Lately I’ve been thinking about what brought me to Denton and this PhD program. The thought really is more along the lines of, “How the eff did I get myself into this mess?” Maybe being on year 2 of dissertating without actually having a prospectus accepted is the cause of this or maybe it’s the natural question of someone working their ass off on a degree that will get them very few opportunities in the real world. Or maybe it’s the perpetual drama in my department. Who knows? I just know that I look around my life and think, “how did I get here?” more and more these days.
Here’s how I got here.
Six years ago when I was applying to this program, I knew that my chances of getting a tenure-track job post-PhD would be low. I came in aware of the situation in academia. I came in with three years of higher ed work under my belt as a minister at Butler. I knew the work it would take to get this degree and, even more so, the isolation that comes with a process like writing a 200 page dissertation on a topic that no one around you is an expert on. Greg Roper prepared me well.
Unfortunately, when Greg was talking to me about the problems of the future I was contemplating, I was thinking more about the problems of what was then my reality. Let me be clear: I loved being a campus minister more than anything I have ever done. I loved my students at Butler. If I could have worked just with the kids and had no other life or work, just been a hologram that turned on only when students needed me, I would have stayed long term. But unfortunately, that’s now how it goes. Church politics are still politics and I simply wasn’t made for that kind of drama. I get too invested and my faith took the hit. To make matters worse, I had no social life and very little in terms of a support system that was readily available. My sisters often had the opposite schedule that I had and my few other friends were busy with their own lives. I spent most of my free time at home alone or in my office watching Netflix. My work with students started to strain because they were my only source of social interaction with people near my age (then 25). It just wasn’t sustainable.
My internship with the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice the summer before I became director probably had something to do with this as well. I went from living with 200 nuns who loved me to living alone and doing thankless work. The contrast was too much. By October, I was looking at PhD programs and by November, I was applying to UNT. In February, I accepted my fellowship and notified my boss that I would be leaving Indy. He waited until the last minute to replace me, thinking I would change my mind, but I didn’t. I wanted something different, even though I loved my students so much. I wanted to continue the research work I had been doing as an intern at WVC. I wanted to study Environmental Literature and write about Wendell Berry. I wanted to be around people who loved poems for the way the words felt in the mouth, for the taste of the thing and the way it sits in your soul—so much deeper than simple words on a page. I wanted to be around people who understood me and my love of words, of literature.
Looking back, I probably should have gone back to UD. The English Department at UNT had no such romantic notions of literature. There were a few quiet but lovely scholars I could connect with, one faculty member who has since left the uni. But the life I imagined when I was leaving Indiana was not the life I found back in Texas—at least as far as the love for literature was concerned.
Yet, the life I found at UNT was good. I was happier than I had been in a long time. I was making friends, spending time with my old friends and pseudo-family. I had a support system. And, honestly, if it weren’t for the relationship that tore my life apart, my life here in Texas could have been an overwhelmingly good one. The worst thing would have been a bit of bullying at the office, common enough in academia and something that a tenure-track wannabe should make themselves get used to. Even with what happened two years ago, my life is good. I have brilliant colleagues who are generally kind people (ignoring, of course, those bullies). I have a sweet little dog. I have a generous director. But then, I’m getting ahead of myself.
I quickly found out when I got to UNT that Wendell Berry, though loved in the ecojustice community, is not so celebrated among academics. Something about being a communitarian and that he’s not necessarily the most feminist writer, though I understand his worldview enough to appreciate him anyways. My first semester at UNT introduced me to Aldo Leopold and I wrote a brilliant (ish) paper about the agricultural aspect of a land ethic (Maybe I should have switched to philosophy?) and the sisters’ implementation of one such ethic. In the following semester, I continued to learn about Leopold, was introduced to ecocriticism, and met my director. I knew from the beginning I wanted to work with her and immediately signed up for her next class. It was really about the person, not the class topic, and I just wanted to get to know her better perhaps in a smaller class without so much overwhelm. Good idea, Ari.
The next semester with her was a Xicana feminisms course and I was introduced to Gloria Anzaldua. And for the first time in my life all the little things that I had kept to myself, the frustrations and passions and thoughts, were suddenly on paper right in front of me. Like everyone who reads and loves Anzaldua, it was like she was writing my soul. And so, I eventually gave up the Ecocritical aspect of my research and writing and embraced Xicanisma. It wasn’t about my director anymore, but rather about me, about this experience that Anzaldua writes about that so mirrors my own. My term paper ended up being about the work of Roman Catholic nuns as nepantleras. I thought of my sisters. I felt connection to them and discussed the paper with them when I could.
It was completely different from what I had planned, but it felt like things were falling into place. I was moving away from my classical training at UD and overcoming my academic snobbery that I had become aware of during my time at Notre Dame. I was falling in love with texts outside of the canon and overcoming the sadness of leaving Greek behind.
Then all fucking Hell broke loose.
In August 2017, I took my exams under a haze of depression and anxiety that was so much more than the test anxiety my director thought I had. I spent two years being suicidal every second of every day, in the middle of which my theologian turned down my prospectus and I had to start over. It ended up being a good thing that I could start fresh from the beginning because I could go forward without using the Church because, really, why write about an institution that just fucked you over majorly? (You can check out the archives of this blog if you missed all this.)
And that about brings me up to November. And here I am, almost two years post-exams, still working on a prospectus that about half the time I want to throw out the window. But I’m here. And I’m going to finish this degree. And I’m going to keep teaching.
And you know what?
Overall, despite the Hell, despite the drama, and despite three little fuckers that made teaching last year kind of hard—I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else. So, that’s how I got here. And in spite of everything, I guess I’m glad I am.