Archive for the The Profession Category

ICFA 36: Fantasy, theory, and arguing

Posted in Conferences, The Profession with tags , , , , on 24 March 2015 by Ben

So, at ICFA this past weekend I ran afoul of the old saw about academic arguments being combative in inverse proportion to the size of their stakes. I mainly followed the Fantasy Literature stream of the conference, which meant I was in the same sessions with the same people for the duration. The Fantasy division, in my humble opinion, seems to suffer from an inferiority complex stemming from the lack of regard that fantasy, as an object of study, has within the academy generally and within the study of fantastika specifically, vis-a-vis science fiction. I won’t name names here, but here are some of my thoughts following the conference on fantasy scholarship and theory and whatever.

  1. Fantasy scholarship needs theory. Badly. I don’t mean criticism, of which there is plenty. Rather, I mean an engagement with a related but separate discourse. SF studies benefit greatly from engagements with Marx and media studies, for example. Fantasy scholarship tends to think about fantasy in terms of fantasy. Engagements with folklore studies, myth studies, and philology/linguistics exist, but not enough to force the field to progress as none of these engagements offer fantasy scholars tools to think about fantasy as a contemporary phenomena, in the context of late capitalism, the society of the spectacle, etc. Of course, sf and Marxism have a somewhat happy relationship as they “move in the same direction,” that is, they both think about questions of progress and history and tend to do so in similar manners (not always, I know). Fantasy does not enjoy such a relationship with any type of theory as theory itself tends towards the progressive and fantasy tends towards the conservative. But we’re smart and we can figure this out.
  2. I have thoughts on what type of theory fantasy might need, but more to the point here: whatever theory it chooses, it needs to use that theory to develop critical terms for the study of fantasy. We seem to be relying still on terms Tolkien gave us in the 1940s. John Clute has developed a complex and rich vocabulary for discussing fantasy, in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, but no one really seems to take it too seriously, which is a shame. I don’t always think Clute is “right” and believe that his terms could be developed, but he is always provocative and provides a very useful place to start conversations about what fantasy is and can do (especially in relation to sf and horror).
  3. But “critical” I mean “not deriving simply from the poetics of fantasy.” It seems that the critics tend to use terms given us by writers. I want to have a productive dialogue with writers, but we can’t simply accept the distinction between primary/secondary worlds or the notion of “world-building” as it comes to us from the production side of the discussion. One audience member at one session mentioned the theological dimensions to these terms and that maybe we need to develop them (or, again, new ones), after which another audience member said that she forgot about the theology so therefore does not worry about it. The latter attitude is, to me, a problem. We can’t, of course, keep all ideas in our heads at the same time, but we can’t simply accept what is given to us because we have not bothered to think hard about it.
  4. I mentioned, at the conclusion of my talk, that fantasy tends to be conservative. At another panel, someone mentioned that I mentioned this (although I guess he could have been referring to someone else) in such a way that seemed to me to suggest that he thought I am wrong. Fair enough. I very well could be. However, I want to make clear that I don’t mean that fantasy writers are voting Republican or that Frodo wants to seal the borders of the Shire against illegal immigration from Bree (although he might). Rather, fantasy, as a genre, tends to seek the past, some form of restoration. It need not do this, but when it becomes progressive it works against a central tendency in the genre, the manner in which it has been stated (by Tolkien, by its medieval settings, by positing worlds in which all forms of progress-technological, political, social–have stopped at some point in the past). I think that fantasy’s conservatism is a sort of strength, not because I identify with it but because I don’t. Given that many notions of history, many modern philosophies, conceive of the world as progressing in some form or another and given that we can;t seem to  imagine a way out of history (and capitalism) by going forward, perhaps fantasy–the tendency of which runs counter to progress, again–offers at the very least a model of thought that would help disrupt historical/progressive thought.
  5. All of this said, and all of my arguments aside (some here, some at the conference), I have nothing but the highest respect for the people I met and listened to, even when I do not agree with them. In fact, I suspect I am in greater agreement with them than I think (some discussions in the wee hours of Saturday night/Sunday morning confirm as much). What is and was frustrating about the whole thing was my sense that we were speaking very different languages and that I was not able to make myself understood. I guess there is always next year.

