How the Hell did I end up here?


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.

It was hard to focus on the problems of a potential future in academia when I was in the middle of the problems of being a minister.

It was hard to focus on the problems of a potential future in academia when I was in the middle of the problems of being a minister.

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.

I wanted to be around people who understood me and my love of words, of literature.

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.

My first semester at UNT introduced me to Aldo Leopold and I wrote a brilliant paper about the agricultural aspect of a land ethic and the sisters’ implementation of one.  My experience as an organic gardening intern actually helped a lot!

My first semester at UNT introduced me to Aldo Leopold and I wrote a brilliant paper about the agricultural aspect of a land ethic and the sisters’ implementation of one. My experience as an organic gardening intern actually helped a lot!

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.

Life Update Part II: What on earth am I doing in Ohio?

A unique view of my new home. Photo by  Jake Blucker  on  Unsplash

A unique view of my new home. Photo by Jake Blucker on Unsplash

Most people following me on social media are aware that last fall, I made a pretty good friend: Minadora. So, Minadora is now a second year poetry PhD (shameless plug: please buy her book and support an amazing poet AND an amazing small press) whose beagle, Aki, has shown up in many of Gary’s Facebook and Instagram updates. She is a kind, generous, patient human who, like me, is a total homebody who simultaneously appreciates the presence of another human. So, to save money (both in terms of rent and in terms of gas spent driving between the two apartments), we decided to get an apartment together. I’m excited to have a roommate again and to have a much larger space. The constant presence of #akiwiththebeaglenose and his wonderful slobbery kisses is the icing on the cake.

So, a little while after we became friends, Minadora’s dad, who is a fascinating human everyone should know, came to visit for her birthday. We spent a lot of time together and, by some strange miracle, he decided that he liked me (and I him—he’s a very kind, fatherly, gentle human and his daughter is a lot like him). Over Christmas break when Minadora was home, she happened to mention to her dad that I am an (aspiring) professional organizer (among my many other pursuits) and he offered to have me come stay with him and work for him in exchange for housing and food and (because he is a very skilled doctor) medical treatment.

If this sounds like too good to be true, it’s really not. I mean it’s good, but also true.  I’m in Ohio living with Minadora and her dad (who I call Doc), cataloguing some collections and helping him organize in exchange for free housing, amazing food, gentle, fatherly affection, and medical treatment for my PCOS/PTSD/etc. Gary is obsessed with Doc and adores him. I am enjoying spending time with my friend, being away from Texas, and meeting her friends and family. Also, being in Ohio has put me much closer to the Woods (that’s the next update) and several Butler-era friends. In fact, I am writing this right now from the home of one of my close friends from Butler who asked me to watch her doggos while she and her mom are on a trip.

There is really no question about who is getting the best end of this working for Doc deal and it’s me. I hope that I’m able to do everything he needs because I’m so grateful for the help he’s giving me. I’m losing weight, my body and mind are more stable than they’ve been in a long time, and I’m working through a lot of the things I need to work through. I’m really blessed to be here.

A note: I’ve been extremely blessed in the last year or so to really find out who my friends are. Minadora is only one of them. I have an amazing group of humans who offer support and love. I’m so grateful.

Update Part I: A Quick Summary of Last Semester

Photo by  Zoltan Tasi  on  Unsplash

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

So, it’s been a while since I’ve updated you all on my life. There are a lot of reasons for that, so here is my very brief and not-too-positive explanation of like late November through May:

Life update: Towards the end of the fall semester, I was called into the department office because a parent had complained about the number of classes I had cancelled. While it was absolutely ILLEGAL for my supervisors to even read an email from a student’s parent, I got chewed out, was told they weren’t getting their money’s worth out of me, etc. I reminded them that I have a serious chronic illness, for which I have ODA accommodation. I was told that our department did not accommodate disabilities other than pregnancy. For those of you who know anything at all about the ADA, you know that was a lawsuit waiting to happen. I then spent the next like four months dealing with HR and my chair and a constant feeling of doom hanging over me because I was afraid of being fired for something over which I have no control. The fact that almost every close friend and mentor I had was encouraging me to sue my department didn’t help my mindset at all.

