progress & evaluation

Spring is an exciting time of year for academics. Well, exciting if you’re not the one having to write comps, defend comps, finish dissertations, defend dissertations, and generally just try to graduate. Granted, there are always tons of semester deadlines and conference deadlines, but for first and second year doc students, spring is a time when we get to observe and celebrate our more advanced colleagues’ milestones. We can bask in the glow of their reflected light, as it were. Life’s real easy out here in the cheap seats. Still, it’s a time of nervous energy and lots of good and exciting news for people we care about. It’s a time when we generally all get to cheer each other on and be happy for one another.

In this vein, I was honored to attend a friend’s dissertation defense this week. It was the first one I have observed, and it went really well. My friend was the epitome of cool and handled her committee with grace and aplomb. In short: she’s my hero. I took notes on everything from her demeanor to who she had on her committee, to theories they discussed, to suggestions they had about turning her work into a book after graduation. It was thrilling to be there at the inception of her new life as a “Dr.,” and it was a generally eye-opening experience for me that has had my wheels turning ever since.

As we gathered at a local Mexican joint to throw back good tequila and passable cervezas to celebrate her victory, several people around the table remarked on something I too found exceptional at the defense: more than one committee member described the dissertation as a “page-turner.” Wow. What an amazing compliment. Praise for your writing — any writing — doesn’t get any better than that. We were all blown away by that comment and in unanimous agreement that it made our brilliant friend’s achievement a resounding success. I decided to use it to set a personal standard for myself. I decided to write a dissertation that would be worthy of the same assessment from its readers, because, really, no one wants to read a boring dissertation. Or a boring anything. And God know, I certainly don’t want to write one. That just sounds onerous.

And so, I’ve chosen a subject to research and write about that I really like. It’s a topic that’s been a glaring whole in the academic conversation for almost 30 years now. It’s painfully obvious and big enough to drive a semi through, and yet, amazingly enough, no one has touched it. They’ve touched every aspect of the general subject around it for decades, and yet nobody has wanted to go near the bullseye right there on the lid of Pandora’s box. I’m not sure why, but the low-hanging fruit of sorts was sitting right there waiting for me to pluck it. And pluck I shall. It’s a fun topic, kind of a sexy topic, and it always makes people laugh and lean in to hear more when they hear what I’m working on. They want to know more. They have opinions on it. They want to get involved. It’s become my identity now, and it suits me just fine.

I take all of this as a good sign. I am encouraged by the compliments I get on my papers about it. I am even more encouraged that my work is getting accepted at conferences and even winning awards, although, truth be told, the latter comes as a bit of a shock to me. A welcome shock, but a shock no less. People corner me or strike up conversations about my work in hallways and elevators at conferences. I get emails from people who attended my sessions — or people who talked to people who attended my sessions. Or people who attended whole other conferences I didn’t attend where they heard about my paper in other sessions. It’s mind boggling. I’m sure it happens to lots of people, though, and it’s just new to me. Still, my research has groupies, and I have barely even started. To be perfectly frank, though, it’s not like what little I’ve written is world famous or anything. It’s just gotten a little bit of attention in a very small, dark corner of the tiny island my area of academics occupies. Perspective, please. And really, part of it is the title of the paper (I’m good with catchy titles), and, truth be told, part of it is my name. It’s odd. It’s unbelievable to people when they first hear it. It gets remembered. It gets attention. It probably doesn’t matter what I’d scribble in dull crayon on the back of a torn paper bag, if my name was attached to it, people would still sit up and say, “Who? What?” And that is by no means an achievement or anything that speaks to my skills as a writer, researcher, or…anything at all, really. It’s just a testament to my parents’ ability to give me a great, funny, slightly goofy, and quite honestly, pretty porny, name. I’m sure people are totally let down when they actually get to put a face to the name, because I’m just not that interesting.

And so, a couple of papers in, my research is off to a good start. Nothing amazing, just relatively smooth start so far, but this week came the rough part. I had a big name professor (if we have one of those) step right up and express interest in my work and in serving on my committee without solicitation. This professor has been supportive of what I’ve been doing, and I was flattered without coming right out and saying yes right away. Unfortunately, this development still lead me into uncharted academic jealousy territory with another faculty member that I didn’t expect and didn’t see coming. I was completely blindsided by it, and at a moment that wasn’t especially good for me emotionally. It wasn’t my first faculty turf war of sorts here, but it did make for a particularly unpleasant moment. Something that should have made me feel really bolstered made me feel really crummy for about 24 hours, but then I got over it and told everyone to just grow up and trust that I’m not selling anyone out or going behind anyone’s back and that I know what I’m doing with my own work. The trust has to go both ways, people. Also, perspective is a good thing. It’s just academic research. I want advice, not to be lead around by the nose, and I’m not anyone’s territory. My research is mine — good or bad, win or loose, succeed or fail. I am the one who has to live and die with it in the end.

