Archive for January, 2012

Establishing a non-anonymous web presence

I have been thinking about the wisdom of establishing some kind of professional (or professionally appropriate) web presence to provide evidence that I can actually use the Internet. Because I started using the Internet as a teenager in the ’90s, well before Facebook and even blogs, I have issues with putting my full name on anything I post online. Back then, the Internet was for whiny, anonymous journals published on hand-coded websites. My very first web site was published on Geocities and had a Winnie the Pooh theme, but within a year or two my secret online diaries were mostly decorated with photographs by Cindy Sherman or album cover art manipulated in Paint Shop Pro. But I digress.

At any rate, while my HTML/CSS/etc. skills are no longer cutting edge, I am pretty familiar with just about every blogging platform. I have a Twitter account, although it’s private, and I mostly use it to complain about my neighbors or record funny things my boyfriend says. Of course, I have Facebook and Google Plus profiles under my real name, but there is very little that anyone can see there unless they’re friends with me, and I keep telling myself I might just delete my Facebook profile (again) once I’m forced to adopt the new Timeline. But there isn’t really any proof of my Internet prowess that I’d want to show someone who might hire me; it’s not that I’m not or can’t be professional, I’m just not yet used to using the Internet as a professional platform.

I do have a Linkedin profile. Today, I edited my profile so that my headline (or whatever it’s called) reflects the work I want to be doing, rather than the college teaching I actually am doing now. So, I guess that’s a start. I only have a few connections there, so perhaps I’ll figure out how I can better use that site.

I might start a Twitter account under my full name and use it to, I don’t know, comment on stuff and retweet things that aren’t totally silly.

While I’m already really skilled at coming up with ideas for blogs and then never starting them or abandoning them after three entries, I may start (another) new blog. My question here is, how much does content matter? I’d like this blog to provide writing samples, to show that I Have a Web Presence and am not a weird Generation X/Y/wherever-I-fit luddite. Maybe I could attach my résumé to this site? I don’t want to write a particularly serious or academic blog with posts roughly related to my research because, ugh, who even cares? I was already thinking about starting a blog about being a late twenty-something who is finally trying to get her shit together and figure out makeup, since this has really been my primary hobby for the past three or four months. Or I could blog about the books I occasionally manage to read for fun, or movies I watch, or about my other hobbies (knitting, genealogy). Obviously, this blog would have to avoid being too personal or too much like a diary (always something I kind of struggle with, because I always want to fall back into journal-mode when I’m blogging). But should I avoid writing about something too inconsequential? I assume employers would be more interested in the quality of writing, the voice, the ability to speak to a particular audience, even if said employer isn’t part of a field that matches my particular subject matter. But maybe I’m wrong.

I’m also thinking about submitting pieces to various websites, just short essays, so that I have something published that I can use for clips when I’m job-hunting.

“You used to be a genius.”

When I was in college, my best friend and I went to see The Royal Tenenbaums two or three times while it was in the discount theater. We sat in the back rows, giddy over Eli Cash’s overwrought prose. There was something else about it that resonated deeply: that sense of nostalgia, of premature decline. A few months later, I left my university and spent the next year doing temp work, volunteering, taking a community college class, and wallowing in sweatpants on my parents’ couch before transferring to another college the next summer. I had been a “gifted” student in elementary school and a very good one through high school; I had done the requisite extracurriculars, but I was a better student than I was an athlete or actor. College, however, felt draining rather than invigorating, and I felt tired already when I began as a freshman. By my sophomore year, I was very depressed, and I didn’t know how to handle the difficult classes in my major—the one where, shock! horror! I got a B. In retrospect, this is an absurd and even embarrassing history to tell, the very height of #firstworldproblems.

I have been thinking, though, of this article, even though it was published a few months ago, and I realize that nobody likes to link to anything more than thirty-six hours old on the Internet. The author, Heidi Grant Halvorson, outlines a study that indicates children who are praised as “smart” are more likely than children who are called hard workers to blame themselves or give up when presented with a difficult task. That is, the former group considers their abilities innate and internalizes their failures, whereas the latter will simply work harder when presented with a challenge. Halvorson asks, “Are there things you decided long ago that you could never be good at? Skills you believed you would never possess? If the list is a long one, you were probably one of the bright kids — and your belief that you are ‘stuck’ being exactly as you are has done more to determine the course of your life than you probably ever imagined.” Depending on whether I am feeling self-loathing or self-pity, sometimes I suspect this claim provides me with something to blame and sometimes it is a consolation.

