Tag Archives: writing

Synergies and Satisfaction: Finishing my Exams!

To those unfamiliar with the process of academic qualifying exams, they go something like this:

1) figure out what areas of [your academic discipline] you want to specialize in (i.e. moving forward, what are the subject areas within [discipline] that will most inform the dissertation project?)
2) write up a big ole’ statement about how those 3-ish areas inform your work
3) give said statement to your committee (usually 3 faculty), who each generate a question for you to answer. the questions are based on a gap in the statement, or an area the committee wants to push you towards
4) write fully cited essay responses to said questions in a short amount of time (for me, it was three 10-page essays in three days.)
5) sleep for days.
6) at some point, have an oral defense with your committee for an hour and a half of very hard, direct, on-the-spot questions.
6a) sweat bullets. say awkward things. watch committee cringe and try and help you along.
7) with any luck, PASS exams, and become a PhC (candidate for the doctorate)
8) go out for drinks with all of your academic friends
9) then research and write a g-damn dissertation. oof-dah.

As of today, I’ve done parts 1-5, but am waiting for parts 6-infinity for another week (+beyond). My statement detailed my interest in exploring the model of social justice philanthropy (SJP) through three lenses:
1) state restructuring: with the rise of nonprofits, and the simultaneous shrinking of assets, how is social justice philanthropy mobilizing for social change? how is it similar or different than existing models of philanthropy and social service provision?
2) critical poverty studies: what assumptions and beliefs does social justice philanthropy practice that challenge dominant, individualized and pathologizing discourses about poverty? In other words, how do SJP organizations understand poverty, and what do they believe they can do to change it?
3) political geographies and subjectivities: who are the people engaging with SJP? at what scale are they enacting politics? how do the practices of SJP challenge or contest more national level beliefs about the ‘best practices’ of new philanthropy?

So I got questions back that loosely fit into those narratives and questions. I was encouraged to think about my own epistemology (how I see the world), my methodology (how will I look at ‘discourse’? how will I remain open to engaging the possible rather than critiquing the limits?), and about the contradictions and position of *any* philanthropic engagement (i.e. the fact that philanthropy, by its very nature, relies on unequal distribution of wealth as a means to try and solve the problems created by unequal distribution of wealth…)

So I donned my coyote hat (one of my birthday gifts from a friend), hoisted a hefty backpack with my laptop, wireless mouse and keyboard, and lots of books, and I split my 3 days between Office Nomads and WeWork. I packed good food. I got good sleep. I made sure to exercise and not work more than 8 hours a day. I watched an episode of Sherlock every night. I wrote sitting down, I wrote standing up. I wrote while dancing. I took some naps, and I texted and g-chatted with fellow PhD students near and far. I called my parents with updates and posted at least one self-congratulatory facebook post.

And you know what? I had fun with it all. Really and truly. I think this is a testament to the fact my program is an extremely good fit for me, and that my committee knows me well. And that I am a huge nerd at heart.

I also think I was ready to be pushed, to truly develop my ideas. To dig deep and think hard. The questions were incredibly productive. That said, by the end of the three days, my brain was mush. It took me at least a full week to recover my thinking capacity.

But when I woke up a few days later, I thought, “huh. what was all the fuss about? one day I woke up and started writing, and 3 days later I was done.”

The tendency is to build this whole process up SO MUCH. To stress about all of the reading to do, the work to prepare, the elusive ‘readiness’ that one should feel before writing the exams. However, I decided early on to try and avoid this stress. To just read in an incredibly focused way, and to take thorough notes. I decided to start writing the statement, and that if I came upon an area that I needed to read more deeply, then I would pause and read. I trusted that my adviser wouldn’t let me take the exams if it was clear I wasn’t ready. Lo and behold, she gave me the green light immediately, and I saved myself an enormous amount of stress.

Because here’s what I realized: I was always going to be ready, because this is the stuff I’m living and breathing. I’m not only thinking about social justice philanthropy in the context of school, I’m thinking about it as an activist, as a long-term project, as a writer, as a nonprofit manager, and as a participant. I am not only thinking about poverty politics through academic papers, but through my own discourses, through twitter feeds, through public policy, through the ways my entrepreneurial peers approach social inequalities. And politics? It is part and parcel of how I see the world, how I think about every day actions and larger strategies. To clarify, I don’t mean electoral or governmental politics. I mean the actions that people take that put them in a position to live their values, to stake a claim, to push for change, or to say something challenging. For scholars writing on politics in this way, see Lynn Staeheli, Stuart Hall, Tracy Skelton, Gill Hart, Vicky Lawson, and J.K. GIbson-Graham. 

So I turned in my exams and sent them off in a 36 page PDF. I then proceeded to have a dance party to some very loud pop music in the lobby of WeWork, to eat an enormous bowl of celebratory pho, and then go home and make myself a strong hot toddy. And then sleep for days (kind of).

This was not a process I would elect to undertake again, but it was incredibly positive, productive, and not-that-painful. I look forward to hearing from my committee during the oral defense. And I am so pleased to have had the chance to think deeply about my research, to write it out, and to remind myself that I am ready and I will continue to be ready. Bring it on, dissertation! You’re next.

