Returning to the scholar

I’ve been going back over letters, journal entries, and emails that I wrote in the early 90s, when I first started teaching full time, my one and only full time, tenure track job, at SUNY Brockport. There is so much hope in them, so many high expectations, so many naive perceptions about my position there. How little I knew about the forces arrayed against me, how my penchant for speaking my mind would come back to haunt me later. And then, of course, there are the early signs of the illness that would ultimately take it all away.

There are also musings about my dissertation, a great deal of which never made it into the actual work, but still have substance and value. Of course I had to take on such a heavy-duty subject: theories of agency, and how they undergird approaches to studying journalism history. One note records my having been told that one of the papers I presented at AEJMC was all the buzz in the history division, and it was being used in graduate courses. The paper was a chapter from my dissertation, which was still in progress at the time.

And yet, I’ve never published that dissertation. Except online on my own, now deleted website. I figured I’d never go back to it. I just couldn’t wrap my brain around all the work that would be required for that. I felt I’d lost the scholar in me and would never be able to get her back.

But working with others on their dissertations has reminded me of how much I loved this work before, and sent me back to reviewing my own. I’ve also been planning to write about some of my experiences in hopes of helping others — material, at least, for blog posts, and that’s what sent me back to the old notes and letters. I wrote some pretty lively and detailed letters back then, so I have an engaging record of that time. And the brain cells are popping again.

I am beginning to see possibilities again. Maybe I can publish that dissertation.

Memories in the attic

Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear. Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.

William Butler Yeats

Wherever we go, there seems to be only one business at hand — that of finding workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.

— Annie Dillard 

June 18, 2006

Originally posted on my old blog, Random Acts of Love, which is no longer available due to technological changes.

I’ve been cleaning out old stuff — old papers, old clothes, and old files. Managed to network my old PowerMac to my now not-so-new iMac so I could transfer files from the hard drive and from old floppies to make sure I didn’t miss anything. And then, finally, I could clear my desk of that big ol’ thang!

One big deal — I realized that when I transferred files from my old Kaypro 4 (my very first computer, which I bought in 1984 and still have) to DOS and then to the Mac, the footnotes in the old files got stripped out.

Now, there are many things one can reconstruct without TOO much problem. But footnotes, no. Not after all this time. Fortunately, being the pack rat that I am, I have paper copies. Found them in one of the file cabinets in my attic. In drawers I’m not sure I’ve even opened in the six and a half years I’ve been living in this apartment. So while I may never get around to actually re-creating them (hey, I can scan them using an OCR so I don’t have to type them all!), it is helpful to know that I could do it if I wanted to.

It’s true — my attic is absolutely chock full of things I do not need and should have been thrown out a long time ago. But I am so glad I kept these papers, even though I thought that, with all my health issues, I would never return to them.

There are good reasons for not throwing things out. It has been a wonderful experience going through this stuff, reminding myself of where I have been and how far I have come. These are my “history books,” the stories that remind me of who I am and what I have accomplished, as well as the terrible, lonely, awful places I have been.

It’s important to hold onto the memory of those places even as we leave them behind. Because that memory keeps us grounded. We can’t possibly assume that we arrived at a wonderful new place somehow by fiat, and therefore expect other people around us — those who do cannot feel that same joy for themselves — to somehow just wake up to the blooming, buzzing, wonderful world that surrounds them.

Coping with Criticism

I originally wrote this for my students in my Writing for the Mass Media course when I was teaching online for the University of Maryland University College, and then decided to post it on my former weblog, Random Acts of Love, with some revisions and additions. That blog is no longer available thanks to technological changes involving Apple’s move to iCloud. It is very pertinent to the focus of THIS blog, and so here it is. 

Many years ago when I first started graduate school at the University of Iowa (for my Ph.D. — I already had a master’s) I had to come face-to-face with the reality that no matter how wonderful a writer I had been told that I was, I still had a lot to learn. And I will always have a lot to learn!

In the School of Journalism at Iowa, graduate students were required to participate in a “mock convention” where we presented papers to our faculty and fellow students in a manner similar to what was required at professional academic conventions. We had to present one research paper per year (they had just changed it from once per semester when I started — thank goddess!) that required us to go beyond what we had done in our other courses. When we presented our papers, we had “respondents” — one person from the faculty and one graduate student would publicly critique our paper and presentation.

