Aversion Therapy, or, why I'm not writing…

It’s around 11:00 Monday, and Kev and I are in our usual positions in front of our computers. Kev is playing an early 90s point-and-click known as “Day of the Tentacle.” I’m, of course, typing this. This weekend I set a goal for myself that I will post a minimum of three days a week, rather than leaving things untouched for two months. It’s a start.

I have an admission to make: I’ve been terribly depressed the past few months. Faced with the prospect of the dissertation, I’ve been hiding my head in the sand and pretending it’s not there. When I think about the writing, and the approval process, and the ensuing job search and idea of a tenure-track position, I get sick to my stomach. I dread doing it, I feel guilty not working on it. I can’t win, so I get depressed.

You know, my friend Linda and I have talked about this a lot. We’re both in the same stages of the process, and we’re both facing the same difficulties. But where Linda turns to self-doubt (“How can I do this?”) — which we’ve also been talking about — I turn to anger (“Why should I do this?”). Not so much the “what’s the point?” attitude of despair, although that’s present given the number of PhDs that ever land a tenure-track position. No, this is the “Why the hell am I playing thie game?” anger toward the PhD process and tenure process. It reeks of “old boy” network and frat initiation: play by our rules and we’ll let you join our club. Except that the pledge period for college professors lasts for somewhere around seven years before tenure is granted. Do I really want a career where I’m on probation for that long?

Here’s the event that really shook my belief in the system: one of my professors was denied tenure two years ago. He was an excellent professor, a great teacher and avid researcher. Students loved his classes. He had two book manuscripts looking for publishers and was active in the department, serving on committees and directing dissertations. But besides the book manuscripts he didn’t have enough publications, despite winning an award for one article. Also, I know that bad blood existed between him and a tenured professor. Three people came up for tenure that spring. The other two were granted, and he was denied. Now he’s living in Atlanta and unable — or unwilling — to start over at another school. He’s in his 50s, and (rightly, I feel) cynical about the entire process.

One of the reasons this hit me so hard is that I really identified with this professor. He wasn’t in it for the “glory” of scholarly recognition that I see in some of the academics I deal with. No, he simply loved to teach. And to learn. To me, a system that encourages people like him to crank out a certain number of scholarly publications in certain “approved” journals at the expense of a vibrant classroom is a flawed system. Is it one I really want to buy into?

I feel like I’ve lost sight of what drew me to graduate school to begin with: a love of theatre. Of making theatre. I am a firm believer in the combination of  theory and practice in theatre, that practice without theory is hollow, and theory without practice is ungrounded. On the one side is cheap entertainment; on the other, the Ivory Tower. Neither is complete. I feel like I’ve gone too far into the realm of theory, of dealing with the words of theatre, and lost sight of the stage, the dust and the paint and the sweat. All I have right now are books, and articles, and interviews… words on a page, dead before they’re written down.

I hate theatre so badly right now I want to cry. Isn’t that awful? I stare at the volumes on my shelf, and dread opening them. I realize I have to move past this feeling, to find what about my topic first fascinated me. But friends and family exhorting me to “just get the thing written” aren’t helping. They don’t understand the physical aversion I have to the project right now.

It doesn’t help that I feel like those people who should be most invested in my success, my committee, have abandoned me. I’m feeling terribly alone in this process, save for Linda. I have no direction or guidance, or support, from those who are supposed to be mentoring me. I know my professors are terribly busy people, with projects of their own, and I have a really hard time asking for help at the risk of appearing weak. But I feel like I’m being left out of the loop entirely. One of my committee members has apparently been suspended for the semester, due to a question of improper citation and issues with a publisher, but I’ve only found out about it through another grad student. The department called a meeting of all PhD students to discuss this issue, but the two students most directly effected, myself and Linda (since this person is on our dissertation committes) have never been notified of any problem. Not even an email from our committee chair(s) : “Oh, by the way, Prof. X is unavailable this semester, we’re not sure what’s going to happen at this point” or whatever. If this issue was important enough to call all the doctoral students together, even those who’ve never had class with this professor, why weren’t we notified of something?

You know, they say that out of sight is out of mind. Linda and I are both off-campus. Maybe coming to Germany wasn’t the best path to finishing the PhD quickly. But this experience has given me so much more in other ways that I don’t regret it for a minute. I just have to find a way to get back to the writing process, to make — and stick to — a plan and a timetable, and to convince myself to get to writing despite my anger, and distaste, and dread.

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