And now … the rest of my professional life …

Since I started teaching full-time at Longwood University in August, I have had to focus on course preparation, the transition to new job, new routine, new institutional culture, and completing and defending my dissertation, which I did in October over Longwood’s fall break.

No time for blogging.  Not much time for anything really, except the job.  But I was “hooded” in a December graduation ceremony – officially becoming a Doctor of Philosophy in Media, Art, and Text.

Being “hooded” sounds creepy, but I found it to be a cool ritual.  I walked into the ceremony as part of the formal procession of faculty and graduates, carrying my academic hood over my arm like a four-star waiter’s towel.  During the graduation ceremony, my name was called, I walked forward, gave the hood to Dr. Kathy Bassard, chair of VCU’s English Department, and turned around so she could drape it over my neck and arrange it behind me.

Because she’s shorter than I am, I had to kneel down slightly – which added to the ritual of the moment.  Being hooded felt like a sort of soft-cloth knighting ceremony – with roots back into the Middle Ages and the birth of universities within monasteries.

My parents, my husband and my daughter were in the audience as witnesses, as well as several professors and some MATX’ers I’ve been in seminars with.

Also in attendance was the chair of my dissertation commitee, Dr. Noreen Barnes, who let me wear her academic tam instead of the standard-issue mortarboard VCU had given me.  Not only was the tam more attractive – the fact that she let me borrow it for the ceremony was a nice symbolic gesture. As an Associate Professor in VCU’s Theatre Department, she knows the value of ritual and gesture.

So now that I’ve completed the MATX PhD program, the question becomes –  how do I stay fresh and engaged with my field so my classes in Communication Studies at Longwood stay fresh?  And, given the interdisciplinary nature of the MATX degree, what constitutes my field?  What journals do I follow and what conferences do I attend?  Is that even the path I will take as an academic?

Those questions are why – although I could have spent the day grading the design projects I took in on Wednesday or working on notes for the Communication Theory class I’m teaching – instead I spent the morning investigating professional associations and journals.

The Oral History Association ?

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication ?

One I may join simply because I love the fact that they meet every March in Orlando, Florida, and cover topics like: “Gender and Feminism in Science Fiction”,  “Staging Monstrosity” and “Terrifying Futures: Post-Apocalyptic, Post-Human Dystopias” …  The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts

Who do I want to become as a writer, media producer, and scholar?

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I can see the forest, but it’s a blur!

You know that moment when you’re riding a roller coaster and you’re poised at the top of the first rise for split second before the coaster releases and barrels forward?

Everest roller coaster, Walt Disney World, November 2009

Click, click, click … those few seconds of anticipation …  excitement and terror threaded together.

I know I’m not going to die, but as I slam through the turns, I feel like I might.

That’s the way I feel right now,  a few days away from the start of the fall semester.

The job search is over.  I accepted a position teaching communications full-time at Longwood University.     This fall, I’m teaching multiple sections of Public Speaking and Media & Society.

Meanwhile, my dissertation has been revised twice and is  ready to go to the full committee, with a defense planned for this fall.

It looks like I might graduate in December.

Oh yeah, and the ESVHS & I were awarded a second grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities to continue collecting farm life interviews for the Eastern Shore Stories project.

There’s more, but I’m breathless.

Wheeeeee … here I go !

Does this mean if I look behind me I’ll see the forest now?  I think the answer is yes, but the trees are a blur ’cause I’m moving too fast.

on being plugged in … how much is too much?

This seems important for my dissertation research, as well as my eventual teaching in media studies. Turkle argues that we need to ask ourselves if an obsessive use of social media technologies is taking humanity to a place we’ll want to inhabit.

In my research, I’ve broadened the question to include other forms of technology, like bioengineering and the use of chemicals in agriculture. What if our trust in technology is taking us someplace we don’t want to be? Seems true for farming. For a sense of community and local economies. For freedom and privacy. For civil discourse. For happiness.

Definitely an issue worth talking about. A conversation, perhaps over a meal … with everyone listening and no one texting.

I do think that most people try to strike a balance and unplug themselves occasionally … at least in our sleepy southern city of Richmond. Or maybe I just run with a more contemplative crowd – a crowd that likes to unplug, that dislikes the tether of instant communication. Seems like people I know are asking these questions. I don’t think I know anyone who sleeps with a cell phone … wonder if Turkle’s research took her outside the urban Northeast corridor?

