Friday 12 May 2017

For Whatever It's Worth

I'm no life expert. For about 24 to 48 hours after finishing my dissertation, I felt like I was an expert of my subject area. I'd done all the reading. I'd formed all the conclusions. Now, though, about a month after finalizing my dissertation draft I don't even think I could claim to be an expert in that. I've seen and read and done stuff that has shown me new avenues of thought or made me think a little differently. In fact, one of the main lessons that earning a Ph.D. taught me was how much I don't know. I always say that if there was some kind of zombie apocalypse, I'd be one of the first to go. I don't know how physics work (aside from the very basics) and I am in no way handy or mechanically inclined. I cannot think like an engineer to save my life and I have never born children, so I'd be pretty much useless. However, I have been mulling over a few pieces of advice that I could offer to others about how to get through grad school. Many of these items could be applied more generally, but again, I don't claim to have experience in any areas besides this one.

Except for the school year of 2011-2012 when I was applying to MA programs, I have been a student my whole life from the day I started kindergarten until three days ago. I graduated high school in May of 2007 and now in May of 2017 I have completed three more degrees. My BA from Olivet Nazarene University took me four years (2007-2011), my MA from Illinois State University took me two (2012-2014), and my Ph.D. from Arizona State University took me three (2014-2017). I know how to student, so here is some advice from me to you. For whatever it's worth.

1) Choose Solid Mentors

With Maureen at commencement
As I look back over my degrees and my life more generally, I have come to realize how incredibly
blessed and lucky I have been to have wonderful, capable, solid men and women mentoring me my entire life. In elementary and middle school, I had a wonderful dance teacher named Debbie Grigass. She taught us to dance, and it was the only physical activity I ever loved until I found yoga as an adult, but she taught us more that that. She taught us to be kind, patient, and gracious to the people around us. In high school, I was mentored by amazing women who were leaders of my church youth group. Specifically, Angela Bougher and Melissa Borke. They spent time with me, they encouraged me, and they taught me to not take life too seriously. In college, I floundered a little bit. I was unsure of what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be, who I wanted to date, etc. Around sophomore year, one of my professors, Dr. Kristy Ingram, took me under her wing and walked me through my remaining three college years. She gave me books, poems, and quotes that still make me feel confident today. She was invaluable as a friend, and I know that I would not be who or where I am today without her. Then in my MA and Ph.D. journeys, I had wonderful professional mentors that taught me and opened amazing doors for me. At ISU Dr. Joyce Walker, Dr. Amy Robillard, and Dr. Bob Broad were incredibly helpful in my learning and shaping as a scholar. At ASU Dr. Ellie Long, Dr. Trish Boyd, and Dr. Maureen Daly Goggin have been the same. They have helped me and supported me from near and far for three years. There is no way I could have finished my degree in three years without the support these three amazing mentors.

So, pick good mentors. They open doors and they provide insight that a person may never think of on their own. This is important in academia, as one can't get grants or jobs without good recommendations, but it is also important in life. As I reflect back, I can see that choosing of mentors is a reciprocal process. Some of them seemed to just happen to me, but I think that a person must also open themselves up and be willing to engage with mentors when they come along. Mentors provide stability and guidance in ways that no other person can. I am incredibly grateful for mine.

2) Make Your Work Work

This was advice that Dr. Dawn Opel gave me in my first semester at ASU. Dawn was the very first person I met from ASU, and she was kind enough to offer advice about the school and the process of completing this degree before and when I arrived at ASU. One day in her office she told me that in order to get done with the program in good time, I always had to make my work work for at least two purposes. She told me that if I was writing a seminar paper, I needed to then also submit it for a publication. If I was doing a presentation, I needed to make that work as a class project. If I was conducting research, I needed to make sure it was also going to go into my diss. This advice was so helpful to me as I worked through the program at ASU. It influenced my course choices, dissertation committee choices, and even the books I read in my leisure time.

My main dissertation text
I was lucky in that pretty much as soon as I found rhetoric, I found the specific subject area I wanted to study. My BA degree is in English, but the course work focused most heavily on literature courses, although I did also earn a minor in Creative Writing. I then applied for MA programs in literature because that was what I had known best. I was accepted into the English Studies program at ISU, and as part of that degree, courses from rhetoric and composition were also required. In my first semester at ISU I took a rhetoric course with Dr. Amy Robillard, and I realized pretty quickly that that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to look at a variety of texts about real people. I wanted the knowledge I gained to impact and inform my understanding of the world now. I wanted to teach my students how to write, analyze, and understand the texts they were seeing everyday. I will always love literature, and in the last year or so I have begun to read and really enjoy fiction books again, but I knew I wanted to study rhetoric.

