Yes. I did forget. In fact, I may still be in the midst of remembering. And oh yes: I passed with flying colors.
It seemed only right to begin with this clip, as it a) continues the Gurren Lagann theme of my recent quals-related posts, and b) it enfolds triumph into the singular traumatic event in the series, which c) correlates to the trauma of the entire qualifying exam experience and which also d) happened to be the subject of my first real conference paper, which I presented as an adjunct/independent scholar. That was the conference that solidified my decision to pursue a Ph.D.
Note how I keep searching for patterns, even when they don’t matter to anyone but me. It has been my preferred method of sense-making ever since I started attempting to make sense of my vicarious experience of the Sri Lankan conflict, the problem of accepting that I’ve survived something when that something feels like nothing at all.
There’s a connection to be made here too, but I won’t beat the dead horse.
I realize I’m not alone in feeling like the qualifying exam is a traumatic experience, which simultaneously makes it seem better and worse. That is, I’m glad to be in good company, but if we all know this is how it is then why does it have to be this way? Maybe that’s just my natural inclination to dismantle all of the things, including institutional codes. But it’s something I’ve been wondering about. There’s already an excellent post about the experience of Ph.D. feedback here. All I can do here is do my best to build on it given my own experience.
I left this post dated the day I began to write it, May 31, before the beginning of what’s being now informally bandied as “Black June” in Sri Lanka given the riots and ethnic violence against Muslims (and Tamils, again, so I’ve heard). But today is June 23. It’s taken over a month for me to grit my teeth and face the experience again, long enough to write about it, at least, to try to make sense of the patterns that over the past few weeks have surfaced and submerged unexpectedly, without warning.
So. I’d like to begin at the ending.
At Computers and Writing earlier this month, I called my condition a disability. I disclosed to people I admire that I have physical limitations that limit me mentally as well. It helps that my preferred learning style was, already, to consume intensely for a short period of time and then cease consuming to contemplate and create. That’s not the style of most Ph.D. programs, and it’s not the style of the qualifying exam. I had an entire year to read and I still feel as though my brain failed me. I made notes well enough to write about what I read, but I have retained much less than I was hoping. It seems like a way out to blame it on the fact that my collarbone moved out of joint in December, that my chest wall inflammation has gotten to the point where I expect a heart attack every night, that certain muscles got so tight I lost a little height and my digestive system slowed to the point of stopping, or that I move through such a mental fog that simple words like “flash drive” or “accelerate” or “subway” escape me. I’ve gotten good at charades and at describing things by their function (“you know, the cooling thing” = “fan,” or “can you turn the ‘brightener’ on” = “lamp”).
It’s demoralizing. I feel stupid all the time. At the end of the day I’m too tired and busy deciphering my own brain to start a revolution.
I wrote my qualifying exam answers in bed because I hurt too much to be upright. I taped my notes to the wall to emulate the feeling of a desktop. I revived the old tendonitis and nerve problems in my wrists from a practically ceaseless eight days of typing. And because I was worried I couldn’t trim my answers to size in time, I went off my medication the last night so I could pull an all-nighter, with disastrous consequences for the rest of the week.
Fast-forward. Computers and Writing is always a rejuvenating, intellectually revitalizing experience for me. I needed it: the support, the commiseration, the camaraderie, the feeling of belonging to a community that cares about self-care as well as scholarship, where (with one or two unnamed exceptions) I could rub shoulders with the greats and feel welcomed, accepted, even deeply appreciated. At a roundtable about personal disclosures regarding jobs, I disclosed my experience as a fibromyalgic suffering through campus visits to Melanie Yergeau and Cindy Selfe. Later on, Cindy thanked me for sharing an experience that was enlightening to the rest of the group. I said something like the comfortable nature of the table made it easy to disclose, and she replied, “Well. That’s this conference.”
That is this conference. That is what I often feel like I’m missing in my program, what I maybe started missing as early as my MFA. As a writer and a teacher of writing, I think I’m accustomed to a certain mode of feedback. As an undergraduate at Dartmouth, where teaching was prioritized, I had close relationships with almost all of my professors, and I’ve maintained those relationships for somewhere between 11-13 years. I was self-directed back then too, but the written and oral feedback did wonders for my intellectual growth. My diverse interests directly grew from my professors’ responding to my existing interests, encouraging the convergence of my creative, scientific, and English/rhet-comp sides. In my MFA program at Columbia, professors were more hands-off, but I was able to establish close relationships with one or two, who, again, ended up being extremely influential on me. A lot of my creative nonfiction work derives from an emotionally difficult project begun under one of them, for instance. These close relationships and the investment these professors had in me as a scholar, a writer, and a human being, are what made me a lifetime learner and emboldened me, at the time, to push, challenge, and experiment.
