Finis

Content note: what follows is a sincere reflection of my feeling dispirited at my current situation and how I am grappling with ways to move forward. This has been building now for months and I have been hesitant to write about it openly. Everything adds up to a sense of despair that bleeds into this post, but I also recognize that many of my issues are coming from a place of privilege.

More than a week in the making, this post has proven–and continues to prove–almost impossible to write, which, in turn means that most of what I had originally intended to write has been jettisoned, perhaps to be picked up from the cutting floor sometime down the road. However, the starting point remains precisely where it would have a week ago, so perhaps I ought to begin there.

A bit more than a week ago I cleared the last remaining academic hurdle for my doctorate, defending my dissertation first thing Monday morning. This means that I am no longer ABD (all but dissertation) and now just ABB (all but bureaucracy). The dissertation defense should be–and was–something to be celebrated and I am more than a little relieved to have finished this process. Another post would and will go into reflections on the dissertation process because I believe that such introspection is not only good for me, but might be valuable to others going through the same process. And yet, without the immediate demands of the dissertation, the specter of the future has cast a pall over my sense of achievement.

I entered and progressed through graduate school clear-eyed to the brutal employment statistics in higher education. I can see in my mind the trend lines for full-time employment, the rise of contingent faculty, and costs of higher education and in some ways this shaped my experience in graduate school; for instance, I came to University of Missouri precisely because my department offered funding for the MA. I also maintained that I was willing to work outside higher ed, should I not get a job teaching. At the same time, I thought “why not me?,” and so set about doing the sorts of things one does in graduate school in order to be competitive on the academic job market. I am not here to boast of my accomplishments and I made mistakes along the way, but I also think, inasmuch as I was able, I put together a competitive resume with a body of work that continues to grow.

Then I started applying for jobs. Suffice to say that it has not gone well.

I am under a month from graduation, once again facing an uncertain future and feeling stuck in neutral. On the one hand, I am still applying for teaching positions at colleges because this is still something I want to do with my life; on the other, though, it is a lot easier to be cavalier about resiliency on the job market when you’re not worried about how you’re going to eat next month.

I could lash out, casting blame for my current predicament. I could throw in the towel, abandon the dream of teaching at the college level. I could dig deep for resolve to keep on with the types of activities that would be attractive to a future academic employer.

I am closest to the last option, with a hearty dose of current responsibilities thrown in. At a time when I see other recent PhDs getting at least something of a respite from the grueling schedule that got them through, I gave myself just the rest of the day after my defense. The next day, I went to interview to teach one course next semester. The day after that I had a guest lecture, and the two after that were my usual teaching days. Between these obligations, I have been marking student papers (I received 80-ish) so I can get them back in a timely fashion, started revising my dissertation for submission, and continued applying for jobs. I have barely had a chance to read fiction, which has been main concession to relaxation in the past few years.

This is terrible self-care on my part. I should rest. I need to rest if I am going to do the quality of work that might lead to future success. I know this, and yet I can’t help but feel that I can’t afford to take the time off.

My dissertation defense is in the past, but uncertainty is simultaneously putting a damper on my mood and contributing to the feeling that I am being pulled in multiple directions, which itself is making it difficult to move in any one of them.

Programming update, March 2017

Life has a way of piling up, and my tableau has been particularly full these past few weeks. In addition to teaching responsibilities, work, basic maintenance, and the mountain of grading I’ve been ignoring, I spent several days in Omaha, Nebraska at the Missouri Valley History Conference, which was equal parts exhausting and inspiring, and, more importantly, spent every spare moment making final edits to my dissertation. I made it through this gauntlet, submitting my dissertation to my outside committee members yesterday afternoon. I defend it, the last big hurdle of my degree, in just over a month.

(Writing this statement gives me palpitations not only for the process itself, but also because of the yawning chasm that awaits me on the other side; I will have more thoughts on this in the near future.)