Almost as soon as I realized that I wanted to do rhetoric, I met with Amy and talked to her because I wasn't really sure what area I wanted to study. I told I was interested in identity and autobiography. In that meeting in her office she said, have you ever considered food memoirs? I didn't know what those were, but I fell in love with them in a very short time. And so I started to write about them and think about them and present on them. I wrote my Master's thesis on two food memoirs that had corresponding blogs, and my committee encouraged me to keep thinking and keep writing about food memoirs. It was in my MA research that I found Diana Abu-Jaber's memoir, The Language of Baklava, that I wrote my dissertation on. So, going into my Ph.D., I knew what I wanted to do. I took Dawn's advice to heart and I worked to make every single project work together. When I was writing my diss, I went back to projects from the first semester of my Ph.D. and pulled sources and snippets from them. I even went back to MA work and pulled from it. I made my work work, and I would offer that as a foundational piece of advice for getting through.

3) Find Friends

Like choosing solid mentors, through my Ph.D. journey I have learned how extremely valuable friends and colleagues are to staying sane, confident, and moving forward. I was on campus for the first two years of my Ph.D. and then I lived in Madison, WI for the third year. My husband and I moved weeks after I achieved ABD status because he got a new job, and we were ready for a change. Once I moved I realized how beneficial it had been to have colleagues around me. Running into people in the hallway, seeing people in classes, or setting up study dates was all so helpful. It was beneficial not just by providing a sense of camaraderie but also in terms of idea generation. If I was stuck on a project or just trying to think through something new or difficult, chance conversations, reading suggestions, or a listening ear were often the means of getting past those glitches. My friends in the program were supportive and kind, and I so appreciate them.

#compandquills in Neskowin, OR
As I said, once I moved, I realized that I was pretty alone in the dissertation writing process. I think I would have felt similarly even if I had stayed on campus, but dissertation writing can be lonely! Luckily, before I left AZ I had been part a solid writing group. My friends Jess Boykin, Casie Moreland, and I met to write, talk, and read together throughout my second year, and then we continued that over Google Hangouts in my third year. I know that I couldn't have gotten through the writing process without those two. They are fun and funny and are able to commiserate or offer suggestions when I felt stuck. We took a writing retreat on the beach in Neskowin, OR this past March and decided we are the #compandquills writing group because of our shared interest in composition and feather quill tattoos.

There was a point in the dissertation writing process where I felt almost paralyzed. I had completed the first three dissertation chapters--my introduction, literature review, and methods chapters, but I had three chapters left to write--my rhetorical analysis, data analysis, and conclusion. It had taken me six months to reach that halfway point and I only had about three months left to complete my dissertation in order to be able to graduate in May. Despite the progress on one side and the looming deadline on the other side, I just couldn't write. I was teaching three classes at the time, one in person at Madison College and two online. The end of November/ beginning of December rush of grading, preparing final projects, and communicating with students was overwhelming. But one day I realized that if I didn't finish at least one more chapter before Christmas, I'd be screwed. That's where my #compandquills girls came in. Over Google Hangouts I was sharing how stuck I felt, and they said-- OK, we'll take a day and write all day. So Wednesday, December 21st we did just that. My husband worked from home that day to watch the dogs. I went to a coffee shop and wrote there until it closed and then came home and wrote some more. Jess and Casie wrote right alongside me on Google Hangouts. In the morning, I had a rough outline of my rhetorical analysis chapter and by 5:00 PM I had a draft that I sent off to my chair. The girls cheered me, told stories that served as needed quick breaks, and offered suggestions when I was stuck. To go back to the previous point, I was able to write the chapter that day because of my friends and because I made my work work. That day, I pulled from probably three previous projects in writing my rhetorical analysis and came up with a draft that needed very few revisions in less than 12 hours.

Abby & I after SWES 2016
Like finding mentors, finding friends has a lot to do with opening yourself up. Jess was in my cohort, but she was a second year literature student. I met Casie in my research methods class, and she was a third year student who was done with classes. Chance conversations led to a conference proposal, which led to presenting together, which led to friendship, which led to writing. I kept myself open. I said yes to possibilities. I met two ladies I really didn't know that well at several restaurants and coffee shops, and in them I found an invaluable support system and friends for life. And they weren't the only ones! Dr. Kat O'Meara was a fourth year student when I was a first, but as we were both from WI we became quick friends, and she has been SO helpful to me in this year of finishing up my Ph.D. Abby Oakley was the only other woman rhetoric student in my cohort, but I didn't really get to know her until she asked me to cochair the Southwest English Symposium with her. These friends, and many others, in the program were so helpful, as were friends who had nothing to do with academia! Skype dates and coffee dates and trips to WI with these friends were also so refreshing and reminded me that there is a lot more life outside of my academic bubble. Put yourself out there. Find your people. It's worth it.

