The Process of Becoming


“No mud, no lotus.” –¬†Thich Nhat Hanh

I am in a very different place than I was at this time last year. Last year, the momentary high of finishing my PhD had worn off and I was terrified that I would never get a real job and consign my family to even more financial strain as my student loans came due. It sucked, and evolved into depression and panic attacks, mediated only by a lot of time at the gym and meds.

This particular week last year I was booked to speak at SXSW Interactive on behalf of a political group I had been working with. It was exciting, but I was hit with some of the most profound exhaustion I have ever felt. SXSW is like the Ironman of conferences, and I had a platinum pass, which meant I could go to EVERYTHING. Instead, I went to as much as I could, but spent a lot of time sleeping and guzzling coffee to get through one more session. The FOMO was insane. I later figured out I was having some mild anemia, probably a result of too many steroids (thanks, Austin spring). The repeating rounds of oral and injected steroids did not fucking help.

After it was over I crashed super hard. I had one job interview until I was hired at my current institution in August. I had no idea how to run my life, what opportunities to pursue, or how to pull myself out of a deepening emotional ditch.

A year later, I am teaching my second semester as a full-time lecturer at a major institution. We didn’t have to move, I make twice as much money as I did as an adjunct and I have great benefits (which means our income is that much higher). My kid is now eight, which is insane, and we have a pretty good life. I’m pretty happy and I’m doing something I know I’m good at and I get a lot of appreciation for it. From my students, who are the ones who matter.

But teaching full-time to 10x the number of people I was used to for the last 7 years is a huge adjustment. The first semester was this terrifying and exhilarating marathon. I didn’t have huge expectations for myself other than getting through and not fucking up too badly. It turns out I did really well and formed the beginnings of a good relationship with my students, who spread the word and now I have a whole lot more students.

So I was blindsided by how hard this semester has been. I am starting to realize that the reality of lecturing is still a bit on the contingent/adjunct side of the equation (in spite of the fact that I currently teach full-time) and that fucks with my sense of safety and worth.

Also, 120 students is a lot harder than 90, it turns out, if you don’t know to adjust your workload. I’m learning. Managing TAs can be tricky. Some just fit, and others take some real work. I’ve never really been someone’s boss before, even in this limited sense.

I’m teaching two courses that I taught last semester, and they are going great. I’m also teaching my first course in my PhD knowledge area, and that has been harder. I think I was butthurt by the fact that I didn’t know All The Things and had to learn a lot from the textbook alongside my students. I finally sucked it up and realized that I really know a whole fucking lot of things, and that means I can frame the new stuff I learn in a really fluent and dynamic way. Duh. Really, I should just be enjoying filling in some of the gaps. The very nature of a PhD is these huge looming gaps always following us around and telling us we don’t know enough. Also, the one textbook I read in HD in my PhD was painfully badly written, so I only retained the stuff I thought was really important. The book I’m using in my class is fantastically written, so I can provide thoughtful commentary instead of having to slog through it. I should really flip both of my writing flags, but who the hell has time to record two lectures a week? Me at some point, I guess.

So I did the damn thing, and I did it well, and now I’m looking at the long haul and wondering some things:

  • How do I replenish my mental, emotional, and creative energy? I feel valued by my students, no lack of fulfillment there, but it’s a whole lot of energy out and I haven’t figure out how to recharge my batteries yet.
  • How do I navigate the tricky political waters of a gigantic school with a million competing silos and a nebulous path for teaching professors? I’ve given this a lot of thought, but not a lot of time and energy. I missed 4 days of classes from being ill (not that I don’t teach when I’m sick goddamn it) and barely have time to sleep and eat, let alone strategize and network and show up at the stuff where I could meet the right people.
  • How do I meet bare minimum requirements for health? I’m eating slightly better than last semester. But running on caffeine for performance energy has a high cost and I need to, again, figure out some better ways to get my body and mind rested.
  • How do I keep my research alive in some form? I have determined that I may not have the constitution for regular publishing, at least as I currently have been trying to do it. I spent a good chunk of my life being told why I suck by people I don’t respect, and I’ve hit my lifetime limit. Getting some papers rejected while I was in school (while having to take all kinds of bullshit during the PhD process) was just the fucking end. Ideally, I would love to find someone with whom to co-publish studies, but the whole no time/energy thing is inhibiting that search.
  • I still have a lot of intellectual fire, and I want an outlet for that. I’ve been thinking about a podcast, or trying a poetry slam, or…something? I’ve become a pretty decent speaker when I’m talking about something about which I feel really passionate. It happens the most in my Ethics class, but I have my moments in all of them. How can I develop that? How can I get my writing voice back? Is blogging where I should put that energy, or should I try a vlog or podcast? Inuhno.

What do I want to talk/write about?

