I didn’t post last Monday. Maybe you noticed. If you didn’t, that’s alright. I won’t hold it against you. But I do want to point it out. I won’t pretend that didn’t happen because I committed to posting twice a week.
I’ve been thinking about commitment a lot lately. I’m committed to being a mother. I’m committed to being a writer. I’m committed to doing well at my new job. (Did I tell you I have a new job? I do. This is kind of a big deal.) I’m committed to being my boyfriend’s partner. And a long time ago I committed to graduate school, to getting my PhD. That’s the commitment I’ve been thinking about.
I had a draft of a post for Monday. I typed it up the night before, and woke up early Monday to do a quick edit and post it. However, I woke up frustrated, anxious, panicky. I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that I was worried.
I was worried about paying my bills.
I was worried about finishing my dissertation.
I was worried about whether getting a PhD mattered if I didn’t have a full-time job to pay my bills.
I don’t think it helped that my tweeps were still buzzing about Pannapacker’s latest piece in Slate about the dismal state of the humanities. Despite the fact that writing means a lot to me, that morning writing couldn’t dispel the anxiety and, well, hopelessness I felt on Monday (and Tuesday, and Wednesday). So instead of editing I closed my laptop and made coffee.
I’m not about to go into a spiel about the broken state of higher ed or respond to Pannapacker’s piece. Frankly, plenty of folks have already responded, and I don’t think I’m bringing anything new to the conversation. Also, I admit that I didn’t read Pannapacker’s article, not because I dislike Pannapacker but because I need to safeguard my brain. I came across Pannapacker’s better-known posts, “Just Don’t Go” and “Just Don’t Go, Part 2” at a very emotionally fragile moment in my grad career and my brain almost short-circuited. I was a new mom in a new city with a new job as an adjunct instructor and with half of a dissertation chapter written. I stumbled upon those posts and ate them up, even though reading them just made me feel worse about my tenuous position as a PhD candidate and an adjunct. “Why didn’t I read this sooner?” I thought. And yes, there were several occasions in the past year where I almost gave up. It took me a while to get out of that funk and frustration, and to get back on the wagon. I hadn’t felt that depressed in a while…until Monday.
I’m sharing what happened on Monday because I know I’m not the only grad student who feels this way. Granted, I’d had days like that several times over the summer (unemployment will do that to you) but Monday was the roughest day I’d had in a while. Having a (part-time) job makes things a little better, but I still have bills to pay and I still have a dissertation to write. And at times I can’t reconcile both of them. The idea that I need to write and finish my dissertation doesn’t make sense when I think I could be working a full-time job and making more money to get myself out of my debt-hole.
People think professors only work when they’re teaching; the same goes for graduate students. There’s this whole other dimension where graduate students struggle to balance work and school life, lose confidence in their ability to write (or in themselves), or sink themselves into debt because they were told going to conferences and presenting their work around the world will make them more appealing on the job market…or worse, they don’t have the money to begin with because they spend most of their money on gas and food to commute to the two schools where they adjunct. The cushy life of the mind that some think graduate students live is not the reality of many graduate students. Sometimes I think to myself we need to revise what the humanities doctorate is all about. But I don’t even know where to start.
Once upon a time I lived the high life of a graduate student. I had a fellowship. I taught one semester per academic year. I had the chance to create my own courses. I had a semester where all I did was read for a field exam and write–and I got paid for that. I had no daughter to raise at the time, and I didn’t have to worry about health insurance. But that was years ago. The biggest struggle I face now is financial, to be honest. I have complained on Twitter several times that you really can’t think deep thoughts when you don’t know how you’re going to pay your bills. But for now I’m trying to be resourceful and creative while I write. I’m trying to use the skills that I have to earn a living while I finish. Graduate students DO have skills beyond thinking deep thoughts.
In times like these, I know I need to believe that things will get better for me and not lose hope; I also need to remember that I really want to finish writing my dissertation even if I never go on the job market for another professor position ever again. It’s important to remember why we do this in the first place. So I’m committing to finishing. Screw the “Just Don’t Go” mentality: I’m finishing my PhD because one day I set myself the goal of getting a PhD, and I’m almost there. I’m finishing my PhD because, ultimately, that PhD is a major accomplishment for me and for people like me: women of color, first-generation college students, working mothers, Latinas, puertorriqueñas. I’m finishing my PhD because I want to be an example for my daughter; I want her to look at me and realize that it was tough but I made it to the other side. I want Miss E to realize she shouldn’t give up just because some dude says she can’t afford to dream.
Sometimes reality hits you and it hits you hard. And you fade away into the woods until someone reaches a hand out and says “hold on.” I’m glad I found a few hands to hold onto this week to remind me why I do what I do.