Grad school is funny business

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what a strange, funny business I’m in.

I took my preliminary exams a few months ago. For the exams, I had to write and orally defended my answers to my exam questions. During the exams, I also write a “pre-prospectus” which is basically the early beginnings of a prospectus but not quite the full thing.

Even though I passed my exams, I wouldn’t say that the experience went well.

The causes for this were many, and I’ll avoid going into too much detail about it here because I don’t want to spend any more time dwelling on it. But the resulting outcome was a nasty case of impostor syndrome. I spent the past few months rewriting and tweaking my prospectus for my dissertation and worrying about going through the same turmoil that my exams put me through.

The week before spring break, I had my prospectus defense meeting, and it went really well. Much, much better than the exams. No big deal, in fact. I finally felt like a junior colleague, and I was proud to talk about my work.

And I just keep thinking about what a funny thing it is to walk into a room and ask a bunch of smart people to allow you research and write a really long paper. To tackle this huge, gigantic, seemingly insurmountable task. Please please let me do this huge, sort of crazy thing.

When we get into complaining jags, my significant other often reminds to remind myself that I want to be here. That I chose to be here. That the me of 5 years ago dreamed of this moment. That makes me appreciate it more, but it still seems sort of crazy to me. It’s a funny thing that when you’re really lucky, sometimes you have to remind yourself how lucky you are.

The Collector

I have this tendency to collect and accumulate things. I think that’s probably common. My apartment is covered in a light layer of paper that includes magazines, academic articles, photographs, and cards. Recipes are my latest obsession.

This compulsion started about a year ago, when I became a vegetarian. I decided I’d read up on my new meat-free lifestyle and get down to business, making healthful, delicious meals for myself. I have hundreds, maybe thousands, of recipes. Most of them are digital, from sites like Vegetarian Times, and I store them on my various electronic devices: iPhone, iPad, computer. I like to have them readily accessible in case inspiration strikes and I decide to pull out my iPhone in the kitchen and start cooking.

Often, when I’m sitting at home on the couch trying to do work but procrastinating instead, I’ll decide I want to make one of the recipes, so I diligently look through my cupboards and fridge to see which ingredients I’m missing. I add all the ingredients to my grocery list, and the next time I head to the store, I plan to pick up all the new ingredients which will aid me in my quest to become a master chef. Usually, by the time I get to the store, I’ve lost my motivation to search out or deal with anything new, and I just pick up the usual items: milk, veggies, ice cream.

Two days ago, I opened a package containing a new recipe book that I ordered. Vegan with a Vengeance. One of my best friends has sworn by this cookbook for years, and everything she has ever made for me from it has been delicious. It has been lying on the floor, unopened, next to my beautiful, barely touched collection of yarn that I bought a few months ago, thinking I’d knit some new scarves.

Even though I rarely use these recipes (or, for that matter, my knitting needles), I like the promise that they hold. I like knowing that they’re there, waiting for me to get to know them. I feel this way about all of the unread books on my bookshelves and the journal articles I have saved and bookmarked (Instapaper is another problem…). I guess that perpetual student in me likes to know that there are always new things to learn, always things to be explored.


I just read an article by John McIntyre in the Baltimore Sun about the word(?) “irregardless.” The specific debate is whether or not “irregardless” is a real word. But the more general argument that McIntyre brings up is the question of whether language is (or should be) prescriptive or descriptive.

I, like McIntyre, take a rhetorical approach to language. So, rather than saying “you have to use language this way,” I prefer to see how language is used and figure out how and why. As McIntyre says, “In this regard, I am neither a prescriptivist nor a descriptivist but a rhetorician: I choose what I think fit for the subject, the occasion, and the audience, and I move up and down those registers freely. So can you. So should you.”

Somewhat tangentially, this questions about language use make me think of something that has been happening recently in the writing classes I teach. When I give my students an assignment, I usually give them some general guidelines (for example, “In your report about a topic or issue of concern to you, please address as many points of view you can come up with about the issue rather than only siding with one.”). But I tend to resist giving them too many specific details about what they should do in their assignments. This is for various reasons. First, they all have different types of projects, so to give them too many guidelines (“you must mention at least 3 counterarguments…”) seems too definite or restrictive. Second, I want them to push themselves and their writing abilities. By giving them guidelines that are too specific, they seem to only work to achieve those standards rather than pushing their own boundaries. Sure, some students don’t push themselves or even care to try to go above and beyond. There are always those few who are completely disengaged. But I’ve found that much of the time, if I don’t give them too many specific guidelines, I’ve found that they often surpass what I’d have ever thought possible of them (which is perhaps a failing on my part as a teacher). I want to see what they can do. I want them to amaze me, to dazzle me, to show me how smart they are.

But over the past two semesters, I’ve had many, many students come up to me and ask me why I can’t just give them an outline of exactly how the paper should be formatted. Why can’t you tell us exactly what you want from us, they ask. Just tell me what to write. Give me the exact problem, and I’ll give you back the exact answer.

But writing doesn’t work that way, at least not in my classes. Writing is descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s rhetorical. It changes. It’s based on the individual. And there’s no one right answer because there’s no one problem to solve.

Really, what I’m trying to teach them is to create the problems themselves.

Many of them want to resist this. But I’ve seen them do it, so I know they’re able to, irregardless of their majors, their past experience, and writing abilities (or what they have been told their writing abilities are by previous teachers). And I love the moment when they realize it, too. That moment doesn’t always happen. But when it does, it’s luminous.

Weirding Language

There’s a Calvin and Hobbes strip in which Calvin talks about the ever-evolving state of language. Words are constantly retooled and adapted to fit different rhetorical circumstances. While Hobbes worries that this could eventually cause a break down in our understanding of one another, I side firmly with Calvin.

I love verbing words.

I love when language gets weirded. Neologisms are wonderful tools that we have at our disposal that help us create and name the world around us. Heck, even the word “neologism” is a wonderful thing!

As a writing teacher, I want my students to play with language. I want them to analyze all the many literacies and languages they have available to the them, and I want them to learn how and when best to use these literacies.

Dr. C. tells us that blogging is a space in which we can say interesting things in front of other people. A space to narrate our work, a window into cognition, a place to make connections as a learner and the life we’re living. A way to keep things off balance.

So, in that spirit, I hope to use this space as a way to escape the tyranny of the squiggly red and green lines that Microsoft Word insists on inserting into my documents. I’m not afraid of you, Christmas-colored squiggles! And I want my students to feel free of you, too.

So let’s weird some words.