Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Mischief Managed, Part the First

The new year has definitely gotten off to a fast start! I've started my new part-time job as a lecturer at Notre Dame de Namur University, reviewed and sent off the copy-edited version of my Isumbras article, and am currently making plans to head to Norway in May for a conference called "The Arthur of the North" (more on that in a future post). Things look like they'll be getting busier from here on out as well: somewhere in the next few months I'm planning to send off an article on Middle-English Mongols for review, write a conference paper on instrumental grieving in Pearl, and get a book proposal together. There's also a third-degree black belt test in March and competing to be done at Regionals, where I'll be making my first appearance as a member of the Northwest kata team. Also, I'm still working away on Old Norse and editing various sections of my ongoing Crusades Project (my dreams these days consist of reduplicated vowels and Templars).

I regret that in the midst of this (busy but exciting) maelstrom I've neglected In Romaunce, but I'm vowing to get back on the horse. I've got a lot of working drafts, and I have plans (glorious, nefarious plans) to pull them out of my head and plunk them down into Blogger more consistently from here on out.


In the meanwhile, I thought I'd share one of what I hope will be several retrospectives on graduate school -- at long last, I might add, because Kristi's been gently nudging me to post this entry for months now. Last year was a time of many transitions -- from grad student to graduate, from Rochester to the Bay Area – and these changes happened so quickly that it took me quite a while to get used to it all. There are times I still have to pinch myself to make sure I’m actually living here in California, and to make sure I'm really, truly done with graduate studies. The uprooting process is often a hard but exhilarating one and I've found myself thinking a lot of late about the past seven and all that I experienced along the way.  I've also been thinking a bit about Harry Potter.

Like the students at Hogwarts, I spent seven long years studying things many consider arcane and unusual (medieval beaver castration, anyone? anyone??), and each year presented its own unique adventures and challenges. Granted, there are many fundamental differences between my experiences and those of Harry Potter and his cohorts. For starters, there was no Voldemort to be found in my graduate program save for my own rampant neuroses and insecurities, which I battled along the way.  I had neither a penseive nor a time-turner, and dear GOD how I longed for both as I prepped for exams and finished my dissertation, the latter of which was (not-so-affectionately) code-named: FELL BEAST. A hippogriff would've been nice too, Rochester's wind chill notwithstanding. Nevertheless, age differences, magic, and nemeses aside, I certainly identified with parts of Harry's journey from his first year through his seventh. And so, I think I'll devote a little bit of time to each of my years in graduate school over the course of a few posts. My main hope is that some of these stories and experiences might be helpful to others out there who find themselves on a similar path. And while I've left a considerable amount unsaid for various reasons (some stories are best kept secret or, at most, kept between good friends), my other hope is that this post accounts, at least in part, for the major shifts and experiences I had along the way. 

Prologue: The Owl Arrives

I knew after my sophomore year at the College of William and Mary that I wanted to go to graduate school and study medieval literature. By this point, I was already familiarizing myself with all variations of the "What in the #*$! are you going to do with that?" question that all medievalists are asked at regular intervals (my evolving answer is a blog post for another day, I think). This realization didn't come overnight, but was rather the product of a tumultuous freshman year in which I realized, among other things, that I did not want to major in biology. I'd come to William and Mary with vague dreams of becoming another Jane Goodall, but after crawling my way to the finish line of that first year (during which I often felt that Admissions made some sort of clerical error in accepting me), I spent much of the summer trying to figure out what I actually wanted to do and what I enjoyed. Part of that process involved trying out environmental research in the Virginia wetlands, which typically found me, at two or three in the morning, assisting a graduate student in his research by recording bird sounds, all the while sinking lower and lower into swamp mud. I am, and always will be, an outdoorsy type, but I realized very quickly that I like having the option of doing my work outside. And so, I decided to go back to the drawing board and take classes that simply interested me and then decide what career I would try to pursue. I had always loved my English classes growing up and had been an avid reader for as long as I could remember. I decided, as a result, to try my hand at English once again, but by the time I'd reached this decision in the middle of the summer, very few courses were still open. One of these just happened to be a medieval literature course taught by John Conlee, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I fell in love with medieval literature through this course, and registered for every single medieval or early modern class I could get my hands on for the rest of my time at W&M. Highlights included Phil Daileader's brilliant class on the crusades (which I owe no small amount of thanks, since it laid the groundwork for my research in grad school), Adam Cohen's seminars on Gothic architecture and manuscript illumination, and John Conlee's unforgettable Celtic Literature seminar. I fell so completely in love with medieval literature that I went on to accidentally double major in Medieval and Renaissance Studies because I took so many elective courses in those areas. 

