GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘Dissertation’

Eight Years Later

In Liana's Posts on 2012/04/15 at 21:28

Liana Silva, writing from Kansas City, Kansas in the US.

As I work on the last revisions to my dissertation (by the time this post goes live I will have mailed my dissertation draft to my committee), I oftentimes find myself thinking back to the long road that brought me to this moment. Eight years ago, around this time of year, I was accepted at an upstate New York university for my Master’s degree, and I knew this move would change me forever. In the summer of 2004, I would leave my little island, move to a town a few hours away from New York City, and spend the next five years reading, writing, and thinking deep thoughts in hopes of achieving a PhD in English.

One of the moments that remains vivid to me is one very cold Upstate New York day, over three years ago. I was writing my final PhD exam, on Cultural Studies. In my department we have 72 hours to write between 25 and 35 pages on a topic stemming from a list of readings. I had done all the reading, assembled all of my notes on my desktop, and spent that weekend typing feverishly for hours on end. I woke up early Saturday morning, day two of my exam weekend; it was cold outside but the strong wind made the temperature drop further, and our apartment was poorly heated. The corner where my desk was located was the coldest in the house, so I relocated to the living room couch to be closer to the radiator. My boyfriend was not up yet, so I had the couch all to myself. I propped my feet up on the ottoman, pulled a blanket onto my lap, and turned on my laptop. Still not fully awake, I wrote feverishly, and in between thoughts I stuck my hands under my blanket to warm them up. I wrote page after page after page that weekend. On Sunday evening, I exclaimed to my boyfriend that I had finished my draft (12 hours before it was due).

That weekend stands out in my mind as a good example of what my experience as a graduate student had been up until that point. I had been a full-time graduate student with no other obligations other than going to class, writing, and teaching one semester per academic year. I had dedicated almost five years of my life to formulating (and complicating) questions. I read, I thought, I talked, I wrote. I had the privilege of devoting my days to nothing but studying literature and culture. Once I received, months later, the official notification that I was ABD (All But Dissertation), I was elated to know I had made it to the last stage of my graduate education.

The three years after I became ABD have not been easy; for one, I no longer have a fellowship that allows me to just read and write every day. I live in a different location from my home campus. I balance a lot more obligations than I did when I was solely studying. Distance and time have provided me with some much-needed perspective on my experience as a Latina first-generation graduate student. (I have touched upon this in the cross-blog conversation that U Venus contributor Janni Aragon and I have had at each other’s blogs titled “Academics on Academia.”) However, I am certain that this is where I wanted to be. Even though it took me a little longer than I wanted to, and even though there were moments I was unsure I would make it to the other side, I am happy that I stayed the course and made it this far.

Even though graduate school may be problematic, graduate school nurtured my intellectual curiosity, and introduced me to great minds. Is it the only place where I could have done this? No, it is not. However, I felt at home in graduate school. Grad school and I were a nice fit. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to read and write at my leisure and share my thoughts with others. My experience as a humanities PhD has affected how I approach and think about the world around me.

Achieving this hard-fought goal means so much on an intellectual and emotional level, and as such moving on will be a tough transition. The well-worn question stands true: where do we go from here? I, for one, am looking forward to it.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Publishing Through the Pain: Personal Trauma and the Ph.D.

In Gwendolyn's Posts on 2012/04/14 at 23:04

Gwendolyn Beetham, writing from Brooklyn, New York in the US.

‘You really should publish something from your Ph.D.’ The refrain is one with which all doctoral students are well-aware. In the past year, I’ve heard the words often: from mentors, my Ph.D. supervisor, colleagues, friends, even mentees. What they don’t know is that even looking across the room at the thick, bound copy of my Ph.D. fills me with dread. To go back to my Ph.D. is to return to a very painful period in my life.

While the completion of a Ph.D. brings relief, even excitement, to many, for me it is a marker of deep personal trauma. At the beginning of last year, a month from my Ph.D. submission date, my partner with whom I thought I would spend my life told me that she wanted to end our relationship. The decision was one-sided and unexpected, and it left me in shock. Over the next month we spent an hour a week in couple’s therapy and the rest of my time was spent desperately trying to focus long enough to revise my final chapters and write my conclusion.  One week after I submitted, my partner officially decided to leave the relationship.

Instead of excitement and sense of accomplishment at the completion of my Ph.D., I felt ashamed of my tenacity – how could I possibly have finished this piece of work while the future that I had imagined was crumbling around me? Although friends, colleagues, and my supervisor continually proclaimed their admiration that I was able to complete my Ph.D. and pass my defense under such conditions, I couldn’t reconcile this ‘success’ with the ‘failure’ of my relationship. The combination of the timing of the separation and the fact that my partner, also a doctoral student, had been perpetually stalled with her Ph.D., bolstered the feeling that I was being penalized. The quality that I had previously valued in myself – my ambitious work ethic (a quality which makes the completion of a Ph.D. possible, as articulated in this recent University of Venus article ) – was something which I now felt to be a source of pain. Since then, any attempt at going back to my Ph.D. has taken me back to those emotions; at first even thinking about the Ph.D. brought traumatic flash-backs.

