I've been lugging The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader around the last few weeks, and it's amazing. I've also been reading the Oxford Classics collection of her short stories, but all the best ones are in the Reader.
I already rambled a bit about discovering Gilman (here) , but seriously I have a lot of feelings on the topic. I like to think we pick up the things we do when it's right time for us to do so, but I am a bit sad that I didn't discover Gilman sooner. That being said, this /is/ the right time for me. I want to use her writing in my MA work, and this is also the time for me to start thinking of putting PhD proposals together. So, meant to be? Maybe.
In any case, Gilman's fantastic. I've also been reading her Women and Economics and, though it's quite racist, it's an interesting look into her (obviously very first wave) feminism. She applies a lot of it to her short stories (thankfully, without references to "savages" on every other page) and I feel it comes across more strongly in her fiction. Her theory hasn't aged well, but her fiction has. I mean one short story I read had a woman who marries late because she got a PhD and spent time in academia (in 1911!), another had a woman who runs away from home to become a doctor. Most of them have women helping women and setting up lives without men. It's all inspiring and forward for the era, and I absolutely love reading them. Mostly, I love feeling really excited over literature again!
Here's to hoping the rest of the short stories in the Oxford collection that I haven't read yet prove to be as great!
I have a little confession to make. I hate working in libraries. I keep thinking I never work at the library because I need my coffee and am more comfortable either at my home desk or my work desk or at a coffee shop... and while that's partly it, it isn't all. Every time I *do* go to the library, it ends badly.
I committed to a study afternoon with Rory yesterday and when she suggested we go to the Art and Architecture library, I agreed. It's the prettiest library in town, has huge tables, and is rarely packed. But then we got there and sat down to work and I couldn't do it. Granted, yesterday was January 20, so I was already raging on the inside for obvious political reasons, but all the feelings of unease I tend to feel at libraries descended upon me at the same time. It's just so quiet in libraries that I can't cope. I love quiet, but I hate unnatural, imposed silence. It makes me hyper aware of every single thing not only around me but that I do myself... and as a result, my brain can't actually focus on anything else. It's a lot like sensory overload... but out of silence instead of excess noise or light. Thank you, anxiety, for messing things up in every direction.
So I left the library after an hour yesterday, and I don't think I'll be back anytime soon. Still though, it made me think... how common is this amongst academics? We're supposed to love libraries (and I do! I love everything about them until I need to sit down and be productive in them) and live at the library and all that jazz, but we're also a hyper-anxious group of people! I got a message almost as soon as I posted a few of these thoughts on tumblr yesterday, expressing the same feelings, and so I've decided to post this here, too.
Who else feels the same?
Back from Paris and now from Neuchâtel, this week's been all about reading. In A's office, at a coffee shop/breakfast diner in Lausanne, in A's family's living room, in my office, at my desk...
I picked up Zadie Smith's latest novel, Swing Time, right before getting on the train to Paris and I've slowly been making my way through it for the past ten days. I'd say I don't want to put it down, but I also want to read it in small bits so as to appreciate it as much as possible. Anchored in honest realism, it's as enlightening as it is enchanting. I still have a bit less than two hundred pages to go, but I already don't want it to end.
Otherwise, it's been back to Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales for me. I've decided to work on The Wife of Bath for my upcoming oral exam (my last ever exam if things go well!), so I've been making my way through all the criticism I've picked out. I've done a lot of medieval literature over my grad school years, but this is the first time I'm not taking the medievalism from a text and running towards the modern... so I have to admit that I'm somewhat terrified.
We'll see how things go...
The first week of the year so far has mostly consisted of me sitting in a favorite coffee shop and facing my fears. I've been struggling with essay writing the last year –– a result of (emotionally) dealing with feedback to my first mediocre essay. My burnout's hardly been a secret, and my Sylvia Plath essay tailspin hardly has either. I managed to push through it when working on my co-written article with Amy over the summer/autumn, but I feel like much of the ease I felt there had to do with finding myself in a safe environment. I was writing about something I found truly fascinating /and/ writing with someone I liked sharing my ideas with who I also knew would meet them with respect.
