Archive for ‘grad school’

August 30, 2011

one year ago.

by la rebelde

On this day, one year ago, I filed my pinche dissertation.  Over the last month I have thinking a lot about where I was, spiritually, this time last year.  My soul had been bruised deeply, but still I kept writing, kept reading, kept thinking, kept feeling.  Read. Write. Read. Write.  Everyday.  Make the deadline.  Cite the right books, articles, and arguments.  Prove you are worthy of their approval.

Be the scholar they say you can’t be.
Be the activist-scholar they don’t want you to be.
Be the love you imagine it possible and necessary to be.

On my birthday last year, my friends pleaded with me to take a short break.  “Even just two hours to celebrate over brunch!” I finally gave in.  “But only for 2 hours!” I’d said.  Manito C came to keep me company for a couple days.  He read novels while I wrote.  Friends who live far away called to check in on me, read my writing, helped me hold on to what I had earned.  They are phenomenal.

All you need is a signature.  The only way I finished was to write from the heart.  I’m still learning how to do that.

On this day, one year ago, I became a Doctor.  It was confirmed with the small, but not-so-small, email  from my U, attached to which was a .pdf of a certificate saying I’d completed all the steps, jumped through all the hoops, checked off all the boxes big and small, to attain the degree.  It was the most anti-climactic moment of my entire educational experience.

And then I slept for three weeks.

Today my friend and I were making small talk with a woman at a coffeeshop.  She asked if I was a college student.  Before I could reply, my friend said, no she’s a professor!  Sometimes my friends are more excited about it than I am.  I still feel weird saying I’m a professor.  But I am one.  The woman said I look “too young to be a professor.”  Funny, my abuela said that to my profesora a few years ago. I guess professors are supposed to be stuffy white-haired old men with tweed, instead of spunky 30-something brown women in mini-skirt, hoop earrings and purple nail polish.

Healing is a long process.  Along the way, I realized the process is as much about the events of the last year as it is the historia of my Self, and the recasting of my spirit from a stronger place, a place of love and community.  I’m glad to be here, no longer there, moving toward where I want to be, and creating new stories.

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June 20, 2011

all of us.

by la rebelde

That’s me and Manito D in the photo.  Last weekend, my abuelita threw a giant graduation party for my prim@s, Manito D and I in Taos.  She invited 250 of our closest relatives and friends to celebrate at the Taoseño.  The Taoseño is an important building in our family because back in the day, it was a bowling alley, and my abuelit@s owned it for a short time during the 1950s.  Now it’s a favorite gathering place for family functions because the bar area (where the bowling lanes used to be) is big enough to host large parties.  They also have pretty tasty enchiladas.  Can’t go wrong there!

Anyway, I hadn’t had a chance to *really* celebrate finishing the pinche ph.d.  I’d gone out for drinks after my defense, and friends treated me to nice dinners here and there, which was great!  And I love them — I have great friends.  But I pretty much spent the next few months mulling over the mean things some profes said about me and my work.  Critique on your work is one thing, but critique on your integrity is another.  Yeah, still getting over that.

So the celebration was soul lifting because it was my family, my elders, who told me over and over how proud of me they are, how big an achievement it is for me, for us.  I definitely could not have done it without the hard work of those who came before me, or without the love and support of friends and family.  The degree isn’t about me, it’s about all of us.

Until a couple days ago, I hadn’t had a chance to read all of the beautiful cards I received that day.  Two, in particular, got me all teary-eyed.  One was from my older primo David, who is a healer.  At the party he came up to me, hugged me and told me that my grandpa is proud of me and watching down from heaven.  And he gave me a bendición.  I wish I had been able to talk to him more that day.  The other was from my good, good amiga, Nicole. She has an amazing gift for words that I can only hope to emulate:

“What I wish for you on this day of family celebration is that the difficulties lift for a moment so you can truly see/feel, as I do, just how much you have accomplished, how your life and work honors your family, your elders, your community.  Be proud of yourself, and everything you have done to get to this place.  You lift all of us with you.”