It’s not that I haven’t published anything in the past year – in fact, I’ve kept busy writing book reviews, chapters for books, and articles for blogs; though none have been directly related to my Ph.D. topic.  I’ve removed myself far away from the PhD in other ways, completing a yoga teacher’s training course, traveling, taking a lesbian history class for fun. Yoga, particularly the core concept of simultaneously experiencing strength and softness, has been especially useful to my healing process.

While talking through this trauma and its ramifications with my therapist (I’m a New Yorker after all!), she proposed that I take my first stab at publishing work from my Ph.D. by writing through the pain that surrounded its completion. She suggested that the relationship between what is happening in our lives and our work is more complex than many academics might admit. Like one of my mentors, she also mentioned that separations during particularly poignant times in our lives – not only Ph.D. completion, but after one partner achieves tenure, a family member dies, or terminal illness – are not uncommon; if this was true, perhaps my story would resonate with others’ experiences.

Writing about my resistance to publish has helped me to remember a few things – including why I started working on a Ph.D. in the first place. As a feminist activist and scholar, I’ve always valued the connection between academia and the ‘real world,’ and I never wanted my work to be stuck in an ivory tower; I do think that I managed to make some potentially useful insights! While I don’t think that I will ever look back on the completion of my Ph.D. with a sense of happy accomplishment, I do know that, eventually, I will publish. In the meantime I’ll continue to heal, write, and, of course, practice yoga.

Gwendolyn Beetham received her Ph.D. from the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics. She lives in Brooklyn, where she does freelance work for gender justice organizations, edits the column, The Academic Feminist, at Feministing.com, and participates in feminist, queer, and food justice activism. Contact her at gbeetham@gmail.com or on twitter @gwendolynb.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

What Are You Teaching Next Semester?

In Uncategorized on 2011/05/16 at 07:23

Liana Silva, writing from Kansas City, Missouri in the USA 

I have been an adjunct for almost a year now. Last January, amid a flurry of stress, and uncertainty about my future, I decided I would not adjunct after this spring semester. Actually, I thought about it long and hard, but it didn’t feel official until the division chair asked me how many sections I was interested in signing up for; I made an appointment with the chair, and explained that I would not be coming back.

My decision, ultimately, was a financial one. When I needed a job in Kansas City and didn’t find one right away I applied for an adjunct position. I didn’t feel comfortable with adjuncting because I knew what the working conditions would be like, but I figured an adjunct job was better than nothing. Why not continue doing the thing I love instead of waiting for a callback? But I quickly found out I couldn’t live on an adjunct’s pay.

(I know I could have pieced together several courses from several schools, like so many adjuncts do. But it would have been at the expense of my dissertation–which already takes up a lot of my time outside of class–and my home life. I am aware many adjuncts do just that, and they balance things just fine. However, I decided not to so.)

My feelings wavered between excitement (what does my future hold? It could hold anything!) and fear (what does my future hold? It could hold nothing at all!) Plus, I have financial obligations; what would happen with that? And what about teaching?

As I labored away at my dissertation and prepped lesson plans, I wondered. Would I be happy if I didn’t teach for a while? Should I find a full-time job outside of academia? Maybe higher ed administration is a better fit for me? Would anyone even consider me, without my diploma in hand? Life after May seemed like one big question mark built with questions in a tiny font.

In the meantime, I re-discovered my love for writing. I struggled with the revisions for my first chapter, and tried to deal with that by free writing and developing a writing routine. Now, I make sure to write every day, and I’m writing about much more than just my dissertation. I am writing like I used to when I was an undergrad. Writing and literature were the things that propelled me to become an English major a long time ago. Teaching was an extension of that: I wanted to share the pleasure of reading with others and help them read texts with a critical eye.

Even though my holy grail was to teach literature, along the way I also became a writing instructor. I learned more about the craft of writing than I ever did as a student. I don’t know if my students believe me, but the things I teach in my writing classes are the things I practice in my own writing. I have learned that writing is not a matter of memorizing rules and style guides.

I have discovered that these things, writing and reading, still move me.

As I reflected upon these things this semester, I wondered if I’d ever go back to teaching. I could stay in touch outside of the classroom with the things I love. My degrees and skills are valid outside of the academy, even if in a different capacity. And I had fallen in love with my research again—it was a matter of recognizing that it should not be the only thing that defines me. It’s okay to have other interests as well.

I have applied for academic and non-academic jobs, and so far I think I’ll be okay outside of the classroom for now. But it wasn’t until I read this blog post at Red Lips and Academics that I really thought about my relationship to teaching. As I commented there, I am still mourning the fact that I will not teach in the fall. I hope to come back to the classroom. Maybe it won’t be a traditional classroom. Maybe it won’t be in a tenure-track position. One thing is certain: I will always be engaged with writing, literature, and teaching.

Goodnight, College Classroom, and good luck.

Liana Silva is a PhD candidate in English at Binghamton University in New York, and a writing instructor at a community college in Kansas City, MO. She is currently working on her dissertation, an interdisciplinary study on the concept of home and urban space in African American and Puerto Rican cultural productions. On top of that she is busy raising a daughter and settling into their new home in Kansas City. You can follow her short bursts of thought on twitter.com/literarychica or her longer, better organized ideas at soundingoutblog.com

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