Some more thoughts on other matters:

  • Apropos of nothing but the fact that I was at a conference: during the first paper of the first session I attend at every conference I have ever been to, I think: “This is a really weird thing we do as academics. Everyone is sitting silently, some with looks of boredom-if-not-pain on their faces, listening to someone read something they don’t really care about so that other people will do them a similar courtesy in a few hours or days.” I can only imagine an alien-anthropologist explaining this ritual to its peers.
  • I very much enjoyed my panel on “Mere Genre,” which featured Gerry Canavan and Lisa Swanstrom. Gerry and I are editing a special issue of Extrapolation on this theme and have already done an MLA panel on it. Given the quality of the papers I have heard so far, it promises to be awesome. At ICFA, Lisa talked about Sweet Valley High as a kind of horror text, in the context of an idealized capitalist society. It was brilliant and super interesting. Can’t wait for the essays to start rolling in shortly.

That’s it.

Summer 14 course materials: Introduction to Literary Theory

Posted in Teaching, The Profession with tags , , , , , , , on 25 May 2014 by Ben

This summer, during the June  ‘A’ Term, I will be teaching (for the second time ever), ENGL 2112: Introduction to Literary Theory. You can find the description of my previous stab at it here along with some course documents. This time things will be a bit different, as I am eschewing the “know a few things well” approach that I tried to employ last time even if I am trying not to teach according either to the “canonical theory” or “theory cafeteria” models which seem to prevail in many such courses.

Download the schedule (ENGL_2112_Schedule_2), the syllabus(ENGL_2112_Syllabus), and the daily worksheet assignment (Daily_worksheet_assignment) if you like. Looking them over as you read will be helpful.

So, in what follows I want to explain and perhaps rationalize the schedule and shape of the course. Note that in the last version of the course we read books of theory, D+G’s Kafka book, for example. Here we are using the second edition of The Norton Anthology of Thoery and Criticism as our only text for two reasons. First, cost/efficiency. It’s a spendy book, yes, but it has resale value to students and could be less than five or six university press titles we won’t even be able to finish. Plus, everyone knows where the readings are and what to bring to class every day. The second reason is that by limiting myself to the Norton, just as with limiting myself to post-1980 theory, I am adding a helpful constraint. I don’t have to think about everything. I don’t think of this as being derelict in my duty as I would have to leave things out no matter what, whether I am drawing from ALL of theory or just from the selections in the anthology. I guess I could add another reason, namely that dealing with an anthology offers us a chance to think about the politics of anthologies, a major point of contention in the culture wars of the 1980s. In any case, I know there are drawbacks to the “antho-logical” approach (not the least of which is the appearance of “cafeteria”style theory), but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks in this experiment in course design. (I think. I hope.)

More below the fold.

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on trigger warnings

Posted in Teaching, The Profession with tags , , on 20 May 2014 by Ben

A discussion on Twitter (although “discussion” is, of course, a rather problematic concept in that context, natch), prompts the following.

I painted myself into a corner by coming out against trigger warnings on syllabuses. I have no interest in rehashing the conversation in which this happened, and I am pretty sure I was making one or two (or eight) wrong assumptions about what other people were saying when I entered the conversation, which prompts me to think that joining any conversation only happens under a condition of misreading the conversation in its extant form, in the way that Bloom talks about misreading, except for social media rather than poetry (and I suppose that the lyric poem was social media before social media; “Watching the cows again. I am such an I.”)

In any case, I have no problems with professors who wish to include trigger warnings on a syllabus, or who wish to warn students in lecture about violent or other graphic content in a film, novel, artwork, etc. (I assume that sound I am hearing is everyone breathing a sigh of relief). I do exactly the latter when I teach Ballard’s Crash or Ellis’ American Psycho. No doubt I could do so with other texts as well. I offer these warnings because I think it’s good pedagogy for me to do so. As someone on Twitter mentioned, we need to prepare students to read difficult things. That’s part of the job, or maybe just “that’s the job”. At the same time, as other people mentioned (mainly me I think), we need to assume that students have some background that allows them to read difficult material. It seems to me that warnings need to find a balance between such things. As such, it will be (and should be I think) difficult to discern between texts that need warnings and those that don’t (or simply need them less).

