I’ve learned a few things in the past few weeks during this life overhaul.

can do this.  I don’t really miss fun things to eat like candy.  This may change, but for the moment regret is stronger than the lure of the Reece’s Pieces in the workroom or the yummy Belvita breakfast bars (technically not a “bad” food, but calorific).

Cooking takes a lot longer.  I’m doing grilled chicken and it takes a while to prepare on the stove.  I do make sure to do more than just one day’s worth, but I’m not used to slaving over a stove.  I’m much more of a “whack it in the oven” kind of girl.  

And the grocery shopping.  Yikes!  About 2-3 times a week I go get produce and other groceries.  Finding the best deal on packages of vegetables, deciding which yoghurt has the most beneficial nutrition, and wading through the crowds takes a while, especially since the tourists have descended on York.  (Walkways and sidewalks are called that because you walk on them, not saunter, not take pictures, not somehow magically make yourselves wider, people!)

I am drifting off to sleep better and waking more easily without the sleep aid.  Like many people, I have insomnia.  I always thought that my doctor was right–some little pharmaceutical nudge must be the best thing.  Well, even though I wake up 3-4 times a night now (though this may be related to the rather extreme heatwave we’ve been having, or “extreme” when it comes to York, I suppose), but I’m not groggy and disfunctional in the morning.  

I am, however, achy.  I’m not seeing results yet, but I have to think that this is worth it.  I read recently that it takes a good solid four weeks to see results in yourself.  I’ve been really examining and controlling my diet (counting calories, too) for about two weeks and recording my exercise for about three.  Let’s hope the next week brings some noticeable results so that the aches will be worth it!

I am stronger than I think.  I can go without that serving of bread or that sprinkle of sugar in my tea.

All of this is making me more confident in my work and in my life in general.  No, I still don’t like big groups or presenting or having my supervisor read and comment on my work.  Some of those things are is part of life.  However, I feel better during the day.  I feel more rested and less foggy, I know that I can look forward to meal times because I make almost everything I eat myself (and chart things like M&S prepared salads on MyFitnessPal, a website that has nutrition lookups for almost every brandname food out there).  I make time to enjoy that food while I catch up on Doctor Who for half an hour at work.

I also make sure to get out of the workroom in enough time to exercise, eat dinner, and get ready for bed.  No more isolating nights until 10pm and feeling drained the next day!  

I know lately I’ve been talking about personal issues rather than intellectual/professional/academic.  However, I think that if I can chronicle my progression in my schedule and health revamp then I can inspire others and during tough times myself.  

These nutrition and exercise changes are helping me to combat stress, and therefore they help me in my work.  More control over my schedule helps me get things done, so I’m grateful that I’ve started it.

March and April brought my first professional engagements at conferences and classes.  After the end of the term at York, during which time I had shadowed and had a fun (but at times trying) time teaching for the first time, I attended the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature’s first conversation.  The SSMLL and the Corpus Centre for the Study of Greek and Roman Antiquity jointly hosted “Classicists and Medievalists in Conversation: Epic“.  Of course, this event seemed tailor-made for my interests.  I was an undergraduate classicist with a focus on epic, and I am a current medievalist focusing on epic tradition in medieval romance.  This was technically a conference, but it was organised to be a more informal forum for discussion. The short panels left plenty of time for discussion afterwards.  There were lots of big names in the room, and I was particularly starstruck by Philip Hardie whose books I’ve consulted frequently over the past several months.  I think I was a bit timid–this was my first big-girl (as in not just postgraduate) conference, and the discussion tended to be dominated by more experienced, published, and employed academics.  I felt a bit out of place, as much of the discussion was on material I’d never encountered before.  However, it was a good way to dip my toes into the conference pool.  My full conference report can be found here.

