Sunday, January 10, 2016

Setting the World on Fire: A Medieval Goal in a Modern World

5 years ago, I wrote a post called Everything is New and Shiny and it marked the beginning of Spring Semester 2011, the start of my Boston Marathon training, and the start of my gluten-free diet, having recently been diagnosed with Celiac Disease. I wrote, "Today is a fresh start. New semester, new diet, new training." It was so optimistic, and yet, there was also a lot of follow-through, despite the fact that there were many steep mountains full of challenges.
It really took me at least a year, probably closer to 18 months to really hone in on my diet and learn how live gluten-free. Now, it's nearly a reflex, and while it may take some detective work to find places to eat when traveling, when it's on my terms, I know what to do. It also helps that I've finally learned how to cook and have access to good grocery stores like Trader Joe's that have so many options. The FDA has come a long way in five years in terms of labeling, and the food industry, in part jumping on the bandwagon of gluten-free living as a trendy diet, has learned how to make and prepare many more foods gluten-free. I"m stunned by how much I actually like to eat now, and so instead of the diet limiting what I can eat, because I'm eating things that don't hurt my stomach and ballooned up immediately, I find it so much more enjoyable.
Looking back, the amount of training I did in 2011 to get ready for my PR Marathon in Boston of 3:27:00 was insane. I was rehabbing an IT band injury, and so every morning and night I did 20 minutes of stretches. Three days a week I cross trained twice a day (swimming or rowing in the mornings, and then elliptical and weights at night), and then was running 4 days a week, averaging between 40-50 miles per week. No wonder my time dropped so much! And while I'm not at that level of fitness these days, I do hope I could "get it back" once I finished my dissertation and had some extra time and energy to devote to running beyond maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Things went well with my courses that semester, I think in part because everything I was doing was so regimented - I was training hard, changing my diet, it also made sense to push hard with coursework. I even had two part-time jobs (working in residence life, serving as a Teaching Assistant).  Five years later, what has happened to that work ethic? It's changed, in part because the nature of writing a dissertation is so different from a class schedule. I also was single, and now I have a husband. There were Friday nights when I went to the library, Sundays where I worked at school, and most nights after classes, I was hitting the books. And now, the loneliness is gone, but I must admit, it's also a lot more tempting to just call it a night when my husband comes home from work, rather than push on like I used to.
So, how I go back to that semester, when so many things came together because of such hard work?
Last year, I wrote out a writing contract that I managed to uphold, at least in theory. Looking back, I think I was too regimented, and didn't take into consideration how some writing days can be unpredictable and goals may change mid-day, mid-chapter, etc.
New writing resolutions!

  • Recognizing that prepping for classes and teaching takes time, at least four days a week should be committed to dissertation writing
  • I'm going to have three sets of office hours each week. If students aren't around, this is a good opportunity to get a small, concentrated set of work accomplished. No goofing off.
  • On dissertation writing days, I should aim for between 2-3 writing sessions throughout the day, with at least a clear plan for the first session (allowing for greater flexibility as the day progresses)
  • At least two weekends a month, I should aim to spend a chunk of time (i.e. Sunday evening) planning ahead for the week and completing one writing session.
  • At least one writing session per week needs to be devoted to editing. 