Complicating this issue is the fact that students come to the class with very different backgrounds, and not only in terms of education. Such difference defeats our expectations as teachers to the point where having any expectation might come back to haunt us. (A common refrain department meetings, in my experience, has to do with how bad at writing English majors are. Faculty discover this every term, after the first written assignment for the most part and are dismayed, again every term, that they have to teach some writing, that their expectations were not in line with reality. I recall a David Foster Wallace essay on bad grammar and how he winds up turning every course into a writing course after he discovers, yet again, how bad students are at writing after collecting their first bit of written work.) To say as much is perhaps as banal as can be, so I won’t belabor the point beyond saying that it will be difficult if not impossible to accommodate everyone’s triggers a priori. As such, students need to participate in their own education to some degree and help the professor understand what their specific situations are, especially when it comes to texts in those greyer areas alluded to above. I am fully aware that even the students most motivated to such participation will have difficulty in this regard, but on the other side professors have the same difficulty. Of course, I also realize that it’s the professor’s job to deal with such issues, but I also believe that education must be active rather than passive. The blanket call for trigger warnings (which were not being made by my Twitter interlocutors, my misunderstanding to the contrary) seems to go hand in hand, in my mind, with not only a broad sanitizing of culture, but also with the production of passive readers. More on this below.

First, note that the active engagement on the part of students, and their capacity to tell instructors about what might cause them trauma (or offense) opens up a further complication, namely that the classroom experience can begin to cater to increasingly the specific whims of individuals. Lest there be any confusion: Survivors of rape and other violence do not have “whims” about their pasts or their traumas. Their concerns are legitimate and must be addressed. Full stop. Knowing that there are such legititmate concerns in a given classroom will be difficult for instructors, but difficulty here is no excuse to not think or work hard to make the classroom a space of learning rather than one of shock (I believe the latter inhibits the former). As such, it is wise and necessary to prepare students for the material, but again in the name and vocabulary of pedagogy and scholarly inquiry rather than that of “triggers” and the potentially offensive.

However, there are what to my mind non-controversial facts (or what ought to be non-controversial facts) that have become so highly politicized that they can cause offense to people on the other side of the “debate” (you can guess at these if you like). When “affluenza” is a thing, one upon which the outcome of court cases can hinge, how can the individual professor know what is and is not a legitimate condition? (Affluenza is merely an example here from broader culture, not an example of something that will come up in this narrower context.) How can a professor know in every case, or even a preponderance of cases, what texts might need a warning, what representations are so graphic that they need comment? To be clear again: there are many instances of trauma that cannot and should be questioned here. Anyone who questions a rape survivor or someone with PTSD of one origin or another, or who cannot recognize why American Psycho is a problematic text (or numerous others) is beneath contempt. Full stop. But what about the greyer areas? And what about political objections? What about a student who reacts badly to material but who has no previous history or trauma? I realize that I have fallen into “just asking questions” mode, and that is not my intent. I would very much like to know, and am very receptive to thoughts from others, on how to make distinctions between texts that need warnings and those which do not, as well as on how to distinguish students’ legitimate conditions from personal whim or mere belief, however sincerely held (this last point an important one given that several experts expect Hobby Lobby to be successful in their suit demanding their right to deny contraception coverage under the ACA because of their “sincerely held belief” that such a thing is wrong).

