have a much larger frame-of-reference than I do at this point, and when they start explaining about how our understanding of Atlantic world can help them in their particular areas of interests, which they are so knowledgeable about, I have to sit back and listen, a little in awe.

This graduate school business makes you tired. Sometimes the fatigue is overwhelming and feels a little like exhaustion, but sometimes it’s not all that entirely unpleasant. It’s manageable fatigue (at least that’s what I think now, get back to me later) and when you drive home at the end of the day you know you’ve worked hard, your brain feels a little like corned-beef-hash but you allow yourself to listen to low-brow rock and think about what you might have said had the class gone on just a bit longer. I’m used to being tired, but this is the first time I’ve felt this mentally fatigued since I was chef. Of course that job came with overwhelming physical fatigue as well, but I realize that the concentration it took to cook for large numbers creates the same brain-drain that graduate-studies does. I feel numb in the same way.

I cooked for fifteen years. A master’s takes two. I can do this, and, believe it or not, I can enjoy doing it. One thing I have in common with the PhDs is we are all tired. It shows on all of our faces at times, probably on mine more so, but we all acknowledge how painful this process is. Part of me wants to worry that if I go for a PhD it will be more of the same. They all teach, and I don’t even know what that experience is like so that’s a whole other set of disciplines to test my stamina. But I don’t think it’s productive to worry about that right now, I just need to watch the typos, grammatical errors and try to contribute something worthwhile.

When will I post again? I can’t be sure. I always forget how cathartic this process is, just to be writing for myself. Getting this out of my head feels a bit like being cleansed, although I wish it acted more like a week-long-lasting-energy-drink. I need to get passport photos made today, and I’m already seeing myself being gurneyed on the plane to Africa in December. I can’t wait for that trip, and it’s acting as a motivating catalyst right now. So I hope to keep rambling on this blog from time to time until then, and hopefully it won’t be a month until my next post.

9 comments:

Emily Barton said...

Well, I feel all caught up on what you're doing now (and just corrected a typo in there. Do I get a red "check?"). My grad school experience seems like Disney World compared to yours, or maybe I've just forgotten...

IM said...

I read this thing about a hundred times. There's still a typo? Emily, please become my editor.

Richard said...

That sounds like a lot of work. Your description of feeling somewhere between incredibly intelligent and embarrassingly stupid (though I think you found a better, less aggressive way of wording it) is exactly how I feel while attending school. That's why I like to surround myself with stupid people so that I feel better about myself. If I were in a class with those 4 other PhD hopefuls I'd probably drop it. So basically, good for you!

Emily Barton said...

I meant my own typo in my comment, not yours.

Froshty said...

You can do it, Ian. Remember all the stuff you've done already. Of course, the very idea of graduate school for me has been so terrifying that I've avoided it for 26 years.

IM said...

Thanks Richard, glad I'm not the only one who feels this way. I have too much invested at this point to go back, so I'm going to ride it out.

Oh, it was your typo Emily, I'm glad I'm not the only one who does that either.

Thanks Forsyth, but there is no way you can get me to believe that this wouldn't be a cakewalk for you. What's helping me is that class is a lot like sitting around with you all talking politics, except without the cursing, which always makes talking with you all more fun.

archiearchive said...

Sounds like you're going well, Ian. Consistency on the intertubulars isn't a must. Just appear when you can and keep us vaguely up to date.

Perry said...

So I have one more sentence to write on my paper for Levenstein and somehow I refuse to look at that thing. I'll get it done before 9am, I'm sure. In the meantime, I facebooked people from our class hoping their stati (what is the plural of status?) had anything to do with this assignment. I came across your blog and found a good enough reason not to return to that darn paper. I'm glad someone else feels the same "Oh my Lord, what am I doing" car drive on the way to class and "I can be a pretty smart cookie" pep talk on the way home. Although, MY return trips were sometimes spent saying "Ian said just was I thinking! I need to learn to beat him to it." Good luck as the semester slowly comes to a close! At least you can rest assured that someone ELSE, (that person of course being me) is looking at YOUR contributions to class and hoping I come off half as intelligent, haha!

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