Tuesday, May 24, 2011


I had something of a minor existential crisis over the weekend. While this is not that rare of an occurrence, I'm usually pretty good at getting over any such crises and moving on to more productive things (usually this means the reading or grading I've been busy putting off). This one was more persistent than my standard-issue existential crisis, though, and what is worse, it was just silly. It ruined what was otherwise a nice weeked: sun to enjoy, movies to watch, and books to read.* Unfortunately, I spent more hours than I'd like to admit to feeling sorry for myself in ways that I thought I'd left behind with my teenage years (in all honesty, I'm pretty sure even my teenaged self would have made fun of my moping and pouting). 

Some background to the crisis: I had been feeling a little bit of concern/anxiety (though not a great amount, because it required me to think about the future beyond immediate tasks at hand, which I generally refuse to do) about the fact that the end of my first year of PhD coursework was rapidly approaching and I had yet to produce any piece of writing that anyone had deemed worth working on further and trying to publish. Why was this, I wondered. Did I not have any good ideas? Was my writing not good enough? Was I somehow missing a really important point about the things I write about? I couldn't answer any of these questions. I also didn't feel comfortable talking about them. They come across (at least to me) as so ridiculously self-absorbed and whiny that the idea of discussing them with anyone causes me (even now, in the comfort and privacy of my bedroom) to blush and shake my head.

While browsing through some journals, I came across a call for papers that seemed to fit a paper I was writing for class. Thinking that this might be the best chance I ever get to dip my toe into the bizarre and confidence-destroying world of academic publications, I resolved to revise said paper and send it off for consideration. At about the same time, I received word through the grapevine (read: the social networking websites of which I am a member) of a friend of a friend of a friend who was enjoying quite the streak of academic success lately. I generally am not a jealous and competitive person,** but this streak struck a nerve. I don't know the person in question very well (we've never gone to school together and my experience is limited to mainly social encounters). I've never been impressed by descriptions of the work this person does, though.*** Coupled with the already present anxieties described above, this news caused me to feel just a bit frantic. Now I definitely needed to get something sent out.

I was still convinced that the paper I was in the process of writing was my best bet in terms of producing something that could eventually be sent out. Once I'd turned it in, I waited for the paper to reappear in my mailbox so I could get to work on revising it. The paper never appeared, though, and--as any feedback I can get at this point will be helpful--I sent an e-mail to the professor asking for my paper. I also mentioned that I was hoping to use any comments I received on the paper to revise towards submission for publication. When the response came the next day, I managed to misread the professor's comment ("I made some recommendations about that on the paper for you," essentially) as a pretty firm dismissal of the idea of my pursuing publication of any form of this paper.

Needless to say, I was crushed (this was on Friday afternoon). My anxieties suddenly loomed large. I began to wonder what I was doing in a PhD program if I couldn't produce work that anyone thought was worth publishing. I was angry and disappointed with myself: I knew the paper was good (I'd received an "A" in the class), so the only possible scenario seemed to be that I'd produced yet another paper that was good coming from a student but wasn't the kind of work an actual scholar produced. I wondered if I'd ever be able to be anything other than a good student. I spent Friday night, Saturday, and most of Sunday consumed with disappointment, frustration, and self-loathing. I sulked and pouted. It was all melodramatic to the extreme. I've pined for girls in less embarrassing ways.

I knew my paper was going to be dropped off in my mailbox at some point today, so I came to campus early (I didn't have class until 5, but I got to the office at around 11) in the hopes of catching the professor and explaining why I thought the paper was worth working on further and sending out for consideration. I did not manage to do this: despite sitting in the office all day, the paper appeared when I wasn't looking and without the professor ever materializing. Once I had the paper, I looked at the comments. I will quote the second sentence of the comments, as I think it most accurately explains both how terribly I misread the e-mail I received from the professor and what a waste of time my existential crisis was:

"I highly recommend you submit some iteration of this work for publication."

Whoops. I guess I called that one wrong. I went back to reread the e-mail I'd received on Friday. What had seemed like a dismissal now was revealed to be a simple note about the content of the comments: the professor wanted me to know I was not alone in thinking this paper had merit and should be pursued further.

Anyway, I feel slightly ridiculous now about wasting my weekend over all this. Life as a graduate student is already full of crushing blows to one's self-confidence without manufacturing further crises. I still feel incredibly anxious re: the whole publication issue when I let myself think about it (which I try to avoid doing as much as possible), but at least now I know I can produce stuff that I could conceivably send out.

*I finally finished The King in the Tree by Steven Milhauser this weekend. All three novellas in that book are excellent. More on this later.

**At least with my friends and academic work. I like helping my friends, and I enjoy celebrating with them when they reap the rewards their hard work deserves. I am, however, extremely competitive in other areas, especially the board game Risk. While playing Risk, I once managed to cause a former girlfriend to say she hated me (on my birthday, no less) because of my cutthroat approach to the game.

***I should probably come out and admit that I have a less than charitable view of this person's scholarly abilities based on the conversations we've had. Yes, I am a bad person. I am trying to rectify this.

1 comment:

  1. Though I hate the thought of you in existential angst (though, perhaps, I hate the idea of you without a periodic bout of it even more...hmm), I must say that I was glad to read all the way through this to find that your ideas in writing were recognized for being as good and as worth sharing as I know they are.