I wanted to keep my options as open as possible as I moved into my senior year, however, and I also felt the need -- excited I was about the idea of graduate school -- to take a hiatus from academia and make very sure that pursuing a PhD was something that I truly wanted to do. I applied for high school and middle school teaching positions at various local schools, and eventually landed a job teaching a mix of history classes at a small private school in Williamsburg. To save money, I moved back in with my folks, and I still can't thank my parents enough for making sure that I actually ate during that first year of teaching. Much as I enjoyed working with my students, I quickly found myself missing medieval studies. And so, I applied to PhD programs in the Fall of that year (2004), a process that was, as so many of you know already, both intensely stressful and anxiety-inducing.  Handling all of this work on top of seven course preps was overwhelming at times.  I remember almost falling asleep in karate class (while standing and punching, no less) because I was averaging about 3-4 hours of sleep a night. My planning periods were often spent frantically studying for the odious GREs or the even more odious English subject test. During the months building up to THE EXAM, I day-dreamed about ceremoniously burning my flash-cards and demon-dancing around the flames once I was done; in truth, I'm pretty sure that the first thing I did after taking that inane brutalizer was sob into my car's steering wheel (I was parked, don't worry). Added to which, the first several letters I received from grad programs were rejections, and with each one my spirits sank more and more. Rationally, I knew that the rejections weren't personal. I knew that my professors and my family believed in me and that I should believe in myself. But receiving those thin envelopes, one after another, began to wear me down, and I started to resign myself to the fact that this dream might not happen for me.

I think, more than anything else, that this entire process of applying to graduate school began to teach me how to handle situations that were, in the end, utterly out of my control. Before I even heard from The University of Rochester, I had to figure out a way to accept the fact that I had done everything I could to get myself to graduate school, but that it might not be enough. And if that was the case, that it was no true reflection on me as a person. I'm not going to say that I completely understood or accepted this process of letting go at this stage of my life (or that I even have it figured out now), but it is something I actively worked on as I endured the challenges of graduate school and of life in general (it's certainly something I've been thinking about since the posting of the MLA job list back in the Fall). Over time, I'd come to realize that I could learn a lot from rejection and the fears that it produced. Among other things, experiences like this would teach me that while it's important to reach for these kinds of goals, it’s equally important to avoid relying on them for self-worth (this is something that I still have to remind myself of on a regular basis).

UofR, as it greeted me on that initial visit.
One day though, after all of these rejections, a larger envelope arrived in the mail, and it was from the University of Rochester. I had informally visited the University back in December, and everyone there had greeted me warmly and made me feel incredibly welcome, even though I hadn't even applied yet. I vividly remember Russell Peck showing me around Rush Rhees library, Alan Lupack introducing me to the Rossell Hope Robbins Library (what would become my second home during graduate school), and Thomas Hahn (who would later become my advisor and mentor) taking the time to meet with me and introduce me to the program. I left the University that day with a full and hopeful heart, as well as directions from Dr. Peck to the waterfall in city center, which I dutifully and enthusiastically followed (see evidence below).

A picture of said waterfall!

Out of all the schools that I applied to, Rochester was the place that I really wanted to attend, especially after that visit, and I remember as clear as day the vivid excitement of receiving their acceptance letter a few months later. I journeyed up to Rochester after celebrating Easter with my family and had the good fortune to meet many of the people who would become my closest friends.

Several months later, I found myself -- with considerable help from my Marine dad, my mother, and my boyfriend (now husband) -- cramming all of my belongings into my tiny Ford Focus, and driving off to meet my future.  

