New Academic Year, A Fresh (Re)Start

I’ve been ignoring this blog, shamefully.  A lot has happened in my life, and the idea of trying to condense it into something to share with the world felt overwhelming.  There’s too much to explain, to paraphrase the Princess Bride, so let me sum up: in the past 18 months, I got engaged, wrote and presented my second MA thesis on bodily piety in medieval fasting mystics and ballet dancers (which goes together better than one might think), watched my fiancé graduate with his MA in medieval studies, returned to ballet classes and had to leave them thanks to a dislocated hip, moved up one state, and as of tomorrow, I’m returning to my PhD Institution in Washington, DC to finish my dissertation on funerary culture in New Orleans.  Whew!  Does it sound like a lot?  Because it felt like a lot, let me tell you!

Coming back to PhD work after doing the distance/research-style degree for my MA is a major shift.  Not only is the level of work higher — and I’m going to need to acquire 2 additional research languages over this academic year — but I have to adjust to being in a different town, making the commute from Maryland into DC twice a week, and keeping up on an academic schedule that doesn’t have a lot of flexibility in it.  Did I also mention that we have a wedding planned for Nov 1?  (We picked the date before we knew I was going back to classwork!)  So I’m struggling in a way unfamiliar to me.  I’m trying to get in the rhythm of classes again, and reading on tight, weekly deadlines.  I’m trying to help support my fiancé as he transitions for the first time in his life from “student” to “working adult,” which is no easy thing with disability added to the equation.  I’m handling ageing parents as an only child, which is a new and scary thing.  And I’m trying to figure out what’s going on with my own health.  One advantage of returning to PhD land is that I’ll have health insurance again for the first time in two years, which means I’ll be able to figure out why my joints dislocate so often.  (You’ve never had an experience like learning exactly which ways to move and twist to pop your shoulder or hip or wrist or ankle or big toe back into joint, nor the crack of pain-relief-horror that comes with it.) 

PhD classes, especially at my institution, seem to run on the assumption that you have an able-bodied spouse at home to make you meals, tend to the household chores, and bring in enough income to support the hidden costs of doctoral training — books, professional association memberships and journals, travel to conferences, travel to archives, professional attire, etc.  And perhaps 40 years ago, when the school was almost all Catholic and the graduate cohorts were almost all men, this might’ve been true.  It’s less true now, and it makes doctoral training all the harder on people like myself who are balancing housework and a disabled partner with the work and extra hours.  I can’t imagine what it’s like for people with children — doubly so for women with children, considering how much of the second shift of housework and childcare seem to always fall to women, no matter how well-intentioned their partners. 

I think, deep down, this is the stuff that makes the academy the ivory tower — the ticket inside the doors as a professional is steep, the likelihood of getting a tenure-track job low, and the intangible costs of putting off starting your career for perhaps as long as a decade, losing out on all that pay and networking and chance to save for retirement, living on shoestrings, compromising on family life, etc.  It’s hard enough for me, but the glass ceiling inside the ivory tower is still present, and it’s even thicker for women who are not white, not straight, not Christian, not part of the dominant class.  It worries me, frequently.  But at the same time, I keep making the choice to do this, over and over again.  That might be the definition of insanity.  I like to think it speaks to my tenacity and my belief in my work. 

So expect more here this semester as I wade through required theology classes, learning Spanish and German to supplement my Latin and French, trying to get my health sorted out, prepare for comprehensive exams, and make ends meet.  And get married!  It’s going to be one heck of a semester.

What’re your big hurdles this semester?  What are you anticipating?  What are you dreading? 

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