I felt a bit of that writing this week, too. I picked a topic I found very interesting but hadn't gone into before but was still in a time period I was comfortable working with –– the 19th century. It was an interesting experience. I slowly did my readings for it in December, calmly taking note of things I wanted to use... and then I sat down and wrote this week. It was reassuring to write and realize that I'm well-versed and knowledgeable when it comes not only to 19th century literature, but to the social and cultural events and behaviors of the time. I was finding myself applying pages of previous knowledge to analysis at a time, and that was almost mind-boggling. What do you mean I know things? What do you mean this is usable and valid? So often with academia, we're throwing ourselves into the unknown and engaging with difficult material that we can forget that we do already know a lot. And so often with Imposter Syndrome, we think the things we already know don't really count. But they really do.
Awakened knowledge aside, I went about writing a bit differently this time, not producing an outline (something I /always/ tell my students to do) and just writing as things came to mind. I didn't even write chronologically, editing instead as I re-read and adding to and moving things around. It felt a bit disorganized, but that disorganization was the only thing I really stressed about. The writing came naturally, and while I don't know if my paper came out okay, I do at least know that I'm not afraid to write anymore.
If anything, I realized how much I missed writing argumentatively. It's something I used to enjoy immensely, that gave me a rush, and made me feel like I was on top of the world... and I began to feel that again. Here's to hoping that's something that fully comes back as I take on my thesis!
I did a thing that always makes me feel guilty and dropped a class today. Usually, I love following as many as I can handle because there are so many interesting things to learn about. Sometimes, though, too much is too much, and the thing with grad school is that less is more and you need to know how to strategize. I'm planning on writing my new thesis in the spring, and to do that, I need to do my research /now/. And that means /not/ filling all of my time with classes, especially since I've validated most of my modules and don't need that many credits.
So I dropped a class.
And I refuse to feel bad. It was on Indigenous Feminisms and women's poetry and the reading was fascinating and I was already learning a lot. But it wasn't feasible and it made me deal with the fact that though the topic was important and the critical reading was engaging, I actually hate dissecting poetry. Poetry is wonderful to read and discuss, but start picking it apart into metrical feet and set genres and it becomes too scientific. I know it's an art form, but I find tend to find that actually thinking about its technical aspects kills it.
But then, sometimes looking at how a poem /doesn't/ follow set structure or genre gives it so, so, so much more meaning. One of the essays I read yesterday, Elizabeth Archuleta's "'I Give You Back': Indigenous Women Writing to Survive", was discussing the ways in which the English language is seen as the "enemy" to Indigenous peoples, and Archuleta argued that adopting the language and spinning it in new ways was a way to master it and "write to survive." It was a beautiful point and made so much sense as I was looking at a set of poems later on (Paula Gunn Allen's "The One Who Skins Cats," Christos's "White Girl Don't," and Cheryl Savage's "graduate school first semester"). But then I looked at our preparation sheet, asking us to identify meter (none), genre (none), rhyme schemes (none), and I looked at the poems again, and I didn't want to give them meaning through the way they /weren't/ following Western poetic rules. Because doesn't giving them meaning through such means – even if that meaning has beauty and strength – still define them by what they supposedly lack rather than what they have?
So I'm not going to let myself feel bad for dropping the class. I've learned from it, and I've opened the door to a new field of literature that I can pursue on my own, in my own way, with the time that it deserves. I've also prioritized my own writing. It's strategically for the best, and it'll keep me from thinking of meter for another few months.
It's been no small secret that I've been struggling with burn out over the past few months... and I keep coming back to it. The past year of academia has overall been less than ideal, what with overwhelming pressure, growing indifference and then dislike of my thesis project, disenchantment, burn out, and so on. I took months off over the summer and regained my mental strength and relearned to love reading again, and as a result, I've been cautiously excited about going back this month.
