On Academic and Other Writing

I had hoped to post this this weekend, but a back injury waylaid my plans.  Funnily enough, after I spent almost the entire day Saturday finishing my dissertation proposal, I wanted to write more afterward. I felt like writing for me. What flowed through my fingers was not a great work fiction or anything particularly interesting, but it was liberating to put the thoughts and emotions that accompanied this accomplishment into words. They’re probably not what one would expect. They are certainly not what I thought I would write, which is why it was important to take the time…

I just finished my dissertation proposal, which is an enormous relief on the one hand. There were many times I didn’t think I would ever be done. I began calling it the never-ending task. On the other, I must confess I’m disappointed and disillusioned. I had wanted to finish it so much sooner, and if I’m honest, I feel like it robbed me of the life I had wanted while in Aix. (I’m glad I get to come back for another month to finish research in August and hope to make up for lost time then.) I don’t know what I could have done differently this spring and summer, but I still can’t shake the feelings of disappointment and discouragement.

I know it’s not my best writing sample.  I wrote it because I had to, not because I wanted to, and that makes an enormous difference. The writing is functional; it conveys what it’s supposed to, but it’s lifeless, flat – exactly how I felt when writing it. The only joy I found in the process was when the pieces began to come together (and that was mostly because of my research, not actually working on the proposal). At least I find the actual research, digging through dusty old manuscripts more engaging. I am excited to truly begin to research now – not just finding the documents I think will be useful but actually analyzing them and determining how the puzzle pieces fit together. I’m also apprehensive that it may not live up to my hopes, and I worry that I will find writing my dissertation the same soul-sucking process that the proposal has been. For me, writing without passion is not writing at all, much like life. I love writing, and if I do not love what I’m doing, then even though I’m putting words on a page, it cannot be writing.

I need something that will inspire me again, something that reignites my passion. Right now, I am just a jaded grad student who finds academic writing quite meaningless.  All too often it seems to devolve into intellectuals arguing over things that matter very little in the grand scheme of life. The proposal did inspire one thing – an almost daily existential crisis. I want to do something meaningful with my life and with my writing, but I’m at a loss for how to do either at the moment.

I believe that the projects that will build on my dissertation have potential. The purpose of one study in particular is not just to understand the past, but also to make a difference for people in the present.  Studies that may produce tangible and positive outcomes for people in present now inspire me more than purely intellectual pursuits. I have always wanted my work to matter more than just to a few scholars,  but it seems imperative now. While I think this is a good goal to have, I feel like I’ve lost an important part of me, the part of me that was curious, questing, hungry to learn more, which drove me to reach for my full potential. Perhaps I just need the opportunity to discuss interesting ideas with like-minded people to be re-inspired and to rediscover the mental gymnastics I used to enjoy so much.

I had planned to start my academic blog months ago, but life intervened. Maybe that will begin to inspire the intellectual in me again. However, it needs to be more than just a space where I can process what I’m learning; I want it to spark a wider conversation. Academia, especially disciplines such as history, where so much of our work is done in isolation can be quite lonely. Hopefully, launching the other and meeting more researchers at the archives will alleviate some of that. I need other people to bounce ideas around to maintain enthusiasm for what I’m doing, but after this past year, it is very difficult to put myself out there in academic writing – probably another reason my academic prose falls stillborn on the page. I’ve crawled into a protective shell, and I’m finding it difficult to crawl back out.

One thing I know with certainty: I am a writer at heart. It has always been my preferred method of self-expression. If I can find my heart in academic writing again, I will become the scholar I wanted to be from the beginning.

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Through the Clouds

“Sisyphus,” Peter Vinton,
For more of his work, see

On an usual cloudy day in Aix, I see light. I realize it’s cliche, but the word picture always conjures up a vivid image for me.  The last couple of years have been a long, dark tunnel of stress, ill-health, and to say that the times were challenging is an understatement.  These have been two of the most difficult years of my life, but the time of intense struggle seems to be nearing an end.

