I’ve often found myself saying (to myself and others) that you should never make decisions when you are feeling terrible, but instead when you are feeling your best. Because in the end, every job, every relationship, and every life is going to have its low points, where you can’t imagine doing this forever or even imagine being happy doing it at all.

This is not to say that decisions shouldn’t ever  be made in low points; sometimes you need to hit rock-bottom to reevaluate your life. But in certain cases, like with your career, I try not to rule out a path just because it seems difficult or at times undesirable.

For example, since I just finished my Master’s thesis, I sometimes cannot imagine taking a project like this on again, to continue in school anymore. I look at all the research and feedback and time spent, and it exhausts me. But no matter how annoying and just plain frustrating the work can seem, it never outshines the exhilaration I feel upon completing a paper.

And I wonder, will I find that exhilaration in the business world? Is it confined to school? Perhaps this is the world’s way of telling me that this is what I’m supposed to do.

So I ask, should I make life-changes based on how amazing it feels to succeed in school? Should I commit more of life to this pursuit? Or should I go out into another career, and see if I can find the same kind of satisfaction? Will I let my desire for financial gain and a real “career” lead me away from academia? Or can I be in both worlds?

I can’t say yet. All I know is that I don’t want to let my worn-out sick-of-school feeling I have now dictate what the rest of my life will be like.

I’ll play it by ear.

And it’s an optimistic tune.

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Well folks, grad school is almost over. Completed first draft of thesis over the break, and I’m down to the wire. Paperwork filed.

Is this the end?

Will I go back?

Do I need a 12-step program to wean me off school?

Maybe.

 

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Did I just tag “graduation?” Shit. YES I DID.

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Wrapped up in my love of all things written is a passion for words, and, respectively, their origins. After all, who doesn’t get a kick out of knowing that “bookworm” comes from the name for “a group of insects which largely have in common their love of devouring parts of books and other documents?”1 

Well I do.

Therefore, when a question about the word “embarrass” came up in my Latin class last week (we were learning superlatives and I think it was the double “s” that clinched it) I decided to look it up (ok, so I decided to do this while typing up thesis notes, but don’t judge me, procrastination is an art – and have I told you the origin of “procrastination?” Oh yes, I think I have.)

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First we must visit our old friend the OED, who tells us that “Embarrass, v” first means:

1. trans. To encumber, hamper, impede (movements, actions, persons moving or acting)."

b. pass. Of persons: To be ‘in difficulties’ from want of money; to be encumbered with debts.

 

And then the 2nd definition, part B, is,

b. To make (a person) feel awkward or ashamed, esp. by one’s speech or actions; to cause (someone) embarrassment."

Then we come across this helpful passage:

“The English word embarrassed has taken an unusual path into English. The first written usage of embarrass in English was in 1664 by Samuel Pepys in his diary. The word was derived from the French word embarrasser, "to block," or "obstruct",1 whose first recorded usage was by Michel de Montaigne in 1580. The French word was derived from the Spanish embarazar, whose first recorded usage was in 1460 in Cancionero de Stúñiga (Songbook of Stúñiga) by Álvaro de Luna.2 The Spanish word comes from the Portuguese embaraçar, which is a combination of the prefix em- (from Latin im- for "in-") with baraço or baraça, "a noose", or "rope".3 Baraça originated before the Romans began their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 218 BC.4 Thus, baraça could be related to the Celtic word barr, "tuft." (Celtic people actually settled much of Spain and Portugal beginning in the 700s BC, the second group of people to do so.)5 However, it certainly is not directly derived from it, as the substitution of r for rr in Ibero-Romantic languages was not a known occurrence.

The Spanish word may come from the Italian imbarazzare, from imbarazzo, "obstacle" or "obstruction." That word came from imbarrare, "to block," or "bar," which is a combination of in-, "in" with barra, "bar" (from the Vulgar Latin barra, which is of unknown origin).6 The problem with this theory is that the first known usage of the word in Italian was by Bernardo Davanzati (1529–1606), long after the word had entered Spanish."2

 Ta-Da! We can now see how the English verb embarrass comes is connected to the Latin verb imbarrare.

And we can also see many of us, sadly, due to out lack of exuberance of funds, are unable to avoid embarrassment in daily life.

BUT – at least we can explain what it means, linguistically. Zing!

Not me, but she sure looks like a grad student!