4) Study What You Love

As I said, I was lucky. I found food memoirs early on in my graduate school career, and I really did fall in love with them. I think there is so much interest and value in studying them, and I will do it for as long as I am allowed to do so! The intersection with feminism didn't become apparent until I started taking courses at ASU but pretty quickly I began to see ways that those subject areas could speak to each other. As I said in the introduction of my dissertation, I first started learning about feminism at Olivet Nazarene University in Dr. Belcher's literary criticism course. That course was tough. It was a survey course over a multitude of literary theory. It was was difficult, but the knowledge I gleaned served me well as I moved into my MA and Ph.D. The theory that I liked best from that class was feminist theory. I remember in the the final paper I picked Virginia Woolf's feminist theory as the foundational criticism.

In my MA, I did very little feminist theory work, although Joyce, who was on my committee, does do work in feminism. When I went to ASU, however, I began to take classes from Maureen and Trish, and my interest and love for feminism and feminist theory was reawakened. One of the reasons that feminist theory makes so much sense to me is because I am a woman, and I have personally seen and experienced discrimination and marginalization due to gender. Maya Angelou once said, "I am a feminist. I've been a female for a long time now. It'd be stupid not to be on my own side." I really feel that way. I also think that feminism has a bad reputation because historically it has caused a lot of friction. As someone who identifies as a feminist, I do feel a responsibility to explain the history of the feminist waves as well as speak back to damaging opinions about feminism by pointing out what is at the core of the movement is. bell hooks, though controversial in some of her beliefs, provides my favorite definition of feminism as "a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression" (xii). I also identify as a feminist because I like men. I like all people, and I see the acceptance and enactment of feminism as being beneficial and useful everyone, especially in eras like the Trump presidency. My favorite feminist theorists, Gesa Kirsch and Jaqueline Jones Royster, talk about feminism as enacting an ethics of hope and care. This was the most central goal of my dissertation. If we can offer hope and care in any way, I see that as a success.

My GF Lemon Bundt Cake
In terms of food writing, I also look for places to identify. In October 2012 I realized that I have a very high gluten intolerance. I'm not sure why or where it came from, but when I stopped eating gluten on the first of that month I realized that it had been making me incredibly sick for about four years. Except for a few experimental bites in Italy in 2015, I have not knowingly taken a bite of gluten in almost five years. After some bad experience with meat in Africa in 2010, I also choose to no longer eat red meat or pork. And because of the misdiagnosis of the gluten intolerance as IBS for years, I continue to deal with inflammation in my stomach caused by other random foods like asparagus and peaches. All this to say, I have a somewhat complicated relationship with food. I'd say at LEAST half of the recipes that I read in the food memoirs I could never make because of my eating restrictions. And, until this year, I never particularly liked to cook or bake. I have more recently found baking to be a wonderful stress reliever, and I have taken it up with a passion since we moved to WI.

What I love, though, about food memoirs is the ways that culture and identity can be taken up and represented in food texts. When I got married, I took my husband's last name of Bruce. My maiden name is Koury, and it is a name that my grandfather and father are very proud of. My dad was my grandfather's only son, and my dad had two daughters. For that reason, my grandpa's name of Koury will not continue after my dad passes. I thought about this fact for months leading up to my wedding, but my husband and I decided to only have kids through adoption, so I wanted to have the same last name as my children as, in all likelihood, we will not have the same ethnic or cultural background. What I found in food memoirs, though, was a way to represent and discuss culture and family that transcends names. In Abu-Jaber's food memoir, I found a food tradition that is very much like my own. In reading about her relationships, cultural norms and loud, loving, and feisty family, I saw a story like my own. I found way to claim a part of my identity that I felt I had lost in my name change.

You may not find it right away, but I advise to find an area of study that you love. And not just an area that you love intellectually, but an area of study in which you can personally identity. As a feminist scholar, I recognize the importance of addressing intersectionality and the ways that identities layer, change, and shift in time and due to outer and inner forces. When you are stuck with a subject area for years, it is helpful to find something in which a part of yourself lives. Studying feminism and food memoirs has helped me to better understand my own heritage and my own histories. I am a woman who comes from a Lebanese and European background, and my dissertation represented those intersectional identities in ways that I am really proud of. If you are able-- find that! Something you love. Something that speaks to and about you. Something of which you can be proud.