The hardest thing about such moments is that they generally arrive unexpected. In this life, there are no free-rides. Life is difficult in a variety of ways for everyone, and we cannot expect it to be otherwise or we will be blindsided. As Wesley tells Buttercup in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, Highness.  Anyone who says differently is selling something.” However, I want to clarify that I’m not advocating a doomsday perspective on life, simply a realistic expectation that there will be times of struggle and profound challenges. The thing is to not lose hope, to understand that life sometimes takes twists and turns we never expected, and to find beauty, positive outcomes, and yes, even joy in all circumstances.  Certainly, we all want to be happy, but even when life does not make us happy, we may be joyful. By joy, I mean a deep sense of peace under the turbulent waves that spring up as we travel through storms on our journey.

This week has been especially challenging.  I am now 3+ weeks into my new diet and had hoped to feel immensely better by now.  While I continue to see positive changes and incremental improvements, I’m not where I thought I would be, and I have had to come to terms with the fact that this may be a long road back to full health. Despite everything, I now look back on the week and see how much I actually accomplished and, quite frankly, am rather amazed because the whole time I felt like I was stuck in waist-high mud, straining but unable to move forward.  To the contrary, I found several apartment options for my Paris stay in September and contacted the owners, began my job search for a spring teaching position, wrote several drafts of a cover letter and contacted career services and my advisor to review it, figured out how to work around the problems I was having with the installation of the Windows Pro upgrade and note-taking software (Nota Bene), and am nearing the end of proposal writing. I also created a new-to-me raw food recipe, which I’ve shared below. Moral of the story: When I thought God was ignoring me, he was actually carrying me through these difficult times. By now, this should not surprise me, but when everything one does feels like a Sisyphusian struggle, it is difficult to see beyond the boulder one is trying to roll up the hill.

Now on to lighter topics…

Each week I am trying out at least one new raw food recipe – either someone else’s or experimenting with my own. This week it was making my own Mediterranean salad with what I had on hand. I am sure I am not the first to combine these ingredients, but here is what I threw in:

Peeled, sliced and chopped cucumber
Chopped Red Pepper
Chopped and seeded Cherry Tomatoes
Chick Peas
Olive Oil
Sea Salt
Fresh ground black pepper

*Additional Ingredients (not shown):
Black Olives
Feta Cheese (which I cannot eat right now and is most likely not raw but would nevertheless add a lot of flavor)

This has quickly become a favorite.  It takes minutes to prepare, is delicious, healthy, and filling.

This week the archives are closed, allowing me to complete my proposal, catch up on cataloging and analyzing my research, and enjoy a bit of culture in Aix-en-Provence.  The festival of opera has just, which features the music of Mozart this year. My new roommate, Sarah (also a scholar of Algeria!) and I plan to attend at least one opera together, probably “Le Nozze di Figaro” (The Marriage of Figaro). I also bought a guide to the “unusual and secret” around Aix that I’ve been dying to check out.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to take a least a couple of self-guided walking tours this week as well, and yes, I will post pictures after.


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Short-Circuiting Lit Review Paralysis

I was going to entitle this post “Adventures in Eating” and share some of the raw food recipes I’ve been trying.  However, as I sat down to write, another idea presented itself and demanded attention.

Not that I haven’t been working and making productive use of my time all morning, but I am just now settling in to work on my main objective today: finishing a draft of my dissertation proposal.  I have to admit that I’m terrified.  There, I’ve said it. I’m sweating, and I know it’s not just the Provençal heat.  I simply have to merge the section on sources and methodology and finish my brief lit review, which I’ve been slowly working on when I have not been in the archives.  My committee is on board with my project.  All I have to do to complete the paperwork.  And yet, I’m completely stressed out about it. Why? Because I haven’t fully let go of the stress and anxiety I have come to associate with such writing.  It’s not quite as paralyzing as it was when I was preparing for my last comprehensive exams, so that is progress. Even though I know that it will become easier as I continue to write material that other academics will see and critique, it is still not enough to motivate me to begin putting sentences together. So what to do…?