I began this post with my early college experience because I have been experiencing a sort of déjà vu. The Royal Tenenbaums feels relevant again and, again, I feel burnt out and incapable of focusing. Again, or rather still, I feel alienated from my identity as a student. Since the second grade, I have been Very Smart and Very Good at School, but in some ways it has always felt like going through the motions, doing the things I was supposed to do because I was obedient and they were relatively easy.

In seventh grade, I won my school’s spelling bee, and I remember flipping through the study materials for the county bee. I didn’t want to prepare, though, and merely felt full of dread that I would have to do this thing. In the end, I hardly studied, if at all, and I placed second at the county bee. I do remember the outfit I wore there, which included a salmon pink knitted vest from The Gap (I don’t know, it was 1995). And I remember feeling frustrated that the local paper made it appear that I had lost on a very easy word (“bombastic”), when in fact the one I had gone out on, which I have conveniently forgotten, was much more difficult. The article in the paper asked me how I felt about the outcome, and I told them the truth: that the boy who won wanted it much more than I had. I knew this was not his first time at the spelling bee, and that he had studied exhaustively. I simply hadn’t embarrassed myself doing something I didn’t particularly relish.

And so I always did what I was supposed to do, until I left college for a year (and it is very hard, it turns out, to have your parents tell you they are disappointed in you). But then I went back and continued doing the things that people said I was good at, which was writing essays. I am fine at writing essays, but this is not enough, it turns out, when writing a dissertation. And while most of the time being a good student means eliciting praise, being a grad student means a near-constant feeling of dread about feedback, about performance. I have always had an intense fear of punishment and disapproval, so this is problematic for me. And the funny thing about graduate school is that you can be a very good student at every level until you enter a PhD program, and then it may suddenly turn out that you are not a very good student anymore at all. (This is not to say I am actually a terrible grad student, just a self-deprecating one and not a star.) And it wouldn’t matter if you were still good, because there really are no jobs in this field, but even if there were jobs, that wouldn’t change this slide into misery.

Why didn’t I read the signs better? The spelling bee, or the fact that I sabotaged my personal essay for the most prestigious college I applied to but did not wish to attend. It’s like when everyone realizes that Margot Tenenbaum was a smoker all along.

So, then, what are the things I haven’t thought I could do? Should I be doing them now? When I left college, that failure was in a way delicious. I had never done it before, and I felt that I needed to leave to know that it would be okay to fail or to do something that wasn’t just exactly right. I am not going to leave graduate school willy-nilly, without a plan or if I determine that leaving ABD would be a terrible mistake, but I can’t say the pull isn’t there to just say, fuck it all.

So, how do you discover who you are when the mantle you’ve shouldered all this time has been a sham?

Endless possibility

Academia felt like the only possible path for me for only a short time, after I graduated from college but didn’t know what else to do with myself. These days, I’m not sure yet what my post-academic field will be, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about other options. Last weekend, the manager of a department-store fragrance counter asked me if I’d “worked in fragrance” because of a particular turn-of-phrase I’d used, and I’d had to explain that no, I only spend too much time on the Internet. My other response, though was, “I wish,” and I was almost tempted to ask her how to get a job. At a department-store fragrance counter. Then I realized that those sales people probably work on commission, which is a situation I probably wouldn’t love.

Anyway, these are some of my career ideas:

If I had to choose one field I’d really like to work in, I think this would be it. I do have experience in this area, and I think I would enjoy editorial, publicity, or marketing work. I don’t know if my current experience would be enough to get me an entry-level position, or if I’d need an internship or even a certificate from a publishing program to be a better candidate. An issue: I don’t think I want to live in New York.

Women’s Lingerie
I wore the wrong bra size for years when I was younger, and it drives me nuts that although I do not have an exceptionally large or small bust, I can maybe find one style of bra in my size at Victoria’s Secret (seriously, they are the worst). There’s nothing in my size at, say, Target or other places that are generally within a grad student’s budget. Thank goodness for Nordstrom Rack. Maybe this is silly, but the idea of helping women find properly fitting bras seems like something that could give me a lot of satisfaction. An issue: No retail experience. Would I want to work retail, even in a little specialty shop?

Women’s Health
I don’t want to go to medical school, and I don’t think I want to become a nurse, but I can imagine being some kind of healthcare para-professional. And when I say “women’s health” I mean “abortion providers.” Like bra fitting, the right to choose is really important to me, and is a cause I’d enjoy supporting. (Okay, yeah, the first half of that sentence is maybe kind of crazy.) One of my issues with academic work, though, is that it doesn’t feel meaningful anymore. In this field, I would certainly feel like my work mattered. An issue: No idea what actual position I’m imagining here, or what kind of additional education it would require.

