I’m Supposed to be Grading

We’re at that point of the semester where I have no idea why I assign my students papers and exams.


Student: When are we going to get our papers back?
Me:  When did you submit them?
Student: Back in 1899.
Me: …  Soon.


I need to be one of those wonderful hippie professors who have class outside on pretty days and don’t believe in grades.  That would make my life so much easier.  Maybe base their final grades on shoe size or ranking of their favorite rock bands.  Pearl Jam’s not going to help your GPA.  Oasis earns a D, thanks to “Wonderwall.”  Jimmy Buffett, D.  Beatles a solid C+, solid work but, you know, a little overused.  Rolling Stones and Metallica earn As.  Nickelback earns immediate academic probation.

It’s totally my fault.  I have moral issues with collecting graded work and not providing monsoon-levels of feedback for students to ignore improve.  So I spend hours grading papers and leaving comments and line edits in Microsoft Word so that they aren’t stunned about their grades and can learn the difference between there vs. their vs. they’re by the time they graduate college.

It’s been a bizarre, personality-splitting month, editing my students’ papers while also editing my own work myself.  Every waking, non-toddler, non-academic minute, I’ve been revising and proofing my novel for Pitch Wars and agent submissions.  I’m in full-on editorial mode.  My red pen on these 400-level book reviews is like Godzilla attacking Tokyo.

Passive voice.  No.  Overusing “would” when describing historical events: “Lorenzo de Medici would then travel to Rome.”  No.  Oxford comma.  Yes.  Until I die and you pry it from my cold, dead, and stiff hands.  Regular double-spacing.  Yes, I can tell when you use 1.25″ margins and 12.5 pt. font.   That’s what they train me for in grad school and pay me the big bucks.

And THEN we get into the actual content.  No, that’s not a thesis statement.  No, the thesis statement you picked does not accurately reflect the historian’s central argument.  What evidence does the scholar use to support his/her case?  What types of methodologies are employed?  What about primary sources?  Are there flaws in his/her approach?  Is there any bias?  I’m tired of PSA ads about source-checking clogging my Facebook newsfeed.  I need to do my part to make them more critical thinkers, if only about historical issues.

I make a point of warring against their papers because I like to think it matters.  Higher ed, especially at a public university in a state with little funding, is hard.  I get that.  It’s hard to feel passionate about your teaching when you are overworked, when the student three rows down is texting again, when you don’t get paid enough to learn the names on the roster.  It’s easy to get jaded.  I hear about the classroom-exhaustion from some of my coworkers.  Why spend hours grading these papers to this extent when they won’t learn from the edits?

You caught me.  I do it for my health.

And also, maybe, the slim chance that they’ll learn to be better writers.

I mean, theirs always a chance they’re writing will improve.  Right?

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I’ve never had a problem with discipline before.  I mean, I’m the Gal Gadot who finished her PhD while teaching at a university full-time, expanding and remodeling her house DIY, getting married, getting pregnant, keeping the end result alive, actually having friends (like, three people, don’t get excited), and writing fiction.

I sat in front of a computer for TWENTY-ONE HOURS straight to format my dissertation.

I’ve pulled CONSECUTIVE all-nighters to finish projects.

If there’s a deadline, I’ve met it, and I’ve given it 110%.


I’m like in Armageddon when Ben Affleck looks away, super dramatic-like, and says, “He doesn’t know how to fail.”

THAT’S me.  Slightly less bald than Bruce Willis.

Discipline has never been an issue until now.  It’s never been a problem to force myself to do things I don’t really want to do in name of the greater good.  I mean, God, that’s 90% of marriage.

But I’ve gone weak.

This entire past summer, I couldn’t bring myself to get anything creative done.  It’s my kid’s fault.  I’ve been powered by discipline and coffee for 29 years, and she’s drained me.  I spend every day, all day, with Rin, who 110% thinks she’s an adult in-miniature.  She doesn’t nap.  She goes to bed between 9:00 and 10:00 pm.  She thinks she’s bigger and tougher than anyone else in the room.  She carries a big stick.  She does not walk softly.

I have no fricking clue what she does all day.  I’m with her every second, but I blink, and it’s 8:30 PM.  I think she spends the morning playing hardball with the mafia and some of the afternoon taking notes from Napoleon documentaries and Picky and the Brain reruns.  Oh, and Sesame Street comes on at 9:30 AM.