I’m either writing a dissertation or running away from home …

I’ve carved out a few days to write – away from Richmond and my family – hanging out on the Eastern Shore … just me, the dogs, limited access to wifi, and spotty cell reception.

I’m restless … that’s usually the case on the first day I’m here alone with a project.  I can feel momentum building … I’m hoping that an explosion of words, phrases, sentences that make sense will follow.   Right now, ideas and connections are bouncing around just at the edge of articulation.

Solitude is good for this stage of writing – allows stuff to perk without having to explain my not-yet-formed ideas.   Of course, I’ve also been fantasizing about a new career direction in solar panel installation and I took a nap after an early lunch of leftover quiche.

Since yesterday I’ve read most of one book, and skimmed two others. Matthew Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work is one I’d like to share with everyone I know … as well as future students.  Seems apt reading for someone finishing a doctorate.

His analysis about the value of skilled manual work is useful as I try to parse out the general sense I got from the farm life oral histories I’ve collected about the intrinsic reward in knowing how to do things.   People don’t usually state it directly … but knowing soil and microclimates, plowing straight rows without GPS systems, growing quality vegetables, being self-sufficient … a grounded pride in knowing how to do stuff comes through in the interviews.   That’s what my fourth chapter is about, among other things.

Now I can add writing a blog entry to my list of moodling activities.  All part of the process … luckily I’ve done enough writing to recognize it for what it is – a priming of the pump, so to speak.  Either that, or I’m using the dissertation as an excuse to run away from home for a few days.

still staring at the trees …

redwood forest in Northern California, summer 2011

I’m not seeing the forest yet – but May is looking more and more like a writing retreat. For which I’m grateful. I’ve got some pressing deadlines between now and May 3, when my semester ends with a stack of ten portfolios, but after they’re graded … woohoo … I can turn my full attention to finishing the dissertation, then working on other writing projects and maybe a book proposal for the Eastern Shore Stories project.

I’ve thrown in applications for many, many positions – mostly university teaching positions – but also a few university admin / communications positions and now a few secondary teaching positions.  Plan B is to adjunct another year.

As much as I like the crafted life I’m living right now, I’m craving the stability of a full-time position with benefits. Or a steady part-time position with stability. The downside of adjunct’ng is that some (not all) departments seem to assume adjuncts don’t need income for anything specific … like we’re just teaching at pathetic wages to get ourselves out of the house for a few hours? For the stimulation? Don’t know … I can do all the budget projections I want, but if I don’t get the classes or they don’t make … well, then I have to find another means to keep my growth-spurting 11-year-old in skinny jeans and eating her beloved mac & cheese.

Oh well … still wandering among the trees … hope I emerge in a clearing soon.  Today I’ve been working on a grant application. Which is going very, very well.   Work is the cure.

on memory and oral history research

I’m reading some oral history theory these days … glad that I started interviewing and recording oral histories before I started reading about it.  Mostly my observations are being articulated and confirmed.  The three best resources I’ve found so far are Studs Terkel – especially the “biography” that oral historian Tony Parker published in 1996 – and writing by Alessandro Portelli and Michael Frisch.

So – I was reading this morning about how the real subject of oral history may be the study of memory, not history – and then I heard this interesting story on NPR re: emotions and memory.  
NPR: Emotions Outlast The Memories That Drive Them

It occurs to me that neuroscience research on memory might be helpful when it comes time to pull this dissertation research project together.  I think what I’m doing is truly trans-disciplinary in nature – which will make it harder, but ultimately more rewarding for me.

on adrenaline and the preparation of presentations

I’m writing the third of three presentations I’ve had to give in about two weeks.  This one’s on the Eastern Shore Stories oral history project.  I feel more pressure with this one, simply because so many people I know and people whom I’ve interviewed will be there.

But I also have a lot to say, and the writing of this presentation is going quickly.  I’ve decided to write down and time out everything I’m going to say and share … and to limit my tech needs to using my laptop to play edited sound clips through portable speakers.  Keep it simple and less can go wrong.

The best presentations I’ve given, I’ve read aloud at academic conferences.  I don’t want to read aloud here, but I’m not going to speak from notecards or bullet points. I want to know exactly what I want to say and practice so much that I’ve got it memorized.  Then I can relax and concentrate on connecting with the audience during the talk.

