Category Archives: Graduate School

Momentum, Writing and State Change

This is a common feeling for graduate students:

We don’t know quite how to do what we know we’re supposed to do, or we fear we can’t do it ‘well enough’, and so we end up doing nothing much at all. Sure, we write here and there, we are making ‘progress’. But we fall far short of the potential of which we (and our advisors) know we are capable.

I read recently a great piece in Inside Higher Ed about why graduate students have such a hard time writing their dissertations. It boiled down to this:
1) we don’t know what we’re supposed to actually be producing (i.e. the form)
2) we are paralyzed by perfectionism (i.e. the practice)
3) we don’t have the support we need and end up berating ourselves for numbers 1 and 2… (i.e. the community)

Thanks to my advisor and the support of my PAGE network, I actually think a lot about (#1). I have read other people’s dissertations, have explored non-conventional dissertations, and have a clear sketch of the form I want my dissertation to have, when complete. The form is there, and I seemingly know what I need to do to get there. However, what I have learned is that the process by which my advisor and other graduate students have told me in order to produce that form does not really work for me. I’ve adapted to false starts, feelings of failure, and doubting my entire project, all because I hadn’t yet found the process that worked for me in producing the form. Over the last few months, I’ve started piecing together the right process for me.

Through the same avenues, I feel surprisingly supported in this work. My advisor is (amazingly) approachable, reminding me not to be ‘oppressed by my data’. Similarly, I have many graduate student peers in and outside of my department, within UW and beyond, to whom I can reach out to for help. And when it comes to sharing stories about projects and unhelpful work habits, my non-academic friends are also an incredible resource. I have also sought out enough personal resources to recognize and name many of my habits, but this sometimes isn’t enough.

At the end of the day, all of this support, training and awareness of form is quite useless if the practice isn’t there. The Inside Higher Ed article points out that writing comes from practice. 30 minutes a day, sit yourself down in the chair and write. At the bare minimum. Do this.

Well, sure. Sounds easy enough.

But lately I’ve also been thinking about all that we do to get ourselves primed, or poorly primed, for that ‘sit down and write’ moment.

How many other thoughts do I have in my brain? Am I cycling through my to-do list? Does my brain even know how to prioritize what comes of higher importance? I may *think* I am working productively when I sit down to work, but am I actually?

One of my academic mentors shared with me her writing habits. On days she’s not teaching first, she carves out her mornings, doesn’t check email, sits down with a strong cup of coffee, and writes for 4 hours. End of story.

I know that such a habit wouldn’t quite work for me (I need to start my morning with stretching and physical therapy, or else my whole day will be shot and I’ll be in pain and unable to focus…)

But this practice, of knowing what works, is something all of us graduate students could be better at. Priming ourselves to work might be mockingly be called a ‘life hack’, but I tend to think of it this way: if I’m choosing to commit myself to a project (in this case, finishing my dissertation), why wouldn’t I want to show up 100% each time I want to make progress?) How can I change my state so that I’m most ready to work?

What follows are some simple questions:
1) What are my actual goals (big picture, with the diss, today, this hour…)
2) What patterns usually sabotage me in meeting these goals?
3) What can I do to optimize the time I’m going to spend meeting these goals?

A dear friend of mine shared his ‘priming’ exercises, which involved breath exercises, music, and a cold shower. I’m not sure those specific ones will be what I choose, but I love this notion. If something feels worth doing, if it aligns with my values, and I know it will help me achieve a goal (in this case, finishing my dissertation in the ambitious timeline I have set, with energy to still live a full, healthy and curious life among my community), then ‘priming’ is not just a necessary thing. I actually owe it to myself to set myself up for a strong writing practice.

So, in broad daylight, to be accountable to this space, I’m committing to learning what priming exercises work for me, and developing a more consistent and efficient writing practice. I owe it to the work, and I owe it to myself.

I’ve always been a juggler.

Interesting that on the heels of my last two posts, which praised the pursuit of projects, I drastically reoriented my own standing in relation to my multiple projects.