I can’t get anything done that requires serious thought because half my attention is constantly watching a toddler drunk-stumble around the splash pad at the park and making sure she’s not in total mortal peril.  There’s a scale: running with scissors = okay, shoving other kid on playground to get nuclear launch codes = requires intervention.  Point in case, she just got her thunder thigh lodged in between the rungs of my bamboo chair and she’s stuck.  I should rescue her, but I’m picking my battles, and I feel like this is a learning experience.

My latest theory is that people who don’t have kids don’t actually age.  They’re immortal.  They just Nicholas Flamel along while we suckers keep having kids who cause grey hair and put Raisin Bran in my buggy at the grocery store.  It’s this giant conspiracy so that we all THINK the childless get old like the rest of us, but it’s all smokescreen and makeup.

So my kid has broken me.  I have no feeling around my scar line.  I almost pee whenever she kicks my bladder.  My daily vocabulary doesn’t go past colors and numbers up to 5, so I don’t even have the words to be witty anymore.

And now, little con-artist, she’s gotten inside my head with her cuteness, textbook psychology, and whatever hormones that keep me from dumping her at the fire station, and rearranged my priorities completely to make me want to snuggle with her in the mornings instead of get up at my 10th alarm and get things done.

In case you were wondering, she pried thunder thigh from the chair.  She’s now dragging my purse and J’s left shoe to her hoarder nest like some creep lugging a dead body to the river.

I lack the mental fortitude to get up in the wee morning and write fiction or work on a journal article or research grants.  I set 18 alarms to get up in the morning (I’m one of THOSE people).  I ignore every single one of them and sleep in.  It’s totally a subconscious decision.  I don’t even process shutting my alarm off.  Kid’s completely rewired my brain.

I’m struggling here because it fuels this annoyingly depressing/depressingly annoying Catch-22: another day feeling unaccomplished makes me unmotivated, and I’m too unmotivated in the mornings to get up and accomplish anything.

It was so much easier writing my dissertation with Rin.  Academic writing only takes moderate creativity.  It’s more structured.  Once you’ve gotten the chapter’s central thesis and an outline, it’s paint-by-numbers.  The research is done.  It’s just about filling in evidence where it needs to go.  I literally use “BLAH” as a placeholder for where I need to pop in additional detail or support.

Fiction is harder to write at-will.  You hear all these people who need their happy place or when/where/how they write best.  Hum of a coffee shop or sense-deprivation chamber.  At home where comfortable or at library that requires pants/seriousness.  Mornings or afternoons.  Fiction writing is finicky.

I’m at a new place in my career and in motherhood.  I guess I’m struggling with where my sense of fulfillment comes from.  Does it come from advancing my career, writing, or how my 17 month old can point out her eyes, ears, and nose, the color purple, an owl, and the moon because we practice it a hundred times every day?  Is it possible to balance the 24 hours enough to get fulfillment from both, and what’s the sacrifice required by the discipline?  Is it time with Rin, her learning another color, or is it just less sleep and more coffee, just like it used to be?

I really don’t know yet, but I know I need to try something new.  A new routine.

So I now have 19 alarms set for tomorrow morning.  I’ll report back.

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Family Bonding: Dissertating with Daughter

Trying to work on a dissertation with a two month old is a lot like trying to be Einstein, except you’re responsible for keeping this human Giga pet alive, you have the attention span of a drunk gnat, and you’re stumbling out of a sense-deprivation chamber after 24 hours.

Sure, you’re still smart-ish during the hours you’re not covered in poop.  You have brilliant ideas, but they’re more “Home Shopping Network” than academic journal.  Instead of transcribing medieval Italian, it’s all about how the first world desperately needs baby grooming centers.  Hear me out, it’s like grooming for dogs and cats except for babies, so someone else who is better trained and not sleep-deprived can clip these ridiculously tiny fingernails.


How the hell do they grow so fast?

Or another gem, the Mom-petition app: scoreboards for local mamas in the same GPS-based radius for good-natured competition and solidarity.  How many times you got spit up on today.  How many times you tried microwaving before you gave up and ate lunch cold.  The app also features chat/message boards that are open from 2:00 am to 6:00 am, so moms awake (again) in the middle of the god-forsaken night can have friends to talk to while feeding spawn.

Because seriously, my single, partying friends are not nearly entertaining enough on my facebook newsfeed.