5) Open Your Computer... Then Take A Break 

This last point may seem a bit contradictory, but I really think that a lot of earning a graduate degree-- and a lot of life-- is about balance. It's about taking time to work and taking time to rest. It's about pushing oneself to be the very best but also taking time to recuperate and rest. What I mean by "open your computer and then take a break" is to work on work days and to rest on rest days. This may seem fairly obvious to people outside of academia, but in a field where the work is 90% self motivated, this is something that needs to be said. Now, like the rest of these, I see the importance of adopting this mindset but that doesn't mean that it is always easy. For me, routine makes it easier. My average working day (without a class) looks as such:
  • Wake up and do yoga or Jillian Michaels
  • Eat breakfast and read Shay Shull's blog Mix and Match Mama
  • Walk the dogs (if possible in the AZ heat or WI cold)
  • Open my computer and work-- course prep, grading, writing, researching, emailing, etc. 
  • Eat lunch and watch something fun on TV like Parks and Rec, FRIENDS, or GBBO
  • Open my computer and work some more
  • End the day when Wade gets home to volunteer or eat dinner or hang with him and the dogs
Now, did I do this perfectly everyday? Hell no. In fact, some days I couldn't even get out of bed because of sickness, sadness, panic, or anxiety. But this schedule was my goal. It was my intent. And it did help to have it as a goal. I know myself pretty well. I know I won't workout after breakfast or that if I don't some kind of break in the day I will burn out too quickly. I offer this just to say-- find what works for you. And then once you find it, actually do it. There were a lot of days when I didn't want to open my computer. Or, if I did open it, I spent the time on Facebook, Buzzfeed, or Pinterest. A day like that every once in awhile is OK but obviously that can't be the norm. Trump's candidacy and then win of the presidency was actually positive in one way, as it kept me off of Facebook from about the beginning of November until end of February because I just couldn't handle it. That did increase my productivity, as Facebook is my number one online time waster. BUT-- my point is, just sit down. Do something. Write a paragraph. Read an article. Grade a paper. My Ph.D. really didn't feel like accomplishing one big goal. It felt like accomplishing one million small ones, and for me, that only happened if I actually opened my computer.

So that is the work bit. Now I'll talk about the rest bit. Resting and taking time off, especially to travel, is so rewarding. Wade and I live by a budget, so shopping or going out to eat are treats, but it's never really an option to blow big money on any kind of unintended purchase. My release comes from spending time "away." Now, does that take money? Yes, for sure. In this point, and really in the others, I want to specifically recognize my incredible privilege. I realize how inordinately and undeservedly lucky I am to be born in the United States. To have had parents who offered me every opportunity. To have the opportunity and ability to go to school and earn two graduate degrees debt free. I do NOT take those privileges for granted, and I do hope and work to give back through my teaching and research. That being said, I love to travel and do it every chance I can. 

Ocean view from the Galapagos Island of Santa Cruz
For example, a few days after Christmas and into the new year of 2017, my husband, friend, and I went to South America. We toured Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. We had an amazing trip. This was in the third year of my Ph.D. I had four chapters of my dissertation written, and two more to go. This may not have seemed like the best time to go on a two week trip to another continent, but for me, it was just what I needed. I was burnt out before I left, and touring and traveling for two weeks was the perfect escape. I didn't even take my computer on the trip. One of the best reasons to take intentional rest, though, is to be able to work even better and harder upon return. Even on the flight back from Quito, I wrote a good chunk of my conclusion to my dissertation on the plane. I finished it within the week of returning, meaning I only had one final chapter of my dissertation to write from the end of January to the beginning of March. I had the stamina to do this, though, due to the rest.

Rest doesn't have to look like big trips, though, and this was certainly a major treat for us. Rest can look like a day off in your living room with a Harry Potter marathon. Rest can look like training for a 5K. Rest can look like Skyping with friends or meeting up with friends. Rest can look like reading a magazine by the pool or starting a personal blog. Rest can look like playing with dogs or volunteering. I've rested in all of these ways. But rest is rest. It means not working. This was something I really had to learn. Before I got married, I "worked" as long as I was awake. Did that mean that I was actually working that much? No way. But, I intended to be working. When I learned to take time in my day, week, and months to actually say "it's OK to not work right now" I started to be far more productive. Who knew. 

So, that's it. No groundbreaking truths or insights. Many people, though, have asked me this question: How did you finish your Ph.D. in three years? This is how. These five points. May they help you or give you fodder to say "That's stupid. I know a better way." Either way, I wish you the very, very best. 

1 comment:

  1. Every time I read your blog- I know you a little better and love you a little bit more. Thanks for your honesty, transparency and wisdom beyond your age.