There is more to go: another conference paper and article revisions, plus funding applications, fellowships, and jobs. Oh, and that mountain of grading that I am slowly but surely mining away. Still, I am hoping that I get to sleep a little bit more than I have and will therefore be able to spend a little bit more time writing here. I have finished three books since my last post here and hope to pick up my reading pace, which slowed down commensurate with the other things that were put on hold. I also hope to finally get around to my 2017 goal of writing more broadly, since the move to almost exclusively writing about books was mostly an accident.

Between my recent schedule and the past couple hours spent grading I am not terribly coherent today, so that is all for now.

Present, meet past

Let me begin with five loosely bullet points.

  • I am particularly wary of the adages that posit recurring pasts and arguments of immediate pecuniary or political value to studying the ancient past.
  • My dissertation is a regional history of of Ionia in fifth, fourth and early third centuries BCE. The project examines the position of these twelve majority Greek communities on the Anatolian coast and heavy islands in relation to each other and in relation to a series of imperial entities that exerted control over the region.
  • A couple of years ago I got the idea from another scholar on Twitter to set up a Google-alert for the subject of my research. Since then, I have been getting daily updates about bodies washing up on Chios and boatloads of refugees fished out of the sea around the island.
  • A few weeks back, I decided that I am going to dedication my dissertation and, if I reach that point, the resultant book, to the Syrian refugees passing through Ionia.
  • Yesterday, Turkish police raided an illegal factory that was making life preservers from non-buoyant material using child labor. Life preservers that do not float made by refugee child labor. Words cannot express how repellent this is.

Objectivity as a historian is a nice idea, in theory, but is quixotic in practice. One is always going to be influenced by whatever s/he is exposed to. This can be as simple as reading good prose improving the “ear” of the writer to more complex and subtle influences such as the theoretical framework one views the world or his or her moral universe rendering judgement. Frequently, the issues one holds close draws attention to particular details in a source that otherwise would have passed by.

When we think of the connections between the Ancient Near East and the Aegean, it is common to think of the maritime trade routes that ran from Egypt to Phoenicia, Cyprus, the Aegean, and then up to the Black Sea. These routes are critically important for trade and the spread of ideas, but (to my knowledge) were not the usual way to transfer people. Travel by sea was expensive and risky, unless transporting bulk goods. Thus people were often more likely to travel by land. Ambassadors, refugees, and people who aspired to overthrow the Persian King from both the Greek states and the Persian Empire frequently traveled from the Aegean to Syria or beyond and then back by one route: a path that took them from Ephesus or Erythrae (or sometimes another polis), which were connected by road to to the Lydian city of Sardis. There, they picked up the Persian Royal road, which took them the length of Anatolia and then across the Taurus mountains and into Syria, usually to Damascus and from there to anywhere else in the Persian Empire. My source material is usually more focused on people from the Aegean taking this path toward the interior of the Persian Empire, but the road ran both directions.

The constant updates have heightened my awareness and interest in population movements, which is a difficult issue to measure in ancient Greece, and in that it is easy to demarcate (falsely or otherwise) borders between countries or between east and west, but the people don’t care about that. Rostovtzeff described the Ionian communities as fragments of the Western World on the fringe of the Eastern, but that gives the impression of an actual difference on either side. The Ionians were peripheral to Persian and Athenian systems, but throughout the fifth and fourth centuries they also served to link the two together.

A spruced-up variation on these thoughts will appear in the introduction or preface of my dissertation.

November 2015 Reading Recap

December is here–and already flying by. This is always a busy time of the semester and, even though I am not preparing students for exams or furiously grading papers to meet a deadline, I feel busier than I ever have been. This is because I have finally broken into a good stride in terms of writing, namely that I am spending most waking moments doing so, with a cup of coffee in front of me and surrounded by piles of library books. At the moment I am cleaning up the last few points on about eighty pages of dissertation revisions that I turn in on Monday, and have the review notes for revisions on an accepted article (plus one more job application) to tackle immediately after that. Then more dissertation revisions (I would like to get another 40 pages done in two weeks), work on two conference papers, a conference abstract, and edit another article for submission. I guess what I am saying is that I am staying busy but that progress is taking place. I also very much enjoy what I do. However, this also means that I have not had much time to focus on reading for fun, much less on writing here, though I did finish two books in November.