To make matters worse, at the end of February, I started feeling like my medication wasn’t working. I was constantly exhausted, oversleeping, felt weak and achy. I went to my doctor asking for a med adjustment, but when I described my symptoms she got a funny look on her face and ran some blood tests. It turns out that sometimes those things are symptoms of actual disease and I had mononucleosis. Apparently there was a serious outbreak of mono on campus and it’s a lot more contagious than we were led to believe in high school (less “kissing disease” more “touched the same doorknob and now you’re dying” disease). Excellent. Just what I needed for my first semester teaching three classes instead of two.

Between teaching three different preps (Comp 2, Tech Comm, and Ethnic Lit (!)) and constantly feeling like I was dying, it was a rough time for sure. To add insult to injury I had the first ever student who I genuinely could not stand. You know me, I love my students. I’ve had difficult kiddos before who I’ve dealt with patiently, but this one just took the cake. Between him and the disability situation, I met with HR way more than any one person should have to in a semester—much less a person semi-dying of mono for four months. 

Research update: As a result of the general feel of the semester, when my prospectus defense was cancelled because a committee member refused to sign off on it, I sort of gave up for a while. In all honesty, I’m excited about the opportunity to do something else—I just don’t know what. And with all the awful that I was dealing with, I spent most of the semester contemplating dropping out at the end of it. I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t, but now here I am mid-summer still looking towards the fall with a mix of confusion and frustration. Sing to me, O Muse, of something I can write about!

So, that’s my very quick summary. I’ll write another soon and explain what’s going on now and where I am. Here’s a spoiler: I’m in Ohio.

Research and PhD Progress Update

Photo by  Mikayla Mallek  on  Unsplash

So, I’m not sure I even mentioned this on the blog, but I passed my qualifying exams back in August, so I am now officially a PhD Candidate in the English Department. I’m still in the process of writing my prospectus, although later this week I am scheduled to attend the Dissertation Bootcamp, where I plan on completing my draft. I’m a little behind, which is stressful because I have three papers I have to write this month—my prospectus (20ish pages), my paper for WLA, and my paper for SAMLA.

I know a lot of people (mostly my family) are asking when the heck I’ll be done with this degree. Please keep in mind that this is a FIVE-YEAR PROGRAM. No, I’m not graduating yet. I’m right on time for a fourth year. I still have this and another academic year to write my dissertation and I plan on moving as fast as I can, although my health seems to be getting in the way.

So, other than DBC this week, what am I up to? Here’s a sample:

  • I’m still working on my “elevator speech” (2 minute spiel covering what my dissertation is about and what it will accomplish), but I’m excited and working through my argument. As a preview for the future post when I will give my elevator speech, I’m talking about post-oppositionality, Chicana feminism, and mujerista theology. Exciting stuff.
  • My paper for the Western Lit Association conference is titled “Responding to the Revolutionary Urge: Las Hermanas and Claiming Hispanic Women’s Liberation Theology as a part of U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage” and will be part of a panel on recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage with my dissertation director, Dr. Priscilla Ybarra, and her friend, Dr. José Aranda. I’m excited and nervous and mostly stressed. But, it will be my first time at WLA and I’m sure it will be great.
  • I have attended SAMLA (South Atlantic MLA) twice before, but this will be my first time chairing a panel. I’m working with Dr. Kelly Walter Carney on the ASLE panels at SAMLA, which I’m excited about. Having been to SAMLA before, it’s a lot less stressful. Plus, I won’t be presenting in front of my director, so that’s a bonus right there.
  • I’m also still teaching two courses in the English Department, an American Lit course and a Comp II course. My students are great and they keep me busy for sure!

I’ll keep ya’ll up to date as I continue to progress through the PhD.