Nonspecific Day

Of the many varied experiences I’ve had as a college professor, I have never been asked to look for explosives.  Until today:

I arrived at work about 9:00 to an empty office suite.  After a couple minutes, I heard someone walking through saying “Hello?  Hello?”  It was the emergency coordinator for our building, and she told me there had been a bomb threat called into the University this morning.  “They didn’t say anything specific in the threat, but we’re supposed to keep an eye out.”  She reminded me of Dwight Schrute.

I thanked her and checked my email. Sure enough, a “non-specific bomb threat” had been called in.    Whatever that means.

Throughout the day, I got text messages and instant-message popups on computer screens in my classrooms.  Now, I’m grateful we have these systems (which came in the wake of the Virgina Tech shootings in 2007), but today’s messages were not all that useful.  Here’s a text message I got:

ALERT–As of 4:30 pm, there is no new information to report on the bomb threat.

A few minutes later, my office phone rang.  It was my department chair.  We talked about the bomb threat.  She said, “anything unusual over there today?” (Most of my department is in a different building, and we’re a little island of eight offices.)

“All quiet on the western front,” I said.  Most everyone else had gone home ahead of the snowstorm.

“Okay, well, they’re asking us to all look around in the public areas, you know, for anything unusual.  Check your mailbox, for example.”

I said I would look around.  So, that’s right, I became part of an ad-hoc bomb detection effort.  I chuckled when I thought about what my union rep might say about it.

But I did my duty, and looked around.  I did get a little nervous opening the cabinet where our mail boxes are.   I’ve been reading a Vietnam War memoir, and the last little bit I read before going to bed was about half of a patrol being wiped out by a booby trap. I kept thinking mail bomb, mail bomb.

It turns out the only unusual things in the mailboxes was an old wristwatch in somebody’s mail box, and a box of Bostich framing nails on someone else’s shelf.  Actually, that wasn’t unusual at all; I think both of those items have been sitting there for going on two years now.  In fact, there’s so much weird stuff sitting around, I don’t know what would be suspicious or not.

Suffice it to say, I did not find anything explosive, and went back to the somewhat less exciting job of answering email before heading home.

The Hurt Locker

Image via Wikipedia

 

 

Advertisements

Ph. Duh

I am the proud owner of two incomplete Ph.D.’s.  I did all the coursework for a Ph.D. in “critical studies in teaching English” at Michigan State and I am ABD (“all but dissertation”) in academic leadership in higher education at Western Michigan University.

There are three segments to most Ph.D. degrees: coursework, comprehensive exams, and the dissertation.  I’m pretty good with the coursework part.  I’m good at reading and discussing ideas in seminar (which comprised most of my coursework) and, although I always put the writing of the paper off until the last minute, I can crank out a pretty good seminar paper in a few days at the end.  They usually end up at 20 pages or so.

I find the reading and discussion that goes on at seminar invigorating.  The only trouble I have is keeping up with the reading.  Not that I can’t do the reading; I can read a novel in a day if I get hooked.  But if the reading gets too tedious, my interest wanes severely, and it is drudge work.  That, and writing the paper at the end.  I torture myself to get it done.

However, the comprehensive exams and dissertation involve more self-directed study, so, big surprise, I floundered.

In academia, the Ph.D. is a rite of passage and a sign of basic competence.  I started the Ph.D. so that I could get a tenure-track teaching job, and it worked: the fact that I had been accepted into the program at MSU was a positive factor during my interview process at Ferris State University.  (I have an MFA, which is supposed to be a terminal degree, although there are many Ph.D. programs in creative writing.)

I couldn’t do the comprehensive exam at MSU, though.  It involved a reading list of about 110 scholarly books and a long weekend of writing.  I couldn’t even get started on the reading list because it seemed impossible: I couldn’t even decide on a notetaking protocol.  So I quit,  just sort of faded from campus.

When I started my second Ph.D., some of the students in my group seemed like they belonged nowhere near graduate school.  They had trouble with basic concepts in the reading and even more trouble expressing themselves clearly.  They had simplistic models of how the world worked, and they often reacted to complexity with resistance and derision.  In fact, I could not believe I was in graduate school with professional adults who considered any slight reference to feminism as “male bashing.” It seemed like  Ph.D. lite, and I even considered the value of continuing past the first semester because the classes seemed so easy.

I continued for three main reasons:  to add “Ph.D.” after my name, to defer student loan payments, and to hopefully land an administrative job with a bigger salary to pay off said student loans.  If the administrative job didn’t turn out, I thought the Ph.D. would help my promotion process in my current job.

