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.

February Reading Recap: A Review of Stoner

February is a short month and usually a busy one, so I only managed to finish reading one non-academic book, John Williams’ 1965 campus novel, Stoner, which is set at my current institution, The University of Missouri, Columbia.

William Stoner is a Missouri farm kid from a dirt-poor family who, in the early years of the 20th century, came to the university to get an education at the newly-opened school of Agriculture. But in his required freshman English class he is inspired by an acerbic professor and decides to turn his back on his farm roots and pursue an undergraduate degree, and then a graduate one in English Literature. When he completes his thesis, the university hires him on. Stoner marries and has a child, but the marriage is a disaster. He completes a book and receives tenure, but his career never really advances. His motivation to improve his teaching and pursue research waxes and wanes, the seasons come and go, and Stoner grows old.

The pivotal sequence in the novel is a confrontation between Stoner and an ambitious colleague, Hollis Lomax. Lomax has some physical defects, but an unimpeachable intellectual pedigree, having come to the university from getting his degree at Harvard. Their disagreement begins when Lomax manages to persuade Stoner to accept his graduate student into Stoner’s seminar; in Stoner’s estimation, the student does not perform adequately and receives an appropriate grade. Lomax disagrees, but their conflict comes to a head when department regulations force Stoner to sit on an examination committee for that same student.

Stoner is, as the reviews say, a quiet, powerful novel that explores the condition of an intellectual who is chooses and, simultaneously, is forced into increasing isolation. The students, for the most part, flash by as a faceless blur, not because Stoner doesn’t care, but because, at some point, they are all the same. The graduate students are essentially interchangeable, with two conspicuous exceptions, and the same could be said even of the professors. The world changes beyond the borders of the University, but Stoner’s life plods on.

The genius of the novel is that it is utterly relatable, particularly to someone who have spent any time on the other side of the classroom. Williams also does a remarkably good job at capturing the University of Missouri and its environs, so much so that multiple locations featured are easy to identify as real-world buildings. Likewise, everyone who has been in some of these situations has known graduate students and professors like those described in the story, both for good and for ill. Despite the tragic outcome and the consistently grim and oppressive atmosphere of the academy, there is a sense of purpose and vocation and therefore a dark, hopeless optimism in the story that did not appear in, for instance, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim (the only other true campus novel I have read).

My main critique of the novel is not of execution, but of form. To me, it was immediately evident that Stoner was written by an English professor who is well-versed in narrative form. As a result, the turns in the story seemed inevitable, formulaic. The execution was excellent, nonetheless. I also hesitate to issue a blanket recommendation for Stoner because I wonder if it is a story that will fail to resonate with a wider audience as much as it does with people who have chased higher degrees in non-STEM fields, but I am adding it to my list of top novels.

Why Greece?

Yes, I should be writing my dissertation chapter, but this is a pertinent digression that I don’t want to lose track of. When I start missing deadlines I will listen critique of my method. Until then, meh. [1]

Even among other historians I sometimes get asked why I study Greece. I am not Greek, the relevance to modern society is at best limited, there aren’t jobs, it requires not just one or two modern languages, but also several dead languages. I generally just shrug off the questions by noting that I have studied other things, too, this is just the one that stuck. The reservations about difficulty and languages and relevance make some bit of difference, but they are technical questions, not ones that actually pertain to chose Greece. To wit, if I was on this path for money, I wouldn’t pursue history at all, and languages are not the boogeymen that people make them out to be.I have a love-hate relationship with languages, but the access to other cultures is a thrill– sometimes comparable to encouraged voyeurism.[2] I study–and learn–whatever interests me. So, why Greece? I don’t know, I just find it interesting.

But “it is interesting [to me]” is a cop-out answer. I was probably looking to cast myself as an indulgent man of letters or some equally antiquated and dramatic role, but “I don’t know” is all I really had. Until now, thereby making what follows the big reveal.

What I find (most) interesting about Greece are the discontinuities and paradoxes, the fissures and ironies, particularly in how Greece and Greeks are conceived of in the modern imagination. I like that the tradition, perpetuated by the Greeks themselves, tends towards the universal, while there was such diversity in experiences that the particulars often bear little resemblance to the universal. I like the political satire. I like the language that has such deep shades of meaning, even if that can take extra time to translate. I like the stories preserved in the literature and the histories, from a culture that straddled the divide between many of the complexities of civilization that resonate with a modern audience (currency, criminal courts, constitutions, democracy, etc) and “primitivism” and “backward credulity.”

