Monday, November 03, 2008

PhD Reflections #1

One of the requirements of my program is to write bi-weekly reflections. I’m going to post my first two at this time.

Wrapping up the first two weeks of classes has a particular sense of satisfaction. The routine begins to emerge for each week. How to marshal the materials necessary for each class, how to read and prepare, what my thinking processes and energy level will be like throughout the week. I like the routine and the sense of having some mastery of the administrative details of my life. This is one of my confirmations of the first few weeks: my belief that much of life is administrative is confirmed. There are new administrative tasks, certainly, in this graduate program, but the labor of administrative work continues, and mastering it, or at least attending to it in a diligent way, has rewards, if not today at some point in the future.
For me the greatest challenge to what I know is what I’ve come to regard as an on-going process through graduate school: more reading, more work leads to more questions and more awareness of what is not known by me. On one hand, the gratifying thing about the mix of classes that I have this term is the overlap and tangential relations between and among the many things that I am reading. For instance, Joanne Meyerowitz provides a brief description of the work of the sociologists Kessler and McKenna who were referenced in readings last week for WMST 601. On the other hand, there is the persistent sense that there is so much material to be read, considered, digested, and integrated that even reading in a focused and ostensibly comprehensive way for four years will not bring mastery. It will bring simply a larger list for future reading and consideration. This is a challenge in the sense that it is humbling and presses on the need for continued humility. It is also a challenge because it focuses anxiety on production. How will I ever have something to say in the scholarly conversation? How will I ever write with even confidence let alone authority? Managing the dialogue between the humility, which feeds the reading and thinking, and the anxiety, which would like to suppress them, is one of my challenges.
There are a variety of new directions in my thinking. Some of them came from a conference that I attended this week, Lifting Belly High: Women’s Poetry Since 1900. Susan Stanford Friedman in her seven-minute address at a plenary outlined new directions for feminist scholarship in poetry that I have been regarding as my own personal roadmap. There is an essay taking form in my mind that looks at three lesbian-feminist poetry collections and considers the forms of production that brought them into existence and reads the texts as emblematic of particular concerns of the communities at the time of publication. It’s an exciting synthesis for me. I’ve also been thinking and reading and looking for examples of interracial couples in lesbian cultural productions and what they mean. This started in watching The Watermelon Woman in WMST 601 and I think will shape my final project for that class. It will give me a way to think and write about race in new ways that I hope will be quite fruitful.
Also I’m reading wantonly. I circle footnotes and references and find the underlying texts and articles. I don’t read them all, but I find them and peruse them. Some I read thoroughly and obsessively. I have stacks of books in different projects or areas of interest. I take one from each stack and read a chapter of each. I don’t finish them all. I return books that don’t interest me at this time. Some I love so much, I order them used online so that I can reread and write in them. I’m committed to taking time, particularly this first year, to simply explore the world where my mind takes me and to explore the recesses of my own mind with little regard for what I would have in the past thought was right and proper or a “good investment of time.” I’m just reading and exploring and accountable to no one but myself.
Learnings that have created dilemmas or dissonances for me tend to fall in the material world. Barbara Boswell’s presentation on the retention of junior faculty of color at the University of Maryland was disturbing to me, especially one of her reactions to the research project – thinking twice about entering the academy and knowing that she would have to work three times as hard to achieve tenure. For me, the tension is between knowing a problem and not having the role to solve the problem, but also it is knowing that the problem will persist. As time goes on I will be in various roles and doing various things, which will require me to balance my own ethics about addressing institutional racism while simultaneously fulfilling institutional demands. I know from previous work in a variety of settings how difficult that is.
The other dissonance that is most palpable for me at this point is in classes. I’m amazed at how relatively conservative I find many of my classmates to be. I experienced this in the MFA program as well. Although I shouldn’t be, I continue to be surprised by the conservative moment that we are in and how that shapes people. In my feminist literary theory class, I’ve been surprised at the basic lack of information that many of the students have about feminism. I continue to be surprised by the persistent appeal of being a housewife and the legitimizing of that “option” that continues. While I hardly want intellectual uniformity, I am amazed at how the ground has shifted in seeing the world since I was an undergraduate. I find myself torn between wanting to hold up a mirror about the conservatism, but also not wanting to make waves or be too confrontational. Finally, there is the classroom balance, too, of being incredibly excited about the readings and wanting to engage in them immediately and deeply but not wanting to alienate other students. This is for me a delicate balancing act. I think I’ve improved greatly though the MFA, but it persists for me. I try to hold back in discussion, not speak first, not reference other materials, but sometimes it happens and I worry that it creates a difficult or unpleasant environment for others. As the semester goes on, I’ll get behind in the reading as well, and that will help!

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