I will be forever thankful.

April 5, 2011

starting place.

by la rebelde

So, I have a presentation coming up.  Not the usual dry academic kind where one often begins with a good story and ends up trailing off into an abyss of monotony, but monotony about really important things like, you know, social justice, and the creativity and strength of those who came before us in the face of imperialism.  This time I have to talk about my academic “journey” to a group of aspiring academics at my small-midwestern-college alma mater–undergraduate seniors who have been placed on the Ph.D. track, like I was.  The administrators of the program said they chose me because I’m “real” and “NOT boring.”  Ha!  I guess I should take that as a compliment.

I know they want me to be an example of someone who “made it,” to demonstrate that it is possible to get all the way through a doctoral program and come out a model of academic achievement and still be “real.”  On paper, I have been one of the lucky privileged ones.  I did finish the program at an elite institution.  I got a fancy postdoc in a location where I want to live, during an incredibly tight market.  But the costs were extremely high. (And I’m not just referring to my student loans!)  During the last year of my dissertation-writing, I experienced one of the worst soul-crushing emotional traumas ever in my life.  To be honest, I’m not sure it was all worth it.

The only way I got through the last bit, was to remind myself that I decided to go to graduate school for good reasons–reasons that I believed in, reasons that people who had greatest power over my future and, at that moment my livelihood, did not share.  And fortunately I had incredibly supportive friends and family who believed in me and checked in on me.  I am still healing, but I am stronger.

I know I’m not alone in struggling with the contradictions of being part of, and resisting, the academic industrial complex.  For this presentation and in most other instances, my story, my work, and my knowledge are commodities that are supposed to make advisers and institutions look good.  And so, I don’t think I can give the kind of celebratory pro-grad school presentation that they expect of me.  I can’t say “hooray academia!” when I’m really thinking, “fuck that crazy shit and go do something else that will make you happy!”  But, there are many lessons learned.  And that seems a good place to start.

April 24, 2009

surprise.

by la rebelde

When I first started grad school, I was one of those bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 22-year-old fresh-out-of-undergrad, annoying first-years. Not much different than the ones I have trouble connecting with now. But I was different than most in that I wasn’t excited to bury my head in books and archives. I’d decided to go to grad school because I thought it could be a way—a way that I was good at—to help make this world a better place. I believed—and still do—that one road to liberation was through learning. History was not simply “an interesting intellectual project,” as many approach it.  Rather, its connections to the present world were/are essential to making history matter—and to imagining a different, better, more just world. When I was teaching, my students challenged me on that point everyday. And while I had a deep investment in making these connections, my graduate training in a field where everyone is disciplined to worry about being “presentist”—especially women, people of color, queer folks, etc. who are more prone to such accusations—made it fairly difficult.

My experience at a small liberal arts school in the late 90s, where there were no grad students, and where struggles for Ethnic Studies—most specifically, for Asian American Studies—was a well-organized student-run project that had been maintained over decades. And it continues now. Because there were no courses, students read on their own, and led classes and discussions amongst each other. The movement for ES was based on students’ visions, which took a connection between community with the academy, along with a critical eye to privileges in their many forms, as its fundamental basis.

So it threw me for a loop the other day, when a colega of mine expressed frustration at not only the presence, but the participation, of undergraduates at a certain ES conference underway as I write this post. Colega felt that undergraduate participation lessened the rigor of her own academic experience at the conference, that panels should be reserved for graduate students and faculty. I argued that undergraduates should always be a central part of the fabric of ethnic studies, that we have much to learn from them as they do from us, that ES should be a place where we challenge these kinds of hierarchies even if we recognize that they are real and powerful.