Without going into much personal detail, suffice it to say I recently found myself smack dab in the middle of a big internal reorientation. A few things had changed in my life over the summer, and in the months that followed, I’ve needed to take time to reorient the internal structuring of my identity, habits, assumptions and priorities. This process has been exhausting, it has been scary, and it has required me to drastically reconfigure my daily activities. There has been very little progress on school work. I’ve stayed committed to my teaching, but my own progress has been sluggish. Viscous, even.

Let me pause and say: everything is ok. I am doing great. In fact, I feel more centered and at peace than I have in… years. The energy I have is not from the adrenaline of being busy every second of every day, but from knowing that I have the capacity, skills and knowledge to figure out how I want to (re)build and (re)establish the infrastructure and architecture of my life. Where low-levels of anxiety used to be the norm, now they are a warning beacon. They are letting me know that I’m clinging to old habits, trying to fit too many things into a life that has asked me for simplicity. These stress beacons make me conscious of when I am trying to make plans and find conclusive answers to things down the road, of which I have little control and are often distractions for what I’m feeling right now.

That is the thing about being a project person. It’s really easy not to look inward. I was always scheduling the next meeting, brainstorming the next conference, scheming for my next trip, calculating a budget; I was always planning my days to be the most efficient possible, so I could fit in yet another thing. My colleagues were baffled by me: how do you get so much done? Literally, how do you do it?! My advisers praised me: you have what it takes to be an academic! you’re so good at time management, you’ll be a wonderful professor! My family and friends were always supportive, but had also come to expect that they would rarely see me, for I was so busy and had so many people to see and projects to tend to.

And one day, about a month ago, I realized: I didn’t feel good about being this person anymore. I was tired of juggling. But, but…

I am really good at juggling. I can keep multiple balls in the air, think logistically, plan efficiently. I can have a day in which I teach, grade papers, write a blog post, exercise, cook a delicious meal, go to a meeting, respond to emails, call a friend on the phone, read food blogs, catch up on twitter, and read academic articles. And I can go to bed exhausted, my body tense and my mind in a whir. I am really good at to-do lists.

Just because I can juggle, doesn’t mean I have to juggle. I find I am wanting simplicity,  and that I am not as satisfied by being as busy. I long for deeper connection with the people in my life, and want to nurture my capacity to look inward and explore who it is I want to be, how I want to relate to myself and others, and what types of projects I actually want to be involved in.

Just because I’m not juggling right now, doesn’t mean I’m not still a juggler. I have a lot of fear in letting go of this hyper-busy-version of myself. Can I be successful as a graduate student if I’m not cramming 15 things into a day? What if I only do four? Can I still get published? Develop my own course syllabus? Apply for grants? Teach? Be a mentor and receive mentorship? Perform department service? Continue to build relationships with community partners? Complete my exams? Develop my Public Scholarship Certificate? Go to conferences? Is it even possible? In these moments of extreme doubt (and, to be honest, wrinkled brow confusion at the vast number of *things* we’re supposed to balance as under-paid graduate students), I remember that just because I’m choosing not to tackle *all* of those things in one day, doesn’t mean I don’t have the capacity to. I am choosing to focus my energy and be intentional in my activities, rather than prioritizing efficiency and speed. If at some point I want to get the juggling pins out again, I can. They’ll just be in my closet, along with multi-colored juggling balls, circus knives and flame throwers.

Even though I’m really good at juggling, I can do other things, too. I am building out my repertoire of ways-of-being. In response to the litany of “Can I still…” questions above, the answer is, of course, “yes”. It might take more time, and it will be guaranteed to look different. But it is possible, because while I am a juggler, I am not only a juggler. Right now I’m feeling more like a tightrope walker: focusing, moving slowly, striving for balance, and trusting that there’s a big ole’ net to catch me when I inevitably trip, stumble and make mistakes. Maybe later I will be a clown. Perhaps someday I’ll tame lions.

Learning to understand this transition has been difficult. There were days early on when I was still going through the motions of doing-everything-all-the-time, and I felt like a ghost floating through someone else’s life. One day, I barely recognized myself in the mirror. I had no appetite. At one point, a colleague said, “you look… muted.” Hm. Concerning. Time to reevaluate.