All of these issues appear in other cultures and other times, but it is the way in which they converge in Greece that continues to fascinate me. The treatment of Greece as either as the foundation of Western civilization or as an integral piece in the teleological march from the dawn of mankind to the modern Western European/American world seems to have glossed over the incongruities–”Greece” is a cut gem in the crown of history, alongside “Egypt,” “Rome,” and the rest. But it seems to me that while those other gems are no less faceted and flawed, they are more accurately described as a single gem. “Greece” is, at best, a dozen polished rocks loosely bound together to resemble a single gem. Perhaps I carried my metaphor a step too far, but this tension is one of the main things that I keep coming back to when thinking about Greece.

The fragmentary nature of Greece is also one of the areas in which I find particular relevance to the modern world, but that is a topic for another day.

[1] The good, writerly words have all been appropriated for other sentences. What is left is “meh.”
[2] I don’t consider myself good at languages by any stretch of the imagination, either, though I have some level of comfort reading five languages other than English. Too, each one has been easier than the last, not just because they are related, but because I have managed to pick up enough grammar along the way to fit the puzzle pieces together. I still need a dictionary most of the time.

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.

The Anatomy of a Social Movement: the system

One of the ironies of graduate school is that it does actually live up to the root word of skhole, translated as “leisure.” First, graduate school in the humanities has to be something you enjoy doing because it is a grind without much hope of bountiful riches upon completion (though it may seem so compared to most graduate student stipends); second, the course of study, teaching, working on your own projects, and sometimes a second job means that most of your leisure time is consumed by your studies–one of my complaints when I am stressed is that my academic career is restricted to my hobby since I don’t often get a chance to write or research anything directly related to my field in class. With this being the case, there is not much free time and the system is designed such that if you desire an academic, professional career you must persist, particularly during the semesters when there is an immediate grade at stake, but also during the breaks from school when much of your actual writing towards your career takes place (or, as with this summer for me, most of the reading for the comprehensive exams takes place). Some people enter graduate school to prolong college, whether because they can’t find a job, don’t want a job, or just don’t know what they want to do; others enter graduate school because it is exactly what they want to do. The latter group has an even tougher time slipping away.

The extended conversation about graduate school comes from my own regret about not joining the Occupy movement. I wanted to join. I wanted to put down everything and fly to New York, but I want my degree more. I want to have a fruitful and productive career more, so I did not get on the plane. I felt that I was not in a position to leave if I wanted to continue in graduate school. That is the nature of the system–if the opportunity for achieving something the individual values more than change exists, be it money or a vocation or a promise, then the protest ends before it begins.

Ivory Tower

I recently heard the opinion that ancient history (and possibly even Classics more generally) should only be taught at a graduate level at a select few universities across the country. Schools not in that elite core (e.g. the Ivy League, most Big 10 schools, Berkeley, Stanford, Duke, UNC, etc) should offer programs for undergraduates, but should not offer graduate degrees. Though I heard this opinion third hand, it originated from an ancient history professor. I agree to a limited extent with the sentiment about the necessity of standards, but wholeheartedly disagree with the actual opinion–not least of which is because I have thrice failed to gain acceptance into those elite programs and am therefore at another school.

I have three qualms with the opinion:

  1. There are too many deserving applicants for too few spots at those top programs
  2. There are too many quality advisors who, for one reason or another, are not at those universities
  3. The notion that those are the programs that can produce doctorates and none other can is a cause of stagnation in the profession. It is not only possible, but also necessary for “tier-2” schools to build viable programs.1</sup

1For the moment overlook the increasingly vocal proponents of reducing the number of people who get advanced degrees in the humanities.