Even so, I cried the night before my first class of the semester and I went quite half-heartedly the next day. But then I engaged in class and something started to click back into place as I started to enjoy myself. The same thing happened with the following two classes, even as higher loads of anxiety and embarrassment mixed in (I managed to accidentally activate voice control and start playing music on my phone for all of two seconds in the middle of a guest lecture by a visiting professor and I promptly decided I was going to need to drop out of grad school from the shame). I enjoyed class discussions and I enjoyed all of my readings. I felt the drive I thought I'd lost for good, and I'm now even more – if still quite cautiously – looking forward to see how the rest of the semester goes.
The return of motivational feelings is important – I know people like to argue that motivation is worthless compared to discipline, but as someone who functions through feeling, I have to say that motivation plays a huge role in keeping me in a positive state of mind, and I'd much rather couple that with discipline than do without. More importantly though, I know going in this time that even if I want to succeed and achieve my goals, that they are not the most important things. My health is. My health needs to come first, and then my personal life, and then my work.
I've had that in reverse order through my teens and early adult years, and while that worked fine, it collapsed. And then burned. I spent a decade battling depression, anxiety, and at points, eating disorders, and I thought it was all normal. I thought they were things I had to deal with if I wanted to be an exemplary, successful, driven woman. Having extensively studied eating disorders from a psychological, feminist point of view in the past year, I've sadly learned that those things do often go hand in hand, manifesting as a sort of control... and of internalized misogyny. Indeed, I thought pausing for health was weak and I thought prioritizing feelings or my personal life was just giving in to female weakness – and yeah, let's face it, for all my feminist drives, I probably internalized those toxic "must not give in to *stereotypical* female things because that is undermining the cause" nonsense that is 100% internalized misogyny.
Mind over matter, always – right?
I grew up with strong female role models and I thought career, career, career and constantly powering through were absolutely the only things that could matter. But no. I've been driven and I've been strong and I've been depressed and empty and an anxious mess, and those things were absolutely not sustainable. I took a break and re-prioritized, and I now feel healthier and more stable than I have in a decade and happier than I was since I was maybe 9 or 10 years old. So if prioritizing my mental health and my feelings and my personal life makes me sound weak or naive as a *stereotypical woman*, then so be it, because I know that in the long run, they're the things that are going to let me keep going forward, and they're the things that will make me strong.
I'm sharing this now not to preach or present a nice and shiny façade to my life but because I don't feel it's anything to hide. I want others to know that it's okay to feel and to just be. Academia is a tough field, from the very early years to later on, and I'm sick of it seeming like there's only one way to go into or deal with it and that one way means devoting every single waking (and often sleeping) moment of your life to it, often at the expense of your mental health. Balance is so important and yet so often ignored, and I'm going to do everything to make sure that it's something I constantly strive for this academic year.
Earlier this summer, my friend Amy and I took on a sort of experiment: we decided to co-write and co-present a paper together at the 5th Biennial SAMEMES conference on "Text-Image Relationships in Medieval and Modern Arthuriana." You see, Amy's a (proper) medievalist, I like to play with medievalisms, and we both have lots of ideas about things that happen on the internet (tumblr, gifsets, and general fan culture), so we thought: why not collaborate and see what happens? At the least, we thought we'd have fun and get to pursue something neither of us gets to do much with and ideally, we'd get a good conference talk and paper out of it.
In a way, I'm surprised I agreed to collaborate almost instantly. I hate, hate, hated group work in school. It was always a weak point in my primary school report cards, and that deep dislike has carried over through secondary, university, and even grad work. I still internally groan when professors tell us to chat with our neighbors in class (though that has admittedly gotten to be much better in grad school).
Yet, agreeing to work with Amy was a hesitation-free act. Amy and I bonded over our mutual interest in academia /and/ fandom culture when we first met, and I love talking to her about all the things we decided to present on. Amy's one of those people who is so genuinely enthusiastic about the things she cares about that you can't help but let out your own enthusiasm, too. Attempting to appear calm and collected is absolutely pointless, and honestly, befriending Amy has personally done wonders for my social happiness and self-confidence. What is the point of hiding the things that interest you? Of pretending you're not bursting to talk about some random phenomenon you've observed on the interwebs? Or what else have you?