  1. Online psychology, particularly online discourse.
  2. Mythological and symbolic imagery in our culture, particularly tv and movies.
  3. Patriarchy’s dying gasps.
  4. Education and how to make it suck less.
  5. Why the internet isn’t always evil.
  6. Fatness and what hating on it does for people.
  7. Mental illness, stress, and resiliency.
  8. The ethics of teaching.
  9. The psychology of teaching.
  10. What does social cohesion look like in our era?
  11. Pushing back on generational hazing.

I don’t know what I am building yet with all this, or what I will build, or if I have already built something of immense value and I keep being all future oriented and not paying attention to what I’m doing/is happening right now. Probably the latter. My therapist said I was looking at success through a patriarchal lens (money, prestige, structural dominance) rather than a matriarchal (connectedness, healing, strength of bonds). She’s right. I’m a matriarchal badass. Maybe I need to sit with that and take the summer to just chill the fuck out. Float around. Write. Sleep. Record some lectures. Watch my kid be a kid for just a little while longer.


Pilot Blah


Dedoose is not the right software for my research. Using just a spreadsheet will kill me. So now I’m looking at a student license for NVivo which has way more stuff to deal with social media data. Good news: it’s only around $100 for a one year student license. Bad news: after that I have to pony up around $1500 for a full copy if I want to keep using it. More gah. But maybe I’ll just worry about that bit later. First rule of dissertation club: FINISH THE FUCKING DISSERTATION.

I’ve taking a break for a few days because I’m busy and on steroids for my asthma (Thanks, Austin) and it’s wreaking havoc with my sleep. Also insert a kid stomach flu and separate emergency room visit, and having to migrate my upcoming class from Blackboard to Canvas, and there goes my week. My family is coming to visit next week for my daughter’s 6th birthday, which will be fun but likely will not result in finishing my pilot in the next week.

I’m also stalled out on writing my CV and teaching statement because I really have no idea what the hell I’m doing, but I need to get it done. There are some cool jobs open right now and I need to apply for them. No pressure.

I’m glad I’m keeping the password-protected thinky blog, because it helps me figure out where I’ve been in my thinking on the pilot data. I have a tendency to have these “ahah” moments over and over again and think that it’s the first time, Memento style. I think I’m getting somewhere with the mortality/fear stuff. It will be part of my thematic analysis, after I do the more granular discourse/psychodynamic stuff.

I have people I can reach out to for a lot of this stuff, but I have a tendency to curl up in a ball when I’m overwhelmed, which is antithetical to reaching out. I need to reach out. Nobody has to do all this shit alone.

I find that all the thinking I’m doing about psychodynamic stuff is also changing how I look at myself and my relationships. I find that I’m trusting my intuitions a lot more–checking out my reactions rather than just sorting them into rational/non-rational buckets. This may change the nature of some of my relationships, and is a pain in the ass when I’m triggered and I need my denial thank you very much, but I mostly like it. I like having a deeper connection between my feelings and my mind. It makes me more compassionate and better able to draw good boundaries.

Meanwhile, I need to take care of my poor bod and let it heal from the garbage that has infested my lungs. And switch up my hair color. Priorities.

Hit the wall and keep trudging.

Catchy, no?

I keep hitting walls, picking myself up, and trudging on. Last semester was fairly awful. This semester has been great in many ways, but exhausting and stressful nonetheless. I have to generate at a major paper draft in the next few weeks, hopefully sooner. I’ve pulled two new syllabi out of my ass this semester, but still have a whole new class to teach starting later this week (after I wrap up the last one, today).

In the meantime, I may be getting back to the food blogging, since my body has decided that it won’t digest lactose or gluten. Because that’s helpful. Keep in mind I am a snobby foodie daughter and sister of professional cooks and food writers.¬† I often sneer at restrictive fad diets while eating my locally sourced meat, cheese, bread, and vegetables. Except now two of those things are gone forever (or at least until after menopause–there’s hope). Re-learning how to eat has been stressful. Speaking of menopause, that’s fun too. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t have symptoms before 50, because I will personally fly to wherever you live and bitch-slap them for you.

I feel like I have academia-induced bipolar disorder. One hour or minute or half day I’m full of amazing ideas, I’m speed reading articles, mind-mapping, and writing super cool stuff. The next minute or hour or half-day I’m exhausted, filled with self-doubt, sure I’m going to be sniffed out as a total imposter, and curled up in the corner with my laptop and Pinterest trying to find all the best gluten and dairy free recipes that I will never have time to cook.

This is my life. My poor husband and daughter have to deal with my epic mood swings, periodic isolation, and caffeine induced tantrums. I can’t seem to totally unwind enough to sleep well, cry, or just fucking relax. I take everything personally. I know that most of my problems qualify as “too much of a good thing” rather than all of the really horrible things that could happen, but that knowledge doesn’t help me figure out how to cope right now. I know getting a PhD is a gauntlet that I am willingly running, but the difference between this and other gauntlets I’ve run is that there is no settling in. It’s always changing, evolving, and getting harder. There’s very little room to breathe. That’s what it feels like to me, anyway.

That’s my whinge for today. I’ll see you on the next upswing.