St. Hugh’s College, Oxford
Works Cited: http://www.proimmune.com/

Two weeks after the day-long Epic conversation, I went to back to Oxford for the Romance in Medieval Britain Conference at St. Hugh’s College.  This was a three-day event, and the papers were absolutely fantastic.  I got to see two of my fellow PhD workroom friends present papers, talked with academics I’ve encountered at Cambridge and Durham, and meet other new researchers and post-docs with similar interests.  I was pleased to find that there were many others working on various Troy Books and ecphrasis, there was one panel whose papers fit incredibly well with my MA dissertation on hospitality and generosity in Gawain romances.  It was tiring, but extremely rewarding and fun.  After the last panel, I got to walk around the manuscript exhibit at the Bodleian Library.  While perusing the various sections, I bumped into another PhD from the conference who was visiting from Toronto, and we had a lovely afternoon walking in the sunshine.  My goal is to present a paper at the next RMB in two years, and I hope to keep up with the contacts I made this year.

Old Main, Gustavus Adolphus College
Works Cited: http://geography.blog.gustavus.edu/

After that crazy two weeks, I went home and then up to Minnesota to speak at Gustavus.  I shared my study abroad experience at the annual “Why Classics?” event and got an overwhelmingly positive response from the faculty.  The following day, I taught a class on the Aeneid in the Middle Ages with particular attention to the text of Chaucer’s House of Fame (Book 1) and sections of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  I was a bit disappointed that the students didn’t seem to work with the Middle English, and I discovered that I should have spent more time on SGGK because the text I provided for that had a modern translation.  I was expecting a Latin class to be a bit more receptive to engaging with the language, but I understand that it was something new for them.  However, I think the class went well even if I presented many novel ideas in a short amount of time.  I spoke with the only medievalist in the English department (who, of course, had been working in admin while I was a student), and he said he struggles each year when deciding on Chaucer text.  To use or not to use the Middle English?  It’s something I don’t think we should struggle with; Chaucer’s Middle English isn’t particularly difficult, and I’ve seen many undergraduate classes who read all the literature without translations.  It’s something to consider in the future, and I’d never thought about it before.

Being back at Gustavus as a speaker was a bit surreal.  I stayed in the guest house and was driven to and from Gustavus by my old advisor.  I was privy to all sorts of gossip and opinions from the faculty about which I had no idea as a student.  It was interesting to be on the other side of the fence–the side shared by professors I highly respect and adore.

I had a fantastic time being a “grown-up” academic for the first time.  It’s scary to be there, and entering into the ivory tower is daunting.  I hope that with practice I can work up to feeling more like I belong among those academics.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking.  But this is the only pop culture reference I could think of with “relax” in it, so get your mind out of the gutter.  This is not that kind of blog.

This blog is about my journeys in graduate school, and if I can go through a rough period and come out with advice and life experience for others, then I’ve accomplished something.  If I can articulate my triumphs, setbacks, and activities to my friends back in America, then this blog is doing its job.

 

The Valley

It’s now May and all of those conferences and engagements are over.  I’m back in York after a trip to the States and back to work.  I confess that it took me a really long time to get back into work mode.  You may have heard of the Thesis Whisperer.  (And if you are a student and haven’t heard of her, well, go to her page.  She’s worthy of the title “sage” when it comes to doling out advice about research writing and living.)  A few days ago, she posted on “The Valley of Shit“.  When I came back from the States, I was definitely in the Valley.  I suddenly realised that the listless, “meh” feelings I was having (and am still having to a lesser extent) came from me being intensely homesick.  I didn’t feel homesick last year.  Perhaps everything was new.  Perhaps classes and having others in my course kept me from feeling it too much.  Perhaps seeing my parents suddenly seeming older over Christmas flipped some daughterly switch.  Whatever the reason was, the fact was that I was slogging through my work–when I did work–feeling like I wasn’t getting anywhere.  Feeling like I wasn’t getting anywhere made me not want to work.  And on and on it went.  Yup, I was knee-deep in the Valley of Shit and didn’t know how to propel myself forward.  I was stressed and couldn’t force myself to really and truly relax.

