Tuesday, February 17, 2009

You're the Historian: The Best Time of my Graduate School Life

This semester (and portions of the last one, too) I'm focused on reading the nearly 200 books on my preparation lists for my preliminary exams, which I'm scheduled to take, in oral form, on Thursday, May 14 at 10 am (preceded by the written exams, which I'll receive by about April 15). I'd heard a lot about this process since beginning my Ph.D. program and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting myself into. I would spend a semester curled up on my futon, reading books in my sweatpants, gulping down information and ideas, developing the breadth and mastery of my subdisciplines that would prepare me to write my dissertation and to teach courses in these areas one day in the future. Oh, I knew there'd be tedium and difficulty and procrastination involved, but I was looking forward to it. And my advisor and other faculty kept telling me that reading for prelims would be the "best time" of my graduate school life. After all, how often do you get to spend a whole semester just reading all those books you've been meaning to catch up on? All your other time is spent racing to finish reading for class, putting together a lecture, prepare for discussion, attending meetings, and so on. But here was an oasis of self-scheduling and reading books I wanted to be reading, in sub-disciplines I chose.

And now that "best time" is here, and instead of reading those amazing books on the history of Science in America, Environmental History, and the History of Public Health, I'm fretting over my inability to be an intellectual, looking for yellow shoes online, and (somewhat more productively) attending to this blog. The weight of reading book upon book every single day--no matter how interesting they are--is pressing down on me, and I'm wondering how such sustained attention to on any one thing can lead to the right outcome. I compare this whole process to the scene in Roald Dahl's Matilda where one of Matilda's classmates sneaks a piece of chocolate cake he wasn't supposed to eat and so, to punish him, the evil head-mistress, Mrs. Trunchbull, makes the chubby boy eat an entire chocolate sheet cake, in front of the whole school.

Sure, one piece of cake is delicious. Even two or three pieces can sometimes be a welcome treat. But when you have to eat 2 or 3 or 4 pieces of cake every single day for months on end, I'd bet anyone would come to hate cake.

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