Demons, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Tweeted quotes.

I may get around to writing longer thoughts about this behemoth, but haven’t yet both because of the aforementioned writing tasks and because I am still trying to wrap my head around what happened in the story. I have mentioned before that I sometimes struggle keeping tabs on whoiswho and whatiswhat in reading Russian novels, and that was particularly the case in Demons, which careens between a large number of characters, sometimes being a close character study of individuals such as the intellectual Stepan Trofimovich, his patron Varvara Petrovna Stavrogin, and her son Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, other times commentary on the Russian Marxist vanguard committees, and still other times giving a sweeping impression of the interplay between the aristocracy and the common folks in the town. It is a dark, funny, examination of a political assassination (or set of assassinations, really) in an isolated Russian town where the people who look the best are often the most twisted, things that look too good to be true certainly are, and where there is a pervasive, exhausting tension at every level of society that is liable to break open. Things could be worse (as several characters note, they were once workers in America), and while the leading aristocrats play deadly idle games to maintain their position, the disaffected aspire to bring about a revolutionary future without having any idea what to do should they succeed. Perhaps most damningly of all, Dostoevsky sets this revolutionary committee squabbling amongst themselves in this provincial town where the threat to their lives from the state is still real, but where they seem to have no chance of affecting change.

The Letter Killers Club, Sigizmund Krizhazhonvsky
Review and Tweeted quotes.

Another Russian novel, set in 1920s Moscow. The Letter Killers are a collection of writers who now aspire to set free their conceptions by expounding in narrative form upon a theme every Saturday night. Letters and books, they say, inhibit the individual from having his own conceptions and thus the pure form is direct communication from conceiver to audience. The Letter Killers Club consists of a frame story told by the interloper (i.e. non-professional conceiver), and then five of the conceptions, one for each week of the story. Thus, when reading the book, one is reading the writings of a non-writer who both has his own narrative and transcribes five conceptions that were not meant to be written down. It is a dense little book that builds layer upon layer. I cannot claim to understand all of the themes so well as the narrator, but enjoyed it nonetheless. I also must applaud the New York Review of Books series for the attractive format of their books and for helpful introductory material.

I am now reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a book that I once picked up but am not sure I ever finished.

What’s in a name?

I have a bit of a confession to make. For years I thought that Robin Lane Fox was a woman. I was loosely aware of men being named Robin and probably should have put two and two together from Batman, if nothing else, but I only knew one person named Robin, the mother of a childhood friend. Since it never did (and still doesn’t) strike me as of any consequence whether work is being done by a man or a woman, it never even occurred to me to look up the gender. More recently, I had a similar experience with Robin Hägg. Things get even more muddled when the first name exists only as an initial, which leaves only a genderless letter. The problem, of course, is when I have to use a pronoun and therefore need to know the gender.

This topic came up yesterday when I was working with a book by an author whose name is “Alison.” The book is from the sixties and does not contain any biographical hints that give away gender. A quick google search has been less than forthcoming as to who this scholar actually is, so I am going with my gut and using “she.” But when I was only using the last name (and hadn’t looked at the first) I assumed that the author was male and used “he” throughout the section.

I am using scholarship by more men than women in my dissertation simply because there are more men than women in the corpus of research I am drawing on. I have taken to using only initials for the names of scholars for my dissertation, mostly for aesthetic reasons, but I am reminded how much I use the names to cue in on gender, sometimes inaccurately. What bothers me about this is that I assumed the author was male until I looked up the first name–and that I suspect this would happen more often if I didn’t usually see the name before reading a piece. The worst that I could do here is embarrass myself, but the problems with sexism in academia are real, which is why I’m calling myself out for a genuine and fairly innocuous, easily correctable mistake.