The conversation left me pissed off and, frankly, surprised. I was surprised, not only because we actually went to the same undergrad institution, with overlapping activist friends, but because the conversation revealed to me that we have a fundamental, somewhat existential, disagreement. After all these years in the elite academic circles, you’d think I would no longer be surprised. You’d think that I would be better able to accept that not everyone comes to it with the same political and personal investments as I do. You’d think that after one of my own institutions’ programs has “reserved” one panel for graduate students to present at its 25th anniversary event, and we’d have to compete for one of four spots on that panel—another incarnation of the same logic that my colega expressed—that I would not be tripped up by the pervasiveness of elitism. I’m surprised by my own surprise, but not surprised by my disappointment. I’m not naïve. But I guess I’m still an idealist, even if a cynical one.

April 4, 2008

living life with passion.

by la rebelde


It’s rare for me to get much work done whenever I go home. There’s always so much family stuff going on, it’s hard to buckle down and focus. This time was different. I had two deadlines. So I dragged my computer and all my paperwork to the coffee shop, while my grandparents, Sobrino and Manito did other stuff.

There was a Costa Rican man about my father’s age who I saw at the coffee shop every time I went. The last day, he arrived later than I did and took the only available seat left—next to me. He asked if I was a student at UNM. I explained that I go to University in the Midwest and was in town visiting familia. He asked about my degree and what I study. And when I said I was working on a PhD, he went on about how important it is for young women of color to get an education, that knowledge is something that can never be taken away from you. It’s the sort of thing my dad used to say back in the day. And it was kind of refreshing to hear that from a stranger. Had I forgotten? Had I gotten so caught up in worrying about funding, finishing the next chapter, post-docs and the looming job market, that I forgot to enjoy the process of learning?

I have to admit, I am often weary about talking to men I don’t know. I’m conflicted about being friendly and polite, especially to elders, while being guarded in case they’ve got shady motives. He told me about his daughter who’s a college student now, and how he just finished med school after working in a different field for a really long time. Then he asked if I was married or had a boyfriend. “No,” I’d said. And then thought to myself that I’m tired of this question, tired of men who cut conversations short once they find out I’m working on a PhD, tired of being made to feel like I chose my education over having a family. My guard immediately went up again. It seemed like too personal a question from a stranger, but its one that the elders always ask.

Before I could say anything else besides “No,” he said, “Don’t worry about those idiots who can’t handle how smart you are. They’ll weed themselves out pretty quickly. When the guy who can handle it sees how passionate you are about your work, he will never let you go. So you must always remember to live your life with passion!” Wow. Did he read my mind? Sometimes strangers can be so surprising. I’m not sure how much I believe all that, but it would be nice if it were true.

That night at dinner the fortune in my cookie read, “Today is the day you let it go. Your chance will come.” I don’t usually believe fortune cookie fortunes, but maybe the universe is telling me that I should be more open to talking to strangers.

March 6, 2008

on bizcochitos, tomato soup and knowledge-making.

by la rebelde

I was watching an “Ace of Cakes” marathon on the Food Network the other day. In case you haven’t seen the show, Charm City Cakes is a bakery in Baltimore where artist-bakers design these amazing cakes in 3D form, like airplanes and those giant balloons that rich kids like to bounce in at their birthday parties. Very cool stuff—the cakes, not the bouncing, although that might be fun.

They aired the one where they make a cake for a zoo event in the shape of a standing elephant, complete with wrinkly skin. Then, as if it couldn’t get any better, they made one of an old school NYC subway train—those metallic rounded cars, complete with full-on, 6-foot tall graffiti. These cakes seem totally extravagant and expensive and it makes me wonder who the heck actually pays for such fancy cakes for events like a 5-year-old’s birthday party. But I really like watching them construct the sculptures and paint the designs.

**

Yesterday I spent over six hours at this great Chicano coffeeshop just writing—writing like the wind. It’s funny how a super-productive day can feel really good, even if you leave feeling like you’ll need a million more hours just to say what you need to say. And today I changed my primary focus of the chapter…again for the 4th time in 3 weeks. I guess that’s the nature of a dissertation. And hopefully it will be the better for it.

I only wonder when the stress will subside.

**

Just this weekend, I was talking with a grad school amiga about how often there are moments when I think, I could be so much happier doing something else—something other than academia. And yet, I keep on, despite the personal and political contradictions that plague my existence as an intellectual and as someone committed to the liberatory possibilities of community-building. She has similar experiences–that’s why she’s my girl.