Amy did a great job of talking about this in her own blog post, but collaborating was an overall great project. It was, as she put it, quite like talking to each other in Google doc. She explained some things to me through paragraphs, I responded through more, and then we filled in the blanks and edited as needed. Cowriting was a great exercise, and I'm glad I got to do it with a friend because there was little to zero guilt involved and shockingly few imposter syndrome-induced "oh my god this is utter crap" meltdowns. If Amy thought it was good material, then it was good material. I got to write in a safe environment, finally understood that deleting material is a necessary act and not a sign that you've written something bad, and overall, it was the perfect way for me to get back into the academic swing of things after my several month long break.
Co-presenting was similarly pain-free. I did get quite frustrated at the conference, worrying that my inability to follow some of the talks was a sign that I wasn't suited to the academic world anymore. Thankfully though, Amy, A, and Rory were all there to knock some sense into me and remind me that it was because I was literally attending a conference well-outside my area of specialization. I did genuinely enjoy half the talks I went to, and the few that I wasn't able to follow were just opportunities to learn. Once those little crises had past, all went smoothly. Amy was battling a rude cold that had her dealing with vertigo during our presentation itself, but we still managed to carry on rather smoothly.
I was honestly expecting to be met with blank or highly skeptical stares during our presentation – after all, we were talking about fandom gifsets to a room full of academics who did not necessarily know what gifsets were – but our audience was receptive, and our material actually flowed rather smoothly with the rest of our panel's.
I don't know what actually writing up our talk and turning it into an article is going to be like, but I'm thankful for the way things have gone so far and for the learning opportunities collaborating has given me. I've learned a lot, realized academic production doesn't define your entire self worth, and I've had lots of fun. Who knows, I might even change my views on group work after this!
Academic Olivia is back! I've had a few moments in the last few weeks where I've had the stray "I miss writing essays?" thought or where I've reached for a highlighter or post-it while reading, but I didn't really feel the need to act on them until today.
I'm presenting at (my first ever) conference with a friend next month, and while we have most of what we need mapped out, I decided it was time I start doing extra readings. So I printed out Laura Mulvey's now-classic "Visual Pleasure and Narrative cinema" this morning and headed to the coffee shop for a study session. The article was only eighteen pages long and didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know, but it was still a good read. It's fascinating how things like "the male gaze" start out as groundbreaking claims when they're first conceptualized and then become part of our collective intelligence, isn't it? Who now doesn't know all about and criticize (at least in our circles) the way in which women are objectified in popular media to satisfy the male gaze? I do love reading articles that confirm things we already know though because yay citations. Plus, the article had the bonus of rewaking my anger towards 1980s psychoanalytical theory. All around win!
(If you're interested in reading the article, you can access it here.)
The most important thing I've been doing to get past my literary burn out (which yes is a serious problem in my field) over the past few months has been reading whatever I want to read, whether it's academic, useful, or not. This means I've been rediscovering lost classics like Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Making of a Marchioness, dipping back into social satire, and picking up random academic publications like Jane Austen's Erotic Advice (which, almost disappointingly, is not what it seems). There hasn't really been much to tie my reading material together beyond the usual fact that most of what I read is either written by or about women, but that doesn't really change much from what I normally read anyway.
Reading what I want to read has also led to my changing how I read. I'm still coming up with ideas here and there – I've decided for instance that I want to try to work The Making of a Marchioness into my new thesis projects – but I'm letting myself read for pleasure. For years, I've attacked just about every text with my case full of highlighters and handy post-it booklet, ready to annotate every page and turn the edges of the book into a colorful paper flag collage. The approach has helped me with my academic texts – endlessly, but it's also killed my ability to read for fun. And what really is the point of going into academia to pursue your passion if you've killed it along the way?
