Tag Archives: Writing

Back to Blogging

22 Jun

For the Blog

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post that explained my three week absence from blogging.  At that time a friend of mine asked on Facebook, “Am I expected to read a blog about why you didn’t write a blog?”  Good question, and I suppose he didn’t have to read my blog, but as a good friend, he did.  So I apologize to that friend in advance, because, once again, I write this blog to explain why I haven’t blogged.

 It’s been a long time since I last wrote and posted a blog….a very long time.  By my count it’s been about 10 months, when I announced the result of September’s Petscan. A lot has happened since then. In personal news, my daughter travelled to Israel, where she lived and studied for nine months.  Amy and I learned to live in an empty nest without too much trouble.  The New York Giants had an awful season, revealing their complete lack of an NFL caliber defense.  And I have spent much of the past academic year teaching California history at a local university part time, which is fun, but also very time consuming and frustrating.  In the broader world….well, you all know what’s gone on in the broader world—a dismaying election cycle that seems to signal the rise of the demagogue as a legitimate type of candidate in American politics, a growing divide between rich and poor that makes our current age seem very much like the late nineteenth century’s gilded age, and never ending violence and terrorism at home and abroad, just to name a few.  And all of this Emma’s trip, the changes to our household, the teaching, the election, all of it, has kept me from blogging for the past ten months. Let me explain.

First, I have found it difficult to blog for personal reasons. Like I said, a lot has happened over the past ten months, but not all of it happened to me.  My daughter has learned a number of important lessons about life and living on her own. My wife spent much of the Fall getting back on her feet after her terrible bout with pancreatitis and the other issues that arose from that horrible illness.  And Amy and I both spent nine months without a child around figuring out what married life is like when parenting is no longer the prime directive. All of these experiences are filled with stories—some painful, some funny, some depressing, others uplifting—but most of these stories are not mine to tell.  They happened to someone else, or they are personal moments that I shared with others, and so to tell those stories feels wrong, like I would be violating someone’s privacy.  That was never the intention of this blog.  Over the past few years the point of this blog has been to share my thoughts, my concerns, my fears, and my happiness and to see how that public sharing is received and how it helps me learn and grow.

The election has kept me from blogging too.  To be clear I have discussed politics regularly—especially on Facebook—but I have not found the experience beneficial. I have spent the past ten years or so of my life trying to keep my discourse and engagement reasonable and respectful, but these days American politics knows no reason nor respect. This is true for the politicians and the public, and for the right and the left.  Naturally Donald Trump and his supporters are the most severe examples of this new political tone, but one cannot ignore the vitriol hurled at Hillary Clinton from the left nor the frustrated jibes from Clintonites (like me) aimed at Sanders and the Sanderistas. Since the New York primary many of us believe that Bernie’s campaign and the actions and outbursts of the so called Bernie Bros have been driven by destructive hubris rather than productive care and concern, and our language has reflected that frustration.  I have gotten into a number of discussions and debates this election year, and each time I do I feel angry, frustrated, hopeless, and even a little dirty.  I am not naïve enough to believe that American politics are historically decent and noble, but these days the rules of political engagement seem to have changed considerably. People are angrier, meaner, less respectful, and when I find myself in the midst of these debates I feel angrier, meaner, and less respectful too.  I surely have no desire to spend my time blogging angry and feeling awful, and so politics have been off the table as well.

Even if I could find an appropriate topic for blogging, I have had very little time to dedicate to such an enterprise.  As I mentioned above, I have been teaching this year, this in addition to my full time job at the museum.  I have taught three back to back quarters of California history, which has been great fun, but my preparation, grading, and the demands of my students have taken up a lot of my free time.  As Amy can attest, I have spent most Monday evenings grading quizzes and most of the rest of the week grading papers or reading the week’s assigned readings.  Sure I have read this material in the past….numerous times, but I am also 51 and my memory is less photographic than I would like, so every week I read the homework assignments along with my students—well along with those students who actually take the time to read…there seem to be fewer and fewer of those students every year.

