Status of the Ph.D.


  • I interviewed with two prospective references at SILS, who agreed to write letters of reference (still waiting on the third to write hers and the application is done). They were good, tough interviews that asked the simple questions–Why do you want to do this? Why do you want to do it here? What do you want to do with a Ph.D.?–that are always hard to answer. Fortunately, my work on the entrance essay had primed my head with some thoughts to trot out and show off, so I didn’t fum-fuh my way through the conversations.
  • As I settle into the idea, the big question of course is the economy and the prospect of leaving my job to focus on my studies. On the face of it, it seems pretty foolish to leave a guaranteed job to go to school for an outcome that is not at all certain. But my holistic spiritual side tells me that this fear is one of the guardians of the gates whose job is to scare me off the path. The only way through is to confront the guardian and continue walking.
  • As my friend, The Indecipherable Cassidy, reminds me, don’t say no before the school says no. I still have until late next summer to decide whether or not this is the path for me. In the meantime, keep taking my classes, keep thinking and writing, and let the wheels of the academic bureaucracy grind along.

Update, 11-Jan-2008: All reference letters were submitted. All transcripts have been sent to the gradschool and the SILS office. All over now, but the waiting.

2008 Fall Semester Wrap-up

Follow-up to my fall break posting.

  • I spent the last two days deleting 1000+ emails from my Gmail “read this later” pile, deleted all unneeded emails from my fall classes, and deleted from my hard drive all the working files and drafts I used to create my various homework assignments. I keep only the final versions that I hand in and only the emails that included those files as attachments.
  • The semester, as usual, ended oddly. One feels that there should be more emotional celebration when you turn in that final assignment, but it’s not a race where there’s a clear winner and the outcome is unambiguous. I’m usually just restless and antsy and give me whatever grade you feel like giving me, I’m too tired to care. Fellow students comment on how we don’t quite know what to do with ourselves and all this free time. It’s a feeling I remember from when I used to act in community theater; we’d spend 6 weeks of evenings and weekends rehearsing, and when the performances and parties were over, we were generally glad to be done with this show that we were now thoroughly familiar with (and, consequently, sick of) and ready to move on. We talked about what we’d do with these acres of now-free time. After two weeks, we were back auditioning for the next show.
  • I expect this odd feeling–all revved up and then looking around at an empty landscape wondering where everyone went–will recur when graduation eventually rolls around. :)
  • I am pleased to report that I got high marks for both classes, which means I have a complete set of high marks for all of my classes thus far. La, how jolly.
  • Looking back, I probably could have handled both classes more easily had I not been severely distracted by the whole Ph.D. question. All that questioning, research, writing the essay, and pulling together those threads really distracted me from my everyday assignments.

Moyra Davey on Random Reading

Moyra Davey on Random Reading

“So how are we to draw up those reading lists finally? I have been fascinated to note how many writers invoke chance and randomness as guiding principles in choosing their books. I am talking about Lynne Sharon Schwartz, who, citing ‘the John Cage-ish principle that if randomness determines the universe it might as well determine my reading too,’ spent a winter reading the Greek tragedies because she happened to find a discounted set in a mail order catalogue. I’m talking about the serendipitous findings of Virginia Woolf, the little pamphlet from a hundred years ago that she comes across in a second-hand bookshop that stops her in her tracks and rivets her to the spot. I am talking about the happenstance of Georges Perec, who, while engaged in the tedious task of arranging his bookshelves, comes upon a book he’d lost sight of and writes: 'putting off until tomorrow what you won’t do today, you finally re-devour [it] lying face down on your bed.’ He further speculates that in our pursuit of knowledge, 'order and disorder are in fact the same word, denoting pure chance.’ And finally, I am talking about the passionate book collector uncrating his treasures after a two-year hiatus, as portrayed by Walter Benjamin in his autobiographical essay 'Unpacking My Library,’ for whom 'chance and fate … are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these book.’