It turned out none of those things were enough to make me finish.  As part of some of the classes, we did extensive reflection and self evaluation.  I scored high on creativity and innovation and quite low on practical skills like “follow-through.”  That seemed kind of unbalanced for a career as an administrator.  I also realized my motivation for the whole degree was to run away from problems: defer student loan payments and stop having to grade papers.  And I got promoted without the Ph.D., because of my terminal degree.

In my studies I specialized in faculty development, which means helping faculty become better at what they do.  Being at a teaching institution (as opposed to a research institution), that meant teaching workshops.  I had done many workshops on teaching with technology, and enjoyed that.  However, when I talked about pedagogy I felt like an imposter.  In my teaching, I’ve always been good at coming up with ideas and structuring a course, and not so good at grading papers and getting photocopies done on time, etc. (ahem, follow-through).

Also, doing the workshops was not really the administrative part of faculty development.  The administrative part I experienced involved some significant battling of wills, underhandedness, selling principles short in the name of expediency, all things I despise.

So I got through the coursework and even the comprehensive exam and started on the path to dissertation, but with much lower motivation than when I started.  However, I had a golden opportunity: I had a dissertation topic  handed to me.  I got along with my dissertation chair very well.  She was becoming a strong player in the scholarly community.  She had national data from a grant project that needed additional analysis, and offered it to me as a dissertation topic.  This was timely and important work that would make my name in the field.  Her co-investigator on the research was a pioneer and luminary in the field.  Moreover, since I would be using existing data, I wouldn’t have to do any instrument design or data collection.

Despite some setbacks, then, I was on the fast track to becoming known in the field.  If I could just do the work.

I couldn’t.

I had some initial success at getting the proposal written, but then I got bogged down.  I couldn’t find the time to work on it.  Weeks turned into months.  A few months turned into a year and a half.  The longer I stalled, the harder it was to get anything productive done.  I thought about it all the time, but didn’t get any significant work done beyond the real progress I had made in the first two months.

I had plenty of support, so that was no excuse.  I took a dissertation seminar that my chair led.  When that finished, I sat in on another semester of seminar, which my chair graciously let me attend unofficially.

After awhile, my chair decided to move ahead with the data, and we looked to another topic.  But I saw the writing on the wall and officially abandoned my degree soon after that.

The irony is that some of the people I thought did not belong in graduate school at all had finished.  One woman who I thought would never have the capacity for a dissertation finished it quickly while working full time and while supporting her young son through cancer treatment.

I of course felt humbled and despondent about the experience.  My own idea of what a Ph.D. was changed.  It’s hard to admit to colleagues that I have abandoned at ABD stage and most likely will never finish.  Some of them see me differently now.

Getting a Ph.D. is not purely a measure of intelligence.  I know.  My ACT and GRE scores qualify me for membership in Mensa, which means I measure in the top 2% IQ in the nation.  Some of my fellow students who barely made the cutoff for GRE scores finished their Ph.D.’s in only three or four years.  But, I saw these students develop from workers into scholars, while I seemed to regress.

Indeed, I have felt like I’ve gotten dumber and dumber as the years have progressed.  I graduated from high school as a star student, ready to take on the world.  I performed poorly my first year of college.  I got through a BA and an MFA degree and somehow landed a teaching job at a state university, but have not stood out in any form.  I got award after award in high school, but nothing since.  My writing career has been met with rejection after rejection, which is normal, I’ve heard, but I don’t respond to it well.

Getting a Ph.D. requires intelligence and focus andpersistence, as does success in most fields.  I have no balance among those elements.  Once I latch on to something interesting, my hyperfocus kicks in, and I perform well.  Once something happens to diminish that interest, nothing, not even fear of shame or risk of losing my job or risk of going bankrupt from unpaid student loans, makes me finish it.

I’ve been reading the literature on gifted adults recently and think I fit in that category.  There are the gifted super achievers, who have their own issues, but I fit in the gifted underachiever category.  I had every predictor of success in high school, and have struggled to make my modest career.  My recent experience with cognitive testing has reminded me of the idea I had of myself one time: that I had strong potential and that I would do something important with my life.  My idea of “important” has changed, though.  I do important work in ways that differ from what I once imagined: help out struggling students, give advice to friends, be a good father and husband.

Despite all that I have, though, I have trouble feeling fulfilled, at least professionally.  Writing makes me feel fulfilled in that way.  Being a successful, full-time writer has been the dream I come back to consistently.  It’s not so much seeing my work in print, as the feedback I get.  I had a poem published in a broadside around Big Rapids by The Michigan Poet.  For a few weeks, I had all sorts of people say “Hey, I saw your poem at Pepper’s.  Neat!”  That, to me, is fulfilling.