Let me examine each of these in somewhat more depth. Despite the overall trend wherein a lower percentage of the population attains a college degree than in recent history, there has been record application and acceptance rates at most, if not all colleges. A college degree is seen as necessary for advancement or employment in many jobs and though I have strong objections to both this and the claim that college is a place to learn jobs skills and the the movement to turn colleges into money making machines, the perception is transformed into a reality because businesses actually put it into practice. So, with enrollment at record highs, and the job market remaining spare, particularly at those jobs that college does prepare students for, the rates (and the percentages, I think) of application to advanced degrees has gone up. For some students this is a dodge on student loan payments or an extension on college in the same way they received extensions on papers, and in these cases the academic world only serves to further coddle them. But for others, graduate school or other post-Baccalaureate programs are the right fit and it stands to reason that these numbers are also at an all-time high. Lump these numbers together and combine it with funding cuts across the academic world, and there simply are not enough spots at the top universities for all deserving applicants. The rejects, as they may be, then go to other schools where classics and ancient history are taught, and they may join the other rejects to study the field they love, build a program, and so on. Note that reject here is not a negative term and applies to all graduate students in the field not at these universities–you can not succeed if you do not try, so not applying is not an excuse (unless you are pointing out how much money you saved).

A second issue is that many, if not most, potential advisors are not at those top universities. The best programs have larger staffs, more students, and more opportunities. These are all boons to graduate work, however if none of the programs have a potential advisor for your interests, then it may behoove you to cast a wider net. There are scores of excellent teachers, advisors, and scholars whose careers, for any number of reasons, bring them to schools that are not among the traditional academic factories. Slowly, the field is moving into a time when production counts for as much or more than the name. It is not yet, nor will it likely ever be a true meritocracy, but it is moving in that direction. Would I like the name to bolster my ego and look impressive on my wall? Yes, but the truth is that the name often has little bearing on the formal apprenticeship of graduate school.

Third, and perhaps most important, is that Classics and ancient history are very old fields. Livy, one of our great historians, wrote about events 700 years before his birth, which could easily be considered ancient even in his own day. Gibbon, Napoleon, Collingwood, and all of the founding fathers were at the very least amateur ancient historians, and some of the chairs of Classics at UK universities are themselves hundreds of years old. The field is old, and the only way to keep it relevant is to innovate and change, something best achieved by building new programs to see what can happen. Keeping just a few in their ivory tower will lead to stagnation. In no way am I claiming this is a novel stance–Who Killed Homer first came out in 1998, and there has seemingly always been a tension between tradition and innovation.

The point I have to emphasize is that the only time in which so-called elite universities hold a mystical status is when professors and students at the “lesser” universities accept the status quo. The top programs may remain elite and coveted, but they also work to remain at that level by actively recruiting top scholars and prospective scholars. Yet the position is not guaranteed or divinely mandated. In fact, competition for the services of scholars from a more diverse set of institutions, with a larger number of talented writers and thinkers involved in the process would be good for the field. Scholarship in its own right would advance, and at no point would elite programs be able to take their status for granted. Of course I want to study and teach at premier schools, but until such time as I am seen as Ivy League material, I want to do whatever I can do make the school I am at be the best it can be and, as much as it can be, I want that to be my fault.

Semester in Review – Fall 2009

The first semester of graduate school is over. I made friends, broke hearts and took names, or something like that. More to the point I learned a lot about departmental and academic politics, nuances to writing and methodology, a good bit about Greek, and even a little bit about history.

Most of all, the lesson that Grad school is a marathon and not a sprint, has been hammered home. I put in the work and enjoyed some of it, but much of the time it was slogging through.

Not having been in any other graduate program, I cannot speak for how it is elsewhere, but on the whole the class-work was disappointing. I learned a lot, at least for Greek and Greek history, but in the latter case it was the product of extensive reading on my own in preparation for class, rather than class discussion that was the genesis of this learning. Both of my history courses required a term paper, the Greek history seminar being the more intensive of the two and an actual progression and leap from work I did at Brandeis, but the Roman history paper was not really any different from something I could or would have done there.

During the classes themselves, I felt that the language was useful, but the other two were superficial and really beneficial. Roman history this was a product of an undergraduate focus, where many issues I would have loved to discuss outside of class came up, but were only touched upon. In Greek history there was the potential to delve deeper, but more than once I was told by the professor that an issue I wanted to raise or discuss would result in just the two of us talking, and thus defeated the purpose of a discussion based seminar. I have not yet gotten everything I can out of this program (which is well, since I am just a semester in), and Ian Worthington is one of the best in the field, but it is this type of isolation amidst literary classicists, and non-ancient historians that makes me wonder if I would be better off milking it for everything I can, but then changing schools for the PhD to somewhere where I would have colleagues—both positive and negative implications of that word intended.

But that is for the future. What matters in the present is that I am back studying what I love, and have successfully completed my first semester of graduate school.