Sunday, January 29, 2012

Wild Dreams

Dissertation update: Chapters 1-5 have been sent to the committee. They are now officially procrastinating over reading it. So, marginally more regular posting may or may not ensue. Sorry, I like to keep y'all guessing.

I'll admit to an absurd fondness for dystopic stories, in either written or cinematic formats. They don't even have to be particularly good stories, mediocre will work. Most recently, I watched The Island. It's actually not bad and is generally considered underrated entertainment.

If you haven't seen it, it's a story about clones being created and used for spare parts for the rich and famous. Two discover what's going on and escape. Eventually they come to realize that their clone friends are going to be killed and…well, I won't spoil it. Suffice it to say, there are enough sci-fi cliches involved that you could play cliche bingo with it. Good special effects though. Shiny. Colorful. Predictable. Not going to strain your brain if you need something flashy to watch on a Friday night.

There's a lot in the movie to work with if you use movies to start discussions in classes. You've got the ethics of cloning, questions of who gets to live and who dies, what does it mean to be human, and what does it take to regain one's humanity. Lots of deep thoughts and you get explosions to boot. It got me thinking about paths not taken, about how I miss a good story.

Good stories can be read all different ways. A group of people can read it and all find something different in it that resonates with them. I always wanted to write such stories. Stories of complex characters, none entirely good or evil, just people with their own agendas trying to survive in a complex world not of their own design. Recently, I've entertained the idea of writing a dystopic novel of academia. It wouldn't take much imagining, it's pretty dystopic as is. A novel where perceptions and expectations do not match reality, of the prices and consequences of hard choices.

What would you do if you lost everything and ended up in a place worse than any you had imagined, only to find that it may be the one route that offers true freedom? What if you got all you could hope for, only to find it a prison where you were both guard and inmate? What if your identity was built on your self-reliance only to find that your life hinged on the kindness of strangers?

I cannot write good stories of life and death struggles, the quest for civil freedom, or a life of hardship. I have not experienced those things and feel such stories should come from those who have. I cannot speak to the emotion and power of such trials. Those who have should be given a voice. I honestly believe that knowing such stories, seeing the worst and the best of our species, would make us all better human beings.

I can write of smaller struggles though. I used to be good with words. With a little practice, I think I could again write of the small victories in everyday life, of the emotion of silence, of our ability to deceive ourselves, of losing pieces of ourselves and the price we must pay to re-member them.

The last nine years took a lot from me. But it gave me a lot too. It gave experience, if not always a life. I think if I were to write again, the words would be better. They would do more. Stories bring us hope. Maybe my words can one day bring hope to people. To know that whatever situation they've gotten themselves into, they can survive it and find a way out. That's the kind of story I want to write someday.

There are two chapters left to write in the dissertation. Then I can begin the hunt in earnest for a job that'll leave me with the mental energy to write. Good luck to all the post-acs out there hunting in earnest already. May what you find far exceed your expectations.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Law of Dissertating Inertia

It's been awhile since my last post. I figured that out by looking at the date on that post today. Yeah, I know - it's obvious. However, it's just after the holidays where I did absolutely nothing productive and it's taking some time to start thinking again. Don't judge me! The whole situation reminds me of the law of inertia.

You read that right. It's the law of inertia: a grad student in motion tends to stay in motion while one at rest tends to stay at rest, unless an external force is applied. Click here for a description of this for comic fans. Well, this grad student has been at rest for awhile. A long while. Alas, this must change.

As per the events of my last post, I've been looking into a career in R&D. I like the idea. I enjoy research and discovery. I also enjoy being employed and having free time. R&D appears to be better aligned with such ideals than academia is. See any of the blogs to the right for a multitude of views on work/life balance, the crappy academic job market, or lack of intellectual freedom. Though R&D seems to be a better job market than academia, I have a nontraditional Ph.D. (read not STEM) and will likely have to take a more guerilla job search approach. Since that can be time consuming, I'm rabidly trying to finish my dissertation draft before the semester starts.

On a fairly random tangent, I like the word "rabidly" for describing dissertating. Such an activity should automatically conjure up a sort of unhealthy, foaming-at-the-mouth image. It really is a pointless exercise. Even as I'm writing my diss, I know it is unlikely to ever to be read or to be worthy of another's time. And that's before my committee gets there teeth in it.

I firmly agree with Einstein that if you cannot explain something simply, you do not understand it well enough. As a result, I can explain my entire dissertation research in under 150 pages (I think - I haven't finished it yet). The last two dissertations that passed in my department were ~250 and ~300 pages respectively. I really don't want to fluff my dissertation to such a bloated state just to satisfy faculty egos. I'm not going into academia anyway. Only in academia could you get a final product that is both dense and fluffy. "Fluffy" is used here to mean light and lacking in substance while "dense" refers to something that is impenetrable, for those who need definitions of everything. Let it be transparent! Let it be substantial! Let it NOT be painful!

Anyway, that's what I'm doing when I'm not posting. I'm hoping to defend by March 16th, mostly because I'd like a really good reason to be really trashed on St. Patty's day. Since I'm not adverse to drinking any other day of the year, I feel like I should have a reason to do it on St. Patty's day. You know, it makes it "special" that way. So, I must finish this beast and allow the faculty to begin their shredding of it. I'm sure there will be at least two rounds of revisions before all is said and done.

Wish me luck in my endeavor. I wish you luck in yours, whether it is leaving academia, finding a job, or otherwise maintaining what's left of your sanity. Cheers to us all!