A Little Bit of Wonder is where I journal about the somewhat roundabout way that I have been working to establish a career and a strong sense of self--I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about "direction" and "identity." I have a Master's Degree in Literature, but I'm no longer working as an English Professor; I'm starting the next step in my life as I work to establish a career as a writer in the non-profit sector.

At my companion blog, Little Wonder's Recommended Reading, you will find reviews for both books and other blogs that I enjoy. The two blogs are inter-linked, so you can access my reviews and reading challenges from the sidebar on the left.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Hoping for an Over-Stuffed Mailbox

Several friends of mine sent out applications to Ph.D. programs this fall -- and it was nice to know that I was not the only one taking the GRE Subject Test, filling out forms, and prostituting my soul to any university that would listen. Now that I'm receiving rejection letters, it's nice to know that I'm not alone in that, either -- although obviously I would prefer to see my friends get accepted into school. But at least someone understands the sinking feeling in my stomach when I open one of those envelopes and start to read, "We regret to inform you... due to an usually high number of over-qualified applicants..."

One friend has dubbed these letters "thin envelopes," because the letter is a single sheet of paper -- as opposed to the nice, fat admissions packet that you were hoping to find folded, wrinkled and shoved into your mailbox: "We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted... Will you be needing on-campus housing? Here are your options, and here is a detailed explanation of all the money that we will give you..."

Now that I have three thin envelopes, I am just waiting on one more response. I'm still hoping that I will come home one day and instead of finding another delivery from Amazon (yay, more books!), I'll find a thick manila envelope stamped George Washington University. Then I will dance all the way up the hallway stairs, back in to my apartment, where I'll make my husband open the envelope. After this happens, I will breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that I will have income to buy groceries and books, and health care to cover the cost of my allergy treatments. If I don't spend all my money on drugs, doctors and books, I might even be able to buy myself a new phone -- my cell is looking pretty shabby after I dropped it off the balcony and it landed face-down on cement patio below. So much hangs on the girth of a single envelope -- no wonder I'm having trouble sleeping.

As I try to prepare myself for that last envelope being as thin as the other three, I've been trying to come up with a positive spin on the situation. I can use the next year to focus on my art: I can take another watercolor class, or perhaps a pottery class, and have more time to make jewelry, which I sell online. I can also use the time, as I prepare another batch of applications to Ph.D. programs, to start researching my dissertation, and therefore have a more detailed application essay. I could start to learn Spanish, which I plan on doing eventually anyway, which will also make me a better candidate for a Ph.D. program. Since I will still be employed as adjunct professor, I can try out some ideas that I have for teaching developmental writing classes using themes and roll-playing games.

I can't help of thinking through the cons as well as the pros, though, the most terrifying of which is the prospect of re-taking the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations). I've been through two rounds of these awful tests already. Several years ago, I took the general test, proving my competency in math, vocabulary and writing. Then, last fall, I took the dreaded LIT GRE, which demonstrated exactly how many of the World's Greastest Books I haven't read. Your scores for these tests are considered valid for several years, but since I took the general GRE before earning my Master's degree, I might have to retake that exam if I am not accepted to a doctoral program in the next year or two. That would mean re-learning algebra -- again -- and it is that thought that gives me nightmares. These were literal nightmares, in fact, which brought me to heart palpitations almost as violent as those I experience when I dream about returning to high school gym class. Apparently, I was enrolled to re-take algebra and pre-calculus at my old high school, but I had missed the first month of classes. When I tried to find out what I had missed and how many assignments I would have to make-up, I was told that the class had already covered all the mathematical principles developed in the first several centuries of advanced human civilization, so I would have to learn all of that on my own.

I awoke in a cold sweat, and began praying that George Washington University would send me an envelope bulging with scholarship offers and complicated instructions for obtaining my Student ID card.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Really Personal Statement

Applying to graduate school, as I believe I have said in this blog before, is a lot like whoring yourself out. You've really got to sell yourself as the right man/woman for the position -- I'll fit into your department (everybody likes me); I'll work like a dog; I've already proven myself academically; I'll continue to do it all with a smile and you'll enjoy working with me. Pick me! Pick me! I'll even bake you cookies!

Too bad a few of these won't fit into the application envelope...

I applied to several Ph.D. programs on the East Coast this winter... what if I had written what I was really thinking, and perhaps more importantly, feeling? Not just statements about how qualified I am to join the department, but "Look, I'm a damn good teacher. Just ask my students -- there are so many who have thanked me over and over for the help and understanding that I've been able to give them. I love helping them -- but I can't continue to do that to the best of my ability if I don't earn my Ph.D. So please please please help me fulfill my goals and dreams (not to be trite) and give me one of your coveted positions."

Or, what about this? "When I was younger, I used to sit in my room reading novels until three in the morning, sometimes sobbing at the outcome. I dreamed that someday I would write a novel like that, and my novel would change people's lives. When I got older, I realized that the primary way that I could really make a difference in people's lives, especially given my talents and interests, was to help them learn skills that they could really use. I want to continue to teach literature because I feel that it teaches each reader compassion for people who are in very different situations and belong to very different cultures than their own; I want to continue to teach composition because learning how to communicate clearly and in a structured fashion is something that will help a student no matter what they want to do with their lives. I want to teach either/both subjects because I believe that both literature and composition help us all build our critical thinking skills, something that sharpens and strengthens society as a whole."