Misdirected brilliance means it’s another blank page in this Word document, waiting for me to type something in human words that don’t rhyme or mention Piggies Going to Market that will make my advisor second-guess my acceptance into the PhD program.

In my defense, it’s hard to be productive when there’s this constant ringing in the white noise of my house that sounds like the Final Fantasy VII-esque baby-bouncer music playing in a constant loop in perpetuo.

Routine is hard.

It must be my fault–some kind of post-partum lack of commitment–because Rin has been pretty consistent for the last month.  She wakes up around 6:00, downs a bottle, then naps again until 9:00 or so.  Then she’s awake all day with a serious case of grandma-enabled armitis, demanding skin-to-skin like she’s trying to group-huddle just to survive an Arctic freeze.

She dozes for a couple minutes in the afternoon, but not for long, and the slightest disturbance wakes her up, like the Princess and the Pea.  I’ll breathe and it’ll trigger her Moro reflex, arms stretched out in pure panic.  I’ve never seen such a light sleeper.  Remember the game Don’t Wake Daddy?  That was stupid.  There needs to be an adult version called Don’t Wake Baby that somehow involves shot glasses as the game pieces.

Add that to the list of good ideas I’ve had lately.

You’d think, given her love of a schedule, I’d have figured out some kind of time block each day to dissertate.  But it’s like those few minutes of alone time need to be utilized elsewhere, tasks more vital: take out the trash, vacuum the house, empty the Diaper Genie, wash clothes before these questionable stains set, maybe eat something from one of the healthier food groups.

Really, I have no idea where the time goes.  It’s like the clock is literally eating time or Stephen King’s Langoliers are getting a little too proactive.  A successful day, once upon a time, used to be 5 pages on a chapter.  Now, success is getting to take a shower, eat a real breakfast, or go to the bathroom.  Or, not and.  You can’t do all three.  You have to choose.  See, I took a shower yesterday morning, so today I get to poop.  It’s all about time management.

In the end, though, all those excuses don’t matter.  Every evening when I finally settle Rin in her crib and weeble-wooble myself to bed, it’s just another day my defense is delayed.

This dissertation needs to get done.

I’ve said before, it’s straight-up pride making me finish this PhD.  It’s not job security; it’s not the pipe dream of a tenure-track in this market; it’s not a raise.  It’s pride.  Luckily for my dissertation committee, I’m full of pride, so it’s been enough to keep me trucking alone–until now.

Now?  Now, it’s harder.  The other side of the scale is dipping lower.  Why struggle so much on a dissertation when there’s such little gain and when I’d much rather spend my time staring at her, watching her sleep, her chest rising each time I start to worry she’s stopped breathing, a little coo in her dreams (what is she even dreaming about, bottles that never end?).  I’d rather read Giraffes Can’t Dance again, even though I can’t stand it, because she likes the bright colors.  I want to make silly noises to coax out another adorable toothless grin.  Time spent reading medieval annals is time spent away from her.

She has consumed all my time, and I’m delighted.

Being a mother has taken over my day, all my thoughts, my best ideas.

Motherhood has taken over my purpose too.

Not the way you may think.  This isn’t “I’m a mom now, so my personal projects don’t matter anymore.”  They may rank differently than before–somewhere above shampooing my hair but below getting 4 hours of sleep–but my personal ambitions still matter.  I haven’t unequivocally sacrificed who I am to accept the mother-role.  Instead, Rin has strengthened why I do the things I do.

My daughter is now the reason I want to finish this PhD.  Sure, my pride is still a big factor, naturally, but even though she’s the reason I can’t find time to research in the 24 allotted hours, she’s paradoxically the reason I want to finish.

It’s been like this ever since I found out I was pregnant.  I want to be the person I want my daughter to be.  I play flute a little louder, even when I’m sight-reading, because I want her to be bold, to not be afraid of making mistakes.  I put myself out there more, sharing my fiction with readers, because I want her to pursue her passions.  I am more assertive (good luck, world) because I want her to fight for herself.

My daughter will learn from my example.  Not just her ABCs that I keep singing to her.  Not just Latin declensions we practice at bedtime.  Not just how to count or wash clothes or drive a car.  She will learn who she is from watching me.  I need to finish this dissertation because of that.  I want her to learn that she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to.

Do it for her.  Like Homer Simpson working at the nuclear power plant for Maggie.

