Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Writing in the Year of Comprehensive Exams
I am bad at time management. I'm not as bad as I used to be (and for those who know me and are good at it, there's your shot of horror for the day) but I'm still like an old car with a sticky transmission -- it goes, but never smoothly. That said, this year I am forced to get my shit together as never before -- because in October, I take my qualifying exams.
Now, for those not initiated into the funhouse that is grad school, qualifying exams are the exams you take to prove you know enough about your speciality to be something of a subject expert -- certainly enough to teach it. Unlike comprehensive exams, which demand that you know everything about everything in your field, qualifying exams only demand that you know most things about the areas you're in which you are specializing. You set the reading list, you do all the research, and you answer the questions you find compelling -- well, and that your committee also finds compelling. You're proving your ability to do quality research and know your shit sufficiently to teach it to someone else. And those are in October for me.
I also have coursework (but only one class), so that's a drain on my time. I also have teaching, which I love but requires prep and time. I also have freelance work, some of which I agreed to last year, to supplement my income. I also have my family, and my kids, and my husband, and his family, and our friends -- all of which are necessary to keep me sane and able to focus. This is, putting it mildly, a lot of things to focus on. I'm also trying to start going back to the gym regularly, and barring the weather I've been doing okay at it. There's room for improvement, but that's yet another scheduling thing I'm trying to incorporate -- and that's even more necessary, because the process for prepping for exams is spectacularly sedentary, and I'm trying to keep body and soul together and lose weight, not gain it.
Now, as might be apparent... that's a lot of stuff to juggle. At the very least, that's a lot of stuff to juggle for me. And I'm bad at juggling. Things get dropped. I have Matt to help me, but that's a help, not a fix. He can't catch things for me, he can just remind me when something headed towards me. This means that I'm having to try to police my boundaries carefully about what I sign on for, what I can fit in, and that's... hard. I hear this from other grad students, btw, about having to make sure to be selfish because otherwise the work just doesn't get done. But it's hard. There's selfish and then there's not making enough money. There's selfish and then there's not spending time with the people who recharge me. There's selfish and then there's not getting my commitments met. I'm having to say no to things I don't want to say no to, and I'm having to say it now rather than later... and that really, really sucks. Not as much as saying it later, but more than saying yes -- yes is easy. No is the one that's hard.
I can get up every day and write something, but writing the thing that doesn't pay me, that is necessary for my career but not for the short-term in my bank account -- that's horrifying. It is the fear of the broke writer, that paralyzing focus on the short term project, the one with dollars attached to it. And when you have loved ones who need the money too? How can you make any other choice? And yet here I am, making that choice, and it fills me with anxiety.
If I'm slow to answer -- if I seem to hermit -- if I say no when you expect a yes -- please know it's me, not you. I can't afford to say no, not really, but I also can't afford to fuck up everything I've worked so hard for by not prioritizing it. I can't afford to let the long-term goal pass me by in favor of the short-term catch. I have a really big ball up in the air along with all the smaller ones, and if I don't track its progress -- if I let myself forget that it's up there -- then I'm completely screwed when it lands on my head and explodes. So be patient and bear with me while I write a word at a time that no one but me will see. It's the way of things.