My struggle lately—or perhaps all along—has been the issue of owning knowledge (which I wrote about here before). I am haunted by the constant need to demonstrate that I, as a historian, am “doing something new” even though one could argue that nothing really is “new” because all studies build on work and ideas that have come before theirs. (And by work and ideas, I mean the broadest senses in which we might think about theorizing knowledge-making and the labor needed to make that happen, inside or outside the boundaries of the academy.)

The haunting spirals into frustration when people who work outside my subfield (gender and Asian American history, for example) who find it necessary to tell me that my topic has “been done” by citing the three texts they’ve read about gender and the three they’ve read about Asian Am history. (Nevermind that I am looking at those subfields together along with other subfields too. And of course, there actually are scholars who have come before me who have looked at those subfields together. Gasp!) This is not the first time that’s happened–when well-meaning folks suggest that I need to “position” (read defend) myself against others who have studied similar themes so as to prove that my entire dissertation does not simply repeat their narratives–and it won’t be the last. Of course, there are expectations that one be clear about one’s interventions in “the field,” that one must write in conversation with key texts. That’s really important, especially for brown/women academics because we always seem to have to defend our existence in the academic world. My frustration arises from what happens along the fissure between asking how you understand your study in relation to a specific theory/argument/story, and the somewhat accusatory, implied question of whether you have read key books in your own field. Perhaps this is a question about colonialism, respect, community and pedagogy (something I learned a great deal about from my compañeras/os in tejas).

But this is not about those people—who actually are trying to help and who gave me some great feedback. It is about the culture of knowledge production in the academy/field that fundamentally reproduces false notions of objectivity despite all the work folks have done to show how knowledge-making is shaped by perspective, that it is socially constructed, colonialist and all that jazz—a culture that encourages people to be competitive and selfish. When it gets to that, it’s not about learning or sharing–it’s about showing off and one-upping everyone else. That’s why I left grad school back in 2000, thinking I would probably never return and hoping I would never be one of those scholars who forgot to learn.

I could go on and on.

**

My point here is that, even on the good days of writing or researching or teaching—the really exciting days—I still constantly consider stopping this academic thing and becoming an artist-baker-coffeeshop-bookstore-running person instead. I could make cinnamon rolls, pan dulce, bizcochitos, sopapillas, pozole and a really good tomato soup. I could stock books, magazines and artwork that tell our stories. Hopefully people I love, even if I don’t know them, would feel comfortable spending time there. That way, at least I could participate in the creation of a space in which community and learning comes first, rather than owning knowledge. And maybe then the idealist in me won’t be smudged away by cynicism and frustration.

February 25, 2008

phone calls from my mama.

by la rebelde

When I saw that it was my mama on the caller ID the other day, I panicked a little. She doesn’t usually call me. I always call her. It’s been this way since I finished college, as if I had officially become an adult and no longer needed to hear from my mother. We’ve talked about it—several times—and the situation remains the same. I call her.

So when I answered the call I was worried that something had happened. But she just needed someone to talk to. My mama lives in a small college town in the middle of the Appalachians. She’s a fairly reserved person and I often worry that she doesn’t have a community over there. But she makes herself busy—busier than anyone I know—with a 40+ hour a week job where her expertise is underappreciated, teaching an adjunct course practically for free, running a support program for patients in her specialty, doing research and writing a dissertation.

See, several years before I was born, my mama was a grad student. Committed to clinical work in underserved communities, she wanted her research to reflect communities that confronted nutrition-related diseases like diabetes. When her advisor left for another school and dropped her, despite the fact that she had already written the majority of her dissertation, she was left with a new advisor who didn’t consider her research topic a worthy one. She left the program and my parents moved to Burque. She taught adjunct classes for a while. I was born, then Manito, and she stopped working to spend time raising us. Then my other Manito was born.