To return to an earlier point, and with all awareness that claims about “slippery slopes” should not be mistaken for truths, the increased focus on the trigger warning seems to me part of a larger process by which, on the one hand, culture becomes sanitized and, on the other, readers become increasingly passive. The two issue are directly related to one another. I tend to offer warnings to students when we read texts that have forced me to think hard and in ways that make me uncomfortable. Is Mark Twain racist? Is Ellis a misogynist, or satirizing misogyny? Does Ballard create the very inhumanity he seems to be critiquing? Should we allow ourselves to be educated by difficult texts into new modes of knowing or being, or should we judge them according to older modes? What older modes? How do we know that the time has come for a new one? What power does the new one serve? If I find myself asking these questions, I find myself thinking that students might need a warning and I also find myself knowing that students need to read these texts, with the caveat that some students might need to be excused for legitimate reasons. They need to read these texts because these texts produce active readings, even if that reading begins only with “I hate it.” Asking why one hates something is a productive question and getting beyond “just because” or “it’s stupid” requires and leads to very good conversation (for the most part–someone will always say “That novel was stupid” on the FCQs, even for relatively non-problematic texts such as The Great Gatsby or The Return of the King). When we focus on “trigger warnings” and notions of offensiveness, we move the conversation outside the parameters of education and debate and into the realm of the radical individual whose tastes determine all. Education does not take place outside the context of a we, and a we cannot obtain when individuals do not discuss. I am not referring here to “snowflake millennials” but rather to American culture broadly, in which having it “your way” has become the norm for any segment of society privileged enough to have or afford a way of its own (a segment of society from which a  fair number of college students come) and the incommensurability of the points of view espoused by talking heads on cable news is taken for granted, with the answer always being “in the middle” or a “third way” that is idealized as a view from nowhere but actually never found or produced. Since privileged segments of society–the very ones that claim this view from nowhere–drive the agenda and have become commonplace in my experience as a watcher of news and as a teacher (cf numerous students who have told me in one context or another how they pay my salary), we run a risk of allowing the privileged to not ever confront what they  find offensive to their privilege.

Finally, the idea of the trigger warning seems to me to grant far too much power to representation and, when it is called a “trigger warning,” implies that texts in fact have a certain amount of control over us. I see myself as someone who helps people overcome representation, someone who helps people understand how representations work against implicit and explicit (video games make us serial killers and what not) cultural claims that representations are dangerous and must be regulated in some manner. I am not worried about being censored as a teacher here, and do not think that this issue is one of censorship in this respect. Rather, I think it has to do with the issue of representation itself, how much power we grant it, and the critical tools we need to understand it. This issue seems pressing to me in a time when representations such as “fair and balanced” are asserted and made to be or taken true without regard to any sort of actual truth.

Again, and for the final time, I am not arguing in any way against legitimate trauma as a reason for excusing a student from an assignment or against thinking hard about what texts need warnings. Moreover, I worry very much about my own capacities to make such judgements and about the ways my own very real privileges might blind me to the situations of other people who have lived through such trauma. In the end I too (following someone on Twitter) am arguing for a “thinking harder” about this issue. What I am trying to add to the conversation (I did not see it earlier today on Twitter, although I expect most will agree with me here), is the idea that part of this “thinking harder” includes a contextual shift that focuses on pedagogy and the situation of the “trigger warning” in broader cultural issues having to do with the manner in which culture is made safe and how this safety produces passive readers rather than active ones.

some thoughts on fantasy after ICFA 35

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, The Profession, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 23 March 2014 by Ben

So ICFA 35 was the first conference I have ever attended at which there was a strong and ongoing discussion of fantasy literature. I have only recently returned to reading fantasy at great length and only even more recently started teaching it and writing about it. I had taught sf for years, and had written a bit about it, but SFRA last year was my first conference on that subject. Point being: I am rather new to being amongst people talking about the issue of genre and these specific genres. Since I am writing about sf, fantasy, and horror in Here at the end of all things, perhaps this moment is long overdue. Better late than never.

In any case, several rather unfinished thoughts from the conference.

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CFP: Edited collection: Late Capitalism and Mere Genre

Posted in The Generic, The Profession, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 5 October 2013 by Ben

Please link and share!

I seek proposals for essays that explore the relationship between late capitalist culture/economics and texts which, in one manner or another, are “merely” generic. According to Fredric Jameson and others, late capitalism is characterized by new forms of business and financial organization, developments in media and the relationships amongst media, and planned obsolescence. By “merely generic,” I refer to those texts in any medium that seem less interested in pushing generic boundaries than in maintaining or perhaps hyperbolizing them (such as books by Robert Jordan and David Eddings) and/or belong to an obvious genre, but turn away from that broader genre in order to develop their own environments and/or conventions on massive scales (such as the expanded Stars Wars Universe). These texts may be: swiftly produced, developed in explicit and careful relation to others in their series or world, targeted at an existing audience already familiar with the genre, and crafted for easy consumption and quick obsolescence.