Adrenaline aids public speaking, right?  I’ll be glad when the season of presentations and occasional adrenaline rushes are ended.

on conference choices and career building

Over the weekend I picked up a book on building a platform for a writing career.  Turns out I’ve started to do exactly what they recommend, mostly propelled through my graduate school work.  But it’s time to get more focused.

For example, I’m delivering a paper at the Virginia Humanities Conference on March 26.  Giving academic presentations is one of the ways a person builds an academic career.

At the same time, I am jazzed by my writing seminar this semester.  The career I have in mind is not a traditional academic career, but a creative one blending scholarship with creative projects.

Which means the conference I probably should be attending is the Writers at the Beach Seaglass Conference in Rehobeth Beach, Delaware.  It takes place at exactly the same time as the VHC in Staunton, Virginia.  I can’t be in two places at the same time – and I’ve already paid the registration for the VHC, booked a hotel room, and had planned to attend the entire conference and network with people teaching at Virginia colleges and universities.

Now I’m wondering if attending workshops and networking at the Writers at the Beach conference might be more productive than attending paper presentations and networking at the VHC.  So I’m thinking about giving my presentation at the VHC on Friday morning and then booking it across two states to Delaware to attend the writing conference.  Seems a bit crazy.  And expensive.  And perhaps unfair to the folks at the VHC.

after reading "just don’t go"

Just finished reading two depressing articles about the lack of jobs for Humanities PhDs.  I already knew this, but Thomas Benton certainly states it bluntly in his Chronicle of Education articles. It’s true that most English PhDs end up working as adjunct professors for less than a living wage.  That’s not where I want to be even five years from now.  But then I stumbled on this paragraph in his follow-up article:

There is, however, another category of student that I would like to see going to graduate school … Perhaps members of a generation that enters graduate school with no expectations of an academic position — who never even consider, for one moment, that they will become tenure-track professors — will bring about positive change in the way things are taught. Such students will be less beholden to advisers, and empowered to demand that courses have some relationship to existing opportunities. With an eye to careers outside academe, they will challenge the tyranny of the monograph; they might seek technical skills; they will want to speak to a wider public; and they will be more open to movement between academe and the “outside world” than previous generations, who were taught to regard anything but the professorial life as failure from which one could never return.

I didn’t enter this PhD program in order to find a tenure track job in the Humanities.  That would be a wonderful thing, but my expectations are low.  As Benton says, it’d be like “winning the lottery.”  Do I even want a tenure-track job?  I entered an unconventional PhD program to learn technical skills and to broaden my choices in crafting a hybrid kind of career … one that combines teaching with writing, and perhaps nonprofit work propelled primarily by grants.

That’s why my focus this semester, beyond completing the hoops for the doctorate, is my writing – perhaps completing a book of short stories to shop around by July.  That’s the other part of this binary star of a career I’m trying to jumpstart. 

Thomas Benton’s “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go”
Thomas Benton’s “Just Don’t Go, Part 2”

working in thin winter light

This time of year I find it hard to be motivated, productive, or light-hearted.  I don’t know if it’s the chill or the long nights … but I want to hibernate … to sleep and to dream.  Instead, I work on my projects and make lists and push myself to check stuff off the lists and keep our household running as if the weather and the thin winter light didn’t exist.

I blog less when I’m in this state.

One reason so many people become giddy with snow that closes everything down is that most of us are pushing too hard.  It’s not good for our bodies.  It’s not good for our spirits.  But there’s the mortgage to pay and achievement to show at the end of the day.

I love to work … but most work I’ve been asked to do over my lifetime has not felt like real work to me, but like something I do to promote someone else’s agenda and to bring in life-maintenance money.  As long as I sort of agree with the agenda, I’ve been able to pull this off.  With every passing birthday, however, I increasingly tire of wasting time that I won’t get back – that’s why I’m pursuing a PhD.  I’d like to spend my life doing the work I love to do … writing and research and teaching writing and research … and get paid enough, maybe just enough, to provide food, shelter, clothing, and soul-sustaining cultural experiences for me and my family.

It’s a simple goal.  I’ll see it more clearly as the days get longer and the nights shorter.