But using that contract as a starting point, some goals to make this a productive semester:
I think those are reasonable, achievable goals. Looking back at what I used as a writing contract last year,what I set out to do was too ambitious, to the extent that it did not feel like I could sustain those goals beyond a few weeks. There is certainly room for flexibility, and if there are days when I can really take off with the writing, I will. But I'm not going to beat myself on days where I only got out a few hundred mediocre words.
New Year's goals should not be so hard that they cannot be achieved. The goals that are attainable are the ones that will help set the world on fire.
And I full recognize that saying a medieval dissertation on the Virgin Mary will set the world on fire may be a bit of a stretch. But some of the medieval saints who I admire so much encouraged everyone to aim to do just that, in whatever way you see your life's mission.
In the past week, once from an e-mail with a distant relative, and once with an exchange with another customer waiting for our cars to get our state inspections, I had two people with little reason to offer encouragement and demonstrate their interest in my project. The relative (my aunt's mother-in-law), wrote "If your aim is to pique ones interests, you have done a magnificent job," and that meant a lot to me. While at times I get really frustrated at my project and/or myself, I need to remember moments like that, or when random faculty (or even people I meet in social settings) ask what I'm writing on, and comment on how interesting it is. I am not finding a cure for cancer, teaching impoverished students, or ministering to those in developing countries. But I do hope that my finished project will cause people to think about Mary differently, the role of women in the Middle Ages, and the power of a woman's voice, both then and now. 
I think it would be easy to fall into the trap that a dissertation on an ancient figure, mediated through medieval Christian texts, is antiquated and has nothing to offer for our own world today. Yet, by dismissing the project as irrelevant, that brushes aside that the voices of women, all women, both the exalted and unprotected, are often silenced, or when given permission to speak, those words fade into a distant echo without the resonance they deserve.

            Mary’s voice, when illuminated from the medieval sources, should resonate in our world today. Mary was seen as a champion, as an advocate, and with a glass ceiling that continues to loom over women today, we still need a voice as an advocate. While occupying a status that is unequivocally impossible to imitate as a virgin mother, Mary still occupied (albeit briefly) the roles of a daughter, single woman, wife, and mother – positions still relevant in our own world. Mary lived in a patriarchal society, and in the medieval sources that wrote about her, continued to face limitations and scrutiny in the eyes of the male clergy. Yet, her ability to rise and remain one of the most influential women in Western history should remind us of ways that Mary can and should occupy a place in our society today.
I think her message, as well as that of St. Catherine of Siena (who exemplified political boldness to "speak truth to power" by working with the pope and other powerful members of the clergy to bring the papacy back to Rome) is still relevant and inspirational today.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Doctoral Student's Favorite Question

To be innocently asked at holiday parties, social gatherings, random interactions with old acquaintances, generally at a moment of the doctoral student's height of self-doubt, worry, and fear.

So, when do you think you'll finish?

It's a question that's hard for many reasons. First of all, a doctoral program is not like a law degree, MBA, or medical degree, spaced out and designed to be finished at a precise time.

The question does not always factor into other responsibilities, such as a job, teaching, family responsibilities.

The question does not always take into consideration department changes, such as faculty on sabbatical, developments in the material, changes in funding, etc.

On the surface, it looks like an easy question, to be answered quickly and precisely. But no.

It's a question that we've had to prepare and revise often, as the project has developed. Our original defense date may have been pushed back by an advisor's recommendation, our own delays, unrealistic goals, or a set of other circumstances. It's a question that we often fear that when we answer, we will have disappointed or let down the person who asked it, showing that we were unable to meet our original deadline. It is our least favorite question, because our response is carefully crafted to hide any fear of failure or feeling like an imposter (just one article of many on Imposter Syndrome in grad school:
Feeling not smart enough to successfully write a dissertation looks like this

I read an article on Inside Higher Ed before the New Year that was a response to a concerned parent (also an academic) whose child who like her, became a professor, but had yet to get her book published.
I’m writing because she will be visiting us for the holidays, and I don’t know what to do. I wish I could finish the book for her, but I can’t. I’m not even sure if I should ask the dreaded question: “How’s the book coming along?”
A Professor's Parent
The author, Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity, came up with an excellent response ( and I think her main points can be applied to the support network of graduate students. We all need our squads, but I think sometimes our loved ones don't know what to do say or do, for fear of hitting the wrong nerve. I'm including a few relevant sections, with my own comments in italics. 