Where once I proselytized juggling as many projects as possible (to nurture your whole self! to not limit yourself to just academia! to keep your passions and energy fresh! to collaborate and work with others!), I am now a disciple of simplicity. Making that transition within an academic department in which I could have carried around a coffee mug that said, “World’s Best Juggler!”, it is a great vulnerability to share that I am no longer performing that show. And, of course, I am not yet “good” at simplicity. I don’t know how to get an “A+” in simplicity. I do know how to get an A+ in juggling, and so I see myself slipping back into those habits, those grooves, with distressing ease. But that is when the stress signals chime in and say, “Take a step back, Elyse. Pause. Simplify. We know it’s hard. You’re not going to get an “A”. You’ll probably get a “C” at best… but at least you’re trying.”

And try I will. Because we’re all just doing the best we can, just trying to get our needs met. I am doing the best I can, and trying to get my needs met. Right now, I have a deep need for intentionality, focus, and connection. Does this mean I’m scrapping all of my projects? Not at all. But I am holding myself in a new relationship to my projects. I’m practicing saying ‘no’ before I say ‘yes’. I’m learning to do those things that feel like a gift to me, rather than doing things out of a feeling of obligation. And I am pursuing projects in which I feel like I can be my honest and whole self, whether that is a frazzled juggler, an off-balance tightrope walker, or a sad clown.

Takeaways and commitments from Imagining America 2013

My previous post was rather emotive, reflective. Pausing to think through what united the PAGE fellows this year, and where I found resonance.

While I usually scribble notes furiously at conferences, this is the first time I can remember going through and actually reading them. On top of that, I actually synthesized all of my scribbles into one word document. Wow! What a revolutionary way to approach conferences: learn from them like I would my own studies or courses!

Jen Shook, a PAGE Co-Director, captured the weekend beautifully on Storify.  Here, I am going to exercise some self-imposed brevity and highlight 5 key takeaways from the conference that I think would be helpful for my own research and home institution, the University of Washington. The conference this year was A Call to Action, and throughout all sessions the emphasis was on making commitments, be they big or small, that we could each enact once the conference concluded. In that spirit, I will also share the top 5 commitments I heard at this conference, whether they be mine, a friend’s or IA’s as a whole.

Takeaways

1) Let’s challenge the idea of “a real job”. This idea presumes a linearity from degree to career, and it privileges institutions that are deemed “prestigious”. Many of us, whether we are graduate students, activists, or scholars, will not take a linear path. We are in webs and networks that pursue greater equity, representation and democratic engagement with higher education and cultural institutions. What matters is the level of engagement, not if your job has a title, or if it is the one that got circulated on your discipline’s most prestigious listserve.

2) We all deserve accountability and intention in our mentorship relationships. Whether we are the mentor or mentee, we need to check in with ourselves and establish boundaries. What are my needs, what are my expectations, and how can I communicate these effectively to make sure that both parties can be accountable? Perhaps our mentorship relationships might look better if we do them in the style of a mentoring community, so that needs are being met by multiple people, rather than in a one-to-one relationship.

3) Making change in our institutions, especially universities, can learn a lot from community organizing. At the University of Richmond, members from their civic engagement and diversity offices shared how they are trying to mobilize theories of Full Participation on their campuses. In this example, it was clear that principles of community organizing are clear. It is necessary to make ample time, and to start small. Start with the relationships and connections you already have. Who on campus and in the community share these values, are already doing this work? Perhaps the commitments are practiced in different ways, with different language. But the point is to find allies and find common interests. Also, it is key to recognize differential levels of investment. An administrative office worker who cherishes job security above all else might be less receptive to radicalizing an office environment for fear they might not be able to “cut it”, and then risk losing their jobs. This doesn’t mean they don’t share the values, it just means leaving additional time for empathy, listening, and follow through. Any of this work, these movements, these alliances, also require us to let go of self and recognize the contributions of others, especially when these come in forms of knowledge not usually found in Universities.