So is blogging.  The handful of comments and likes have been helpful.  So please, comment.  My vanity will be restored for another day if you do . . .

Order me some regular

Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

Gustave Flaubert’s maxim caught me in it’s grasp when I first heard it in graduate school. It resonated with my split nature. On the one hand, I wanted to be a good, productive member of society, to please people, to be responsible. On the other hand, I wanted to be a poet, which seemed the opposite. My inner rebel sent me to poems, sent me away from the idea of a boring nine-to-five existence. But my lack of a benefactor sent me the bourgeois way.

After I finished my MFA, I set about establishing a career, to make a living so I could be violent and original and bohemian with basic cable. I had gotten engaged (by blurting it out on the phone one night, classic AD(H)D style) and had to prove (to myself, not to my future wife) that I could be responsible. The coming specter of student loan payments drove me to find income as well. I had filled out all the paperwork for enrolling in a PhD program but threw it away and instead secured a one-semester teaching job a Ferris State University.

I wanted to get my professional life started and in control, to become a good teacher, make enough money to cover my expenses plus dinner and a movie, and put that part of my life away in a box so there would be time to write. I should have recognized the familiar flawed refrain: I only needed to set up the right circumstances and the real writing would begin. In the past, I thought, I only needed to have my own computer, my own apartment without roommates, the right pen, the right chair. I projected my resistance onto the objects around me.

During my MFA days, one part of the degree was six semester hours of “MFA Project”; that meant that while the university paid me to each, I paid part of that money back for the honor of not going to class to work on my MFA thesis. My life for a semester was teaching one class at the university, a couple at the community college, and writing. Plenty o’ time to write in my own apartment with my own computer. Three and a half months into my four months of project hours, I finally started writing, and I took to tying my leg to my desk to keep me working on my poems for two hours a day. I got through my MFA project with talent, rather than discipline, as I always had.

I moved to Mecosta, MI, to the top floor of a house on a lake in the woods. The bottom floor was inhabited by the retired owners of the house: a kooky bird of a woman and her dementia-afflicted husband. Other than the occasional distraction from downstairs (one afternoon, polka music suddenly blared throughout the house, never to be heard again), I lived in isolation in the boonies. I had my own entrance and my own deck on the second floor, so it felt as close to a writer’s cabin as I could manage. I would begin the writing career I had long studied for.

I only had to get my teaching life in order. Easier said than done.

I taught five classes with three preps. Two of the classes I taught were basic writing classes, populated by students who did not meet minimum requirements for writing proficiency. FSU was open admissions at that time, so the classes were chaotic. I had never had to use any “classroom management” before. I wanted to teach college classes so I never had to yell in the classroom. I had to yell. Someone gave me advice that you should just lay it on the line for them: do this, and pass; don’t do this, and fail. That proved horribly wrong. It’s true that the standards had to be set up, but threatening them with failure seemed like more of the same crap they heard all through school, so they wrote me off.

I also met some of the strangest students in my life. In my research writing class, for example, I had a student who decided his semester project would be to prove the validity of the Bible. Another told me, in all seriousness, that she was the sort of student who did best if she never had to come to class and instead could just come by my office and turn in her work. I taught these classes that I had never taught before with students that I didn’t know what to make of at an institution where I didn’t know anyone, and I struggled.

I got angry with myself with struggling over basic motivation. I thought when I finished graduate school I would start being a grownup and stop fighting with myself over basic things like getting up in the morning, getting to my job on time, keeping my kitchen clean. I don’t know why I had this idea; perhaps it excused the present. I hadn’t been, until this point, a real grown up adult yet. I was always a student.

But two things occupied my life: teaching and worrying about teaching. Most evenings my worries kept me stuck on the couch, watching TV. Doing not much else. Nowadays with a house and two kids to take care of, I wonder where all that time went that year. I didn’t invest it in reading or writing, that’s for sure.

I experience slow periods where I feel frozen. I think the metaphor came from those days out on the lake. Deep in Michigan winter, that apartment felt cold with the wind blowing across the lake through my leaky windows. In a frozen period, my brain is occupied by the following unbalanced equation:

I want to do [something fun/fufilling] but before I can do that, I have to do [something I need to do, but can’t]. Therefore I will do [neither of these things while thinking constantly about both].

Instead, I watch TV, read novels, surf the internet, play computer games, plink on the guitar, none of which feels very satisfying.

I could never be regular and orderly in the boring parts of my life. Instead I am anxious and avoidant. The things in my life that I find boring and uninteresting indirectly grow into all-out constant worries. Therefore, by not thinking about them, I am constantly preoccupied by them. They won’t stay in their cages. They are the Stay-Puft Marmallow Men of my brain.

