Staring Down the Barrel

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.

16 responses to “Staring Down the Barrel

  1. You will do fine. It sounds like this committee will be infinitely better.

    It makes me sad that 1) your advisor was that much of an asshole to you and 2) you put up with that. I know how it is, though, and one can hardly blame you. Those kinds of situations are so easy to get into and so difficult (if not impossible) to get out of. I guess I should send one up to the academic gods for giving me such a kind and decent advisor!

  2. Wow. I am in total and complete awe and admiration of you. I’m a 6+ year PhD student and have gone through my own self-damaging graduate student experience… not the least of which is paralyzing writer’s block for my d@mn dissertation. So, the fact that you’re banging all this out while also raising children and teaching 3 classes (?!) and leading 4 independent studies (?!?) and taking on a bajillion other responsibilities… it’s mind-boggling to me. Here I am teaching one course per semester and that’s basically IT, and I still can’t finish the d@mn thing!

    So, my point is, I will be sending you MASSIVE amounts of confident, well-wishes for February 12th, and I have no doubt you will kick major PhD-@ss. 🙂


  3. Hot d@man! That adviser was a terror, huh? So glad you don’t have to deal with that person, nor the other one anymore.

    All the best to you as you moved toward this milestone. Your courage to push on is awe inspiring!

  4. Wow, your old adviser ought to be shot.

    You’ll do very well, don’t worry! It’s amazing how much you are accomplishing right now. I am in awe of you. You are amazing!

  5. What a traumatizing relationship with your old advisor. I’m so glad he’s not part of your life anymore, but of course the damage he inflicted hasn’t disappeared.

    I’ve put a note in my calendar to pray for you during your defense, and I hope that it will actually be a healing experience for you.

  6. It’s amazing how damaging the grad school experience is. While I don’t think my advisor was abusive, she had ways of making me feel like complete and utter shite. And I share your ambush/shame response. But FWIW, the last time I saw her, and I had another one of those frustrating conversations with her, for some reason I was able finally to say, You know what? It IS her, not me. And it was amazingly liberating. So I hope you reach that point, too, and that you have that supportive and helpful conversation! Good luck!!

  7. It sounds like your new committee is great. They already sound understanding and much nicer! No, they WOULD NOT let you defend if they didn’t think they would pass you.

    You will do great! You know more about this topic than anyone else in that room. Good luck! Big hugs to you.

  8. Wow. Your first advisor really was an asshat: I’m glad he’s off the committee. I really hope your defense is a fundamentally different thing, because if it is, and it should be, it’ll clear up some of the bad taste from the oral.

    What an abusive, nasty experience. I’m so sorry you went through that. I would have been absolutely crushed. Incredible.

  9. No wonder you had so much trouble finishing. IMO, writing a dissertation is more about your emotional/psychological fortitude than your intellect, at least at the final stages. I be the new committee will make a huge differences. At a minimum you won’t be coming in with the same baggage.

    Good luck!

  10. Long time lurker, never comment leaver. I stumbled across your site one day and couldn’t believe the extent to which you documented my own Ph.D. and dissertation experience. Best of luck with the defense. I tell you, I defended 4.5 years ago and still can’t believe it’s over!

  11. I’ll be thinking of you.

    How wonderful it’s going to feel to have it over.

  12. Your old adviser sounds similar to a professor I know and must still work with. I love your third to last paragraph and am going to try and remember it for times when I have to sit there and take abuse like that.

    I will send you good vibes for your defense. Yay for you!

  13. Good luck! You’ll be fine!

  14. Yet another historian

    Another long-time listener, first-time caller. I’ve also spent the last few years biting and clawing my way through (but mostly hiding from) my dissertation, and your blog is a wonderful, funny, and generous read.

    Best wishes for your defense. There’s no way the committee would touch a defense date with a ten-foot pole unless they knew you’d pass. And it sounds like it won’t be anywhere near your orals experience without that hideous man. Looking forward to the debut of Dr. Stewgad! Good luck!

  15. I have checking into your blog now for 2 years … I’m into year 6 of this, and during this time accumulated a husband and toddler while keeping a full-time job and juggling teaching and research assignments when possible. you have provided laughter, tears and comfort to me (and I’m sure others) who while surrounded by folks very well-meaning and supportive in their own way–have no idea what this process does to you. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing your triumphs and struggles.
    I think you will do fine, and I will be sending good vibes on your big day. Sometimes we can be so cautious and gunshy we can’t see the obvious … if your committee want you to defend, you are ready to defend! Take care!

  16. Go, Stewgad, go! Go, Stewgad, go! Give me an S! Give me a T! Give me an E! Give me a W! Give me a G! and an A! and a D! Go………. Stewgad! And remember, in the words of Justin Roberts, you have the Smart Parts.

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