 

The Plan

I finally just cried about it.  One big, huge, wailing ball of bawling mess.  I cleaned myself up and made a decision to make a schedule for myself in which I would make time for me.  I’m not talking necessarily about films, making tea, or writing letters; I do all that anyway.  My new mission was to work an allotted amount of hours per day and make absolutely sure that I got home before 9 pm and fit in workouts many times a week.  I would burn off the worry in the form of dedicated exercise (and free exercise thus far–YouTube has an impressive selection of full-length Tae Bo workouts that I can adapt for my bad knees).  After that exercise, I would actually sleep for 7-8 hours a night, which means not getting to bed at my nightowl-preferred 2 AM.

Since I was born, I’ve had health problems that affected my physical abilities and weight.  With all of this worry and anxiety about home, my parents, and my work, I felt like now was the time to really focus on making my mind and body healthy.  I’m still in the early weeks, but I want to make healthy living a priority.  This means waking up early, going to the workroom for at least 8 hours on a work day while munching on homemade lunches and snacks, getting home to exercise in the evenings, and then enjoying a healthy, fresh dinner.  I’ve never been one for “student” food, but I didn’t really keep fresh vegetables in the house, either.  That’s changed.  My favourite meal is now at least half a bag of greens (and by “greens,” I mean real greens that have nutritional value–not iceberg lettuce), a whole pepper or a bunch of tomatoes, a bit of smoked salmon, some goat cheese, and vinaigrette dressing I make from scratch.  Delicious!  Instead of snacking on whatever happens to look good on the day, I bring a lentil salad from M&S, some fresh fruit, yoghurt, and low fat cheese, and I make up my own mix of dried fruit and nuts for that 4 o’clock snack craving.

 

The Hard Stuff Still to Come

Of course, with improvements to my diet and workout schedule, I’ve had to make sacrifices elsewhere.  My bank account is less than happy with me.  I can’t be as flexible with my time in the evenings.  I have to, have to get to bed at a certain time.  Lack of funding and sleep always brings its own challenges, and I’m learning now how to overcome these new trials.  I have seen that perhaps my friends won’t be understanding when I can’t get cocktails or play the hostess.  This isn’t just about one night of fun.  This is a badly-needed life overhaul.  I need to make sure I have enough time to properly relax.  I need to do what many doctoral students have advised: make this thesis a job rather than a monster constantly hanging over my head.

My work itself is still trying.  I have my upgrade coming up at the beginning of July.  This is a formal meeting among my supervisor, my TAP (Thesis Advisory Panel) member, and another member of the department’s faculty to evaluate my progress and formally upgrade me to official PhD status (or technically “confirm my enrolment” as a PhD student).  From what I hear, it’s not a terrifying process on the day.  I submit 10,000 words to the three faculty members and will make sure that I prepare documents outlining my entire research project, showing a list of activities and lectures, and generally making me look good and productive.  Usually, this process isn’t until some time in the second year.  However…  Here’s the clincher: in order to teach next year, I must have upgraded.  This means I have to have upgraded before the beginning of autumn term, and this in turn means before the end of summer term.  While the meeting itself may not be stressful, the preparation is.  I have a sizeable chuck of that 10,000 words to write and a lot, a lot, a lot to read in order to write.  I have to edit the last section I submitted because not only does it need fleshing out, but it also needs all the footnotes.  I have to present good work to the upgrade committee, and that means more time in the workroom.

If I can suggest anything to others, it’s to write, cry, talk about things bothering you.  Stay connected to your friends and family; I know the support from my favourite people has helped me to continue with my programme here in the UK.  Make a budget and stick to it.  I don’t just mean a monetary budget here.  Schedule your life and budget the time you have for everything: breaks, work, television, preparation in the morning, everything.  There’s a reason my mom encouraged me to set out my clothes the night before, used an egg timer to ensure I was brushing my teeth enough, and always had a mammoth calendar on the fridge: scheduling works.  Plus, if you make a schedule, chances are you’ll remember the lectures you want to see and the lunch dates you have.  A great tool is Pomodoro, which is available as a Mac app and on Chrome.  You can set this little tomato for a set amount of work time which is followed by break time.  It also keeps track of each “Pomodoro” (set of work + break time) you complete, rewarding you with a longer break after several sets.