4) Our scholarship is in a double-bind. The type of work we want to do (engaged, public, humanistic, etc) is being threatened by institutional and political economic trends that undermine the resources for this type of work. This makes it all the harder to complete the work, to do it in a timely manner, and to share its value with others. The double-bind is that this makes it all the more vital that we fight to make this work possible. In theory, engaged work does not exist in a bubble. It emerges from multiple ways of knowing, and spreads through networks and communities (including institutions of higher ed). Engaged scholarship resonates with people, and (hopefully) inspires the joys of learning. In a time when diminished resources, de-funding, and hiring freezes, we need to continue to fight to make space for this work. It both highlights the disparities and inequalities within our current moment, and offers alternatives to those that feel alienated from capital ‘H’ higher education.

5) We are not alone. While we might feel alone at our home institutions, there are folks all over the country that share our commitments. One of my favorite moments from the conference was a panel on Sunday morning that shared the work that graduate students are doing in Central NY to organize around engaged scholarship. Challenging the ways that Syracuse and Cornell Universities claim to support publicly engaged work, (but then never match that support with resources), graduate students are being strategic: writing reports and recommendations, sharing resources, looking for allies. We may not all have the time to organize regional networks, but it is a great reminder that there are precedents out there and there are likeminded individuals and communities.

Commitments

I commit to educate my undergraduates about the structures of graduate student labor at the University of Washington. I am a teaching assistant for the Geography of Global Inequality – many of the lessons of neoliberalization and privatization, unequal access to education, legacies of racism, and the internationalization of higher ed can all be fed through the lens of Labor and the University — as a member of this community, I commit to do my part to share this knowledge and experience with students who are rarely given this insight.

Some of the PAGE Fellows committed to taking better care of themselves. Quoting Audre Lorde, Blair Smith shared, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” This self-care will look different for everyone, but it involves many micro-commitments: giving yourself permission to say ‘no’ to new projects and activities; taking the time to check in about your needs; making space, time and possibly money to practice self-care so that these are not played out as all-too-easy excuses; communicating our needs to others.

John Armstrong, one of the PAGE co-directors, committed to making sure his mentors (of which there are many in the University and community partnerships!) know each other. He pointed out that though they all have deep impact on his life and work, some of them might have no idea who each other are. And while they might think they don’t like each other, perhaps they actually have some shared values and could learn from one another. I love this idea: make sure the people in your life know how they fit into your life! Convey their value, their connectedness. Make sure they know that they matter, and that they count, and that they are also part of a larger web.

The PAGE fellows and co-directors committed to making sure we continued this conversation, by seeking funding for a mini-summit in Chicago summer 2014, positioned around some work that our own Harish Patel  is doing with the Social Justice Initiative at the University of Illinois Chicago (directed by the amazing Barbara Ransby!). We just had far too much fun and camaraderie to wait a whole year to be reunited.

And now, to #5 of the top 5 commitments to come out of IA. I really wanted to highlight one that Imagining America made, as an organization…
But, you know? I cannot think of any.
This is not necessarily me being facetious (though it is a bit of that). At a conference that is as wonderfully non-hierarchical and interactive as IA, it is incredibly difficult to maintain cohesion. Truly, I have zero idea what happened at any of the sessions I didn’t go to, unless I had a friend share their takeaways and summaries. Though people were live-tweeting and note taking, aside from 2 plenaries (one of which I missed because I was on a plane, the other I missed because I was just too darn tired),  there was no recognition of what the commitments and calls to action were for the organization as a whole. I heard themes and trends, but especially in response to the 5 takeaways above, I wonder how IA sees itself as an organization set to respond to these ideas.

So there you go, folks. 4 days wrapped up in 10 neat concise points. Hardly doing it justice, but hey. In the spirit of self-care, I am giving myself permission to share this and then say, “ok. that is enough.” I will say, I am already looking forward to next year’s IA in Atlanta!

 

We are project people.

We are project people. To the refrain, “How do you do it all?” We respond, “How could we not?”

