Why and how

I just came back from a week visiting family, which meant I spent a bit of time explaining what I’m doing with myself these days. I was quite used to fielding these sorts of inquiries as a graduate student, but now that I’m “out in the world” I find I’m having to answer another volley of questions altogether. Namely, family members want to know how I spend my time and what any of this has to do with my degree. I’ll answer the first question of how I spend my time by way of tackling the more difficult question of what a PhD in Spanish is “doing” for my career.

The shortest and simplest answer is that my doctorate has nothing to do with what I do now. I was trained to study literature at the highest professional level—an occupation which entails publishing scholarly work, giving academic talks, and teaching university students. Currently I am doing none of that. I presented a paper at a fairly important conference this past January and it left me oddly cold. The only panels I really wanted to attend were ones that touched on program assessment and the crisis (I really wish I had another word for it) in the humanities. Academic topics that might have piqued my interest in the past no longer do, and I find myself having to make the effort to maintain my attention when former colleagues engage in those sorts of discussions. (On the flip side of that, I sometimes feel that my present interests are rather prosaic in comparison.)

Yet it would be entirely misleading to leave it at that—to say that my academic background has nothing to do with my current work—because in reality it has prepared me quite well for it. In a way, it has everything to do with what keeps me occupied. You could in fact say that I “use” my training on a daily basis. I’ve written several posts that sketch out my educational philosophy, but aside from the obvious connection to teaching, I’m able to do all sorts of other things for my project because of the skills I’ve developed in grad school:

  • The most obvious is that I have experience building something largely on my own from the ground up. I wrote and researched my dissertation almost entirely from home, so I am used to long hours spent wrestling with ideas in relative isolation. Being my own boss has its obvious rewards, but given the fact that I am also my own worst enemy, it can be punishing at times. It took me a long while to recognize that my work cycle is more bi-polar than even-keeled, and even though I know it, I still fight it.
  • I have a sense of when to come up for air and share what I have with others. In retrospect, I was quite extremely conservative when it came to sharing my academic work. I’m much more willing now to risk talking openly about my ideas even if they aren’t quite as polished as I’d like. It helps that my end goal isn’t a finished product like an article or a book, but educational workshops. If they’re done correctly, they are less performances to be perfected than works in progress that must maintain elements of spontaneity and are ever subject to modification.
  • From proposal to dissertation, I got into the habit of being able to summarize and expand on ideas quickly, systematically, and convincingly. i will tell you why I’ve chosen to tackle a particular problem, how it’s been treated before, and what stands to be gained by my approach. You want that chapter reduced to an article-length paper? Done. How about for a conference panel? Done. Need that distilled even further into a paragraph? Easy peasy.
  • As an academic, I hated feeling penned into a narrow field, so I wrote a dissertation for a double audience: for colleagues in nineteenth-century Latin American (and specifically Argentine) literature, and also for scholars in other literary traditions who shared my interest in crowd motifs. My advisor was not himself a Latin Americanist, and the person who turned out to be my most important interlocutor was, in fact, a Classicist. Thus from the start, I had to be able to explain knowledge that was very specific to my field to an outside readership. This is not so different from explaining ideas that I have cultivated within academia to those on the outside, so to speak.
  • There is a complementary skill to the latter, which is that I also have experience as an “outsider” myself. I wrote my dissertation on one of the most important figures in Argentine history, but I was able to regard his writing in a fresh way precisely because of the fact that i didn’t grow up reading his work with ready-formed preconceptions of his politics. One of my committee members urged me to publish in Argentina, but to expect my ideas to cause a bit of a stir. Perhaps because of this, I’m not intimidated by the prospect of waltzing into a field that had been completely alien to me and sharing my ideas with people who have many more years of experience than I do in youth development.
  • Part of what lets me do so without making a fool of myself is that I’m a quick study. Once I’ve set my sights on a topic, I read and learn as much as I can about it so I can form my own opinions and figure out a way to present or teach it to others. I can go deep, I can go broad, and I’ll keep everything organized in documents. It’s just another trick of the PhD trade.

One final question that seems to be on many people’s minds when I tell them what I’m doing is whether this is a passing fancy until I figure out what I “really want to do” with my life. The answer is, for the foreseeable future, this is exactly what I want to be doing. Grad school never quite felt this right. I spent most of my years in it wondering what else I could do once I finished. I do miss having a really meaty writing project, but I haven’t felt this at home with myself in a long time. If I’m lucky enough to be able to get my program(s) up and running, I’ll feel very blessed indeed.

[Read part two.]

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