No matter how hard you try, and how vigilant you are, there are certain things that seem inevitable in grad school. Such as,

  • sporadic moderate-t0-heavy drinking
  • brain lapses
  • finger blisters/laptop burns
  • late-night delirium
  • extreme productivity followed by days of nothingness
  • meeting a professor who calls out your bullshit (even if you didn’t know it was in fact bullshit)
  • lack of every-day hair-washing

Oh the irony: my school's library is named after Charles Shultz.

BUT, today’s kick in the ass is brought to you by the library, who so lovingly supplies you with books, and so hatefully charges you when you don’t bring them back, because, you are, you know, using them. (And definitely not letting them sit on your desk collecting dust while you write blog entries. Never.)

When you have 37 library books checked out, and 27 of them come to your from LINK+, from other libraries, one is bound to slip through the cracks. Add to this the fact that the lending period for LINK+ books is only a couple weeks, and you can only renew if for 2 more weeks. And if you happen to, eek, not return it on time, the fee is A DOLLAR A DAY. In the grad school world, that burns.

So many future drinks already gone.

And this weekend, I entered my office and checked my email only to see that I accidentally ignored an email stating a book was due 12 days ago. Which, math folks, is $12. Sigh.

Um, yes....?

So, in grad school, you will check out books. You will “forget” to renew them. You will accrue fines. And, screw it all, you will pay them. Because it’s the right thing to do.

…Ok, truthfully, you will pay them becasue the library will stop you from checking out new books until the fines are paid. Clever-tricky bastards. (Whom I love despite.)

During my years at grad school thus far, I have been plagued with the obligation to pass the 494 qualifying Master’s oral exam. Techincally, one is supposed to take the test during their first year, on the basis that the reading list should give you a foundation for graduate work, blah, blah, blah. But like 95% of my fellow grads, I put it off. And off. And off. (After my class they amended the English graduate handbook so that taking the test is a requirement for the first year. Wise decision, people.)

Enter my last year, when I need to advance to candidacy and finish my thesis – oh yes, and pass the 494 exam.

Perhaps I should preface this by saying that the reading list for the oral is a collection of 40 or so items including novels, poetry, and critical theory. not horrific in any sense. Thankfully I had read over half of it as an undergrad (this, however does not guarantee that one remembers anything about the text, including the names of the main characters.) And I’m not someone who feels they need to read every word of a text to get what you need to know; usually if you read most of it, and you know what happens, you can pass a test (I’m not advocating this for serious study mind you, but just for certain required readings that you’re no very into. Once cannot write a thesis based off spark notes.) Though there is one student in my program who is reading every single text in entirely, which I commend, but which takes a boatload of time. Eessh.

So at the beginning I contacted the head of the English grad department, and finally -dun dun DUN! – scheduled the exam for Tuesday October 5th. Let the studying cramming begin!

I printed out a 75+page compilation of sparks notes of all the books (just to brush up, you see) and summaries of all the theory texts, and proceeded to re-read all the poetry selections, skim the short works, and make page after page of notes summarizing main ideas, concepts, memorable lines, etc. I memorized publication dates and biographical information, and read Norton introductions to all of the time periods. I reviewed the texts, reviewed the notes, re-reviewed the notes, and skimmed pages right before going to sleep.

Finally, Tuesday arrived. As I got closer to school and the department building, the nerves started to kick in a bit, and my heart began to pound (my usual trick to calm myself down is to cup my hands in front of my face and breathe in some carbon dioxide. Usually works. Like a paper bag, only less psychotic.) I did a quick review in the bathroom (don’t judge) and then arrived at the conference room, 10 minutes early.

But I should tell you, my school operates at a usual delay of about 10-15 minutes, so my exam started at 12:10-15ish. And a strange thing happened: as I sat there in the room, I started to calm down; I knew I was prepared, and that I was going to pass, and that it was not frightening at all – mostly just getting it over with was exciting!

And then a small act of God: one of my questioners – who is notoriously combative and harder to please –  was out sick, and replaced by the dept head, who is a fluffy bunny in comparison. So it began.

It opened with a question about the Fairie Queen, and as a medievalist, that made me a little happy (though we did skip over Chaucer, sadly). We discussed Keats, Melville, Roth,  and Woolf – and that was it. I brought in a few other texts, some critical theory, some fiction, to support my answers, but in all considerations the exam was not comprehensive. The hour passed like it was 5 minutes, and the professors not only asked me questions but commented on them themselves, making it feel more like a conversation than an intense question-and-answer session.

