Friday, November 30, 2007

Grad School, AGAIN?

This fall, my friend Z. went on one of those alumni association tours of China. Just her, her mom, and a bus full of strangers she might not ever have spoken to otherwise. One night, she reported, on the way to dinner—in China—another tourist asked what they'd be eating and, when told about the Chinese restaurant where they'd be dining, responded with, "Chinese AGAIN?"

I laugh about this story fairly regularly. Partially because it is, as far as I'm concerned, the ultimate in clueless American tourist stories. It just captures the cliché so perfectly that it cracks me up. But I also love it with a sort of sympathy, an understanding of just how often our expectations are not met because we have failed so utterly to look around and take in just exactly where we are. So often, we wait for change without understanding our part in it. If we'd like to not eat Chinese food, it might be best to find a tour in Italy.

I sometimes think grad school is like being on a tour bus in China and expecting pasta carbonara for dinner. I chose to be here. I know exactly what work needs to be done in order to leave. And yet I am continually surprised how many of the dilemmas and challenges stay the same and how much of the work is never finished. I am continually surprised that I'm still trying to understand some fairly basic questions about my work, still trying to acquire skills to make it possible to write my chapters, still trying to negotiate academic relationships and get myself on a schedule and maintain some sense of dignity while turning in drivel that, while different drivel, feels just as bad as the drivel I turned in five years ago. I occasionally look around and think, "my god, how am I still doing this?" It starts to feel like a ride on the tour bus from hell with the same meal on my plate and a distinct craving for solid ground and something completely new and untried for dinner.

This is frustrating. Progress is so incremental that it feels like the bus isn't moving at all. It feels like an end is not only out of sight, it doesn't exist. Further, the frustration is increased by knowing that, ultimately, I'm driving. I can get off at any time. I could drive faster if I weren't so distracted by the landscape. But sometimes I feel like I don't know how. Or like I've gotten a flat tire and I'm stuck on the side of the road and I just can't be bothered to get out and change it.

And yet, somehow—somehow—things always seem to pop up that are surprising. Somehow, just when I think that things will always be the same, that I should accept them as they are, something shifts. It's actually a little painful, this reminder that you were sitting so still for so long, and now your joints ache when you finally move. I've had a truly superb week. A week in which the universe seems intent on reminding me how much can change when you're not looking. On Thursday, I woke up with $2.11 in my bank account and 48 hours until payday and no food in the fridge and at 11 am an unexpected check for nearly a thousand dollars showed up in my mailbox. And it wasn't even a mistake, a metaphor, or the only thing that's gone on since Thanksgiving. Things have shifted on all sorts of levels, and my heart is pounding a little as I try to keep up. I've gone into that Chinese restaurant and discovered that they make a mean carbonara. But I might just want the sesame chicken again, after all.

Photo by Richard Moross.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Lecture Coaster

I've been trying, for a while now, to write a post about the experience of lecturing my own class. I've realized that I'm having a hard time because, for as much brain power as it might take to write a lecture, the actual experience of giving the lecture is wholly physical for me. It comes from gut and spirit and something not altogether of this world. When I lecture, the world shrinks away, and I'm left standing in a classroom on an island, trying to keep my students afloat with just the right combination of words.

The hours before I teach feel like the slow ascent of a roller coaster to the apex of its scariest hill. I'm not afraid or even nervous any longer, but I do feel it approach the way you feel a roller coaster car click-click-click its way to the top. Once class starts, it's all hold on and ride it out to the bottom. I don't write my lectures ahead of time. Instead, I use my power point presentation as my lecture notes and move from slide to slide, trying to weave together themes and incorporate class discussion on a frantic march toward the last slide of the day, the one that presents conclusions that damn well better make sense after 75 minutes. I ask my students a lot of questions, but I talk a fair amount, as well. I feel like we work together to get to that last slide, and when we arrive I'm always pleased and surprised that we got there at all. I move around a lot while I lecture. I pace back and forth, talk with my hands (expansively), point at the projector screen to emphasize my points. Today, I realized I'd walked closer and closer to a student as she talked because the point she was making was exciting. Sometimes I sit on top of a table in the middle of the room while I listen to students answer questions and talk to one another. And all the time, my eyes are roving, looking for hands that are up, people who aren't paying attention (if you go stand by them, they put the newspaper away), parts of the room that seem less engaged. And all the time my brain is flying back and forth like hands on a keyboard, trying to make sure that I am hearing my students, making the right points, keeping in mind where the class needs to go next, where we've been, where we'll be in three weeks.

I'm good at this. I'm good at this the way some people are good at playing soccer or tennis, which is to say that it's a physical ability as much as anything else. I spend the hours before the lecture cramming things in to my brain, like a toy on a spring, and then release it. I ride it out with very little contemplation of what to say next. It's all a roller coaster, and once you head down there's no backing up. At that point it's not about what I know. It's not about how well I've planned or how I carefully process what happens from moment to moment. It's just all about doing. Gogogogo. It's happening. It's there and then it's gone and you know what? It feels good.

It's the physical rush I find surprising. I'm shocked by the adrenaline high each time. I'm shocked people don't chase it, crave it, beg for it like junkies. And I'm shocked, as the high and the rush recedes, how absolutely decimated I feel. I'm pounded down, worn out, worked over tonight. Class was hard work. But oh, god, I loved it.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Food Fantasies

I am pretending, for the moment, that I do not have a million papers to grade, a lecture to write (on a book I haven't read) and a dissertation to research. I am pretending, just for a moment, that I haven't been horribly neglectful of this blog and my small and much-loved handful of readers and that I don't have a half dozen half-drafted blog posts on other subjects waiting for completion. I indulge, momentarily, in this fantasy in order to share with you my latest web obsession: It's like a compendium of all the best posts about food, restaurants, and recipes on the web. It's gorgeous and delicious and addictive.

I do love recipe blogs and food porn. I spend a fair amount of time baking and cooking and planning to bake and cook. I have a long-nurtured love of reading menus, and can follow a link to a restaurant website right down the rabbit hole into a world where I'm choosing appetizers and googling ingredients and trying to develop recipes for the things that look like they would be just perfect if only I swapped out this ingredient (usually olives) for something else. Thus, is like the best thing I've ever seen.

It's also possibly the worst thing that could happen to my career as a graduate student. At tastespotting. com, anyone who is registered can add pictures and links to the food-centered things they find inspiring. (The gorgeous picture of the espresso caramels (that's right, I said espresso caramels) up top, from Culinary in the Country was linked to there.) As a result, it's updated practically minute by minute. Ok, maybe not that often. Maybe more like hour by hour. In other words: there is new material all. the. time. It's fantastic. It's new things to read and links to follow and foods to crave every minute. Much, much better than grading these papers. Much, much better.

So in a year or two when I'm made absolutely no progress on my dissertation, and I'm in here moaning and bitching and asking "What happened?" I'd like you all to comment, one after another, "" Because this cannot end well.