Lunch! It’s lunch time… Perfect!  I need a little break between this morning’s activities to transition into proposal writing, to change gears, so to speak.  As a side note, I prepared the following “raw” dish and even attempted to eat mindfully for a few minutes. (Sliced cucumbers, baby carrots, red bell peppers, and avocado boats with cucumbers, red peppers and salsa.)

“Raw” Lunch

The problem was that I took those few minutes (to eat mindfully) after reading a GradHacker post, entitled “7 Ways to Survive a Lit Review” by Andrea Zellner (which, by the way, is fantastic!) Just reading, of course, meant that I wasn’t focusing on the sweet bell peppers or the crunchiness of the carrots.  The real problem, however, was the realization, once again, that so many of the suggestions were things I should have started doing several years ago but didn’t know then to do them or how to do them.  So by the time I arrived at my much-anticipated avocado boats, my mind had taken flight and was doing barrel rolls while I tried to figure out how in an afternoon (or even a couple of days) I could pull together everything I had learned over the past few years that is relevant to my research. Alas! I stared off into space, occasionally remembering that I should be focusing on the creamy texture of the avocado and the spiciness of the salsa. I tried to calm the rising panic that now sets in just before I begin a historiography (literature review). Have I read enough? Have I read the right sources? Can I make a good argument out of what I read and took notes on? (Related question: Can I find my notes since I haven’t migrated them all into Zotero yet, let alone into Nota Bene?) Will I be told that it’s not good enough?

The last question haunts me, but I shove it aside, remembering the feeling of accomplishment I experienced just this morning as I finished a draft cover letter for a position as a university history instructor.  For the first time, when I sent it to family for the initial review, I didn’t feel the urge to apologize that “it’s really rough” or something to that effect, nor did I worry about my writing style or the content. As a first draft, I know I will need to make some changes, but I also know that it is a good first draft, and that is saying something.

Writing is cathartic, at least this type of writing is.  It provides a way to release tension, to unburden myself in black and white. I feel at least marginally better now, so it’s time to “just do it” – to just write.  I inhale and exhale slowly a couple of times and take the plunge…

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Throwing off everything that hinders…

Yoga is all about being present in the moment.  It’s also about letting go –  releasing muscle and joint tightness that locks up our bodies as well as negative thoughts and emotions that weigh us down.  As I did my yoga practice this morning in preparation for and following my run, I realized that I was holding on to tightness; my muscles did not need to remain so taught. It may have been the result of habit, the fear of falling over, or simply inattention, but as soon as I discovered that I was the one resisting the stretch, I had to let go to permit those muscles to lengthen.  It was simply a matter of awareness and choice. Exhaling, I allowed the tension to drain away, deepened my stretch and felt my muscles and joints breath a sigh of relief.

Once I let go of the physical stress through yoga, I felt more balanced, strong and light as I completed my long run.  For the first time in a very long time, I finished the run feeling refreshed and knew that I could have run at least another mile. This was not just the result of one morning’s yoga practice, of course, but from the accumulated benefits of running consistently over several weeks, frequent yoga sessions, and the change in my diet. Just as I learn these lessons through yoga and running, my spiritual journey is also teaching me to let go of the anxiety, fear, and shame that have been holding me back from living the joy-filled life God intends for all of us. And like yoga and running, the release of those things that cause emotional and mental stress must be habitual as well.

Both the Christian walk and yoga are also about gratitude – being aware and thankful for all of one’s blessings.  I am living my dream right now. By choosing to let go of negative emotions and embrace awareness of and gratitude for even the smallest things that bring me joy, I feel more fully alive. In this way I am able to move forward toward my goals with a greater sense of freedom and joy, unhindered by the things of the past.  What is more, even painful events can be sources of joy when one looks for and finds the fruit they bore.  I continue to discover ways I have grown from such experiences.  The by-products of struggle – perseverance, resolve, determination, as well as new-found gratitude, faith, hope, and strength – propel me forward.