So here is the secret my fellow-grad friends: From what I experienced, and what the examiners told me, what they really want to see in a qualifying oral is not that you can read 50 books and rattle off the information, but to instead be able to engage critically with texts and bounce ideas and concepts around texts easily. They want to see if you can take an issue like racism and see how it works out in different texts, to make connections. But most of all, they want to see that you are at a graduate level of engagement. If there’s a question that you don’t know the answer to, admit it, and talk about what you do know.

What I found funny was, after about 40 minutes, the dept head simply said “I think that’s enough” and let me go, saying that it was clear I had proved what needed to be proved well. It was a strange feeling; it felt like I had just gotten there, and there were so many other texts that I wanted to talk about. But that’s not important, because after all this time I was finally done. I can now move further into my thesis without having the 494 in the back of my head, and that is certainly worth a couple days of cramming!

Now I know that Ph.D orals are notoriously awful, but if you are worrying about your Masters orals, relax. It may put the fear into you, but it’s not there to trip you up!

[And holy $%@# does it feel good to have them over with!]

I always wonder about the authors of literary theory or criticism: who do they think they’re writing for?

Unfortunately, in many cases the answer seems to be: themselves. Or rather, people exactly like them.

Fellows readers of academic writing, you  know what this is like.

As required by my major and my department, I’ve read my share of literary theory; many of the “classics,” as it were. Pieces by Foucault, Bahktin, Greenblatt, Butler, Freud, Jung, countless others. (Don’t even get me started on the craziness of some: my critical theory grad seminar spent a whole class trying to picture exactly what the hell a rhizome is really supposed to look like; we ended up being someone around a garden potato.) And generally speaking, they are all pretty brilliant in one way or another – even if that way means you can only tell that at some point in life, the writer had a brilliant idea, and stopped there.

But there are some pieces that are so wrapped up in their own “brilliant” way of thinking, that you’re left with only two options: 1, that the work is so wonderful and smart that the only reason you can’t understand it is becasue you are not as wonderful and/or smart; and 2, that it’s a piece of crap, the author knows it’s a piece of crap, and therefore decides to write using the most-confusing logic available, that may/may not have made sense to them or their editor at some point.

[If you’re still following me after that paragraph, you must have been in this situation before.]

Which brings me to this question: Does critical work need to be complicated to be respected?

I’ve never had a teacher that didn’t want their students to write concisely, so where are these writers coming from? (I’m not sure where, but I’m sure you’re not supposed to ask.) Then again, I’ve had teachers comment that sometimes being too logical is a negative, making your argument too predictable.

I digress. But what causes this whole issue to pop up (yet again) was a book I’m reading for my thesis which cited a large paragraph of French without giving a translation.

I wonder: Is this inconsiderate of the author, or just an error on my part? Perhaps, in their mind, I am expected to be able to read Old English, Middle English, Latin, and French (and two out off the list just doesn’t cut it).

Yeah…..I’ll get back to them on that one.

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Did you ever think about a project so much that it seems like it will never actually be realized?

I’ve officially begun the thesis, and by that I mean: I have my specific topic/claim, and it’s been declared “great” by my adviser. Hurrah!

I’ve been reading, thinking, doodling, brainstorming, fantasizing – but at this point, I haven’t actually started the writing… It’s so strange to think that within the next year I will have finished it, and finished my degree entirely. Done already??

I already miss regular seminars – does this mean I should keep going in school? Or will I always be one of those people who simply loves it. There’s a point in the lives of most adults, it seems, where you make the decision between getting a job and continuing to do the thing you never get sick of – and if you’re lucky enough those things coincide.

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But the thesis. I’m beginning to think that it’s like that first plunge into cold water: you can slowly “adjust” yourself in all you want, but until you jump in and immerse yourself you will never really get used to your surroundings.

It all feels a bit like I’m back in elementary school, staring down the high dive, telling myself that walking down the stairs is not an option.

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But the hardest part of any project, for me, is simply getting words on the paper. Ten pages of crap is better than zero pages of “great ideas,” in my opinion. Bring on the crap!

image But I’d like to see those smurfs…