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?


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.

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 seeing the forest …

I’ve been in a job search frenzy for the past week or so.  Starting to lose sight of why I enrolled in an alternative, interdisciplinary PhD program in Media, Art, and Text.  Starting to think that dragging my family all over the US in search of that tenure-track faculty position is what I did this for. That was never my intention.  Never.

Pacific Ocean off the Oregon coast, summer 2011

Like the picture?  I took it this summer on our family trip – inserted here simply because I like it.  Okay, and because it has trees.  So … I never intended to chase after that elusive tenure-track position.  I’m a teacher by trade, a good one.  I’ve been working on my Teaching Portfolio this morning – adding a few things, modifying a few things.

Because I’m working on an application to teach core communications classes, I pulled up the Core Curriculum Course I designed to take another look at it.  I call the course: Obsession & Outliers, Insiders & Outsiders: Whose Story Is It?   The idea is that I use interesting course material from media studies as a Trojan horse to provide students a place to practice and improve core academic skills:  presentation skills, writing, information fluency (we used to call it research), critical thinking.

Here’s the syllabus: Obsession & Outliers, Insiders & Outsiders: Whose Story Is It?

So what was my intention in pursuing the Media, Art & Text PhD? I do want to teach at the University level – I do it well and I needed the paper credential to have a shot at earning a living wage.  I wanted to continue to improve as a writer. I’ve done that. I’m also gaining skills as an audio documentary producer. And an oral historian. I designed my own website and know enough about coding to clean up the posts on my blogs.

Oregon Coast

The forest? I’m kinda deep in the trees right now.

Applying for jobs that sound interesting and that I’m qualified to do. In places we might consider living. ‘Cause it’s the next right thing to do, sort of like getting this degree was the next right thing to do.

“Way will open” – that’s what Quakers say. Kinda like what you see in this picture, also from our summer trip.

At the start of this trail, I smelled something strong, with a twinge of ammonia. I thought it was urine.  My assumption was drunks partying and peeing in the woods, but the park rangers said that a mountain lion had been there, that the scent was hers.

There’s much I don’t know.  I do know, because I walked it, that the end of this sandy trail through the woods opened onto the vista I posted in the other photograph.  Sand dunes and small stands of trees and the Pacific Ocean stretching out beyond everything.  I was with people I love on a beautiful day, in a beautiful place.

When I looked back, I could see the forest.

what is it about writing? … a leap across a gap?

I was updating my links and found this incredible post from Jonathan Harris – August 21, 2010.  “What is it about writing?”   Worth reading all the way through.

This post was part of his Today project, where he posted a photograph and usually a story a day, starting when he turned thirty. He kept it up for longer than a year … here’s a film about the project:

His work is an interesting mix – the word innovative doesn’t quite cover what is neat about what he does. Wish there were more web artists like him – or maybe I just haven’t found them yet.  Too many web artists are caught up in the newness of the medium … I don’t think we’ve seen what this is going to become yet.

Jonathan Harris website

on blogging an answer to "why write a novel? Why write a novel now?"

I haven’t been blogging here much, but yesterday I was a guest blogger on the Cabell First Novelist blog.

I’m writing a novel, as part of a year-long writing workshop at VCU.  Most of the other writers in the group are in the MFA fiction grad program, so I’m in great company.

Hard not to get discouraged, since they are concentrating on fiction as a full-time grad degree and their writing submissions frequently blow me away.  I have to remember that my path is different.   I’m getting a PhD in Media, Art, and Text – an interdisciplinary degree with a focus on media and technology.   I’m working on a novel and a dissertation at the same time, as well as an oral history project that is both part of my dissertation and a separate entity.  Three huge projects at one time – hence the title of my guest submission “I might be crazy.”

Cabell First Novelist Blog guest entry

My guest entry is more personal than I usually get in a blog.  That’s one reason I’ve taken a break here – how personal a blogger do I want to be?  But I felt, as a guest blogger for the Cabell First Novelist blog, that the call was to answer the question – why write a novel at all and why write one now?

My answer … I’m in training as a “distance” writer, learning the pace of a longer form.  I’m also getting the social support of the workshop.

The truth is, I can go the distance – write a full-length, unified work – I already have a great deal of discipline and stamina.  I wrote a successful collection of lyric essays for my master’s thesis.  I’m plugging through this PhD.  If I have to write 1500 words a day, I can.

It’s my inner life that’s unruly.  How I feel about my work.   How I deal with the demon self-doubt.  It helps to talk with other writers, who say they also feel an emotional backlash when a submission goes out or a workshop rotation comes due.  The validation helps – it’s as if I’m building immunity to a disease.  

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.

the future of publishing

Jason Epstein, in the March 11 edition of The New York Review of Books, predicts how the digital revolution is going to change the publishing industry in  “Publishing: The Revolutionary Future.”

It sounds like the challenge will become, not getting work published, but getting it noticed.  The good news is this may end the stranglehold on the market of huge conglomerate publishing houses, more interested in the next blockbuster celebrity book than a well-written tale from a “nobody.”

“I’m nobody … are you nobody too?”  to paraphrase Emily Dickinson.

Rice University Press has implemented an innovative print-on-demand publishing business for their academic press. It makes a lot of sense.  A VCU professor, Nicholas Frankel, is one of the two editors for their Literature by Design series.

Literature by Design: British and American Books 1880-1930 consists of literary works …  that foreground the vehicle of the book and the visible nature of language itself. Literature by Design titles incorporate facsimile reproductions of the original editions—all of which are noteworthy for the role design and typography played in shaping readers’ responses—along with new critical material by leading contemporary scholars.

This one was printed on wallpaper originally.  That swirl was in the wallpaper design.  A book like this would only have been seen in a rare book collection, until now.

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”