Create the Space for Real Conversation
If you decide you want to have a meaningful and supportive conversation about your loved one’s progress on her book, ask about it in an appropriate setting where you can have a private conversation and when there’s enough time to have a meaningful exchange. In other words,
  • Do not ask the dreaded question in the first 10 minutes of her arriving at your house.
  • Do not ask the dreaded question as casual conversational banter over the snack table (“Did you get a haircut?” “How’s the book coming along?” “Wow, your cheese dip is yummy. Can I get the recipe?”).
  • Do not -- under any circumstances -- ask the dreaded question in front of a crowd of others (at the holiday dinner table, in the middle of a football game on TV or during a gift exchange).
All of these examples send the implicit message that the answer is one sentence and that you’re not interested in listening to what’s really going on in a writer’s life. You want the opposite: a quiet, private space where you can have a supportive conversation. Amen. Part of the reason it's not an easy question to answer is that we want to discuss with you the various components that we've been working on within the dissertation, and how they impact our defense date.
Ask Permission
This may be hard. But if you want to have a meaningful conversation with someone you love about her progress on a book manuscript, you need to ask if she wants to have that conversation with you. That means being open to the range of possible responses: she may be relieved to discuss it with you, she may be hesitant and/or she may be completely uninterested. You can simply say: “I love you, and I’m genuinely curious about your book project. I also know how hard it is to talk about a book project when you’re in the midst of it. So I’m wondering if we can have a supportive conversation.” Then stop talking.
If she says anything resembling “No,” “Back off,” “The best support would be to stop asking me about it” or “I really don’t want to talk about it,” that’s OK. It’s her choice as to whether she trusts you, wants to confide in you on this topic and wants to talk about it in that particular moment. If you are rebuffed, all you need to do is let her know you’re there for her if/when she wants to talk. That can be as simple as saying, “OK, I respect that and want you to know you can talk to me if you ever need to. I’m here to support you in any way I can.” Yes! I am generally not one to say "back off," but the thing to take away from this is that the questioner is ready to offer support no matter what the response.
Listen and Reflect
If she wants to continue the conversation, encourage her to share how she’s feeling, what she’s experiencing and how she’s thinking about the project. Your job is to listen. By that I mean literally listen (i.e., don’t talk over her, interrupt her or give her unsolicited advice). But also try to listen deeply by staying open, being curious, asking questions and remaining entirely focused on her.
The reason listening is so important is that writers who are stuck in a project tend to self-isolate, and it may be the case that, up until now, the only conversation she’s having about the book is in her own mind. So her thoughts and feelings may come out messy and disjointed and/or sound irrational. But in that moment, writers just need to be seen, heard and understood. That means your primary job and greatest gift in that moment is to listen. If it feels as if you need to say anything, try reflecting what she’s entrusted you with. (“What I hear you saying is ….”) Or ask the kind of questions that encourage further sharing: “What is that like for you?” or “How is that impacting you?” I really like this point because it addresses the issue of self-isolation. Most days, I am completely in my own head about my writing and don't get an opportunity to discuss it with others until my husband comes home, or my mom gets off from work. So I certainly appreciate and welcome opportunities for real discussion, and to get a sounding board outside of my head.
Offer Support
At a certain point in the conversation, you will be able to sense that the writer has fully described where she is the writing process, the challenges she is facing and where she may be stuck. At that point, offer your support by asking directly, “How can I best support you now?” Because you’ve been listening closely, you’ll have several ideas in mind. But it’s important to ask her first because she may need a very specific form of support.
Alternatively, she may be so stressed out that she doesn’t know what she needs. If that’s the case, then you can suggest several concrete forms of support. The most common types of support I see offered are: 1) household assistance (child care, cleaning service, help with errands, food delivery, etc.), 2) task support related to manuscript completion (editing, proofreading, formatting, etc.) and 3) social support (someone to call, a listening ear, a hug, etc.). We all can use help. I know I can keep my house in order, but as I get closer to finishing, I'll want someone to look at my work. I can always appreciate social support, because I definitely benefit from my loved ones.
I hope that these suggestions will help you move from asking the dreaded question to having a truly supportive conversation. And for all the  writers out there who are already anticipating the dreaded question over the holidays, I hope these ideas help you to recognize that many family and friends truly want to support you and are often just looking for the best way to do so.
Okay, and a little love from Ryan Gosling doesn't hurt either.
But seriously. Do I have an answer right now? Not a precise one. It is my hope to defend by the end of 2016, which would mean earning my degree at age 30. If I can get into a good rhythm and get into a good submission and revision routine with my advisor, it is a possibility. The university gives me a deadline of end of Spring 2017, so most likely I will be finishing either slightly early or right on time. It's not something that can just be cranked out, and if I could just use sheer determination and will power, I would. But it's neither a simple nor straightforward process.
All of this is to say, I don't always have an answer at the ready. I know what I need to do to make it to the finish line - I just can't precisely predict my finish time in the great marathon project of my life.
But when the question comes from a place of genuine love and concern, I'll always be glad to give an answer, even if it's vague or full of feelings and worries. And even happier when I can answer with a set defense date.
Will make this dream a reality someday!And there will be many people to thank who I know will help get me to the finish line.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Looking back to 2015 and looking forward to 2016