How do such merely generic texts define the cultural landscape of the postmodern/contemporary world? How does this cultural landscape condition them?

Possible topics include:

  • The audience for merely generic texts. Can anyone enjoy them, or are they only consumable by those who have an established, if not hypertrophied, relationship to the broader genre in question?
  • The development of groups of texts that predate the advent of late capitalism, but transform in some way afterwards or otherwise provide antecedents for more contemporary works, such as The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew Mysteries.
  • Proprietary universes—such as the Stars Wars, Star Trek, or Dragonlance universes—and questions of authorship.
  • Fan fiction and other non-canonical or heterodox narratives set within established universes.
  • Problems of continuity in the mega-text.
  • The relationship between such merely generic texts and gaming, whether tabletop RPGs, first-person shooters, MMORGs, or other types of gaming.
  • The economic or cultural conditions that govern the production of merely generic texts, such as the nigh-injunction that, after Tolkien, works of heroic fantasy should be published as trilogies.
  • Mass-produced series of books for children, such as Goosebumps and Animorphs. How do these texts prepare youngsters for subsequent late capitalist consumption?
  • The shift, especially in film, from generic concerns to the logic of the tentpole and/or the franchise.
  • The development of the massive multimedia text in which the same storylines develop in print, in films, on television, etc. simultaneously.
  • The residue of genre in a post-generic world. With increased specializiation and fragmentation in daily life, does genre make any sense as a cultural form? Does genre become, or return to being, one niche product amongst others?

Obviously, numerous other avenues of inquiry exist and many of those mentioned here dovetail with one another. Please inquire at the email address below with suggestions or ideas.

Although I will consider a range of approaches, I am especially interested in essays that situate groups of texts or series in an historical moment or cultural frame. I am less interested in thematic and formal readings of individual texts.

Please send proposals of approximately 500 words as attachments (.doc, .docx, .pdf, .rtf, or .odt) to benjamin.j.robertson@colorado.edu by 15 January 2014. Again, also feel free to contact me with questions or other concerns.

The Lovesong of J. Alfred Moocrock

Posted in The Profession on 9 May 2013 by Ben

LET us go then, you and I,
When the faculty senate meeting is spread out against the sky
Like a tenured colleague etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-employed terms,
Like muttering interns
Of restless days in one-semester cheap classes
And sawdust classrooms beyond the chattering asses:
Articles that follow ignorant, tedious arguments
“Neutral” of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question….
Oh, do not ask, “Why is it?”
Let us go and keep our mouths shut.

In the room the Shirkeys come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the Udacity sites,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the Udacity sites
Licked its tongue into the corners of the pedagogy,
Lingered upon the fools that trust markets,
Let roll off its back the concerns that fall from precarity,
Slipped by the shared governance, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft semester night,
Curled once about the house, and lulled it to sleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the university,
Rubbing its back upon the Udacity sites;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the Shirkeys come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

Reading and writing in and after grad school

Posted in The Profession with tags , , , , on 23 April 2013 by Ben

Last night on Twitter, several people discussed writing the dissertation and how helpful it was to have writing partners (one or several) during the process. This conversation evolved into a discussion about post-project malaise–the inability to write after concluding something, which many of have experienced after the diss and people report feeling after finishing the tenure book. Here are a few entirely anecdotal thoughts on these matters.

A good friend from grad school described the year spent preparing for oral exams as “when they insert the microchip.” What he meant was that during this year all you do is work, to an even greater extent than you had in the first two years of the PhD. The quantity of work and quality of it are so very different than whatever you had experienced before that you come to understand yourself as some kind of reading machine. No activity is thereafter excluded from your hermeneutic gaze. Read a blog? Example of whatever theory you are reading. See a movie? New dissertation chapter. Have a conversation? Become aware of how little work you are actually doing.

This disciplining is useful for producing people who can finish the dissertation as that task requires an ability to suspend all other life functions for indefinite periods of time. von Uexkull’s tick climbs, waits, drops, and feeds. Dissertation writers read, write, eat, and sleep–in widely ranging amounts.