We are PAGE fellows. We are graduate students who pursue community engagement. We define community broadly. We study humanities, arts, social science. We are driven by humanistic inquiry. We are activists, scholars, organizers, artists. We are makers. We are parents, lovers, siblings, friends, allies, partners.

We want to make higher ed more equitable for all; we want to take what we can from a system we see is not working, and go on to other institutions; we want to incorporate care into our teaching and activism; we seek to explore activism through the arts; we want to organize and advance more democratic engagement with the arts and humanities; we believe in the joys of learning; we believe that knowledge comes in many forms; we are not convinced the academy is for us; we are sure that we want to teach.

We are project people. We know that there’s not one path to academic success. We know that we nourish our selves through multiple engagements. We wear many hats. We do a little of this and a little of that. We piece things together.

Maybe we will only be ‘ok’ academics. Maybe we won’t go on to even be academics. Maybe we give too much of ourselves to our communities and causes, feeling depleted in our own bodies and minds. Maybe we don’t have sufficient mentors on our campuses. Maybe we are reinventing the wheel. Maybe we feel lost. Maybe we feel tokenized on our campuses. Maybe we feel alone on our campuses. Maybe our departments have been gutted. Maybe our departments don’t support our work. Maybe we spend most of our time at other institutions. Maybe we aren’t sure what our next project will be. But we know that there will be a next project.

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I have returned from this year’s Imagining America conference, an annual convening that brings together artists and scholars in public life. Unlike any other academic conference I’ve ever been to, IA is about as non-hierarchical as a conference can get. There are site visits, performances, workshops, seminars, roundtables. The only time someone gets up in front of the room to “present” is one of the few keynotes of plenary talks. People are identified by their institutional affiliation, not by rank. Community organizers and leaders run sessions alongside academics and graduate students. Across the board, we are united in our belief that higher education can work more democratically. We can do this work better. Whether that is through more thoughtful and equitable community partnership, through interrogating our own practices, through trying to opening the doors to our institutions, to thinking through our pedagogical commitments… we believe that there is little space for us in higher ed and our current cultural institutions to do the work we believe in. And so we come together to find strength, share ideas, recognize we are not alone, and to organize. This year, we came together for a Call to Action, to share commitments and leave the conference with actionable items to put into place at our home institutions and communities.

Within IA, there is a group of graduate students fellows each year that contribute to the IA blog, lead sessions, and are seen as the folks who will carry these values and commitments forward as we navigate in/through/outside of the academy. I am incredibly honored to be one of the PAGE fellows for 2013-14. 15 of us arrived in Syracuse, New York to meet the board of directors of IA, meet our co-directors (9 incredible past PAGE fellows), and get to know one another.

In four short days, I feel I have gained a new family. I spoke more openly with some of the PAGE fellows and co-directors than I have with folks in Seattle I’ve known for years. I felt at home with these folks in a way that I often don’t in my home institution. Rather than being looked at like an alien when I discuss my multiple projects and commitments, people responded, “oh, cool! I do something like that, too!” Or, “I know exactly what you mean!” or, “wow, I can’t wait to share and learn with one another!” Or, “Huh. Have you thought about x, y and z?”

We dined together, we drank together, we cuddled together, we laughed together. We walked the streets of Syracuse, reflecting on our conversations throughout the day. We discussed race and gender politics in our lives and in our home institutions. We shared our multiple projects: from making sustainable vests to running our own nonprofits, from teaching arts to organizing labor movements, from editing journals to facilitating challenging conversations on our campuses, from parenting to community building, from making art to conserving art.

Soon, I will reflect with some more concise points about some of the lingering questions and takeaways from the conference. For now, I am so comforted and reassured in knowing that I have found kindred spirits who appreciate a back scratch and understand that “how are you doing?” doesn’t warrant a quick response of “fine” – it means we generally care and are curious about well being. That these are folks that have more than work-partner-eat-sleep, but who value whole self wellness and that part of that wellness is pursuing different projects and keeping our passions fresh. We want to make an impact and put our energy into things we care about NOW, and that through our organizing and community building, that energy will spread. It is contagious.

We are project people – how could we not?