The ideas of awareness and gratitude that stem from my yoga practice and faith find expression in the habit of mindful eating.  Even though I didn’t cheat on my diet, I allowed my emotions to dictate when and how much I ate for a couple of days.  Last night, I felt overly full, lethargic, and depressed at my failure.  This morning, after yoga and a great run, I decided to mindfully eat my eggs and at least half of my apple.  I was enjoying it so much though that rather than beginning to write after I finished the first half of my apple, I continued on in that way until I got to my tea, which I’m currently sipping as I type.  I find that being aware of the flavors, the texture, the temperature, and savoring each bite increases my gratitude for the meal.  Since I contemplate each bite, I find my cravings for anything else subside because I am so thankful to have such tasty food. And I’m grateful to have found food that not only tastes good but also helps my body heal itself.  Rather than my usual habit of shoveling it in as quickly as possible so I can rush to the next task, I chew each morsel slowly and more thoroughly, which aids digestion, and I feel full and more satisfied longer. I have also found that mindful eating (even if only practiced occasionally) leads to a sense of calm and greater focus when I return to work and to the rest of the day’s activities.  With all of this in mind, I am heading out into the day once again to enjoy the sights, sounds, and delectable smells of the Aix market and to continue my academic work, thankful for so many blessings.

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Posted by on June 23, 2012 in Self-Reflection


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Weary Warrior Returns Home

Tonight, I feel like a warrior. Not the knight in shining armor kind, but the kind who drags his tired, bruised body back to his tent to recuperate as much as possible before the battle begins the next day. However, my battle is not against people, or even something interesting like ideas or philosophies, but rather against an inanimate object without thought or feeling that scrambles my brain and makes me question my eyesight. What, you ask, provokes such a struggle and such weariness? A machine. Specifically a microfilm machine. And, I must add, poor handwriting, and blurry images of said poor handwriting.

And after a hard-fought battle, the day ended in a draw. I remained at my post, doing my duty until the final call, only breaking for a lunch half as long as usual. Today, no profound thoughts struck me as I squinted at the hieroglyphs that appeared to laugh at my attempts to form French words out of them. In the past, I have contemplated the metaphor of blurry words: how just when I bring one side of the screen into focus, the other becomes fuzzy, much like bringing certain priorities to the fore makes others fade into the background. I have considered how sitting in the microfilm cave develops perseverance for other activities, like running. And then I went off on a tangent on all the lessons I’ve learned from running…

Not today though. However, I did take a break to consider what I had found so far and how it fit into my larger project. Even though it was still a cognitive task, just getting out of the dark room, grabbing some water, and taking a moment to reflect woke me up enough to return to my station and finish the afternoon.  It wasn’t my strongest finish ever.  I walked out of the archives, bleary eyed, and fuzzy-headed, but I finished, nevertheless.

Tomorrow is a new day and a new battle; I will return to my post, energized by a morning run and armed with an optometrist’s number in my pocket.

Top Image: Wilhelm Lehmbruck, “Seated Youth (The Bowed Figure, The Friend, The Thinker, The Weary One, Tired Warrior).” 1916/17. Cast imitation Stone. Inv. No. SGP 28. 104 cm.

Last two images: Indiana University, “Chapter 2- Graduate Student Guide: Hardware, Software, and E-Nightmare.”

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Posted by on June 18, 2012 in Graduate School, Research


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Going raw … mostly

If you have been paying any attention to health news lately, raw-food and organic diets are becoming quite popular for a variety of reasons. Some people want to lose weight, others want to reverse the effects of disease, while others want to improve athletic performance, and still others see it as a way to “eat green” and leave a smaller footprint on the earth. I view my decision to “go raw” (mostly), organic, and hormone/antibiotic-free as the only way I can eat for life – both quantity and, more importantly, quality.

