The State of the Union: A Lesson in Self-Assessment

This past weekend I had the awesome opportunity to attend the SEASECS (The Southeastern American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies) conference in Charleston, South Carolina.  SEASECS was my first conference in the field as a Master’s student (the conference was in Auburn maybe 5 or 6 years ago…I can’t remember! Time flies when you’re, er, having fun!), and it was a warm and congenial place for a first time presenter.  I found it to be much the same this go ’round, with lots of friendly advice given and contacts made and/or renewed.  I think the Southeastern aspect of the conference lends a particular, Southern air of hospitality and liveliness, and conference goers at all levels of the academic food chain are genuinely interested in, and supportive of, each others’ work.  That’s been my experience with the conference, anyway.

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(Battery Park, Charleston)

So after the fun-loving atmosphere of Charleston (we heard someone say that it was a classier New Orleans) and the collegial atmosphere of the conference, I find myself sitting in my office, answering the eleventy billion e-mails that have piled up while I was busy basking in the glow of SEASECS.  Basically, it’s like the morning after a big event when you wake up to see the remains of the party and think to yourself, “awww man,  I have to clean this up.” But the conference-induced enthusiasm that I find myself endowed with remains, even upon seeing the e-mail avalanche and realizing that I am, still, alone in Atlanta with little-to-no academic community.  This lead me to ask myself what I should do with this conference enthusiasm.  I usually shake off post-event excitement in a few days, so part of me thinks that I’ll just carry on with my normal routine and let the excitement infuse itself where it may.  But I think I’d like to be a little more proactive than that, and fueled by a conversation I had with my mentor, I want to actually take stock of where I am with my research/life/PhD.  What follows is a sort of State of the Union speech about just that, hopefully interspersed with some useful tips about how to gauge the state of your union.

I. WHERE ARE YOU ACADEMICALLY?

The first conference I went to after taking my primary qualifying exam on 18th century literature was CSECS (Canadian Society for Eighteenth Century Studies) in Hamilton, Ontario in the Fall of 2011.  I had literally just finished my exam, got on a plane and flew into Hamilton, then wrote/lifted the majority of my conference paper from my exam.  I had a raging, stress induced migraine, and I really hadn’t seen the light of day in about a week (we have one week to write a 50 page exam).  I looked like an academic feral child, but I managed to make it through my presentation and the rest of the conference (in retrospect, I will never sign up for a conference after a major deadline!), and over the course of it I realized something that I’d never experienced before: I knew enough about the scope of my field to know the context and basic conversation in every panel I sat in. What a lark! What a plunge! Suddenly, gaps were filled in that I didn’t even know existed.  I realized the point of the exam, and suddenly the effort I had exerted felt worth it.  That was the State of Sarah Creel’s Academic Union in Fall of 2011.

As I’ve mentioned before, particularly in that blog post about writing from afar, this past year hasn’t been a lot of fun for me.  I’m done whining about it and have tried to be more positive and upfront about the challenges I face writing from Atlanta (when my program is in Vancouver, BC).  What I noticed about SEASECS this year was that I have, however tentatively, turned a new leaf in terms of willingness to work toward change.  I saw so many positive things come from the conference that are the fruit of putting myself out there on twitter and this blog…and from just trying to be more approachable in general. People I met on twitter unfolded from twitter handles into actual people (postmodern craziness!), and it turns out that people are willing (and wanting!) to collaborate.  It’s funny how the moment I opened myself up to change, change happened.  And while I am still not feeling 100% positive about my actual work, I am feeling better about the working part of it.  I knew these things were falling into place, but seeing them actually manifest at the conference was definitely happy making.

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(At a delightful Charleston bookstore, Blue Bicycle Books, with my mentor)

I think this concept of figuring out where you are academically (addressing your own Union’s health, if you will) can be done without a conference.  Perhaps some serious mind mapping could do the same thing.  Or a long, honest chat with your dissertation partner or advisor, or just a friend or mentor.  Spending some time journaling or meditating also could work if you’re into that.  Whatever it is, just spend some time making a progress report of your studies.  Even if it isn’t pretty, you want to know where you’re at…so you know where to go.