Revising and resubmitting

It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks, I must say. Some very high highs and some very low lows. Not one to focus on the negative, I will share some of the highlights.

– I nailed down a spot to volunteer in the kitchen at a really nifty local music festival on a magical island. I can share my knowledge of cooking for a crowd, and feed many amazing musicians over the course of 3 days.

– I went on a most epic hike up to and along the High Divide, a little-traveled pass at the top of the North Cascades. It took 3 miles of 3500 feet of elevation gain to get there, but man oh man, was it worth it. We ate lunch staring out at Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan, two of the loveliest mountains I’ve seen. Hiking down 2 miles of 2500+ feet (aka, a 2-mile long squat), has left me pretty tired for days.

– So many friends have been visiting or in town! College friends, college professors, and many new friends, to boot! Our house has had people coming and going, coming and going, for well over a week now. It keeps it feeling alive.

– And, last but not least, my first journal article was accepted with minor revision! Yippee!

Which leads me to: revision! You rascal, you’re so surprisingly tricky! Even though the reviews of my manuscript were all-in-all quite positive (no one batting me down, tearing my argument to pieces, telling me I don’t know how to write…), it was still surprisingly hard to incorporate comments. My thinking has evolved so much since I wrote this piece, even though it’s only been a few months. Mainly, it’s because the piece draws on work that is a year old.

I imagine this is a common thing I will run into in academic writing: how do you write about old work and stay true to where the argument came from, even during revision? For instance, I’ve been doing all of this reading on empowerment. And while the article talks about empowerment, it is not a critique of empowerment per se. It is a critique of nonprofits and poverty governance structures. It has been hard to edit my empowerment brain and keep it out of this piece for now. No need to muddy an already complex argument. I’ll save the empowerment critique for a paper I’m writing with one of my colleagues.

Interestingly, though, once I just started putting everything on paper and incorporating everything, it made it easier to edit. The editor requested a version with ‘tracked changes’, which made the whole piece very overwhelming to work on and edit-as-I-go. So, after responding to all of the suggestions as best I could, I went section by section, editing back down to cohesive arguments, being aware of word limit and over-citing.

And now it’s off to people I trust to give me feedback! That’s a fun part: look at the original, look at the reviewer’s suggestions, look at the revised manuscript — like a puzzle! Does it fit together? Did I solve it?

However, this also means that it is back to the genealogy soon. I have friends in town the next few days, then a getaway to the San Juan Islands for one night, and then it’s off to the music festival, and shortly after that, Peru! Not a lot of time to get work done. But enough time to keep collecting books, figure out a plan for the year, start to look for grant sources, think about putting together a syllabus for a new class, organize the fall colloquium series, keep planning Eat for Equity events, and, you know, cook, exercise, sleep, read, see friends and family — all that good stuff.

A goal for the next few work days: prioritize 3 books to get a good handle on. One from each ‘genre’ of empowerment literature. Skim these, take notes, summarize. Start to think about a gap. Start to practice recitation by reading these against relational poverty studies. I think that is my task, really. Not to apply relational poverty studies things after the fact, but to read it into the work I’m doing right now. In fact, this will be incredibly helpful for a paper I’ve been scheming with a colleague, that will look at ‘relational empowerment’ – how the term has been used, and what critical GIS / feminist geography / relational poverty studies can bring to that term. Pretty neat!

Closing thought: I’ve been reading a lot of academic blogs this week. On how to be a better ‘whole-person’ academic, on the importance of respect in the female academic blogosphere, and in general, on how to get your voice out into the world. I’ve also been doing some blogging for non-academic sources. I think it is probably time for me to start cultivating this a bit more intentionally. Get my ideas out there. Get people to read this blog. Start a twitter account. Follow people who inspire me intellectually. Post what I’m reading. Link to donor activism and social justice work. Connect the multiple branches of my public/academic/social life in a way that I’ve been resisting for a while. Either way, I gotta keep reading these other fine folks. They certainly add a level of inspiration that can be hard to find while sitting alone at one’s desk, readin’, writin’ and pontificatin’.