What is making me happy: my dissertation

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

The thing that is making me happy as the semester draws to a close is the same thing that is stressing me out, namely that my first serious dive into Greek epigraphy (inscriptions) has me more optimistic about the relevance of my dissertation than I have been in a few months. I still loved my topic, but I was in despair about how new some of my conclusions were going to be. The inscriptions I’ve been working on the last few weeks have given me more and more valuable things to say, even as it has taught me that I am going to need to rewrite one of the chapters from the ground up because the chronology I followed is probably invalid. In the grand scheme of things this development is a good thing because it makes for a fresher and better dissertation, but, in the short term, I have to rewrite a draft of that chapter by the end of January so that there aren’t glaring inconsistencies in what I submit for a dissertation fellowship–on top of my schedule of producing new material.

I have some more specific thoughts on this development, some for the dissertation, some about the process, and some about how much ancient history frequently requires as much explanation about how we know what we know as what we know. And I will probably write about this in the near future, but, in the meantime, I have a chapter due on Monday. I also intend to do some sort of 2014/15 retrospective/preview, update my top novels list, possibly a semester recap, and a few other assorted things I want to write about (posted here for my own benefit as much as anything).

Since what I model this post on requires the recommendation of something, but what is making me happy isn’t readily available for consumption for at least a year or two yet and won’t be in book form for some years after that, if ever, I will point out a few quick things.

  1. I’m not usually one to obsess over particular records, let alone stay up to date on the world of music. However, this week my work soundtrack has been a mix of Great Big Sea, Gin Blossoms, Ha Ha Tonka, and Johnny Clegg and Savuka. In particular, I’ve been enjoying taking much deeper dives into Deluxe, Live, or other lesser known material of groups I like than I previously had, and getting to hear their sound in somewhat different ways.
  2. Netflix recently added more of the 30 for 30 documentaries and I’m currently enjoying the currently-topical Brothers in Exile film about Orlando and Livan Hernandez’ defection from Cuba in the 1990s.
  3. It is snowing. I love snow. If it is available in your area, go cross-country skiing or put on snowshoes, wander into the woods, and let your mind wander. I hope to be able to indulge in this soon.

Preconceptions, self fashioning, and the dissertation topic

I like latin american coffees and Irish breakfast tea. I like tastefully flavored black beans, wheat bread, tomatoes, hot salsa, and sharp cheddar cheese. I like pilsner beer and rye whiskey. I like Hemingway and Orwell, Kazantzakis and Pamuk. I like the banjo and the acoustic guitar, bluegrass and rock.

These are not limits to what I like or what I will consume, either, though there is another list of things I have no taste for and therefore shy away from (IPAs, cream teas, Dickens, sweet white wine, to name a few). The first list helps me make decisions when I am out to eat, when I am choosing what to read next, or when looking for new music. This is my palate, the things I have learned that I like over a number of years and while experimenting and trying new things is, generally speaking, a good thing, knowing what I like has served me well. But these are also preconceptions that I hold with me each time that I go into a restaurant.

A similar thing happens in what I choose to study in history. I know what I have worked on before and (at least to a limited extent) the type of paper that I did not enjoy writing or did not write well for whatever reason. I do believe that there are certain people who are suited for certain topics. For instance, I have no interest in poetry studies per se; my interest is purely the message and not at all the medium. As such, I am fascinated by the social and cultural messages wrapped up in Archaic Greek lyric poetry, but would not want to study the poetics of the poetry. My strengths (which generally run parallel to my interests since if I don’t have any ability when it comes to a topic I usually get frustrated and drop it) tend towards reading prose authors in the world, geography, and political and diplomatic considerations.

Some of these “strengths” stem from the papers I have written and presented upon in the past, or standing interests of mine since, well, as long as I can remember. I was teased for “reading” maps and atlases when I was in middle school. But there is also a measure of confirmation bias in this statement. I have written papers on only a small handful of topics in graduate school and basically none of those directly correspond to the dissertation topics presently on the table.