Throughout it all, Emma’s trip, the election, the teaching, and everything else that has happened this year, I have wanted to blog.  Blogging connects me to my broad network of friends (particularly those who live a great distance from me). Writing in a format lengthier than the average Facebook post helps me think things through, and as always, there is a lot to think about.  And of course, blogging has been a way for me to share the never ending saga of the lemon sized tumor in my chest and my, now, annual requirement to have my body scanned to see if anything has changed.  One of my greatest concerns about my failure to blog is that my little corner of the virtual universe will become merely a place for me to share test results. Indeed, sometime this week I will reach out to my oncologist to arrange my next Petscan (the first one in ten months). 

But I want this blog to be more than that.  I want to return to my earlier focus on writing, on the ability to communicate well, to be more vulnerable and honest, and to share my thoughts and thinking.   Recently one of my yoga teachers (yes I take yoga now, and I love it) described the practice as an investigation into two essential questions—what is my purpose? and what makes me happy? (I probably got that wrong, but I think I captured the essence of her statement).  Prior to her comments, I had always thought of yoga as bound up in other questions like, “Why does that hurt so much?” or “Will I ever be able to bend that deeply?” and other such inquiries.  But my teacher’s point resonated with me. Whatever its outward rewards, when I am at my most relaxed and engaged, yoga helps me to focus and think more clearly, and in my most successful moments of yoga I have had some initial thoughts about purpose and happiness.  I think our purpose in this world is to be as fully present and fully engaged with the moment and the world around us as possible.  Too often our ability to appreciate life and each other is obstructed by our inability (or at least my inability) to think about the here and now.  Too much of life, mine and the lives of other people I know, is bound up in endless worry about things that have happened or may happen in the future.  I think we are at our happiest when we can appreciate the moment, any moment, more fully.

Yoga helps develop the focus and calm necessary to being fully present and engaged (to say nothing of how great it’s been for relieving the many aches and pains that come with aging and being overweight), but blogging helps, too.  Sure, very often my blogs are obsessed with the unfixable past and the unknowable future, but the process still keeps me deeply engaged with my thoughts and the process of thinking. And coming to really know and understand my thinking has a beneficial effect on me. Writing a blog is a days-long enterprise.  I take an idea and I work it out on the page.  The more I write, reread, and edit my work, the more in tune I become with my thoughts, the clearer my focus becomes, and I am able to articulate my ideas more clearly and fully.  Overtime, I begin to understand things about myself that I did not know, and the comments from friends and other readers reminds me just how lucky I am to know so many wonderful, thoughtful people. It’s a kind of meditation, one that I have missed.  For the past ten months I haven’t had that experience in my life, and I really would like to regain it.  For now, I suspect, my blog will once again focus on my upcoming Petscan, but I am going to do my best to get back into the process of thinking and writing.  I apologize in advance for those of you who feel obliged to read my work.  I appreciate your patience and willingness to spend a few minutes reading my latest rant, and I thank you for your time and your friendship.

 

As always…stay tuned.

Me and the Ph.D.: A Defense and A Meditation

21 Jun

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Today I try something new.  As part of my effort to broaden my blog’s scope, I will take an opportunity to publish something I wrote that never got published.  A few years ago, a recently minted literature Ph.D. wrote a scathing condemnation of the humanities’ Ph.D.  It was a pretty brutal piece, and a lot of friends and colleagues shared it on Facebook and through other forms of social media.  I found the article to be a little whiny and EXTREMELY hyperbolic (which has become the default style of internet discourse, I fear).  And so I set out to write a response and have it published in the Huffington Post or some similar aggregator of blogs and opinions, but I got no takers.  So if no one will publish my post, I will do the next best thing (save keeping my damn opinions to myself) and self-publish.  So, without further ado, I offer my modest defense of the humanities’ Ph.D.