So what does all this scheduling, worrying, and upgrading mean for me and my road to overcoming my unintended sojourn through The Valley of Shit?  It means putting myself first, and that may mean putting socialising further down on my life list than I’d like.  Don’t worry–this should just  be until the big day in July, and my true friends should understand that I really can’t go out.  I don’t have the money, the time, or the energy to stay out until midnight.  It’s not because I don’t want to, but because I have to get over this hump and through the Valley.  I think I’ll be a better, more relaxed person when I climb out.

It’s been… a while since my last post (to put it mildly).  I’ve been busy, and at the moment I’m sitting in a room at St. Hugh’s College in Oxford University the night before the Romance in Medieval Britain Conference.  I’m eager to detail the first time I taught, the last conference I went to called “Medievalists and Classicists in Conversation: Epic”, my forthcoming visit to Gustavus to talk to the undergraduates twice, and to talk about what I’ve done in my research thus far.  All that will be done!  However, until I have a bit of spare time this will have to do: a guest blog post I wrote for my friend, Emma.  The main page of her blog, The Fox Charmer, can be found here and her travel blog, Tiptoe through the Tulips here.  We share common interests (museums, Skype dates, Skins and Doctor Who), loves (travelling, Italian art, Latin), backgrounds (Gustavus classicists from the southern US) and goals (postgraduate degrees not in classics but classics-adjacent).

As a side note, you may notice a shift in my spelling.  I’ve been asked to write my thesis using the British spellings instead of the American, so you can usually find me each day wearing my jewellery reading about past civilisations, and occasionally looking up words in an online encyclopaedia.

Dear You,

You know who you are.  You’re the person I fell in love with as a friend last year.  We share the same love of certain sci-fi television shows, study old Roman things, and have the same birthday.  We were friends immediately, and I trusted you to protect that relationship.  I knew very quickly that you liked me as more than a friend.  You asked me for coffee but didn’t ask our other female friends.  You asked me what I was looking for in a boyfriend, and all I could think of to reply with was “glasses” (a true statement an a subtle attempt to edge you away from me as a potential partner).  I loved you as a friend, but knew that a relationship wouldn’t work for me–in the same way I know I will never be romantically involved with my best guy friends from college.  In many ways you remind me of the first guy whom I fell in love with as a partner and whose eccentricities doomed our relationship.  He treated me badly in the end, and I couldn’t let that happen to us.

However.  You asked me out right before Easter break.  Because I love you as a friend, I said “yes” with the caveat that I didn’t feel the same way.  Easter came and went with me in the States, and I returned to England.  You never brought up the date again, but we spent time together like nothing had been said.

Then things began to unravel.  You came into my room without knocking.  In a serious manner you ordered me not to say something–not a request or a joke.  I can’t hide my feelings, and as you quickly gleaned that situation caused me to smolder with anger.  You order me?  Since when am I yours to command?  Since when do you have the permission to enter my room without knocking?  The situation bothered a college tutor so that I had to request action against you not be taken.

Then the end came.  You went to visit friends out of town and returned with a mind to avoid me.  Well, not just avoid.  Loathe.  After watching television together at our last meeting, you suddenly won’t speak to me in person and shoot seething, glaring stares in my direction.  I offered nothing but the open arms of a friend (and some select nerdy media) and you couldn’t even tell me in person that you wanted nothing to do with me.

My worst fears had been realized.  My life at the house became almost intolerable.  It was a good thing my dissertation was looming, as I could safely hide away in my room to avoid the tangible anger wafting towards me if we were in the same room.  I suppose you never told me you hated me, but the Looks of Doom and cruel avoidance or ignoring of any kindness on my part told me this was the case.  I’m not sure what exactly changed or what I did.  As a friend, I wouldn’t allow myself to lie to you and feign interest in a relationship.  I thought you deserved the truth.  I didn’t reject you outright, and you shouldn’t blame me if you never had the nerve to set a day for the date.

