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PhD LMNOp

In my past life as a grad student, my class (because I still worked at my full time job so I could only manage to fit one class per semester into my life) was something I did one day a week. I drove to and from school, which was 120 miles from my home, in a single day. It was a brutal day — I would work half a day at my day job, leave around 1:30 pm, jump on the road to drive for two hours, attend three hours of classes, and then jump back in the car to drive back. I listened to a whole lot of iPod playlists, let me tell you.

In my life as a PhD fellow, things are totally different. I don’t have a day job anymore — my day job is being a PhD fellow. This means in the morning I pack a lunch for myself (and often breakfast too), pack a thermal mug full of ice that I can refill with filtered water from the Hydration Stations around campus (I can’t stand the taste of Vegas water, but if it’s cold and filtered, I have half a chance), another mug or Nalgene with cold brew iced coffee, and hit the road ideally by 8 am, because campus parking is miserable and the ramps are full by 9. It takes me about 30 minutes to get to school because I have to cross the Las Vegas strip, which typically takes about half of my drive time between the lights and congestion near the strip. I used to drive a different way and sneak through the much less congested part of the strip, but then some asshole shot a bunch of people at a concert and it made me cry every time I drove through that section, so I avoid it now just out of habit.

Once at school, I park and walk to the building that contains all of my offices. Weirdly, I have three offices on campus, all in the same building. I don’t even get it. One is for the literary journal that is part of my job — that is shared with all of the editors, but usually we let the one guy who doesn’t have any other offices keep it as his own. One is in the English department — that one is shared with six grad students and only has three desks. The other office is in the Black Mountain Institute part of the building  — that office is shared with four grad students, but there’s three desks, so I usually get to sit in the same one. I like that one because it’s only creative writing PhDs in there, plus the staff of The Believer in the other offices, so it’s very literary and fancy and calm. Plus there’s a gorgeous library/reading room that has a nice couch and really lovely windows, and sometimes I do my classwork in there.

This multiple offices thing is just one of the “only in academia” elements of my career change that makes me shake my head. All of the PhD fellows in creative writing have multiple offices because we are half funded by the Institute and half funded by the English Department. Now, wouldn’t it make sense to just give people their own offices or cram fewer students in a single office instead of giving them several offices to share? Sure. But then who goes where? Why should one department get the writers when the other one is paying for them? This is the academic problem solving in a nutshell, you guys. It’s awesomely dysfunctional and I fluctuate between loving it and wanting to tear my hair out.

Once I’m ensconced in my shared office, I get to work. If it’s a teaching day, I spend about three hours lesson planning — I make a PPT deck because this is my first semester teaching composition and I don’t have a pre-made deck already created. Then I look for alternate resources that can help the students who need/want more background information or resources and upload all of them to my Blackboard shell. Finally, I build the assignment into Blackboard and then usually spend the rest of that pocket of time grading (because I always have (fucking) grading).

If it’s a class day, I have a lot more freedom. This semester, my classes are a lit course on Jane Austen, a fiction writing workshop and a “how to teach the class” class that all first years are required to take. Many of the first years were literally college seniors last year (my program also has a robust MFA program), so while I have a bunch of teaching experience in the college classroom, most of the other grad students do not, and apparently there’s also a Nevada statute involved that requires this course. That class has a ton of pedagogy work and responses, so I try to get them out of the way as it is my least favorite thing (it’s not bad, per se, I just don’t enjoy it as much as I enjoy everything else). My writing workshop means I need to print out whichever submissions we’re workshopping that day, read them and craft a response. Throughout the semester I have been actually typing a letter to attach to my manuscript annotations, but as of two weeks ago, I broke that habit because I suddenly felt underwater from grading my students’ work and writing responses to them, so I’m trying to get back into doing that, as it’s really nice to get as a workshop submitter. Finally, my Jane Austen class has a whopper of a research component, so I frequently get lost in the stacks with that research.

For each class we take at the graduate level, we anticipate three times that for background work and reading — actual pedal to the metal active thinking time. So I’m taking 10 credit hours a week, that means that I’m anticipating taking another 30 hours a week for my own study/homework time. On top of this, the university anticipates that it takes me 10 hours a week to teach and grade and lesson plan and have office hours. This is bullshit, by the way, I spend way more time than that, especially if you realize that three solid hours of that ten are while I’m actually teaching — I just can’t get everything else done in seven hours. It doesn’t happen. That’s what I end up doing on Saturdays and Sundays — catching up on (fucking) grading. I’ve also learned that I really shouldn’t grade more than five students’ essays in a single sitting because I start getting really cranky and being more strict, so in fairness I try to spread this out and grade one or two essays whenever I have a spare pocket of time. That means I’m essentially always grading.