Year One

Like any graduate student, I learned many lessons and faced an array of challenges during my first year. I arrived so excited about returning to academia and, as I often joked in those first few months, to being able to get “paid to read.”  While I knew that the glamour would inevitably wear off, after a year of prepping seven different classes -- none of which were in my academic field -- I was eager to become a student again and have the opportunity to teach in a different environment.

The first several weeks were a complete blur, but there was one particular meeting with Tom Hahn that I would never forget.  He talked to all of the first years about the ins and outs of the program and about what we could expect from our first year. In particular, he spoke about the so-called “imposter complex” — something I had never heard of before, but with which I became all too familiar. In essence, he warned us gently that at some point we would inevitably come to fear that we were the “weakest link,” that everyone else in our year was smarter and more capable than we were, that eventually we would be “found out” for the pseudo-intellectuals that we felt ourselves to be. He explained that these perceptions, which are utterly inaccurate, come about because we care so very much about what we're doing. He also said that the complex is a product of the very work that we do. In essence, we spend our time as literary scholars-in-the-making creating an intricate and highly polished lens which we use to view and scrutinize the texts that we encounter. He warned us of how easy it can be, especially with all the pressures of graduate school and of life in general, to swing that lens around onto ourselves.

I took this meeting and his words very much to heart, and even though there were many points during my graduate career where I forgot his advice, his words were ones easy to come back to and easy to use as a way of diagnosing the various anxieties that cropped up along the way.  I remember feeling like an imposter for much of my first year, especially once the honeymoon phase was over and the hard work truly began.  I felt more than a little like I did in my biology classes my first year in college, realizing that I needed to find new, more complex ways of digesting even the texts I though I knew well. 

This lesson became abundantly clear at the end of spring semester, when I turned in a paper on Sir Isumbras to my medieval romance professor. I worked hard on it, but when I handed it over I knew it was far from my best work.  Predictably, the feedback that I received was harsh and rightfully so, but I took it upon myself to prove (to both the professor and myself) that I could do good work. Ironically enough, this near-disaster of a paper would go on to become the raw material for my first accepted article publication (due out this October), for an array of conference papers, and for my dissertation. For these reasons, and more, being taken to task and forced to rearticulate my ideas and make them better was quite honestly the best thing that could have possibly happened to me at the end of that year. I didn't know that at the time, however. All I knew was that I had affirmed a lot of my own anxieties about being an imposter. I ended that first-year certainly feeling like one, but I'm glad to say that the intensity of that feeling did pass thanks, in no small part, to the marvelous friends I made throughout that first year.

I'm not going to name names here out of respect for everyone's privacy, but my dear friends will (I hope!) know who they are, and I also hope that what I will say here and elsewhere in these posts will give them some idea of how much I cherish them. To start, I owe a great deal to the person I lived with for much of my first year. She remains one of my dearest friends, and she taught me so much (more than she knows, I think) about how to survive graduate school as a woman, and how to live as unapologetically as possible.  She also taught me that what you intend your words and actions to mean matters far less than how those words and actions are received by others. It was a hard lesson to learn, and I cannot thank her enough for it. 

I also became friends with someone who has been my “brain twin” since our first year. We have endured many of the same experiences and hardships on our journey through the program, and having a partner in crime -- not to mention someone willing to prank our advisor and hide an array of gnome candles in his office (true story) -- has been such a comfort and a gift.  Moreover, I had the serendipitous experience of sitting next to none other than Kristi (whose name I feel I can mention, since she is my other partner in crime and co-blogger) at a prospective student dinner when she came to visit Rochester after being accepted into the program. We connected instantly over our shared interests, academic and otherwise, and I knew I'd found another kindred spirit. 

