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Guillotines and grad school grief

Tuesday, September 27, 2005 by Jeff

The sun has set on the Social Sciences Building. After a slow arc across the afternoon sky - a guillotine yawning wide - it's crashed down with dizzying speed. I'm losing time, again, but I'm not giving up.

Yes, metaphors of guillotines come to mind when deadlines loom - fear of a post-deadline Reign of Terror chopping the heads of a thousand of wasted moments. I'm trying to finish a grant proposal by next Monday, and am I worried? Let's say my neck is tingling. In the meantime, I'm getting a lot of much needed organization done and odds and ends straightened out. (I want to acknowledge the apropos comments of Jeremy who has his own deadline. Obviously, blogging is another pre-deadline distraction.)

I'm not spending all of my time procrastinating. Much of my time is spent staring earnestly into this little screen trying to craft the just-right sentence or phrase before moving on to the next. It's a slow affair. What I need is a guillotine dangling over me, reflecting the blood of earlier victims and the immediacy of my predicament. Frankly, I find it difficult to imagine how anyone gets work done without a guillotine around. I should have one right here on my desk - head-sized - but I fear that inevitable awkward moment when my students drop in on my office hours. Why not keep it in the drawer? Not as immediate that way, is it? In fact, I have had guillotines many times before and they just ended up in a drawer, filed away between the color-coordinated stationary and alphabetized recipes. No, it's important to see your guillotine, to feel it, to have to face it, every day, every minute.

As I'm thinking about beheadings, I'm reminded of another great mind who lost his head - Maximilien Robespierre, his words remarkably prescient today:

"Terror is only justice that is prompt, severe, and inflexible."

While you were working, I wrote this blog

Tuesday, September 06, 2005 by Jeff

I'm happy to be teaching a familiar class again - Social Movements - that occupies only half of my working hours. Having every other day off to attempt some dissertation work is really something special. So am I spinning golden threads of dissertation into the wee hours of every morning? God no. That would mean that I have good work habits, and I intend to dispel that myth right here for the sake of other self-abusing graduate students who think they're alone (I'm not alone, am I?). Between teaching, preparing for teaching, grading, responding to e-mails, feeding myself, keeping my house clean, spending quality time with my girlfriend, updating my blog, walking my dog...you get the picture...I have an amazingly small amount of time for the dissertation! When I do sit down for the expressed purpose of doing that work, I find the majority of that time is spent in deep thought, not deep production. Deep thought, I'm afraid, just doesn't produce the emotional and professional rewards that I covet. So what is to be done. Which of my other activities is going to get cut for the sake of my sociological praxis? Maybe I'll get rid of e-mail - it can sometimes take a good hour out of my day. But...despite the megabytes of absolute crap that I receive weekly, my students, family, friends, and bosses rely on it to exchange social capital that promises to bring me productivity and success at some point in the future. Maybe I'll drop the blog. But...if you'll notice how often it actually gets updated, this one really isn't much of a time drain. How about cleaning the house? I could stand a little more filth, but could my roommate? I could give up dog walks, but then I'd have megapiles of crap around the house, and that's just not acceptable. Or, maybe I should just come to terms with my current practice of stressful, sickness-inducing all-nighters on the eve of every dissertation deadline. It's worked in the past, so why fix what ain't broke?

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Jeff A. Larson
Sociologist, Arizona.


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