And despite my discipline, I floundered during my fourth year. As the summer ended going into my fifth year, I attended the department’s welcome back party and found myself in conversation with someone of my cohort I did not know very well at all. I always found her to be extremely smart, perhaps intimidatingly so. In any case, we did not hang out together often. Nonetheless, as we talked she told me that she was also floundering a bit. We decided to work with one another and push each other to finish.

What ensued was perhaps one of the five most intense relationships of my life–less so than with my spouse, but more so than with many of those I would call my best friends. It was a limited relationship, in that it focused entirely on our work and our department’s politics, but it was exactly the relationship I needed at the time. I believe she felt the same way. As a bonus, I learned more about Gertrude Stein through her than I ever thought possible to know.

The problem here for many, no doubt, is finding this person, someone you can trust with your bad ideas and self-doubts. Because make no mistake: that’s what this was. We shared ALL of our writing. You had to turn something in every week, no matter how poorly conceived. You had to admit when you were having difficulties, when you did not know what comes next. That was valuable and nearly impossible at the same time. In the end, I learned a great deal about how to write and about how to read writing for someone else with a critical and gentle eye simultaneously. Long story short: it worked, and although I still did not finish as quickly as I would have liked, this relationship go me through the diss.

I left Buffalo before defending to take up a Brittain postdoc and Georgia Tech. I defended shortly after arriving there. And then the malaise set in. I was flat broke after six years of the PhD and had to work a second job (teaching MWF, the other job literally every other day of the week–I got to sleep until 10 am on Sunday, which was like a day off). Surely this had something to do with the malaise, but whatever caused me to feel this way, feel this way I did. I did not read anything that was not for teaching. I did not write anything but comments on papers. I did nothing at all that would qualify as research. It lasted for the better part of a year.

As someone who grew up reading all of the time (as I expect many English types did), this inability to do what my identity told me I was disturbed me greatly. I wondered if I would be able to remain in the field if I could not at least read new texts for teaching or produce a minimal amount of scholarship. What if the microchip was broken? I was not sure I wanted to feel like I was working all of the time, but I wanted to work some of the time (or at least I wanted to want to work some of the time).

It took a while, but I did come back to reading after about a year. I knew that the reading I was doing was different than what I had done before grad school It was pleasurable, but work lurked at the periphery of my vision at all times. This confluence of work and pleasure eventually became the pleasure itself and I no longer worry about distinguishing between them in terms of reading or going to the movies. On one hand, this confluence has enriched my professional life immensely as I am constantly producing new ideas, some of which I pursue and others of which I don’t. It has also enriched the rest of my life by forcing me to engage in leisure activities that truly take me away from work. I think that the time off my brain and body demanded produced, in the end, a more well-adjusted and well-rounded person. I don’t mean to suggest that I have no problems. Far from it. Nonetheless, I without doubt deal with these problems better now than I ever have in the past. (And let me say that, by virtue of my very good job that I was lucky to get and am lucky to keep I am subsequently lucky to be able to deal with my issues. Not everyone can do this, I understand, for one reason or another. I don’t mean for this story to have a moral dimension or come off as a “by one’s bootstraps” tale. I am lucky to have supportive friends, family, and colleagues who helped me through these periods of my life.)

Writing took a bit longer. It took perhaps a year and a half following my defense before I was up to producing anything like the academic essay. Everything I had hear about writing without a deadline or any direct need was true. It was very hard for me to conceive of an idea and pursue it without some impetus. CFPs helped, as they provided a starting point, but writing remained difficult even as I was doing it. It remains so today, but (whatever my demeanor as I do it–ask my wife) I find the difficulty rewarding in the end , when all of the ideas come together and I realize that I have said something, however small (and saying something, even if relatively minor and without world-shattering consequences, is enough as Liz Grosz once told a seminar at Buffalo; most people will never have a truly new thought, and this includes academics; we should struggle to produce minor ideas, in the several senses of “minor”).

These rough notes are merely anecdotal. They are part of what I went through, without the gory details. After the conversation of last night, and hearing from a few dissertating PhD students and several recently minted PhDs about their own struggles, I thought I would share them. Cheers.