I’ve cried much too much over this, and despite you not speaking to me for over six months, I still am torn over it.  You hurt me almost more than that boy in college did.  At least he had the courage to tell me his looming graduation made him unfit for a relationship.  You couldn’t even let me know you had some issue with me.

I hate myself when I’m around you because all I can think of is rushing to anyone around you (especially women) and screaming, “Wait!  He’s not worthy of your attention!  He’s a terrible friend who will only be there when it suits him!  He knowingly hurts people and seems to revel in it!”  I hate thinking terrible thoughts, and despite this I would welcome a reconciliation.  Would I ever trust you again?  No.  Would I give almost anything to take our joint friends out of the position of mediators?  You bet.

I still think of the living hell you put me through those last months at Durham.  I felt guilty for coming into your building to use the kitchen.  I blamed myself for your drinking binges beginning before noon.  I know I shouldn’t, but I do.

I still don’t understand what happened, and you’ll probably never tell me.  I’m scared–well, utterly frightened–to see you the day I graduate.  You don’t graduate that day, so much of my being is barely being restrained from telling you to steer clear from graduation because it’s not a day belonging to you.  Part of me really hopes that college tutor or my father punch you in your face for all you’ve done.

Nothing will come out of this letter, but at least I can get out my frustration in one place.  It’s time for me to move on, and I’m desperately trying to despite the frequent Facebook statuses or comments mentioning or written by you.  At least there’s no more pretense of being friends.  You stopped being my friend the first time you shot me a nasty look and refused to speak to me.

And yes, you are a coward and a bastard.  In other awkward situations I’ve had the bravery to tell people how I feel and how I want the situation to proceed from my end.  You lack honor, and to me that’s the biggest reason we could never have a romantic relationship.  So, you see, my instincts we right.

From,

Me

Now that I’m settled in York (and perhaps have too much on my plate with auditing Old French and Latin, running two discussion groups/lecture series, constructing props for the Lords of Misrule production of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and sorting out shadowing next term), I can report that I do really love my program, supervisor, and peers.  On the personal front, I love my flatmate and our similar tastes in pumpkin foods, The Big Bang Theory, Merlin, heckling bad films, wandering around York’s streets, and unwinding after a long day with one of our many, many types of tea.

Despite my success at the undergraduate and master’s levels, I still sometimes feel like I’m out of my depth.  I don’t have the background many of my peers have (I think we touched on Cimabue in my art history survey class, read Beowulf in my World Literature I class, and heard about The Canterbury Tales in my Great Books of the Greek and Roman world course).  However, a visiting student who came to deliver a paper here at the Centre for Medieval Studies last night assures me that this is normal.  She said she felt throughout the entire process that she’d be “found out” and thrown out.  It’s sometimes an unsettling feeling, but it seems like it’s a normal one.

This omnipresent feeling leads me to something that has bugged me over the years that resurfaced after speaking with this Oxford-educated woman with a DPhil already in the bag.

In my junior year of college I was in my senior seminar class on ancient epic.  I had this professor for many classes in the two years we overlapped at Gustavus and had done well in previous classes.  The seminar was designed to be graduate school-like: three hours of class time (plus film viewings) one evening a week, one big research paper at the end, and lots of small papers every week and close reading.  Among the texts were the usual suspects (the Iliad, the Odyssey, The Aeneid) plus some texts new to us (Argonautica, Lucan’s Civil War).  I stressed like everyone, but didn’t complain in front of our professor, didn’t miss a class, and got things done on time.  We had oral midterm and final exams, too, and during my feedback for my final, the professor told me I did very well, and (as word-for-word as I can remember it) said “I don’t know if you just speak quickly or speak succinctly, but you covered in 15 minutes what others take 30 to say.”  I got an A on that final and in the class.

This long prelude is to illustrate the surprise I felt when he told me that he didn’t think I was suited for graduate school because I was “too anxious.”  ???  “Too anxious” still confuses me to this day.  What did that mean?  What behaviors or essays had convinced him of this?  I was too stunned and cowardly to ask at the time.