Letchworth State Park, 2006.
These friendships and others helped me to step away from grad school when I needed a respite.  Some of my fondest memories of that year, in fact, involve hiking in freezing weather in Letchworth State Park with the aforementioned brain twin; occasional stitch&bitch gatherings; and Scrubs marathons (complete with sinfully good pizza, cheap beer, and matching Rochester hoodies) with my roommate. But the stresses of that year were still tremendous and foreign. One thing I learned very quickly, as a result, was how important it was for me to have things to do outside of the program as a way of clearing my head. Karate, more than anything else, was that activity, and it was something I couldn't sacrifice no matter how little time during the week I had.  I had to scale back the number of trainings I attended, but I went as often as I could. There was something so intensely gratifying about stepping onto that floor a few times a week and leaving all of the troubles and worries behind me for the hours that I trained. As my sensei has always told me, if you can do that, the world tends to seem more manageable after training, and I certainly found that to be true. 

Letchworth State Park is also Narnia, apparently.

I also had to figure out really quickly what my priorities were, what I valued the most, what I couldn’t live without. I had always known and believed that my relationships with my family and with my husband (boyfriend at the time) were the most important things in my life, but it’s amazing how distance and a host of stressors can make it hard for someone to remember as much.  These relationships suffered in that first year in no small part part because of how mono-focused I became on my own struggles, and they took a while to mend.  Experiencing all of the resulting turmoil, however, really pulled me up short.  It made me realize that if I wanted to succeed in graduate school without sacrificing my relationships with my loved ones, I had to make sure I devoted enough time to them.  It was a simple but hard-earned lesson, and it’s one that I have never forgotten.  It’s not something that everyone will understand, however, and I was accused on at least one occasion of treating graduate school as a nine to five job, as if my refusal to sacrifice everything in my life for the sake of my degree was a sign of weakness or a lack of conviction.  I have always said, in response to this kind of detraction, that my successes are due to the fact that I strive to maintain a particular kind of balance (strive being the operative word). What creates equilibrium in my life is not going to be what creates equilibrium in another’s, but I have found myself the happiest and the most productive when I'm able to balance a variety of seemingly contrastive interests. For me at least, when I treated my graduate studies more as a nine to five job and less as a monastic calling, this equilibrium came more easily. I did better work and was less crazed and off-kilter in the doing of it. 

The frozen Genesee.
To those of you who might be feeling similar pressure to treat grad school as an all-consuming vocation, all I can recommend is that you keep the balance that you know you need in your life.  Nurturing a relationship that turned into a marriage, creating and maintaining friendships, keeping up with karate, getting up from my work to play with my cats, even taking up new hobbies on occasion (Icelandic horseback riding? Why not?!) absolutely allowed me to finish strong in the face of heavy odds. I’m not saying that you need to do any of these things to be fulfilled while in grad school, nor am I saying that they're marks of success.  They were (and are) simply aspects of my life that I cherished and that brought me joy amidst the chaos. I held on to them as a result, and if I have any advice to give on this score it would be to do just that: to keep the things that bring you joy firmly in your talons as you work your way through grad school.  This lesson, more than anything else, is what I took away from my first year, and it's something I carried with me into the next six.

Those years, however, are blog posts for another day!  I will, however, close on a few bright notes, because while the first year was a challenging one, it was also a time of great discovery and excitement.  I travelled to Iceland with my boyfriend for Spring Break, with no idea that the rollocking adventure would inspire a series of poems, a burgeoning love of photography, and a series of research projects. I began to uncover my fascination with all things crusades-related. I saw more snow in a season than I'd ever seen in my entire life and -- even with the frigid walks from Park Lot to the library, the nose-hair freezing, and the need for asinine number of layers -- my inner child never really got tired of it (until April, perhaps). I learned to be truly grateful for sunshine because it appeared so rarely. I fell in love with city's murder of crows that swarmed around campus every afternoon. And, last but not least, I adopted my two cats, Minerva and Bjorn, who -- among their many talents -- managed to keep me from taking life so awfully seriously throughout my time in the program.

The first year was, in the end, a long shake-up and transition. Success -- as someone once said to me, and as I've said to many others in turn -- laid in survival, in simply making it to the finish line more or less in one piece (shreds of dignity being optional). And in remembering to nurture the things in my life that truly mattered.

Reykjavik, 2006.

Did I mention I loved the snow?

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