It wasn’t until I was in high school that she went back to work. A few years later she began taking graduate courses because they were free for university employees—one class per semester. And she decided to go back for a PhD. I, of course, think this is amazing.

Now, she’s finished up her research and is writing, writing, writing. And as we were speaking on the phone the other day, I realized that there are so many things I take for granted about my professionalization—or maybe more accurately, my assimilation into academic culture—and the fact that I don’t have children or a job (I’ve been funded through teaching and fellowships). My mama has always worked full-time while in the program. She’s never been a TA so she has never really spent time in her department. And because of that, she didn’t know about little things that are common knowledge for my grad school colegas (such as how grad students can use departmental letterhead for professional purposes, for example). She doesn’t have a support system like I do (even if mine is scattered across the country) because she doesn’t feel she has anything in common with the folks in her cohort. She is in her late 50s, while most of them were under 25 when they began the program and have already graduated because they don’t have full-time jobs outside of the grad school thing. In many ways, this degree will serve a different purpose for her than it will for me. She already has a career and is well-known in the field of nutrition. Her PhD will be in another field and she thinks of it as supplementary to her expertise—the clinical work she already does. My hope is that it will land her a job she enjoys in a location that will make her happy.

In recent years, my role has been to support my mama in her grad school- and work-related issues by listening and talking through issues she’s had with her committee. But my support is limited because we live so far apart and work in different disciplines. When she asks me to take a look at her data sets, I have little idea of what I’m looking at. I’m fortunate that she understands what I’m working on, that she knows the basic ins and outs of the process. But I sometimes wonder how often she doesn’t ask me for support when she needs it…and how often she’s asked and I haven’t been able to help.

January 10, 2008

waiting for the moment.

by la rebelde

The new year has begun.

I meant to go to the Spiffy-ton today, to get back on my research schedule. But I’ve been getting over a cold and I took some medicine last night that knocked me the heck out! So I woke up this morning with a big headache and decided to postpone the Spiffy one more day. Afterall, los archivos do make me sneeze even when I’m not sick. Instead, I’ve been working on…yet another fellowship application due in a couple of weeks.

I have a deadline for a chapter draft—mid February. The deadline was set to help me out with a fellowship application that requires a “representative chapter” by the beginning of March. I was all about it last month. But now that the deadline is a month away, I’m a little panicky. I haven’t started writing yet. I still have a lot of research left to do. I think I will have to start writing with whatever I have, maybe beginning next week. I’m not even sure if it’s possible to write a chapter in a month. I guess I’ll find out!

My grad student amig@s keep talking about these moments when the end is in sight. I haven’t had that moment yet. But I’m still working as if the moment will reveal itself at any minute.

December 18, 2007

grad school survival.

by la rebelde

hey everyone. check out the 14th Carnival of GRADual Progress. PsychGirl included links from a bunch of us grad students who’ve blogged about surviving the madness that is grad school, including me and my girl, Quiche!

November 16, 2007

mid-november madness.

by la rebelde

Today. In no particular order.

  • Morning routine. One hour.
  • Meeting with the archivist, in which he basically said I have to trudge through the old card catalogs using “brute force” because I study people who weren’t rich and white and/or male. One hour.
  • Flipping through card catalogs and typing notes—yes, notes about the cards. Five hours.
  • Lunch with a very nice professor from a quaint east coast school. One hour.
  • Commute, errands and gas for the car so I can go to the Spiffy again tomorrow. One hour.
  • “Rest” and eat dinner. One hour.
  • Work on fellowship essays and figure out what my dissertation is about so I can talk to mi profa about it on the phone tomorrow morning at an ungodly hour. Five hours.

I’m exhausted. How did I manage to completely lose 3 waking hours? It’s like those times when I couldn’t figure out how I lost track of five bucks in my wallet, when I’d actually spent it.

That nagging feeling is back. The one where it seems that there are not enough hours in the day to get everything you need to get done, done. It’s that kind of feeling where you feel a fluttering in your chest, like a caged butterfly banging its wings against your ribs.

At least I can sleep tonight knowing I’m not alone in this. It is November after all!