Works cited: dreamstime.com. NB: Not a picture for instruction. If you mutilate one of my writing tools, I may have to hunt you down.

I know in my heart that he was wrong.  Perhaps I was wrong for graduate school in classics, his field and passion.  It was my passion and life as an undergraduate, and I lived and breathed the subject material.  Today, I’m working on the data for my first thesis chapter on the Aeneid and material culture as a kind of proto-romance and as inspiration for medieval authors.  I won’t argue that perhaps I didn’t see then that classics wasn’t my future and that perhaps I wasn’t quite passionate enough to slog through years of Greek study.  Perhaps because I didn’t go into Gustavus knowing I wanted to study classics he thought I wasn’t devoted enough.  Perhaps I was too wrapped up in taking classes in the field that he thought I was annoying and overly-ambitious.  Perhaps my frequent migraines and illnesses came off as simply skipping class for the heck of it.  Perhaps it was supposed to be a helpful comment.  (I have often wanted to believe this is the case, but remain doubtful.)  Medieval literature is a field that gets me excited and makes me happy like classics did because of many of the same things: the magic of classical characters, the beauty of intricate poetic forms, heroes and their quests, the power of religion and devotion, and cultural ideals behind the texts.  However, instead of Latin and Greek, I focus on English with smatterings of French and Latin.  (Learning about the Norman Conquest and the evolution of the English language might be my favorite academic moment in recent memory.)

The final question this situation raises for me is how much professors should provide advice to a gung-ho student.  I’m sure you’ve seen this video.  We’ve heard that jobs for academics are thin on the ground.  I know and I’m aware.  I’m going to graduate school because I’ll always wonder, “What if?”.  I won’t be able to get a job in the field of medieval literature without my advanced degrees, so because I’ve had some funding and have the ability to go to graduate school, why not?  I made this quite clear even as an undergraduate.  I appreciate honest feedback but with one caveat: if asked.  I don’t want honest feedback from a professor or lecturer with whom I don’t feel comfortable and perhaps don’t respect in the field as much as another who knows me well on a personal level.  With all of this in mind, how honest is too honest?  Should professors just tell students what they think in the manner they deem best?  If the student has said that s/he will go if able, even with the knowledge that a career may not develop in the way one would like?  It’s a touchy subject with the economy sliding, many shrinking humanities departments, the elimination of tenure-track positions, and the competition for funding, jobs, and prestige.

So, I go back to that professor and that comment.  The situation crops into the forefront of my mind more often than I’d like, and sometimes it makes me further question whether I belong here and deserve my place.  I have to remember that people who have been in the field for years chose to accept me into all the master’s and doctoral programs to which I applied.  I won a scholarship for my MA year and worked incredibly hard for my degree with distinction at Durham.  I must remember that I do belong here.  Perhaps I don’t have as much experience, but I’m behind other first-year PhDs by a few years, not a lifetime.  I have the privilege of being able to devote my time, work, and life to the Middle Ages, if only for the few years it takes to complete my thesis and program before the Real World comes calling.

My last post was quite a while ago, and I wrote it just after finishing my dissertation.  Since then my life has changed drastically: new city, new home, new program, new school, new routine, new focus, and new friends.

For me, the secret to success has been getting out of the house to do work and also mixing serious focus with social engagements with friends.  Calling home a lot helps, too.  It would seem that my hard work at Durham has paid off, as last Tuesday I found out that I reached the goal I had set for myself academically:

I have officially been awarded my masters degree in Medieval and Renaissance Studies with a distinction!

Hooray!

What does this mean?  It means that I got the highest award classification.  It also means that despite me feeling out of my depth a good part of the time, I actually am capable of understanding and analyzing the medieval literature with which I had little experience before last year.  It means that even though I’ve had an emotionally draining year filled with people whose friendship proved false, with drama at home, and with hard decisions, I can cope in this environment.

Even though I have a huge doctoral project now in front of me, I have proved that I belong here, and I need to remind myself of that.

Success has never meant so much!