Monday, January 15, 2007

Don’t pout, your face will freeze that way and then you’ll be sorry

Thinking back to my childhood, I can't remember if my mother ever told me that my face would "freeze that way" when I was pouting or grumpy. My mother had more memorable sayings like, "gahdamsonnuvabich" or "he's so dumb, he couldn't pour piss out of a boot." I'm sure I heard from television how my face could freeze into a permanent frown, or perhaps it was just one of those sayings that I absorbed one time when I went to McDonald's for lunch. However I managed to hear it, I've been thinking a lot about it. I've not been thinking about it in terms of lying to kids to get them to do what you want, but rather in terms of permanent changes from temporary behaviors.

I mentioned before that it's qual time here in GradShitTownVille. For those that have an oral qual, I tell people that in order to succeed one either has to *be* cocky, or be able to *fake* being cocky. Professors here are like a big litter of puppies; they'll maul the one that's not like them. If you can't exude that particular flavor of confidence--which, by the way, smells a bit like rotten orange peels--then you may be packing out of here with a masters degree, heading west for Google to make a fantastic wage. Poor you.

Personally, I'm not particularly cocky. I don't like to remind people of how much I know or how awesome I am. In fact, I maintain that I'm probably the dumbest asshole in my whole department. The good part is that I can at least *fake* being cocky and confident, smelling like rotten orange peels just like the rest of them. I'm a hermit crab, entering an abandoned seashell to protect my soft belly just long enough to last through a presentation, a conference, or a conversation with a faculty member.

I treat the faux confidence like a temporary shell because there are places in life where it does me absolutely no good. A yoga session, for instance, is not about knowing the poses better than everyone else. It's not about being a rock star. It's not about competition at all, in fact. It's about keeping an open mind, being able to observe how my body is responding to the pigeon pose: which, by the way, is sometimes just "Ow" instead of "Om."

I've seen graduate students here enter a similar hermit shell, but never come out. They've evolved from that cute and determined undergraduate who just wanted to teach, to a younger version of their workaholic advisor, working on a proposal the night his baby is born; all to be the next rock star in wireless ad-hoc networks using resource slicing to provide channel isolation. Or whatever. Basically, their faces froze.

I'd be fooling myself to think that I, too, haven't been changed by this place. I'm quieter now; less willing to talk. I'm more selfish with my time, unwilling to give any random request for help an unhesitant "yes." Perhaps those are good things. Hard to believe that I used to talk more than I do, and I'm more sane now that I'm working on my writing rather than helping some Tom, Dick or Harry move.

There has been some damage, too. I remember coming for the PhD just to be another fantastic professor at the little Catholic school on the Bluff. Anymore, I don't know what I what I want to be when I grow up. I cannot divide the messages I get about "Top 10 This" and "Top 10 That" from the things that I think will make me happy. Yes, I'm a clinically diagnosed workaholic. Yes, I want to do the best job possible. But can't I do that at a place where it's okay if I knit an hour every evening? Or where the choice is not "kids OR tenure?"

Hard to say.

All I know is that I'm done with that proposal, and I can get back to working on the things that will actually get me outta heeere.


DC said...

I noticed that same phenomenon, though I believe that a part (hopefully a large part) really is just getting to know your subject area well enough to be a true expert.

That's just my shot at being positive.

FemaleCSGradStudent said...

Positive is good. I have had a frowny face for almost a week.

charizard said...

I hear ya... My wife is going having her oral exam this Wednesday... tension and stress are running high here...

FemaleCSGradStudent said...

Charizard: Good luck to the both of you.

Dr. O. said...

I hope this works out for you, I really do. I'm a single mom of two without tenure, had kids when I started grad school so the choice to have kids or not wasn't on the table when I entered academia. But it is hard.

I don't know what else to say.

FemaleCSGradStudent said...

Dr. O. It *is* hard, and I can't imagine doing this and being a single mom. Thanks so much for your well-wishes, and my best wishes to you. Hopefully you can get free childcare on those damn Saturday faculty retreats.