This feels a bit like the old-school e-mail surveys that my middle school friends and I used to send to each other on our dial-up AOL accounts. I’ve cut some of them out, but the full list is here:
1. What did you do this year that you’re proud of?
Organized a two-day conference centered around my dissertation, Wrote over 100 pages including a successful first chapter, learned how to cook better
2. Who did you meet this year that inspired you?
The best medieval historian in my field (Miri Rubin), Pope Francis 
3. What are songs that you will always hear and think of this year even when you’re listening on some contraption that hasn’t even been invented yet?
Uptown Funk, Shut Up and Dance With Me
4. What is your favorite photo from this year? - Can't pick just 1!
Out with my parents and husband for my 29th birthday
Me with my best friend and her daughter after we put up their tree
From my brother's wedding in November!
5. What are five things you want to say to people you love?
         1. I love you.
         2. I’m sorry when I’ve wronged you.
         3. Thank you for supporting me unconditionally.
         4. Please let me know how I can support you.
         5. I can't imagine life with you.
6. What are some places where you feel true joy in your life?
Running around Georgetown, Rock Creek Park
Beautiful day on the Waterfront with my best four-legged friend

7.. What were your favorite meals?

Finally figured out a good steak marinade and learned how to grill outside
I really stepped things up in terms of cooking in 2015. I learned how to master a bunch of dishes, pastas, how to make a good steak, a few side dishes, and desserts. While the process can be challenging, it is also a lot of fun to conquer a new dish and figure out how to make something delicious. Top 2 dishes of the year: marinated pork tenderloin and twice-baked potatoes, which I then made for my parents and grandparents (who then called my other relatives to tell them about it). 

Bridal Party Squad - still my best girlfriends
8. Who are people that you believe are bringing out the best in you?
Taylor Swift isn't the only with #Squad Goals
Dissertation Squad (aka my mom and aunts)

Also, my dad, brother, and husband, but their squad pictures just don't quite hold up.
9. What are five things that you were hard on yourself about but would never have been hard on a friend if they were experiencing it?
      1. Ability to write fast and well
      2. Keeping our apartment clean
      3. Maintaining a good exercise regiment
      4. Keeping in touch with people
       5. Eating well
10. What things have you been putting off doing because you didn’t have time?
1.     1. Blogging! I hope to get back into this writing habit more consistently. I used to love it so much, and as I got swallowed up by my grad program (and in love!), the blogging fell to the wayside.
  2. Racing more. I did manage to do 5 races in 2015, and made over $350 in prize money. I tried 5 new races, instead of going to my old standbys, and I'd like to do more of that this year.
  3. Do yoga regularly. As I mentioned in my last post, I was able to take a few yoga classes at the end of the year and really enjoyed it. I think it will help me keep my head in check if I do it regularly. 
11. What are your biggest hopes for 2016?
      1. I hope my class on the Crusades goes well
      2. I hope to get a substantial amount of writing done, and set a dissertation defense date
      3. I would like learn how to make more recipes
      4. I hope to find more balance in my life and manage my stress better

Happy New Year! Out to celebrate!