 

Over the past few years numerous scholars have taken to the internet to condemn the humanities’ Ph.D., or at the very least question the financial, intellectual, and emotional benefits of graduate education.   My membership in  “The Versatile Ph.D.” , for example—a list serve for people with or pursuing advanced degrees—has not resulted in me learning more about the diverse uses of a humanities doctorate (my main reason for joining the site in the first place), but instead subjected me to countless laments about the ways in which graduate education destroys marriages and families, limits intellectual curiosity, and ultimately fails to deliver on the promise of a tenure-track career in academe.  This last point (the narrowing of the tenure track) was most cleverly expounded upon in Larry Cebula’s 2011 posting, “No, You Cannot Be a Professor,” a biting and brutal explanation of the realities of professional academia. And most recently my Facebook page was awash in repostings of Rebecca Schuman’s Slate piece, “Getting a literature Ph.D. will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor,” an apologia in which Schuman laments her pursuit of a literature Ph.D. and rails against the field’s failure to adequately reward her (or, in fairness, most recent humanities grads) with an appropriate tenure track position. 

Having recently completed a history doctorate at a large and competitive research 1 institution, I can certainly attest to the truth of the above-cited condemnations of the humanities Ph.D., and I routinely advise smart, young, ambitious history educators and public historians to avoid the pursuit of such a degree if at all possible. Nevertheless, I am uncomfortable with the overwhelming vitriol which has emerged in these recent denouncements of the humanities Ph.D., particularly in the forums of The Versatile Ph.D and Schuman’s Slate piece—a somewhat overwrought screed in which she bitterly compares the foolhardiness of graduate study and the pursuit of an academic career to carelessly smoking four packs of cigarettes a day and hoping you don’t get lung cancer.

To be sure, graduate education has the potential to be an all-consuming, soul-crushing, pursuit, a seemingly Sisyphean process in which the individual’s intellect, insight, and intelligence are routinely challenged, questioned, and discounted in an effort to socialize them in a particular set of intellectual and discursive behaviors.  And yes, the rewards bestowed on those who survive this intellectual boot camp are precious few.  This is due both to the changing business model of the university, as well as to the failure of graduate programs to adequately prepare their charges for careers beyond the academy.  Two or three years removed from their hooding ceremonies, a number of my colleagues, exceptional historians deeply steeped in the practices and traditions of academic history, have been unable to secure full-time employment in their chosen field.  And what is more, I have a number of dear friends who received their doctorates over a decade ago who continue to move from adjunct gig to gig like so many jazz sidemen. Indeed, one of my colleagues has only somewhat jokingly suggested that we should cease to describe the search for post-graduation employment as an academic “job market” and call it instead a “job lottery.”

The truth of these struggles and challenges notwithstanding, there was much about my graduate experience which was incredibly valuable, rewarding, and irreplaceable.  And in light of the Ph.D.’s recent bad press, I would like to take a little time defending the pursuit of such a degree—not because it’s a good idea, mind you, but because if the five or so of you who read this article find yourself inexplicably drawn to taking the degree, it is worth remembering the rewards such study bestows.

First and foremost my graduate studies helped me form a vast network of smart, inspiring, kind, and generous friends. You read that right…friends.  Despite the intense competition for TA positions, attention from professors, as well as fellowships and other funding, I can honestly say that my colleagues in graduate school were, and continue to be, good, good friends. Thanks to the diversity of historical study at UCLA, and the way in which scholarly research and the job market, such as it is, has dispersed my colleagues across the country and the world, I can count on coffee or meals with longtime friends in a great deal of the US, Europe, and the Middle East, making times away from my family a little less lonely.  In December-January (2008-2009), for example, I spent a cold, dark, and somewhat lonely month in Jerusalem doing dissertation research at the Central Zionist Archives.  Thanks to Facebook, my graduate student friends in country quickly arranged to dine with me, spend the Sabbath with me (Jerusalem all but shuts down on Saturdays), and share in my discomfort with old-school Israeli bathrooms, in which the only thing that stands between your shower and your toilet (no tub, mind you) is a thin, plastic curtain.

