Art and Arnold

From the Post-Doctoral desk: A love letter to the PhD 

For some of you, what follows may not be what you expect. I want to be clear about that. You may find it unsettling. You may think I am completely off my rocker and completely missed the boat. And you may think I am putting an entirely negative spin on something that is some huge achievement. You probably think I should be galloping down the streets, singing, skipping, and feeling indestructible. But I’m not. And I ask you to remember; I am not you.

On January the 9th, 2016, IDSVA decided I had done enough to grant me the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. It had been a 6-year run with varied amounts of enough ups and downs to fill anybody’s journey along that road. Long hours reading esoteric writings, longer hours trying to synthesize those esoteric writings into coherent thoughts of my own, and even longer hours formulating those coherent thoughts into even more coherent sentences to be graded by instructors. Scattered between this routine were trips to Italy, France, New York, and Brown University. And, while these trips were moments of making very close connections with other people doing the same thing I was, they were also filled with that same process of reading-synthesis-writing that my average days were. It went on constantly until my instructors decided it was time to see how much I remembered in my qualifying exams. After that, I was paired with an advisor and given the task of climbing out of A.B.D. purgatory by writing a dissertation. 399 pages later, my instructors wanted to talk to me again. So I sat down to have a chat called “The Defense.”

Routines like this change you. They become part of you life. For those of you who watched me go through it, I know you noticed my hair growing grayer. I know you noticed when I started needing glasses to drive at night. And, I know you witnessed how my dietary habits changed permanently at the instruction of my gastroenterologist.

And what was all this for? Well, for that carrot on the end of a stick that I had stuck out in front of myself so many years ago when I decided to get a PhD in the first place. That decision was not immediate. It was made over several years when I was teaching in southern California. However, it became fully realized as I was going through a divorce in 2007. Once out of that marriage, I would finally have the time go after this thing if I really wanted it. And I did.

So, schools were contacted, requirements were checked, and applications sent off. IDSVA rose to the top of the pile for a number of reasons, and in the summer of 2009, I landed in Italy, met Amy Curtis by a concrete post in Rome’s airport, was driven off into the Tuscan country side, and-

-And you already know the rest.

But, to come back to what I started with. What I want to tell you is how it feels being done. And this is where you may disagree with me.

It does not feel good.

There is nothing joyous about it. There is no leaping or singing. There is no deep sense of accomplishment. Maybe that will come. But, for now, there is just this odd feeling of loss and of being let down.

This is no fault of IDSVA. The school did its job and did it well. In fact, I am proud of my time there. I’m proud I served on the editorial board of the school’s literary journal Eye and Mind. I’m happy with much (not all) of my course work I did there. I’m happy for the time I was able have with contemporary scholars such as Howard Caygill and Etienne Balibar. And, I’m thankful for the connections I made with the students in my cohort and the other cohorts I came to know. Would I take the opportunity to work with any of them again in some capacity? Of course, that should be obvious. Also, the school was successful in delivering on its promise to me that it would succeed in achieving full accreditation and be a nationally recognized institution of higher learning. I know that took a tremendous amount of work by those involved, and I’m thankful for it. Guys, I owe you dinner somewhere, sometime.

So I think this feeling of slight depression comes more from an internal place. It’s obviously some form of mourning over the fact that it’s over. It’s all over. I had been leading the past 7 plus years of my life toward this goal. And now that I’ve done it, all those moments I had during this grand paper chase are added up. But here’s the rub, I can’t add any others to them. When I was handed my diploma, that list was finalized and tallied. And I was left to turn the page over, and try to start another list. That’s hard to do after 7 plus years, and it’s an odd headspace to be in.

I think at a subconscious level, I knew this was coming. A few hours before I walked across the stage in my large velvet robe, I was tying my shoes in my hotel room when a feeling I wasn’t expecting came over me. I didn’t want to go my graduation. At the time, I was questioning the whole pomp and ceremony of it. But after the event, as I walked down the street talking to my sister about it, I realized I had not wanted to go because I did not want it to be over. Walking across the stage was admitting to the closure of that time of my life. And that walk is so short. It’s over before you know it, and you’re left siting in your seat thinking, “that was it?”

When you agree to the closure of an event like this, you’re really agreeing to the kind of emotional terrain akin to what one goes through when they face the death of loved one. Moments become memories that are condensed and slightly blurred. They may still make you laugh and smile, but not in the same way. Now, instead of laughing with the moment, you’re laughing at it as it’s recalled. You don’t feel the moment, you remember how the moment made you feel. And when those moments were as full as these were, it’s hard to simply put them down and paste them into a scrapbook.

So I think that’s why I’m a little melancholy. I’m just not ready to start a scrapbook yet. I know in time I will be, and I know in time these feelings will slide away and new ones will come. But in the meantime, for those of you who want to know how I feel about everything, understand this is where I am.

For those of you who are attending IDSVA, I would also add that my type of response to graduating does happen apparently. So if you get the end and feel like you fell off the high dive into the deep end, you’re not the only one. Maybe you wont feel this way, and maybe you’ll be the one smiling and dancing and feeling indestructible. But if you don’t, it’s ok. If you did it right, it’s been a hell of a ride, and it’s ok to slump if only for a minute.


-photo credit: Dr. Gregory Blair

Posted 12th January 2016 by Arnold, H.C.

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This entry was posted on February 16, 2016 by .
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