T-13 days and counting. Gulp.
I feel like I should explain why I haven’t been blogging, but hell, you all know. I’m up for review, I’m finishing my god damned dissertation, teaching 3 classes, leading 4 (yes 4!!!) independent studies, directing 1 senior honors thesis, raising a toddler, and oh, yeah, fighting 5 (yes, 5!!!) episodes of the stomach flu in the last 4 weeks. (Man, do I hate to puke. On the plus side, I’ve lost 10 lbs. Can’t really recommend the method, though.)
And things just keep coming. This week I got snowed in on campus, and so spent 3 days away from home and Spousal Unit and Gadlet. And if that wasn’t enough, and I didn’t have enough going on, I spent 4.5 hours in the E.R. with a student on Wednesday after she came up to me after class and said she was going to faint and thought she was having a heart attack. Turns out, she had the stomach flu. So, fucking hell, I’m expecting my 6th episode to hit any day now. At least I got to take my first ride in an ambulance.
I’m pretty much “done” with everything except tidying up the footnotes in the last chapter and writing the conclusion (which I’ve been struggling with for weeks now.) And by “done” I don’t really mean done. In fact, I think they’re just letting me defend out of pity because a) it has been 13 years, and b) I’ll lose my job if I don’t. So, I’m not sure it really counts as “done” since I haven’t had a chance yet to make any of the revisions suggested by my advisor and I’m pretty sure that there are so many typos and errors in there that I’m going to be really embarrassed about it. I’m hoping at the very least that they’ll pass me with the stipulation that I’ll get the degree if I fix it and clean it up. I have until mid-April to make that happen. But, I guess I wouldn’t be allowed to defend if they didn’t think I would pass. Right? Right? (She says with great anxiety and hope.)
After all of this time, I’m still kind of marveling a the fact that I’m going to defend, as well as marveling at the fact that it never, ever got any easier as time went on. Shouldn’t it have? Shouldn’t the words have come more readily, the ideas flowed more smoothly, the thoughts come more quickly as time went on? Shouldn’t my fear of failure, of those with the incredible power to crush my dreams and ambitions, of my own limitations have faded over time? Somehow, they never did. I feel as terrified today as I did 13+ years ago when I started this. Maybe even more scared, really. And boy does that suck.
It also makes me look back on this process and really think about how much it damaged me. I started grad school with this world of hope and self-confidence and curiosity and, god love my little self, innocence. And in one fell swoop, one conversation, all of those things were crushed right out of me. I was a 3-rd year grad student, I already had an M.A., and I’d recently survived a particularly brutal Ph.D. qualifying exam. (One of my committee members later told me it was the second worst abuse of a graduate student he had ever seen, the first worst also was also by my advisor with a female student. She left the program.) But on that day, despite the brutality of the exam, I skipped my way into my advisor’s office with a sense of joy and anticipation — we were now colleagues engaging in an intellectual endeavor. He had called the meeting, I thought, to begin discussions about my dissertation — he was going to help me think about where to begin, how to do it. He was going to help. I walked into his office, and sat down in one of those army-surplus green-gray metal chairs with a squishy vinyl seat that swivel, and faced him. He sat in his army-surplus green-gray metal chair that swiveled at his desk. He then began telling me that the oral exam that I had ostensibly “passed” four weeks ago was utter shit. That I hadn’t had sufficient knowledge, that my interpretations were simplistic and uninformed, and that the only reason I had “passed” and was still in graduate school was by his good graces. I was there because of his power, his benevolence in keeping me there, not because I had earned it or deserved it or was smart enough for it. As he was saying these things, such awful, hateful, and devastating things, I started to look out of the window behind him. It was one of those tall 19th-century windows with a high, curving beautiful arch of glass at the top. I watched the tree branches beyond sway in the wind and let his words wash over me as I felt pieces of myself falling down around my feet. All I could think of in that moment was swearing that I would never, ever say anything like this to anyone. All I could do was think that I never wanted to have to say anything like this to anyone. I don’t know how I finished that meeting, or what I said, or even what I did afterward. It is all a blur. All I can remember is that chair, the window, the tree branches, and the total and complete destruction of all of my illusions about myself and about academia.
I look back on this now and see it for what it really was — abusive. It was a power trip that he was on and was an attempt to control me. (Of which there were many more incidents that would follow.) But somewhere, deep inside, I think that I’m still afraid of that experience. I’m not afraid that they’ll tell me my work is shit. (Well, maybe a little bit), but I think that criticism of my work I can handle. What I can’t face is the thought that in yet another situation where I’m going to go in expecting an interesting, and somewhat supportive, conversation and I’ll wind up similarly destroyed. I’m still afraid that in THIS exam that I’m about to take, I’ll face a similar abuse that will shatter the pieces of myself that I have spent the last ten years painstakingly putting back together. And this time, I really don’t have another 10 years to recover. I’ve got to publish and get tenure and hang out with my kid and my guy. (Not in that order.)
Fortunately, the abusive advisor is no longer a part of my academic world. The new guy is nice, and young (only a year older than I am) and thoughtful and smart. The other scary committee member also won’t be there, so I’ve got a proxy for her. That makes one old codger, who was always pretty nice, and these two young faculty members — a profoundly different committee. I’m hoping that that means I’ll have a profoundly different experience as well. I’m meeting with new advisor early next week to talk about what to expect. That should help.
But I’m also going to protect myself a little better this time around. Before I walk into that room, I’m going to pack away all of the most precious and fragile bits like the newly remerging love of my project and my fledgling confidence that I have something interesting to say. I’ll only let those bits out if it looks safe to do so.
So I guess I’m leaving this process a lot sadder, quite a bit older, a little fatter, a bit grayer and quite a bit scarred. But maybe I’m also leaving it a little more wise and a little more self-protective. We’ll see, I guess.
If I don’t blog in the next 13 days, do forgive me. I’ll report back in (in gruesome detail, I’m sure) when it’s all over. But please do send out good juju to the Big Wow for me from 3-5 e.s.t. Thursday, Feb. 12.