Graduate school friends are like your friends from summer camp or a high school sports team.  They have shared in your struggles and frustrations.  They’ve sat in the same library as you for hours on end and furiously written book reviews and other works to meet the end of the quarter deadline.  Like you, they have the inside scoop on which professors were generous with their time, grades, and funding, and which professors were just colossal pains in the ass. And this kind of shared experience lends itself to a predictable and heartwarming camaraderie. One Friday night several years ago, a drunken graduate colleague and I (who was just as drunk) sat around my apartment and railed at one of our professors as our non-graduate student spouses looked on.  We decried our mentor’s admiration of an earlier form of graduate training modeled on the German University system.  We loudly and angrily condemned his unrelenting questioning of our dissertation proposals and other work, and then, as the powerfully inebriated often do, we did a 180 and expressed our undying love for him, for his generosity, and his commitment to our emotional and professional well-being, and somehow, we felt a little better about our lot in life.

But graduate school friends do more than provide a shoulder to cry on.  As a diverse body of scholars interested in different fields of study, geographical regions, temporal eras, and research methodology, graduate school colleagues broaden one’s intellectual horizons.  I know that the academy is often mocked for the way in which encourages a kind of politically correct group think, but such hyperbolic, Fox News-like condemnations of the academy are largely false. I can honestly say that I learned more from my cohort of up and coming scholars than I did from my professors, and I know that a number of my professors believe that is very much the point of the graduate school experience.   Through my interactions with my grad school colleagues I learned a great deal about the history of the wider world, the field of economics, the uses of social science, and the history of American jurisprudence.  I have come to see more clearly the ways in which gender, race, and class obscure and/or enhance our understanding of the past and the world around us.  I have learned (as best I can) how to harness today’s technologies to quantifiably study the peoples of the past (and present), as well as how to use those same technologies to communicate our work to a wider audience.  And of greatest importance, thanks to these deep and fulfilling friendships, my learning continues, through conversation (in person and on the web), through correspondence, and through reading my colleagues’ works as they continue to learn and grow.

Satisfying this interest in learning and growing is, or should be, one of the greatest benefits of graduate education.  It certainly was for me.  To be sure, like Schuman, I have seen the ways in which adherence to a particular theory or methodology can limit that learning and growth. The graduate student is often taught to drop names, to be aware of the latest trends in scholarship solely to feign in depth familiarity with them in casual conversation, much in the way that an actor drops the names of the latest hot director or producer.  Still I have also seen how graduate studies can help foster greater intellectual understanding and personal development.  Familiarity with the works of theorists like Habermas, Gramsci, and Foucault, of the Yale School of consumerism, or the Subaltern Studies scholars of the 80s and 90s (see how I did that?) is, or should be, a tool meant to enhance our understanding of humanity and the world. The best graduate programs open the doors to this kind of knowledge and encourage us to continue to research and explore throughout our careers.  I suspect one can develop this habit of mind without entering graduate school, but how many people can honestly say they would do so without the compelling pressure of a 30 page paper on the subject by quarter’s end?

So yes, graduate school experience was emotionally and intellectually exhausting. It is not for everyone, and maybe it shouldn’t be for anyone, these days.  It left me deep in financial debt, as well as creating personal and professional debts to friends and family that can never be repaid.  But the experience did not leave me “an emotional trainwreck.”  Actually my wife thought it appropriate to observe that I was already pretty unstable before the degree so…there’s that.  Nor am I or most of my close colleagues sorry we took on the challenge.  The ultimate reward of graduate school was not, or at least should not be, a 300 page dissertation, or a tenure track position.  The rewards were more personal, and powerful. Quite simply I am a better person for having taken the Ph.D.  I am more intellectually open, more interested in the world and its diverse peoples, a more engaged and engaging speaker, and I am blessed with a vast network of friends and colleagues who continually help me learn and grow.  Frankly, what more could anyone possibly ask for?