"Just as a bookcase full of read and unread books conjures up a portrait of the owner over time ('joggers of the memory’ Perec calls them), so the books that arrest us in the present constitute a reflection of 'what we are, or what we are becoming or desire’ (Schwartz). There is nothing random about that, or about any of these other seemingly random ways of coming to books, and it is from this notion that the oddly apt idea of books choosing us, rather than the other way around, seems to make sense. The idea of a book choosing the reader has to do with a permission granted. A book gives permission when it uncovers a want or a need, and in doing so asserts itself above all the hundreds of others jockeying to be read. In this way a book can become a sort of uncanny mirror held up to the reader, one that concretizes a desire in the process of becoming.” –Moyra Davey fr. The Problem of Reading A Documents Book, 2003

Lindsay Marshall on serendipity:

We are not, I believe, looking for tools to record our thoughts or to provide them with structure. What we seek is something that leads us to the unforeseen collisions, the copulations that lead to new thoughts, new connections and yet more new meetings.

"We are an exceptional model of the human race"

From Charles Bowden in Blood Orchid:

“We are an exceptional model of the human race. We no longer know how to produce food. We no longer can heal ourselves. We no longer raise our young. We have forgotten the names of the stars, fail to notice the phases of the moon. We do not know the plants and they no longer protect us. We tell ourselves we are the most powerful specimens of our kind who have ever lived. But when the lights are off we are helpless. We cannot move without traffic signals. We must attend classes in order to learn by rote numbered steps toward love or how to breast-feed our baby. We justify anything, anything at all by the need to maintain our way of life. And then we go to the doctor and tell the professionals we have no life. We have a simple test for making decisions: our way of life, which we cleverly call our standard of living, must not change except to grow yet more grand. We have a simple reality we live with each and every day: our way of life is killing us.”

So which is it: job or calling? You can answer the question directly, or allow time to answer it for you. Either way, I think you’d be happier if you stopped thinking of what the world had to offer you, and started thinking a bit more about what you had to offer the world. Real excitement isn’t just in whatever you happen to be doing, but in what you bring to it.

Unknown

Client begins first meeting by making a big show of telling you that you are the expert. You are in charge, he says: he will defer to you in all things, because you understand the web and he does not. (Trust your uncle Jeffrey: this man will micromanage every hair on the project’s head.)

Daniel Lemire:

Highly productive people do not have more time, but they may have more energy, more method and better feedback on their progress.

Jack Cheng:

That’s what most people do. They keep waiting and waiting until they have enough saved up, find the right idea or until they’re in a position with more responsibility. But conditions are never perfect. And when we’re so focused on our plans, we lose sight of the openings in front of us. Instead of plans we need habits. Habits of taking risks. Habits of keeping our eyes open for new opportunities. Habits of putting ourselves in situations that force us to grow and change. We can all introduce a little chaos into our lives.

Maeda’s SIMPLICITY (404):

It’s not for others to recognize the fruits of your work; it’s for yourself. The desire is to complete a thought. So then … you can go on and find a new one to torment yourself with. The intellectual torment … is … fun? Hmmmm. Difficult to say. Perhaps it is a kind of acquired taste for an odd pleasure.

"A reasonable first step"

Scott Aaronson:

I see a world that really did change dramatically over the last century, but where progress on many fronts (like transportation and energy) seems to have slowed down rather than sped up; a world quickly approaching its carrying capacity, exhausting its natural resources, ruining its oceans, and supercharging its climate; a world where technology is often powerless to solve the most basic problems, millions continue to die for trivial reasons, and democracy is't even clearly winning over despotism; a world that finally has a communications network with a decent search engine but that still hasn't emerged from the tribalism and ignorance of the Pleistocene. And I can't help thinking that, before we transcend the human condition and upload our brains to computers, a reasonable first step might be to bring the 18th-century Enlightenment to the 98% of the world that still hasn't gotten the message.

"The most important reward of all"

Judson Jerome:

Like virtue, poetry is its own reward. … The immortality game, like that of getting into the circle of the two hundred, can be wicked and delusionary. … That leaves you with perhaps the most important reward of all: personal satisfaction. … You are more likely to succeed at poetry, as in love, if you get success out of your head. Concentrate on quality. Learn the joy of creating excellence — whether or not anyone else recognizes it.