I’m typically a mouse in the room but I ended up being one of the top five live-Tweeters at the conference. I spoke to the greats whose work inspires and sustains me when I feel as though academia’s sole purpose is to ruin me. I immersed myself in pedagogy discussions and remembered the professors whose care was so integral to my process of becoming, and I remembered that that’s the way I present myself as a professor. I still keep the cards I have from former students who thanked me for being invested in their lives as well as their work, and to help them see how life and work can productively intertwine.
That’s how I see my life. Patterns everywhere. Everything that rises must converge.
I understood from my father that Ph.D. programs are not at all like my undergraduate experience, that I would have to advocate for myself and that I would have to step up my self-motivation tenfold. It’s oversaturation, given the way I learn. It’s accepting that, in order to succeed, I have to inflict pain on myself. Ironic, given the experiences I’ve been through. After a certain point, the body refuses to keep working. I exited quals with an existential crisis, renewed PTSD responses to loud noise, and an inability to move.
That said, once I passed the exam it seemed like the dynamics had changed. I never rushed but I was accepted into a sorority and I remember the hazing, light as it was. It was worse at some of the fraternities. That’s what this experience felt like to me, anyway: if you can pass the hazing ritual, you’re initiated into the brotherhood. We went through it; therefore, so do you.
If it isn’t clear, it’s the system I’m blaming, but I also acknowledge that systems are made up of individuals and if systems are going to change, change has to begin somewhere.
I remember the first time I read about buses being stopped so Sinhalese mobs could ask each passenger, in Sinhalese, some simple question. An inability to understand or answer indicated you were not Sinhalese. It’s my own damn trauma over something I wasn’t even there for, it’s the slowness of my own damn brain, but when the criticisms pile up and I have nothing to say…
The process itself was simple. We went into the room. We sat in a sort of semi-circle. My committee members took turns by area. The first two professors to speak were on my minor area, and it was less an interrogation than a conversation about the larger thoughts and ambitions I began to touch on in my answer. This was the area I was confident in anyway, because it was the more humanities-oriented area and the support I’ve received over the years has helped make me confident in my abilities. The second area, my major area, was more difficult. I cut it down to size while off my medication and my edits reflected my taste for rhetoric instead of media studies or media history. I knew I removed important material on gender and race. On the spot, in the moment, as my professors spoke to me and I tried to keep up by writing things down, my brain simply stopped. I couldn’t play charades to get through an explanation for the selections I made. That was it. In my head, it was over. There was nothing more to say. I literally lacked the words for saying.
I passed, but afterwards, I cried. As I’m not generally an emotional person, once the floodgates open there’s no telling when it will stop. Others I spoke to cried immediately after theirs as well. Like me, they could only remember it in the weird half-light of post-traumatic memory: total blackout illuminated by the occasional slice of dialogue, image, together or apart.
One month later I think I have answers. I had a spirited conversation with a professor at Computers and Writing about it. In retrospect that’s the same spirited conversation I should have been able to have with my qualifying exam committee. What’s the difference? The venue? The fact that the system says so much rides on this one exam? What I’m perceiving as the lack of personal support from above? The fact that nothing has made me feel competent in this field, the way I have gained confidence and traction in two other disciplines?
To come back to this after a conference like Computers and Writing is disheartening, even if it maybe needs to be said, or if maybe I just need to feel empowered to say it. It’s as if higher education, the higher you go, makes no allowances for deviance or vulnerability. It’s a ridiculous point on the Ph.D. track to stop and wonder. But I’m wondering. My funding is up, I achieve campus visits and lose out to individuals with degrees in hand, I’m already considering cutting back on certain aspects of health care and trying to figure out which days I can spare to suffer through poor nutrition (i.e., ramen) or fasting altogether. I could make ends meet but I’d be in no shape to work on a large intellectual project.
So I’m a Ph.D. candidate. I have to begin thinking about my dissertation proposal soon and this morning I couldn’t get past the word “Thursday.” I watch the artists and scholars at Computers and Writing, I watched the higher-ed documentary The Ivory Tower the other day, and it breaks me up inside. So I’m left with the patterns. The pain I’m still working off. The resignation. The alternatives. This fearful honesty. The wondering.