Usually at some point in the day, one or more of our PhD writing fellows will come into the office and then basically no work gets done because we all genuinely like to talk to each other. And really, this is why we decided that if I were going back to grad school, it would be full time and I’d live wherever it was, because that kind of community is exactly what I never got when I went to UW-Milwaukee and why I have pretty much only two friends from when I went to grad school. Okay, maybe three.

Finally, I need to put ten hours a week against our literary journal. This year I’m the assistant fiction editor and next year I’ll be the actual fiction editor. So right now, all I do is go through and read the work that our first pass readers have suggested would be good fits for the journal, and then I vote on it and say why I do or don’t agree. I also go through all of the things that the first pass readers voted down and look for anything that might have been a good pick but was misunderstood by the first pass reader — most of the time, though, their instincts are really good and I just decline the submissions. For literary journal submitters, by the way, this is why everything takes so long. Journals are underfunded, we’re reading for the next issue while we’re trying to publish the one before it, and we’re also dealing with literally hundreds of really good stories — I literally have over a hundred that have been thumbs upped by the first pass readers right now, but we usually only publish maybe six stories an issue, so it takes some time for everyone to read and vote on a story.

And then (!) the program expects me to put 20 hours a week toward my own creative writing. If you’re doing the math, this is 80 hours of work a week. This is why you need to buy your grad student friends and family some coffee once in awhile. They are exhausted all the time.

But you know what? I’m happier than I’ve ever been with my life and what’s happening. Even though I’m broke as a joke (PhD fellows get a very small stipend, well below poverty level, to subsist upon), every day is awesome. Even the worst day at school is better than the best day at my old terrible job in tech. Plus, I’m freelancing for extra cash, so I get to just keep my tech chops sharp without all of the soul-crushing assclowns who are making the tech industry a panopticon of douchery.

 

Also, my novel. It is a thing that is happening. I don’t hate it anymore. People are excited about the pages I’ve shared with them. My advisor is friends with a bunch of famous people and on a first name basis with people I idolize like John Irving and TC Boyle and he called my novel “Irving-esque, mixed with a touch of Saunders”. And while I want to pshaw his comment, he studied under Irving at Iowa and he literally was also George Saunders’ advisor as well. Insert deadpan look of shock and awe here.

So. That’s what it’s like to be a 46-year-old graduate student. Please don’t tell the other grad students how old I am. They all have decided I’m in my thirties and I don’t want to be the Creed Bratton of this particular office. Quaaar. Quaaa. Quabity? Quabity assurance!

Thanks for visiting That’s My Bix! where the pop culture jokes are all 13 years old. I’m sure they’ll never figure out that I’m in my 40’s, right?

Now I’m off to stick my arm up a turkey’s tuckus. Brine, baby, brine! (Hey, McCain/Palin reference! That will make me sound younger!)

 

 

 

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Melissa wrote:

    Reading this entry took me back to grad school (went twice) and all the tension I felt on every assignment. Like your first take at college / grad school I went to urban schools where we all were working / living at home types so no real camaraderie there. I hated it — every single time — and I’m was a school teacher before I retired. Reading about your week just made me feel overwhelmed and tire. I’m going to go take a nap now and relish my freedom.

    Wednesday, November 22, 2017 at 8:32 pm | Permalink
  2. Marn o'Diaryland wrote:

    You are *such* a zygote. Seriously.

    Kudos on the dream chasing. Not many folks have that kind of courage.

    Thursday, November 23, 2017 at 8:43 pm | Permalink
  3. Sandra wrote:

    This post! I love it for many reasons, not least of which is my husband and I drop that Quabitty Assurance reference on the regular.

    I started reading way back in the Diaryland days, and you’ve always been one of my favorites … Really makes my heart happy to read that you’re happier than you’ve ever been. (Same here, BTW — I’m a writer and editor now and I’m working from home and it is JUST THE BEST.) Can’t wait to read that novel!

    Thursday, November 30, 2017 at 9:46 am | Permalink

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