What I am struggling with is that I am in trying to choose a dissertation topic, but most of the potential topics do not correspond to any of those preconceptions about what I study, or, frequently, I have no previous experience with studying. In light of this, I am concerned that pushing myself towards something may or may not play to my strengths. To be sure, I will acquire new skills. I am well aware that any dissertation topic would force me to expand my skill set. If that were not the case, then the dissertation would merely be a formality, so even if I had been able to pursue my initial topic that would have played more into my strengths, there would have still been a learning curve. Nevertheless, most of the potential topics (and yes, I have struggled through a half-dozen potential topics in the past few months) are so far beyond anything that I have previously done that it feels as though I am starting from scratch. Starting over could be good, allowing me to come at a topic unencumbered by preconceptions and biases, but it would also be a slower road, and one that is far less certain and with more risk that it would be a topic that I would be incapable of realizing the potential of as a result of limited experience or lack of conviction.

I need to make a decision this week and so here I am on Wednesday night, unable to decide, unable to determine even how much I should weigh these different factors in making the decision. Until this week I stressed about the potential to produce a monograph from the dissertation and articles along the way. Now that worry seems overly ambitious. Now I need to decide how much I should accede to these preconceptions about myself and how I have defined my research thus far. Admittedly, though, there is only the faintest thread of continuity thus far and that same slight thread could run through any of these potential topics, too. I need to decide this week, but it is Wednesday and I am further from a decision than I was on Monday.

Graduate School Update, June 2013

It has been a little while since I updated friends and family about what I have been up to in regard to schooling. I recently passed one of the major steps toward my degree so I thought now would be a good time to do that.

I have spent the last two years working on my PhD in Greek History at the University of Missouri. This past semester I finished my formal coursework for the degree and last month I also took and finished my comprehensive exams (more on this below). All I formally have left is to write my dissertation, a process I will begin sometime next week and continue to work on for the next several years. Informally, though, I also have teaching, conference presentations, articles to get published, and language classes to audit. The tentative schedule is to take three years on these projects, but some of it will depend on how much time I need to spend in Greece doing research.

As noted above, I am now ABD, meaning that I am finished with coursework and passed the comprehensive exams, so I have finished all but the dissertation. The comprehensive exam process depends a great deal upon the faculty members administering it. The committee of faculty members (as it is done at this institution) consists of five people: the advisor, three faculty members from the department, and a faculty member from another department. Those faculty members (sometimes in collaboration with the student) provide reading lists that ranges in size from ten or fifteen books or chapters to several hundred books.1 The student then prepares for the exam by reading as many of the books as possible. The process reaches a climax when three or more of the committee members prepare a battery of tests for the student to take over the course of three days. The committee members then read the written exams and within two weeks the merry band meets and the student provides oral answers to questions for two hours.

If the committee finds the answers satisfactory, the student emerges from the cocoon of the reading lists as a PhD candidate.

The next step is the dissertation. My project is going to be a regional history (of some variety) about Thessaly, the region in Greece north of the pass of Thermopylae, but south of Mount Olympus. The link above is to a Google map of the modern Greek province that provides a general outline of the area, although some Thessalian cities also claimed territory further south (mostly the plain right around the city of Lamia). Too, it is important to remember that lines on a map are not solid, particularly when dealing with a regional history of a region that was not united itself. The chronological bounds of my study are going to be roughly 510 to 344 BCE. But beyond nascent ruminations, what I just listed is what I know. I have not yet really begun.

I am not sure how much I am going to write about the project here or elsewhere online. I love the idea of being public with ideas and writings and have a tendency to think in ink, as it were, but there are also professional pitfalls in doing so. For one thing, everything written here–misguided, well intentioned,insightful, politically correct, exemplary scholarship, or the inverse of those adjective–is public record. Thus, even when there is no risk of intellectual theft of something as important to one’s career as a dissertation,2 there is risk of opinions being formed about incomplete work.

I still hope to have episodes that I can comment on as I get into work, but I will shy away from discussing anything that I stumble on and think that I may be able to get published.


1 I had four total lists that had something like five or six hundred books on them counting both primary and secondary sources. I also ended up citing a number of books that were not on any of the lists. I have also saved the reading lists that I used, as well as many of the questions I received and that I heard about from other people if there is anyone who would like to look at them.
2 And there is significant risk. There are plenty of academic horror stories about this sort of theft.