To make a long story short, I have had to follow very strict diets for 5-6 months at a time to get rid of systemic infections over the past five years. In case you’re wondering what the diet entails: very very few carbs, no more than one piece of fruit or the equivalent of one medium apple per day, and no sugar (including most fruit and all dried fruit), dairy, wheat, or foods with yeast, like condiments, which contain vinegar, or alcohol.

The last two times I had to go on this diet, I just tailored it to my old eating habits and found replacements for the things I normally liked to eat. Certainly, I experimented with new veggies and found I liked gluten-free bagels with a soy “cream cheese” spread. However, as the condition became more severe, I could no longer eat many of the replacements.  Goodbye bagel and “cream cheese.”  Now that it is pretty clear that I need to make a change for at the very least a lengthy period of time (probably at least two years, if not a lifetime), I decided to step out of my comfort zone farther than I ever have before and go mostly, but not completely, raw.  Right now it’s easier in some ways since Aix-en-Provence has fantastic local farmers’ markets (something I strongly support) and it’s relatively easy to find organic food.

Within five days of making the dietary transition, my morning run felt so much better. I felt like I had grown an inch and lost ten pounds over night. The additional energy I had coupled with the overall feeling of lightness made it easier to run faster without much effort. That is not to say the switch has been easy, but I can see hints that it is already paying off.

I’ve known for a while that I needed to change my eating habits because, like many people, I found myself eating to feed emotional needs, but then I also rushed through whatever I was eating because I felt like I had to also be “productive” during that time. Both of those issues had to be dealt with. Fair warning for anyone else who plans to go on a fast or detox that it can be quite emotional. When the foods you ate to fill those needs are no longer options, you are left to deal with the emotions themselves and the reasons for them. Since I wasn’t even enjoying the food I was eating, healthy or not, I am now learning to slow down, take some time away from my work, maybe not much, but just enough to actually taste what I’m putting in my mouth. Mindful eating is better for the digestion, is much more enjoyable, and it gives the mind a little rest from the activity of the day.  As I practice it more, I am sure I’ll have more to say about it. 🙂

The blog won’t become all about food, but I may provide updates on how everything is going from time to time and post any particularly good recipes I’ve discovered since this is all part of the journey. The meal pictured above was last night’s experiment of throwing things together that I had on hand. The salad includes brown flax seeds for fiber and organic veggies: half an avocado, slices of cucumber, succulent cherry tomatoes, sweet green chile and bell peppers, alfalfa sprouts, and salsa (not homemade, this time but hopefully soon!).  The drink is essentially home-made Sprite: San Pellegrino sparkling water with fresh-squeezed lemon and lime juice and a sprinkle of stevia. I’m not sure if sparkling water is considered raw, but it’s allowed in my diet, and since I had it on hand, it was a nice treat.

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Posted by on June 11, 2012 in Recipes, Self-Reflection


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Vision worth capturing

I’m in the middle of taking notes on a source for my dissertation and was just struck by a vision I haven’t had in many many months. It was not a vision like that of an oracle or a prophet, just an image, an idea of what life as a scholar can be like, what I hope it will be like in the future. For just a brief moment and without consciously conjuring the image, I visualized myself in front of a warm fire on a winter evening, sipping tea, reading either for research or teaching, jotting down notes, and recalling with a smile the stimulating conversations I’d had earlier in the day on campus. That’s how I used to think about my time in grad school and what I hoped to create in the future as an academic. This past year has made it very difficult to attach any positive meanings to the idea of being a scholar, but this fleeting mental picture has given me renewed hope for the joy to be found in intellectual pursuits.

The picture above represents the mental picture I just described. Just for fun… here’s what winter reading at home actually looks like:

I’ll have several new blog posts up shortly on my recent adventures in the archives, the market in Aix-en-Provence, and Barcelona!


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