Seriously, wouldn’t ripping hair out of a strange woman’s crotch be kind of a great stress reliever? Issues: Strange women’s crotches. Also, I have no experience with professional waxing.

I’m not surprised that many of the paths I’ve considered (more or less seriously) involve lady stuff, although it is with some humor that I acknowledge that they tend to involve, well, ladies’ stuff. Honestly, I don’t know what that’s about.

Practically speaking, I also don’t know how many jobs fit my interests and aptitudes and aren’t dying professions. When I floated the idea of publishing to my mother, her response was, “Does that even still exist? Isn’t it like journalism?” Similarly, I can see myself enjoying library work, but I don’t want to go to library school only to have to find yet another field with a better outlook.

Also, I think “publishing” has become a sort of stand-in for any sort of work involving writing, editing, research, or informal teaching skills. For some reason, I have a shakier sense of what kinds of professional work I might enjoy. In some ways, because I’ve been a student for so long, I still have a very limited, child-like notion of what kinds of careers people can have—If I don’t want to be a doctor or lawyer or firefighter or ballerina or astronaut, then what? I’m exaggerating, but to an extent I do have some of the same issues I had six years ago of imagining something else. I do think I would be happy as, say, a technical writer or editor, or a copywriter/editor. Actually, one of my dream jobs would be writing catalog copy. Anthropologie, call me.

In the meantime, I hope my appointment at my university’s career center next week will answer some of my questions and give me some new ideas.

An introduction

I am one of those people who probably never should have gone to grad school. Although I had intended to get a secondary-school teaching credential during undergrad, I found myself putting it off and thinking how much more fun it would be to teach college students. After auditing a graduate seminar and learning about microfilm (my undergraduate institution’s library didn’t have a lot of digital archive subscriptions), I also liked the idea of doing more interesting research and making more sophisticated academic arguments. I had a vague idea that maybe I should take some more practical technical writing classes, but by that point I was too enamored with the idea of grad school. Mostly, though, I just wasn’t sure what else to do, and unfortunately nobody told me not to pursue a PhD in the humanities.

Now, I have taught both high school and college students in varying capacities, and I know they are not that different. I like teaching, but I don’t love the daily slog of it. I also know that, for an introvert, teaching is an exhausting job, one that has probably impeded my “real” academic work. And in retrospect, the office work I did outside academia, before I entered my PhD program, actually involved the parts of teaching I enjoy (i.e., helping people learn) without its detractors (e.g., grading endlessly, fielding procrastination-fueled emails at all hours). As far as research goes, I enjoy working on my family’s genealogy at least as much as I enjoy working on my dissertation.

In retrospect, I also should have known that the conditions of writing a dissertation would not be compatible with my natural work habits, my need for structure and organization. If I am truly honest, I sort of did know this might be a problem, but I felt sure that I would work around it—I told myself I was passionate about my field. It seemed that some vague “everyone” always said that you just had to find your passion and pursue it, and surely this was my passion! If not this, then what? And I knew I would be poor for years, but until that point, I had lived what I admit was a fairly privileged life and had not yet figured out how to plan or follow a budget. And while age thirty seemed very far away, it also seemed reasonable to scrape by until then, because then, if I was lucky, I would start an academic career! And if that didn’t work out, well, I supposed I would find something else. Now I am turning thirty this year, and it turns out that having credit card debt and no savings at this age is worse than I had imagined, and it’s easy to be cavalier about “finding something else” when that’s six years away.

I have known these things—and have intended to leave academia—for a long time now. In fact, I’ve had impulses to leave for years, but leaving graduate school is hard to do. There is always the lure of staying in, jumping through another hoop, and why not, when the economy is terrible, anyway? The last time I seriously considered leaving was a few years ago; ultimately I relented because leaving just felt so difficult and because the beginning of another school year pulled me back into my project for a little while. Being in graduate school and planning to leave feels like living a double life, and now that feeling is harder to endure than ever. To most people, I am trying to write my dissertation, trying to professionalize, even when I know anything I can accomplish in that area might be too little, too late, for the academic job market. Privately, though, I am coming closer and closer to the end of my time here, and I need to figure out how and when to prepare for a job outside of academia: What will I do, and where? What do I need to do to prepare? When do I need to apply? How am I planning to go to an expensive conference far away, when I have these other concerns in mind? As I write this, I don’t know if I will finish my dissertation. I am still closer to its beginning than its end, and it is becoming more and more difficult to devote myself to something that seems more and more pointless.

This blog is an attempt to work my way out of that despair, toward something that will make me happier, more productive (and with no intention of further accidentally referencing Radiohead).