II. WHAT ARE YOU WILLING TO DO?

One part of State of the Union Addresses always focuses on where the country can go.  Yes, problems are addressed, but the President usually focuses on what he (or she…someday!) can do to provide a solution to said problems.  My State of the Union this year acknowledges that there were some definite hitches in my giddyup (yes, I live far away from my program, now what?), but is now focused on being past that.  I think where I can go involves more community building on my part, even if that community is virtual.  More tweeting, blogging, being an active part of our crew’s academic writing group on facebook (we check-in throughout the day to see what everyone is accomplishing).  And, I’ve started taking my own advice (see writing from afar post again) about communicating. I emailed my advisor this morning to set up a chapter deadline (March 15th) and a Skype meeting (March 18th). Now that I’ve established where I am, it seems important that I know where I’m going.  Setting reasonable, attainable goals seems like the first step to accomplishing things. Right? Right.

And, while we’re talking about what you (and I) are willing to do, can we talk about getting out of our comfort zones a bit here? It’s par for the course to be asked to get out of your comfort zone when you move to a new place.  Adjusting takes time, but it also takes a certain extroverted effort to be able to make a new community for yourself.  That can be intimidating/exhausting, but it’s also really worth it.  A friend outside the academy (who owns a life coaching business) recently told me that she thought academics were the new, unsung entrepreneurs: blogging, tweeting, collaborating, writing and publishing wherever we can, we are putting our names out there (essentially) in order to better our chances of finding the golden chalice someday–the tenure track job.  While I’m doing these things mostly for community, I also think she’s right.  Putting yourself (your name, your project) out there into the internetosphere can’t be a bad thing (unless you’re, you know, not being professional about the whole thing).  That’s my assessment of what I can do to keep this post-conference enthusiasm up.  Strategies for accomplishing the things that come up in your State of the Union will probably vary (for instance, you might need to hole up and introvert and just get stuff done), and that’s okay.  I just think it’s a good thing to have a plan.  And, as type-A academics, who doesn’t love a plan?!

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(hey, because you’ve almost gotten through to the end of this blog post, here’s a cat picture! House kitty in Blue Bicycle Books)

Now that you’ve heard (in a relatively roundabout way) my State of the Union address; my goals for managing the problems dredged up in my address; and seen an adorable picture of a cat in a bookstore in the historic district of Charleston, tell me about the state of your Union. Do you assess your progress in your program/job in this way? What goals do you set for yourself and how do you accomplish them? Let’s do this, kids!

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(A celebratory, post-paper cocktail at Squeeze bar in Charleston)

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5 thoughts on “The State of the Union: A Lesson in Self-Assessment

  1. Sarah, I look to your blog posts as the ghost of PhD future. I don’t know what the Canadian version of a State of the Union is, but I will be doing one of those after my very busy spring conference season. I look forward to, like you, putting flesh to some folks I’ve connected with via Twitter and reconnecting with people I’ve met through conferencing in the past. I gather that folks in your field are as small a community as Victorianists and therefore it does not take long to get into the group so long as you’re willing to, as you say, open yourself up. This is something that I have definitely struggled with in the past and prompted me to get on Twitter, then blogging, and so on.

    As for my immediate plans/goals for my union, I am trying my best to prepare for completing my dissertation from afar.

  2. Well, hopefully I am a *good* ghost of the PhD future! And, you know, not like a harbinger of death and stuff. Anyway, you’ll be great at conference season! You’re super outgoing, and it doesn’t take long to identify the grad students and jr scholars group at any conference. Carve yourself out a space, and take your business cards! They come in handy.

    Any questions you have about preparing to write from afar? What kind of library access will you have from that cute little yellow house?

  3. Thanks. I’m still trying to figure out the library thing in Whitehorse. There is a college there but I doubt they have much of anything useful to me. I may be able to take advantage of ILL through them, but I’m not sure. I know UBC Library has facilities for students studying at a distance, though I really need to talk to them about it. Since a lot of my primary materials are electronic, this is great. It’s those pesky academic texts that cost eleventy-billion dollars that are the real problem. I’ll be figuring this out over the next few months and I’ll likely be picking your brain for ideas.

  4. Sounds good! Does UBC have a liaison librarian for the English Department? SFU’s liaison librarian has been REALLY helpful to me. She had all kinds of suggestions for borrowing from afar, and she even helped me apply for library access at Emory. I’m sure she’d be willing to help you, too, if UBC doesn’t have one, esp since you’re an SFU alum. Her name is Rebecca Dowson (rda26 at sfu.ca).

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