Because that is essentially what I did. Making it into academia means that you need to fine tune your reading skills and be ready to attack anything, yes, but actually successfully making it with your sanity in tact also means that you need to be able to draw an (even if admittedly fine) line between work and pleasure. I took that line and eviscerated it. I decided to take my fun reads (and watches) and turn them into work, and I forgot to distinguish between the two along the way.
And then I tripped.
So now I've taking a step back. I focused on my classes of the semester, and then I put my highlighters away and folded my post-it booklet shut. I haven't annotated a single one of the new books I've picked up, and I've truly enjoyed myself. I've made it through several books without once thinking, "How can I work this into a critical piece?" I've found inspiration when not looking for it (Burnett), and I rediscovered the pleasure that drove me into this field into the first place. I also started sleeping better and feeling less anxious during my waking hours.
Part of me is worried that I've gotten too comfortable relaxing and refusing to critically engage, that I'll get used to this state of mind and not want to go back to doing what I love, but the logical part of my brain is constantly trying to remind me that I need this, that a month of reading purely for fun isn't really that long when compared to the seven years I've spent immersing myself in critical reading. This is what I need to do to reset and go back into things with that fine line clearly drawn.
I was five years old when I decided I wanted to go to grad school. I remember walking through a tiny little park near our flat in the center of Chicago with my mom, holding her hand and happily telling her about how much I loved school as I skipped down the sidewalk. It was one of our rare Sunday afternoons together, and while she was happy to listen to me, she was quick to encourage. "What's the furthest you can go in school?" I asked, and I learned about masters and doctorates.
It was then that I resolved that if that was the furthest you could go, that's where I would direct myself.
I made my mind up then, and in the years that followed, whenever I imagined my future, I saw myself surrounded by books. I didn't know what I wanted to do, didn't come to terms with the fact that the only thing for me was academia until my third year of university, but all I could ever see myself doing was studying. It's what I pictured when I looked ahead, dreaming of books and accomplishments, jobs and marriage and babies rarely entering my head.
So when I finished my degree in Comp Lit and English in 2014, that I would go straight into grad school was never in question. In fact, I started following MA classes before I even validated the last of my BA credits. I was eager to go on, to progress to the next level. To be one step closer to being a doctoral student, and – not to be too dramatic – to fulfilling my destiny.
It was the only thing I could imagine doing, and the only thing I couldn't get enough of.
The one thing, though, that I never predicted was burning out. I read and I read and I read and then suddenly I didn't want to read anymore. I went through over five years of higher education, and then I panicked. I started writing a research paper that I hated, delved into a topic that made me sick, and after pushing through for three dark months, I hit a wall. I underperformed with some projects, excelled at others, and I realized I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, what I wanted to specialize in, what I needed to drop, and I felt the need to pause.
And I did. An opportunity I'd counted on seemed to disappear, and I decided to take advantage of it to slow down and recalibrate. I scrapped my thesis project, dropped classes I didn't like, and I even stopped reading for a couple of weeks.
I paused my academic life, and I started to breathe again. I spent time with my family, my friends, my boyfriend. I slept. I ate whatever I wanted to eat. And then slowly, I started to pick up books again... I resolved to only pick those I wanted to read. I picked what I wanted to pick, and suddenly my appetite came back. I started reading faster, started enjoying my books. I found myself gravitating towards the era I'd always gravitated towards before detouring last year, and suddenly I was going through books with an ease that I thought I'd lost for good.
I still don't know for sure what comes next, but I have learned to balance. To put my mental health and my happiness first. To spend time with loved ones and not to place the entirety of my self worth in my academic performances. But I've also learned that burning out didn't mean that I wasn't doing what I was meant to be doing. I love studying, and I love literature, and I love sharing my knowledge with others. I want to keep reading and writing, and I want to teach. I just want to learn to do all of those things without losing myself along the way.
Hello & Welcome!
I'm Olivia, a twenty-six year old grad student studying in Switzerland. This is where I share my thoughts on the academic journey, culture, travels, baking, and my daily life abroad. Read More.