And, while we don’t have to do comps or dissertation defenses yet, first year Ph.D. students in my program do have to create a document called a P&E, or progress and evaluation, proposal. It’s not really a big deal, nor is it a big document (mine was six pages). It’s mostly just one more annoying thing to add to your plate when you’re already busy, but it’s a little burdensome in that it forces you to assess your work and organize a statement of what you’ve done in your first year, give a summary of your proposed research, and then look waaaaaay down the road and make a degree plan that lays out the courses you want to take for the rest of your program. We’re talking years’ worth of planning. We’re talking hunting and pecking through department websites to try and sleuth out who offers what course. No, I mean who really offers what course, not what is just in the catalog but never sees the light of day. We’re talking contacting numerous professors in various departments who are complete strangers to you, your abilities, and your accomplishments to try and get a straight answer, a syllabus, and a little bit of interest out of them. We’re talking selling yourself constantly for a couple of weeks straight when you really don’t feel like it at all. And when it comes to independent study, you really have to put yourself out there on a limb and hope that someone nibbles. My P&E proposal was due today.

The process of poking at hives to see who’d come out and play with me was a little unnerving, but in the end, a good experience. I had one professor respond to my little two-page CV with a “Wow. What a great life!” Really? Ok! I had several more tell me my research was fascinating. Three expressed interest in meeting with me about it. Three agreed to do independent study with me (although, I can only do it with two classes). Everyone wanted me in their classes, but, to be honest, they probably want any warm body in their classes to make sure they meet the minimum enrollment, so there’s probably nothing to that. Still, while emotionally exhausting and time intensive, this process of feedback and exchange has been informative and encouraging. It’s also been overwhelming as I work to make strategic contacts that will please me, please my adviser, benefit my dissertation, and meet with approval from the committee that will review and approve my P&E proposal. It’s all very delicate and political with the whole chicken-and-egg, first-things-first, you-scratch-my-back-blah-blah-blah of the process. So many hoops to jump through. So many balls in the air. So many places to screw it all up. So far, so good, however. I got positive feedback from everyone I contacted, and my adviser complimented what I put together.

In the end, what’s really scary about the P&E process is the final product. I sat down and looked at it today before I sent it off and thought, “Whelp, that’s it. Your life for the next three years all on six pieces of paper.” I’ve never thought that far ahead. Never had a plan. Never felt so locked in and committed to anything, and, I won’t lie, I started to suffocate and needed a glass bottle of wine when I read it over and started to freak the fuck out. It was claustrophobic. Even more overwhelming is the way the document painted a picture of the career I mapped out for myself — of the person I was going to become. When did I become a gender studies scholar? When did I become a hardcore feminist? When did I start taking rhetoric courses? Who is this person? When the hell did I get so damn focused? Ha. I imagine from the outside looking in, most people who know me would laugh at that last statement and tell me I’ve always been focused like a laser. Funny, but I always feel scattered inside, even if I’m totally honed in with tunnel vision on the exterior. I have to admit that I was a little scared that I’m not building in enough diversity to give myself some breathing space with this plan, but, then again, maybe I need to learn to breathe with a little less room if I’m going to get anything meaningful done in any reasonable amount of time.

Really, though, I don’t doubt myself. It’s a good plan. I’m going to be happy with it. I’m pleased with how my first year is wrapping up. I know what I want and how to get it. I feel confident and powerful and like I know exactly what I’m doing and wouldn’t do anything differently. I’m where I belong. I love the skin I’m in. I’ve never been so sure in my life. I hear people out, but nobody’s voice is in my head except my own. My intuition guides me well at every turn. I’ve got good backing, and I’m honored to have the mentors I do, but I’m nobody’s bitch.

And so, I bit the bullet and turned the proposal in and figured that would be the last I’d hear of it for a while. Figured it was mostly just an exercise. Figured I could move on to grading papers and putting together lectures and filling out fellowship applications. Figured nobody would give it a second look and I’d get a rubber stamp with a couple of obligatory comments from the committee in a few weeks. Figured nobody would actually read it.

Within two hours of sending the document, I got an email in response to my proposal: “I find your topic interesting — I actually read this, rather than just glancing as I usually do. Your research is a real page-turner.”

Guess I’m on the right track after all.

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i hate people when they’re not polite

This is what the state of our union should look like.

A study in contrasts, or why the Susan G. Komen Foundation can go screw itself, and why I will be working to re-elect President Obama this fall. 