Impending Kindergarten Angst

My daughter Lillian is four years old; her birthday is in February, so she’ll be starting kindergarten a bit over a year from now. So the big decision is almost upon us. Public, charter, or private?

She currently goes to a fantastic preschool that is often regarded in the community as the “Lord of the Flies” preschool, in a not entirely complimentary way. Her day generally consists of running around, screaming, painting, getting wet, stripping off most of her clothes, painting her body (or her friends), eating lunch and taking a nap, and starting all over again until we pick her up. It’s fantastic. She’s made great friends and is socially fearless. While it looks like chaos, the teachers work really hard to nurture social skills, conflict management, creativity, and inquisitiveness. It spans 18 months to when they start elementary school, and most of the time the kids are all together on a massive playground filled with books, toys, sand, paint, bikes, carts, and all sorts of other fun stuff. The best part is the “potions” area, where kids get to mix up colored bubbly water with other substances. When Lillian started, she’d spend most of her time making potions and then dumping them on her head:

As she’s developed, she’s become more interested in her social interactions, stories, and imagination, and a little less prone towards body art, but she still has her moments. We luuuuuuuuve her school. She can do rudimentary addition and subtraction, and write her name. We spend a little time with her on letters, but we don’t push.

I think we forget that reading is an immensely complex process. It’s not just a matter of knowing the letter and seeing it in a word. “What begins with A? Apple!” No, it’s more a matter of, “What is the name of this shape? What sound does it make? What word do you hear that sound in? What other sounds do you hear in that word? What are the shapes for those sounds? How do they fit together to make a word? What sound does that word make? What does that word mean?” And probably a ton of other steps I can’t think of now.

In my human development class, I learned about the work of Piaget, a scientist who developed a system of stages to describe how children acquire the ability to learn new skills. If you have ever had a baby, you’ve probably heard the term “object permanence,” when babies learn to recognize objects still exist when they can’t see them anymore. It’s the first stage of abstraction. According to Piaget, kids stay in that stage until starting around 5, when they begin to transition to the intuitive substage. Kids become capable of learning different skills at different points–anyone with multiple kids knows that they are all different–but by about age 7, they’ve generally reached this stage.

Why is this important? Because the this stage is when they can start to learn the complex skills that allow for reading and mathematics. This leads me to my main thrust. MOST KIDS CAN’T READ WHEN THEY ARE FIVE. Maybe we should move Finland.

This research is decades old, and has undergone decades of validation. Yet our school system starts testing children for reading skills in the first grade, which means children are expected to learn to read in kindergarten. This is folly. Some children learn to read early; they develop early. This does not mean they are more intelligent, or have had better parenting, or been to a better school. It just means that a particular type of development is happening early. My husband learned to read before kindergarten. I learned in the first grade. We both write professionally.

The ability to read cannot be forced; the kind of learning my daughter is doing in her unconventional preschool is entirely appropriate for her level of development. Children before the age of 5 learn through play and absorption, not traditional teaching and rote learning. If I were following the prescribed route, she would be in Pre-K now to learn the building blocks for reading, so she would be ready to read in kindergarten. Sounds good on paper; doesn’t work in real life. You can’t fight biology.

Instead, our schools are creating stressed out kids, often misdiagnosed with learning disabilities because they are being forced to attempt skills their bodies are not capable of producing yet. Some kids will always buck the trends; but many bright, intelligent kids are getting the message that they are stupid, are being held back grades, and are forced to prep for national tests that allow their schools to keep funding. I can’t find anything in this scenario that is good for our kids, or our country.

As you may have guessed, I’m leaning away from public school for my daughter, at least for the first couple of years. There are a few good charter schools, though most of them choose enrollment by lottery. There are some Montessori based private schools, but I’m leery of Montessori based on my experience as a child. I’ll have to investigate those further. There are also religious schools, which might work depending on the teaching philosophy. While I am not christian, I teach at a Catholic college and I love the teaching philosophy which stresses critical thinking, ethics, and self-reflection.

My husband and I have some big decisions before us, and the seeming obliviousness of the current system to the developmental needs of our children makes is much more complicated (and expensive). I would love it if our public system based the curriculum on appropriate developmental science, but the evidence seems to prove otherwise. I feel somewhat helpless in the face of these issues; I can’t work to change the public system in time for my daughter’s entrance into it, so I have to look elsewhere for the kind of educational experience I want for her. It’s frustrating and sad.

My own pre-college education was mixed, but I placed into Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) in my district, which kept me engaged when my other classes were boring or frustrating. They didn’t start testing in the first grade then, however. When I became a college student, I discovered I loved learning. Public school had been tolerable, but never as engaging and energizing as I found my college classes. I would so love for my daughter to love learning before she’s 18.

I wish my daughter’s preschool extended through high school; they have the strongest grasp on how to nurture a child’s talents of any school I’ve encountered. I hope I can find something just as wonderful for her as she grows into adulthood.