Stay Puft Marshmallow Man

Try not to think about it.

Order me some regular

Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

Gustave Flaubert’s maxim caught me in it’s grasp when I first heard it in graduate school. It resonated with my split nature. On the one hand, I wanted to be a good, productive member of society, to please people, to be responsible. On the other hand, I wanted to be a poet, which seemed the opposite. My inner rebel sent me to poems, sent me away from the idea of a boring nine-to-five existence. But my lack of a benefactor sent me the bourgeois way.

After I finished my MFA, I set about establishing a career, to make a living so I could be violent and original and bohemian with basic cable. I had gotten engaged (by blurting it out on the phone one night, classic AD(H)D style) and had to prove (to myself, not to my future wife) that I could be responsible. The coming specter of student loan payments drove me to find income as well. I had filled out all the paperwork for enrolling in a PhD program but threw it away and instead secured a one-semester teaching job a Ferris State University.

I wanted to get my professional life started and in control, to become a good teacher, make enough money to cover my expenses plus dinner and a movie, and put that part of my life away in a box so there would be time to write. I should have recognized the familiar flawed refrain: I only needed to set up the right circumstances and the real writing would begin. In the past, I thought, I only needed to have my own computer, my own apartment without roommates, the right pen, the right chair. I projected my resistance onto the objects around me.

During my MFA days, one part of the degree was six semester hours of “MFA Project”; that meant that while the university paid me to each, I paid part of that money back for the honor of not going to class to work on my MFA thesis. My life for a semester was teaching one class at the university, a couple at the community college, and writing. Plenty o’ time to write in my own apartment with my own computer. Three and a half months into my four months of project hours, I finally started writing, and I took to tying my leg to my desk to keep me working on my poems for two hours a day. I got through my MFA project with talent, rather than discipline, as I always had.

I moved to Mecosta, MI, to the top floor of a house on a lake in the woods. The bottom floor was inhabited by the retired owners of the house: a kooky bird of a woman and her dementia-afflicted husband. Other than the occasional distraction from downstairs (one afternoon, polka music suddenly blared throughout the house, never to be heard again), I lived in isolation in the boonies. I had my own entrance and my own deck on the second floor, so it felt as close to a writer’s cabin as I could manage. I would begin the writing career I had long studied for.

I only had to get my teaching life in order. Easier said than done.

I taught five classes with three preps. Two of the classes I taught were basic writing classes, populated by students who did not meet minimum requirements for writing proficiency. FSU was open admissions at that time, so the classes were chaotic. I had never had to use any “classroom management” before. I wanted to teach college classes so I never had to yell in the classroom. I had to yell. Someone gave me advice that you should just lay it on the line for them: do this, and pass; don’t do this, and fail. That proved horribly wrong. It’s true that the standards had to be set up, but threatening them with failure seemed like more of the same crap they heard all through school, so they wrote me off.

I also met some of the strangest students in my life. In my research writing class, for example, I had a student who decided his semester project would be to prove the validity of the Bible. Another told me, in all seriousness, that she was the sort of student who did best if she never had to come to class and instead could just come by my office and turn in her work. I taught these classes that I had never taught before with students that I didn’t know what to make of at an institution where I didn’t know anyone, and I struggled.

I got angry with myself with struggling over basic motivation. I thought when I finished graduate school I would start being a grownup and stop fighting with myself over basic things like getting up in the morning, getting to my job on time, keeping my kitchen clean. I don’t know why I had this idea; perhaps it excused the present. I hadn’t been, until this point, a real grown up adult yet. I was always a student.

But two things occupied my life: teaching and worrying about teaching. Most evenings my worries kept me stuck on the couch, watching TV. Doing not much else. Nowadays with a house and two kids to take care of, I wonder where all that time went that year. I didn’t invest it in reading or writing, that’s for sure.

I experience slow periods where I feel frozen. I think the metaphor came from those days out on the lake. Deep in Michigan winter, that apartment felt cold with the wind blowing across the lake through my leaky windows. In a frozen period, my brain is occupied by the following unbalanced equation:

I want to do [something fun/fufilling] but before I can do that, I have to do [something I need to do, but can’t]. Therefore I will do [neither of these things while thinking constantly about both].

Instead, I watch TV, read novels, surf the internet, play computer games, plink on the guitar, none of which feels very satisfying.

I could never be regular and orderly in the boring parts of my life. Instead I am anxious and avoidant. The things in my life that I find boring and uninteresting indirectly grow into all-out constant worries. Therefore, by not thinking about them, I am constantly preoccupied by them. They won’t stay in their cages. They are the Stay-Puft Marmallow Men of my brain.

Stay Puft Marshmallow Man

Try not to think about it.