What if I could write those things -- would the admissions committees even care?

Instead, I submitted the usual (but artful) personal statements, detailing the research that I've done and that I am currently doing. Some people find my articles about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Nancy Drew and Harry Potter very interesting -- others probably look down on what I've written and published. Many schools ask you to discuss your teaching experiences -- but there's barely room to say more than what is already listed on my resume... the where, when, and for how long I have taught. I don't get a chance to say much about my passion for teaching, or my classroom philosophy. I really don't even get a chance to explain my passion for certain kinds of literature and film -- no one ever asks you to explain why you write about Buffy or Nancy or Harry. So, either they think your research is cutting edge, or they think it's silly -- or as a few faculty members have advised me, past its moment.

A lot rides on that single personal statement. You have to get it right; they have to like you. More than like you. So I worked hard on each essay that I wrote -- considered how I would fit in to the department, what faculty I would work with on my dissertation. But after getting rejected by half the schools that I applied to this winter, I find myself wishing that I could have conveyed more about my passion for both teaching itself and the research that I do into certain types of literature. Why don't they ever ask you questions like, "Why do you think this material is important?" or "Why is it important to you to earn a Ph.D.?"

Shouldn't the faculty care about those aspects of your personality and motivation, since those are the things that will sustain you through the long, agonizing years of a graduate degree program? It would be nice if you were required to write a personal statement that was at least a little bit... personal.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

To Ph.D. or not to Ph.D.?

It's been over a year since I last posted to this blog -- but I'm a girl who has also had the same Netflix DVD sitting beside my TV (Slumdog Millionaire, if anybody is interested) for almost 3 months now, without watching it. Sometimes I'm really good about taking care of things, but sometimes I just let things go in a ridiculous way.

At first I didn't write because I was wrapped up in writing my Master's Thesis... when you take on a project like that, it takes over your life--yet you still have to deal with other classes and do your own laundry so that you don't start smelling like the broccoli and cheese you had for dinner last week. I'm looking forward to the fact that when I write my doctoral dissertation, at least I'll have completed my classwork by the time and I can mainly focus on writing the dissertation without the distractions of other research and papers on completely different subjects. I work best when I can stay focused on one track.

Then I didn't write because I graduated (THANK GOD) and didn't have a whole lot left to say about my career in graduate school because it was over. (At least for the time being.)

I didn't really think I had a whole to say about anything, for that matter. My brain went on autopilot, and I was lucky enough to find a couple of gigs that let me kick back and have a little fun. I worked at summer camp (as usual) over the summer and spent a lot of time with family, then got a job teaching Composition and Argumentative/Academic Rhetoric at a community college in the fall. I've been doing things that let me relate to my own humanity again -- drawing, playing with kids, making jewelry, learning how to watercolor, reading novels on a whim instead of being assigned to read them, visiting with friends from back home in Michigan (Christmas was wonderful). I've gone to the beach and gorged on coconut shrimp and amaretto sours, photographed the cherry blossoms, decorated Christmas cookies, rearranged the furniture in my apartment, learned how to play Dutch Blitz (a great card game), enjoyed the historic and quickly-infamous "Blizzard of 2010" in the D.C. area... Life seems pretty good, overall.

So now the nagging question is -- do I really want to go back to graduate school?

The answer is both yes and no.

No, because I'm enjoying the fact that when I wake up in the morning, I can think about what I want to have for breakfast, watch the news on MSNBC or an episode of Law & Order on Netflix Instant Viewing, take a leisurely shower and think about what I want to wear -- all of this before I really start my day. I don't have to role out of bed, wrap myself up in a robe and immediately sit down at the computer to work on my thesis for a few hours before I can even think about taking a shower and running my errands. I don't have to read and research for eight hours a day unless I'm totally engrossed in a novel and I want to keep reading... and when I'm reading, I can stop to look out the window, enjoy the brightness of the sunshine or the blueness of the sky, and actually think for a minute about what it is that I just read. I have time to meditate, not just consume.

But yet -- I DO want to go back to get my Ph.D. because I love teaching literature. Right now, I'm teaching composition part time, which is basically the best position that I will get with only a Master's degree. I'm enjoying myself (a lot), but I won't make enough money to buy myself a condo or modest house, donate some money every once in a while to UNICEF's children's fund, and buy my kids' Christmas presents (let alone take a few vacations) if I don't get a full-time/tenured position at a college or university -- and for that, I need a Ph.D.

So, that's where I'm at right now -- I haven't brought you up to speed on everything that has happened since last January, but I've hit the highlights of what's relevant to the decision before me. Of course, the applications are all in for different Ph.D. programs in the Washington DC area and in the Carolinas... and everyone's fingers are crossed. The decision has already been made -- sacrifice 4 to 6 more years of a comfy, normal life of 9 to 5 hours with evenings free in order to prepare myself for the future that I want. It's a sacrifice that plenty of people make, and at least I'm lucky enough to truly love studying literature and literary theory. I would love grad school totally and completely -- if it weren't for the pace, the feeling that you cannot be a person any more. You have to be a machine to crank out the work at the rate that they expect. I've lost enough of my humanity in the last few years and I have to ask myself -- can I really afford to become a machine again? Because I think that is what it will take to earn my Ph.D.
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