Sunday, October 18, 2009

At the end of the day, it's another day over. And that's all you can say for the life of the poor [graduate student].

It's a struggle, it's a war, and there's nothing that anyone's giving. One more day standing about what is it for? One day less to be living...

You know that when you start commiserating with Fantine's plight in Les Miserables, you need to quit listening to show tunes and get back to work on the dissertation.

One of the myriad of reasons academia makes me crazy is that it is a constant battle of time spent teaching and time spent researching. Whichever you choose, the other is neglected and I'm not sure anyone has found the perfect balance. You just choose whichever is more pressing at that precise moment and wait for crisis-time on the other one to pop up later. This problem escalates because nobody turns out the lights and locks the door to your office at 5pm. So if you have neglected your teaching to read journal articles all afternoon, you can spend a few hours that evening (or all night long) grading papers and preparing for class.

I completely empathized with a friend of mine who recently confessed that she was dreaming about the day her dissertation would be finished, the library books would be returned, the notes would be recycled, and the mess of books and papers on her desk would be transformed to a tidy stack of neatly-bound copies of her dissertation.

At the moment we were both smiling wistfully and thinking about how wonderfully liberating that would feel, someone else interjected that such a day would never come because then she'd be started on an article or culling a conference paper from her work and such is the life of an academic.

At this point, half-way through the semester, with two stacks of essays to grade, I am frantically scrambling to finish my dissertation and when I am not working on it, I am dealing with students who have H1N1, mono, grand mal seizures (none during class, thank goodness), and an incurable disease that causes frequent urination. These in addition to those who have a wide range of "personal problems," and those who just don't bother to show up for class all that often. Teaching this semester has not just meant wearing high heels and doing a dog-and-pony show in the classrom three days a week, but it has also meant one-on-one conferences with students, extensive comments on essays, and e-mails exchanged with students, librarians, administrators, department chairs, students' advisers, and academic resource centers.

It is strange to work in a profession in which my own research (representations of empiricism and intuition in Victorian novels) is so far removed from the teaching I do in the classroom and outside the classroom. Even when I am teaching Victorian novels, the real work of it is less about a discussion of significant themes or provocative cultural issues, and more about explaining the structure of a literary analysis essay or the basic work of close-reading. And a lot of it is about understanding that students have part-time jobs and religious observances and social lives and misplaced priorities and an infuritating sense of entitlement and a stunning lack of tact and somehow believing that it is still meaningful and worthwhile to show up three days a week and ask them to talk about books that were written a hundred and fifty years ago.

I believe that studying literature makes us better people. I believe that literature is an extension of all that makes our lives meaningful and purposeful--creativity, compassion, fearlessness, curiosity, fellow-feeling, a desire to understand why the world works the way that it does and how we can make it better.

But the idealism of the study of literature can sure get lost in the details of the everyday practice of doing it and teaching it.

But at least I'm not prostituting myself to save the life of my daughter on the cusp of the French revolution. I mean, those are real problems, man.

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