Charting a New Course

21 May

 

Charting

Last week I had the great good fortune to spend an hour or so hanging out with some really big time historians…two major dudes, well connected in the field with impressive careers and equally impressive positions. The type of historians you dream of becoming…that is, if you actually dream of becoming an historian.   Just a few years back I used to do this all the time as part of my doctoral training, but since my hooding two years ago, I spend a lot more time managing staff, planning budgets, and helping to write grant proposals than I do studying the past or chatting with renowned historians.  As the conversation went on, one of the pair, a longtime friend and colleague, observed that my blog is a far better reflection of my personality than is my academic writing.  “You really found your voice in your blog,” he said.  “By contrast, your academic style was something that seemed imposed on you.”   I smiled and said something about the demands of academia, but as the conversation went on two thoughts came to mind.  The first was that my friend was right.  I think anyone that knows me even a little can “hear” my voice in this blog.  I tell stories.  I make jokes.  I whine and complain.  I’m not a particularly private person, and I really don’t know when to shut up.  This is how I talk in the real world, and this is how I choose to write in my blog.  My other thought was, “Well that’s just great!  I’ve spent the better part of a decade learning to write a work of history in a voice that is utterly alien to me.  What the hell am I supposed to do now?” I think the answer is to really hone my blog voice and to try it on new topics and in new forums.  I think that the first step in that process will be to expand the scope of my blog.

In some sense, I have expanded the scope of this blog on several occasions already.  Last October, when I began this project, I was focused on one persistent, terrifying thought—that I have lymphoma.  Those of you who have suffered through a dangerous and/or chronic disease know how all-consuming this kind of knowledge can be.  No matter what you’re doing or thinking, somewhere in the back of your mind is the ever-present thought “I have cancer.” In an effort to deal with that very scary idea and to, perhaps somewhat selfishly, ask all of you to share my burden and ease my fears, I set off to write this blog.  My early postings were ALL about cancer—fears about cancer, friends with cancer, cancer treatment, even cancer jokes!  Then, as I learned that I did not have cancer, I started to explore a broader range of topics that might reasonably fall under the heading of health and wellness. One more misdiagnosis and the blog moved from health and wellness to fear and suffering, and on, and on, and on. 

Point is, despite my initial reasons for creating this blog, over time I have found it to be a really wonderful opportunity to think about things that are stuck in my head and to try and let them out of there before somebody gets hurt.  And while health, wellness, and the lemon-sized tumor inside my chest are ever-present in my psyche, so too are other thoughts. For example, while this may seem silly to some, I have begun to feel ambivalent about my love of football, which was once a great passion but now, with the continuing revelations about athletes who have suffered brain damage, proves harder to watch (and yet I still love the game!).  I think quite a bit about the ways in which Americans and American Jews understand and relate to history. I am deeply troubled about the nature of political discourse in our society. I fret about my daughter’s inevitable departure from our home.  And I am concerned that my newfound love of craft beer may signal a troubling low in my continuing decline into insufferableness. 

To be clear, health, well-being, and my ongoing engagement with the healthcare system will still play a large role in my blogging.  To my knowledge I still have a large, benign tumor in my chest (only next month’s scan can tell for sure, but c’mon, do we really think it’s disappeared?).  I still have sarcoidosis.  I’m fast approaching 50, and I’m still overweight.  I now have just as many doctors interested in me as I did when I was writing my dissertation—four to be exact.  Back then, of course, the four were PhDs and now there are four MDs on team Erik—five if you include my thoracic surgeon.  For these reasons, and for others, I intend to keep the blog’s current title, Limbo—strictly defined as a place between heaven and hell, but which I have also taken to mean a place or state between health and illness, happiness and sadness, youth and old age, being and becoming, and other structural opposites.  I’m still in Limbo and I still plan to write about that.

While thinking about this new direction in my blog, I actually went back and reread my first post from October and found that, in some sense, the point of this project has always been vague and subject to change.  At the close of the first piece I wrote that, “Perhaps I am just talking to myself, here, to be comforted by my continued ability to communicate clearly in the written form, and to use that as some kind of gauge for my health and happiness.  I simply don’t know.  I just know that right now I want to write and to do so publicly.  To share my stories and see if they resonate and what they generate.”  And so the process continues. I still want to write, to share my stories and see if and how they affect people.  It’s just that now, I want to expand the range of potential stories.  I hope that some of you will continue to follow me on this journey.  I have found your comments and support to be invaluable, and I look forward to seeing how you may or may not respond to my efforts in the future. 

As always, stay tuned.