Talking to my sister-in-law last night, she mentioned that Facebook is too much for her right now. “It’s all breast cancer and Planned Parenthood.” She’s right. You open your news feed right now, and it’s a wall of pink and rage over the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to pull its grant funding for breast cancer screening from Planned Parenthood. People are mad, and rightly so. It’s intense. It’s emotional. It’s good to see people wake the hell up and care about something.

I have to admit, I’ve had a personal issue with the whole Komen Foundation brand for a while now. The pink thing has always bugged me. It’s just so girlie and patronizing. I hate how it genders. I hate that it serves as a “brand” for females as a whole when people are not products. It doesn’t speak for me. I’ve never been a pink girl (although, most of my sporting equipment is lavender, for some non-premeditated reason). I’ve never really wanted to be around girls who were. If I were suddenly diagnosed with breast cancer, I wouldn’t want to have to regress to wearing that color as my mandatory badge of honor. I have to agree with author Barbara Ehrenreich that the whole pink ribbon marketing that the Komen Foundation has injected into the battle against breast cancer not only sets back feminism as it infantalizes women as a whole, but it is especially damaging those who are in greatest need of strength as they fight the fight of (and for) their lives. Why make women into girls at the point in time when they’re facing their mortality and losing a part of their body that defines their mature femininity? It never does ring true with me, and it doesn’t rob the cancer boogey man of its malignancy no matter how rosy a shade they give it

The whole Komen Foundation is just too glossy, too slick, too corporate for my taste, too. I shouldn’t be surprised that they were in the pockets of politicians, especially given that their founder, Nancy Brinker, served in George W. Bush’s administration. I never really saw the work they did or any tangible gains being made. Breast cancer and those it strikes aren’t a commodity to be sold, and yet they’ve been selling them for decades now. I think the women who actually battle, survive, and yes, die from breast cancer get lost in the message like the trees for the forest no matter what kind of show the Foundation makes of trotting out pink-clad survivors to do their little turn on the runway and wave their little hats in front of the crowd at the start of every Race for the Cure (a trademarked term, by the way) or at the occasional NFL halftime during the month of October.

This is difficult for me to say given that I actually lost an old and dear childhood friend to breast cancer late last year. I grew up with Ronda Martz Lopretto. We went to junior high and high school together. We both worked at the local movie theater our senior year. I still see her face on the ticket girl every time I approach a box office. I liked her immensely. She was a sweet and bright and kind and funny and gentle and beautiful soul with big blue-grey eyes and a voluminous head of gorgeous hair. Her smile lit up the room. She was a loving and loved wife and mother. She was my age when she died and spent her 30s battling breast cancer only to lose the fight before she turned 40. I miss her, and I’m devastated to know that she no longer walks this planet with me. It’s cruel and unfair and bullshit. She should be here still. Her friends poured out their grief by gathering together to honor her memory and strike a blow against her killer at the Race for the Cure last fall. They formed a team and raised money and ran and walked to forget the pain of the sister they had lost just weeks before. It gave them something to do to make them feel like they made a difference, an annual ritual that made breast cancer’s victims and their loved ones feel like they could take action against an invisible foe. That ritual was designed to take away the victim stigma. When the Komen Foundation politicized the fight against breast cancer this week by attacking Planned Parenthood, an organization that should be their close ally in the cause for women’s health, they robbed women like Ronda’s friends of something to believe in and an constructive outlet for their grief. They betrayed and victimized and dis-empowered and diminished women everywhere. They insulted and abandoned us, and we don’t like being made to feel like dupes or second class, baby-making, abortion-having citizens. They did a disservice to the memory of the woman for which the foundation is named. Poor Susan G. Komen. She doesn’t deserve to have her name maligned so. Her sister should be ashamed of herself.

Mostly, though, they woke a sleeping giant. Instead of feeling victimized and disenfranchised by the Komen Foundation’s baffling move, they took up arms in social media and the traditional press to make their enraged voices heard, and the Foundation listened — too little, too late. Bye bye now. It’s a public relations disaster that any moron could have predicted for them. And can I just say that Nancy Brinker’s face freaks me out? Seriously. Eat something, woman. You look like the Crypt Keeper. Really, though, my own personal pettiness is neither here nor there. The fact of the matter is that the Komen Foundation helped to remind women and the men behind them of their mass influence this week. Taking away an outlet to strike out against cancer means that the hate and anger is now redirected and focused on the Komen Foundation with laser precision. Power to the people has meant the end of the Race for the Cure and the pink hats and t-shirts and water bottles and all the branding that hasn’t done a damn thing to cure breast cancer over the past 20 years. The Komen Foundation has met its match, and it’s called Facebook. Welcome to the 21st century, bitches. Lesson the first: Don’t fuck with your fan base. They are the hand that feeds you.