Mini-Blog Series: Synergies and Satisfaction

February. What a whirlwind.

After my fair city of Seattle dominated the Grammys and the Superbowl, I began a week-long birthday celebration with friends throughout the city.

The following week, I wrote my qualifying exams. And then tried to recover.

I then quickly prepared a talk and hopped on a plane to the Critical Geography Conference at CU-Boulder.

The afternoon of my return from Boulder, I was back in my relational poverty seminar. And I just applied for the Numad program at Office Nomads.

At some point in the last three weeks, I noticed that it all just kind of came together. A great synergy. All of the tendrils I’ve been testing and floating out there came zipping back in and went shooooomp!

This coalesced during my exploratory talk at Boulder, which discussed how I was going to engage critical feminist theory in my dissertation research on social justice philanthropy.

I am one who processes through writing. So, I’m designing a short blog series on this synergy and finding satisfaction with my professional energies. I will post a few short reflections in the coming days that help articulate and capture the energy, intentionality, questions and ideas that have been generated in the last month. I continue to develop my identity in the world of creative philanthropy: as a scholar, a writer, by planning events, through speaking events and as a community connector. I believe this is going to be the basis of my life’s work for the next little while. Hang in there with me while I start to put all the pieces together.

Relearning poverty knowledge

I recently published a new piece of writing on the blog for the Relational Poverty Network, of which I am a member.

The piece asks what it might look like to acknowledge, unlearn and re-learn our ideas and assumptions about poverty.

It is in response to a TEDx talk by Ananya Roy at UC Berkeley. Check it out at: http://depts.washington.edu/relpov/acknowledging-unlearning-relearning-poverty-knowledge/

If you like the post, consider following and/or joining the RPN!

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’.

A Good Reminder

Today was one of those days that cements in my mind, at least temporarily, why I am lucky to be in graduate school.

It began like any other day in Seattle: woke up to a grey sky, I gave myself extra time in the morning to do the crossword puzzle, because, after all, it is Tuesday, so I had a fighting chance. I made myself breakfast and enjoyed a cup of tea. I contemplated biking or taking the bus, and given the doom and gloom forecast for 8-10 inches of snow, I took the bus. (As an aside, there has been no snow accumulation today, at this point. What a crock). I got to school, had a somewhat frenetic teaching session, and then settled into a routine of meetings, chatting, and dilly-dallying.

And then I met with my adviser about my thesis for the first time in about 2 months, and everything magically got great.

I had feared that this meeting would go poorly. I had rather quickly put together an outline of my thesis, with some of my main literatures and key points. I felt tepid about it, prepared for the worst. I expected a meeting of deep questions, “why this, here?”, “what do you mean by ‘deserving youth’?”, “are you sure you’re citing the right people when you discuss neoliberalization?” But all of this was for naught. We had an incredibly productive and validating meeting. My adviser was (to me, at least) shockingly supportive of the direction I was heading, and impressed by how ‘together’ my thoughts have already become.

So we chatted about deadlines and timelines and goals, and moved onto my upcoming AAG presentation, pausing briefly to discuss funding woes and grant cycles, etc, etc.  Of course there was the requisite talk of cats, cycling and teaching. Always a good break. And then some surprising, though unofficial, good news, to which I will write more freely once it is ‘official’.

All of this is to say that I left my meeting reminded of why I am in graduate school, and why I love being a scholar. All of the doubt and fear I had that I was missing the mark, overlooking some enormous gap, or just plain ‘wrong’, not only evaporated, but was dislodged so entirely that I feel I might go *gasp* a whole week (!) without those thoughts again.

For, not only am I just ‘on the right track’, but apparently the natural steps that I laid out for myself, my natural work cycle and thought progression, my inclination towards scholarship and goal setting and time management and organization… it is all working.

Let me pause for a second, lest it seem I am merely tooting my own horn. That is not what I am writing about. Rather, I need to record the sense of confidence and sincere lack of doubt I have at this moment. These moments are so, so, so very rare in graduate school that I need to have this feeling in writing, so that I can come back to this on the other 360 days when things are just crap; when there is no validation; when I am filled with doubt; when I wonder why I forsook my friends and family across the country to move to grey and expensive Seattle; when finding a healthy balance between work and life is exhausting at best, and impossible at worst; when the graduate student life is demanding without appropriate compensation; when I feel completely isolated from the amazing intellectualism of many of my peers; when I’m not connecting with my students; when I look at my savings account and ::sigh::.

That is to say: this life, while it has its moments, is a difficult one. But I am getting paid (though that is a sore subject in and of itself), I get to teach, I get to meet with two of the most incredible women faculty that I’ve ever met, I get to meet amazing colleagues and friends, I get to present my work at conferences, I get to read all day if I want to, I get to have a perfectly reasonable excuse to go home on a Friday night after happy hour and just knit! So, for those times when all of that good is eclipsed by all of the other tough, crunchy, gritty and anxiety producing ‘stuff’, I hope I can come back to this moment, when I felt so completely sure of myself, and, truly, on top of the world.