Most gut-wrenching moment in the whole friggin show.

I’d want her to finish her PhD, no matter the obstacles.  Even if it means putting off a shower, breakfast, and going to the bathroom one more day to instead use that time to write, to finish, to succeed at what she started.

I want to finish this PhD for my daughter.  I want her to push.

So I keep going, trucking along.  Telling myself in my twice-a-week shower that I am still a smart cookie, that I can do this, that the paragraph I scribbled on a napkin while expressing breastmilk really does make sense, maybe.  It comes down to lots of one-handed typing and footnote citations that accidentally have ampersands and pound signs pressed into them mid-word.

But I keep writing.

work ethic

How 85% of my work gets done. #phdparenting

I keep working whenever I can.  It’s a sentence jotted down while breastfeeding.  A couple pages read from this newly published article after she’s swaddled and asleep, even though it’s past 1:00 in the morning.  Waiting for a chance to be truly productive.

And then, one miraculous afternoon, she takes a nap.  One that–praise be to all the angels and saints–lasts longer than 30 minutes.  I power through four pages of material, typing mad like someone who knows what she’s doing, that open Word document shamefully blank no more.  It’s glorious.

So you finally think that you’ve done it.  You’ve unlocked the thesis of this chapter like the sheer genius that you are.   You can be someone your daughter can be proud of.  You really still ARE smart.

And then it happens.

Your bubble bursts while you’re still beaming from your gold-star accomplishment.

Your two month old learns how to roll over–tummy to back–all on her own, right before your eyes, like a REAL genius, and you realize you’re a moron compared to the little thing that just pooped all up the back of her onesie.


Every day, in between dissertation work and changing diapers, I watch her learn something new, and every new trick, I get more and more convinced she’s going to blow past all my hopes and dreams for her, rocket her way to two PhDs–no, three–with a great career and hefty paycheck, and cure cancer while walking on the moon and solving global hunger.

If sacrificing a little extra sleep to finish this dissertation or learning to research while holding her against my chest means I can inspire her to accomplish all the the great things she’s capable of, then I am making the smartest choice of my life.

I guess I should consider myself lucky that I’m her mother.

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How I Told my Advisor I’m Pregnant

Maybe it’s just my experience, but PhD programs sometimes raise a strict embargo on sharing any details about personal lives.  It’s rigid, work-only professionalism: your research maters, not you.  Drumming out the next chapter is obviously the sole focus of your life.

Party this weekend?  Sorry, I’d much rather finish these footnotes.  Your great-grandma’s 90th birthday?  No can do, I need to submit these articles to journals and polish my CV.   New Game of Thrones?  Sorry, I’m busy reading this excellent treatise in fifteenth-century Latin, much more interesting.

I’m sure this is partly just me.  I’m a blue-collar girl who was accidentally allowed inside the Ivory Tower on what I always assume was a dare by the admittance committee.  Maybe I feel this way because I don’t have much in common with the personal interests of others in my field, and research ideas really are the only thing we have to talk about.  Or maybe it’s because a thesis committee assumes having a personal life–a social life, a marriage during grad school, hobbies, 8 hours of sleep–will distract you from the finish line.

It doesn’t matter.  For the last five years, the Advisor and I have, more or less, enjoyed a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell kind of policy.  It works for us.

Sure, it was a little disheartening when I got hitched and only one professor on campus told me congratulations.  And yeah, it was a little frustrating when I landed my teaching gig and the Advisor’s reply email was more about progress towards a defense date than Main Street getting renamed in my honor for finding a full-time position in the current academic job market.  It’s the price we pay for not having to discuss yesterday’s programming on NPR.  In my defense here, I’m sure faculty don’t want to talk about dinner with my in-laws or how I owned last weekend’s Cards Against Humanity round.

Still, I knew I’d need to tell the Advisor I was pregnant eventually.

Biting the bullet went something like this.

I wrote a dissertation chapter on a fourteenth-century religious order in Italy called the Gesuati and sent it to the Advisor for inspection/mutilation.  When he emailed back, the Universe lined up the perfect shot.


Advisor: I see that Outlook changed “Gesuati” to “Gestate” in my last message. Don’t write a “Gestate” chapter.

Me: Yeah, I saw the typo yesterday. Actually…about that, funny thing, I *AM* writing a “Gestate” chapter. I’m due in April.


…  ta-da!


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