As an aside, I would like to mention that I myself have been a benefactor of Planned Parenthood’s services, and no, they’re not my abortion provider. When I was working on my first graduate degree back in the early 1990s, I did not have insurance, and the campus health center did not provide annual well woman exams, STD testing, or birth control. Planned Parenthood to the rescue. Thank you, PP. I still support you financially to this day because of it, because I want the frank, respectful services you provide to women that say you believe we have brains in our heads and the ability to think and advocate for ourselves to be there for other women who need you. I also want you to be there for me, should I need breast cancer screening in the future. Women need options. I am heartened to see that Komen’s loss has parlayed into Planned Parenthood’s gain in spades. Good on you, America.

This week’s development around this issue has been fast and furious and couched in the larger issue of increasing animosity and disregard for our fellow man in this country. Those in power seem to have nothing but the deepest disdain for those weaker and more in need of help than they, to say nothing of the general vitriol that characterizes the campaign for the GOP nomination in this election cycle and their sickening displays of nastiness and hate that we have been calling as “debates” but come across as more of a an attempt to replicate a WWE Smackdown match. The debates are really nothing more than a rhetorical pillow fight among a confederacy of dunces. No battle of wits there.  I will admit to rubbernecking more than one multi-car pile-up with casualties in my time, though, so I know more about the debates than I wish I did. Every glimpse I get of them robs me of a little piece of my soul I’ll never get back. This pitiful display has offered up a political counterpart to Komen’s snafu this week by sacrificing Republican front-runner Mitt Romney on the altar of current affairs with his statement that he doesn’t care about the very poor in our country. Like Komen, he tried to retract and backpedal on this statement, but the horse has already left the barn. We all now know he’s a bootstrapping asshole (well, we already knew that) who sees no value in our nation’s “have nots.” Being poor or a woman or in need of any help at all from something like Planned Parenthood in this country makes you less than human in the eyes of the power elites. Worse yet, they’re ok with saying so. Being a hegemonic jerk is in vogue. They think there will be no repercussions. No comeuppance for them from the great unwashed. It’s somehow acceptable and politically chic to be a hater. It’s ok to be dismissive and rude to your fellow American. What the hell is that all about?

And this is why I have the now-famous photo of President Obama embracing Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at last month’s State of the Union Address at the top of this blog post. Not only is Giffords a hero — an example of a strong woman who battled adversity to keep her life and thrive despite daunting odds and an icon of the survivor myth that the Komen Foundation has been selling us (note: she’s not in pink) — but she’s a symbol of class, courage, and quiet strength in the face of insanity and hatred in this country. She is a pillar of forgiveness who has put her ego aside to serve her state and her nation. She’s what we should all emulate. And she’s a woman. A powerful woman. She and the leader of the free world are locked in a tender, loving, honest, and touchingly poignant embrace in that picture. They are both so strong and vulnerable — and strong in their vulnerability — in that photograph. He obviously loves and cares about her and is glad that she is alive and well for him to put his arms around. She is happy to be held and so melts into his arms and goes so far as to relax and rest her head on his shoulder like a child. Time stops around them in this intimate moment between two people who seem to have no regard for the fact that they’re in a room full of people that the whole world is watching. The President has important business to attend to, but not so important that he cannot stop to properly greet and show affection toward his friend and fellow public servant. It is a moment that give earnest and unmistakable insight into their character.

The photograph captures a moment of love and compassion and civility and proper priorities that our national discourse is sorely lacking at the moment. Those are my values, and, to be honest, as silly as it sounds, it reminded me of why I voted for Obama in 2008 and why I will be voting for him this November. In that instant, he won my vote back. Call me emotional, but that’s all it took. Actions speak louder than words; rhetoric and politics be damned. That little moment, that pause in the crowd reminded me that our President is an advocate for social justice and human who really and truly gives a damn about his fellow man and our condition as a whole. The least among us is his brother. He treats us with respect, including women. We need more of that. I need more of that. He might not be Superman or the Second Coming, but he’s kryptonite for hate and greed and selfishness, and how can I not choose that? I don’t recall much of the speech he made that night, but his embrace of Giffords, and hers of him, was a political watershed moment for me. I will continue to believe in and choose a love and hope that says “yes” to humanity and the social condition, and I hope as many Americans as possible will wake up and choose it with me. We might not solve all of our problems that way, but, like we did this week, we can send the message that the growing culture of meanness and intolerance in the country will not be tolerated.