For my first paper I worked so hard I barely saw the light of day. I took an idea that I had from my historical research methods course and did some fairly extensive research that required me to read hundreds of pages of microfilm from the New York Evening Post (which no longer exists), as I was studying the work of Rheta Childe Dorr, who became the first women’s page editor for that paper in 1904. (Dorr became a “muckraking reporter” who has been pretty much ignored by most of the journalism history textbooks.)

I know I worked twice as hard on my paper as my graduate school cohorts had done on theirs. And my advisor for the paper really loved it. So I thought I would be getting all sorts of accolades when it came time for me to present.

Contrary to my expectation, I was devastated when my faculty critiquer began his response by saying “This is a very ambitious paper. Too ambitious…” and from then on he essentially tore my paper to pieces. I was particularly hurt because my advisor said not one word in my defense.

I walked home from our “convention” in tears. That night there was an “after convention” party (as customary). I did not want to show my face there! But I finally pulled together the courage and went. There was no way I was going to let anyone get in my way. I knew that I had to go, no matter how I felt.

The real problem was that everything the professor had said about my paper was absolutely true. And it didn’t matter how hard I had worked on it, or how much more time I had put into it than my fellow students had put into theirs. It didn’t matter that I had wonderful writing talent. The paper was very flawed. It was, as the professor said, “too ambitious.” I had tried to do too much with one paper.

The issue wasn’t about whether or not I deserved an “A” for the paper — I certainly got that. It was about how much I still had to learn. After all, if I already knew everything I needed to know about doing scholarly research and writing for a scholarly audience, what was the point in going to graduate school? Why waste all that time and money if I already knew everything?

It was a hard and very painful lesson to learn. The lesson was this: sometimes your biggest critic can be your best friend.

Well, I showed my face at that party. And I continued to work very hard. And by my second year of graduate school I was presenting papers at professional conferences around the country. That was the whole idea behind our “mock convention” — that it would prepare Iowa SJMC graduate students to become scholars of the highest order.

In 1987, after three years at Iowa, I won my department’s highest graduate student award — for research. But make no mistake about it, even though my department recognized the quality of my work, each time I did a paper I still had lots to learn. And I came to value the criticism other people would offer. Sometimes I would ignore that criticism, because I determined that it came from misunderstanding what I was trying to do, or because it reflected an agenda of theirs that conflicted with my own. Even so, that criticism served to help me figure out how to do better what I had set out to do.

So remember: Sometimes critics can be your best friends. They call you to do and be more than you have ever been before. But while you are taking the criticism to heart, also remember — assuming that you did put in your best effort — that you did the best you could do at the time. And now, thanks to your critics, you can do better.

Matrix Editorial Services

This month I launched Matrix Editorial Services by posting a notice on the Women’s Studies Listserv — the “grand dame” of academic listservs, in which I have been participating since the early ’90s — that I would be taking on freelance academic editing projects. I was quite surprised with the flood of responses — requests that required me to put several people on the “back burner” while I dealt with two doctoral students who wanted to graduate this summer. One ultimately — and wisely — backed off her timeline when she realized how much work she needed to do after receiving my evaluation. The other client and I have already met her deadline for submission of her defense copy to her committee, and the final touches are in progress with time to spare.

I am delighted to be back in this work again, having left it completely around 15 years ago when my health issues got in the way. The past 20 years — since I was first diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 1992 (along with several other concomitant and unrelated conditions) — have been seriously challenging for me. The brain fog that accompanies fibro and the medications often prescribed produced cognitive issues that made it difficult me to sustain intellectual activity, or at least to succeed with complex long-term projects. I had almost given up intellectual work altogether. This past year I worked as a nanny! While I have actually enjoyed that work and the two very charming children I supervised, I have missed the scholar in me.

But thanks to work done with the University of Wisconsin’s Integrative Medicine specialist Dr. David Rakel, I have achieved a level of adaptive success that now gives me confidence that I can make commitments to others and follow through with them in a timely manner. And have already done so.

Currently I have several projects booked through July and August, but I will be taking on new clients in September. I also am planning a trip to California to visit my mother, who is 93 and too frail to travel herself, and somewhere in all of that I must schedule knee replacement surgery.

As readers can see from this blog, this is a very different sort of business website. This is my way of connecting personally with my clients and potential clients. Along the way I will be sharing stories of struggle and survival (and knowing when to quit) in the world of academia, and out of it. I will also be sharing my insights into writing and editing in the academic world.