Hey, Bartender: Dissertation Actualities and Atrocity Stories, Part 2

Guest writer Steve Davenport returns with the second part of his essay.


November 25, 2012

Part 2 of an essay by guest writer Steve Davenport. Part 1 is here.



In 1990 I accepted a full-time position--a 4/4 load, mostly in composition--at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois.  Between stacks of papers and over semester and summer breaks that ended too quickly and through the middle of many a weeknight when I might have been getting some sleep for my commute, I worked on my dissertation.  I wrote half of it between midnight and two or three in the morning, halting three or four hours before my one-hour commute via Camry and coffee to teach my four classes, and Friday nights slept heavily for eight to ten hours.  I measured my life in coffee spoons and ounces of alcohol and hours and miles and student papers I had to mark and dissertation pages I had to write.


If two or three hours of writing a day don't seem like much, consider T. S. Eliot’s description of his work day: 'I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I'd done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory.  It's much better to stop and think about something else quite different.'  Maybe he was talking about something as pedestrian as lunch, but I think I'm safe in saying 'the British poet from St. Louis,' as Groucho Marx called him, wasn't talking about the something else I was thinking about when I was dissertating.  What I was thinking about, and I started thinking about it an hour before I stopped writing, was beer or bourbon, or more specifically sour mash over ice in my favorite glass.


I was married and provided most of the family support and had to make hay while others slept.  It was then that the house or the apartment was quiet, then that I could do my ritual of coffee and build momentum, then that I could find my zone, typically with headphones on and to music that focused me, Tom Waits, Cowboy Junkies, Miles Davis, then that I wrote my dissertation.  It was also apparently then that Michael Bérubé was making some hay of his own.  In the preface to his second book, he claims the same ground: "[M]y family basically wrote this book with me.  Portions of it were composed wholly on the graveyard shift, twelve to four in the morning, or whenever the kids agreed to occupy themselves."  I'm proud by association.


Apparently, I kept a record of events for a while.  An entry for Saturday, October 17, 1987, more than five weeks after my special field exam, reads, “Began W[est] V[irginia] paper.  Drove to a party at _____'s, drank too much.”  Here's the entry for the West Virginia conference paper I wrote about something that had nothing to do with my dissertation: "Delivered paper at 4:45.  Went well.  Car towed."

Here are some more actualities from that log.  After visiting family for the holidays, I returned to my apartment to work on my dissertation.  What I see in my entries is exercise, letter writing, friends, and alcohol.  During the fifteen-day period that ensued, though I ran only three times ( I assume it was cold), I went to the university exercise facility six times for Nautilus and at home did sit-ups and pushups every day.  I wrote five letters, went to both departmental Friday happy hours, accepted seven other social invitations from friends and turned down four.  As often as not, I turned them down to work on a film project that had nothing to do with my dissertation. 

Beginning on January 4,  I recorded the amount of alcohol (rendered in ounces) that I consumed outside the company of my friends.  Here are the numbers I find so revealing: 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 6, 6, 6, 8.  On the sixteenth day, January 19, I canceled a trip home to visit family so I could attend to my weekly ritual of wallyball and the post-game hilarity over burgers and beers.  From then on, no record of my after-hours, all-alone drinking, very probably as I was reading my drunken Bodhisattva, Kerouac.  Did it end there?  I imagine the march of numbers frightened me and I pulled back. A little.


For many, the dissertation turns out to be a rough draft of a bad book.  Trust me.  Or don't and go on believing, if you’re dissertating, that the only thing that matters is that you finish it, and then you can start your career as an assistant professor somewhere that's not too removed from your idea of civilization and go on believing that you would never accept a job with a 4/4 teaching load.  You haven't eaten ramen noodles and lived in crappy housing these many years to spend your every waking moment marking undergrad papers, you won't stand for it, not you, you are going to get a job at the University of Somewhere and write a book you really care about without the intervention of a dissertation director or committee.

Then when you find yourself teaching four classes a week and spending every waking hour marking papers next to a plate of take-out noodles in only slightly better housing (with the exception of central air and that extra half bathroom that is simply too eerie to use) and you discover that a book is your only ticket to a 3/3 or your only means of getting tenure or early promotion where you are--it's not that bad, where you are, when you really think about it--so you can buy the house that will be the trade-off for all you've gone through, then, then, THEN you'll wish your dissertation was something more than a rough draft of a bad book.  At that point you'll also notice that your school’s library is smaller than the church sanctuary you used to sit in Sunday mornings back when you still believed in the possibility of sweet, miraculous change.


As Allen Ginsberg liked to say, "Avoid the authorities."  I avoided Nina Baym.  In fact, I avoided her even if I had just delivered a chapter to her mailbox.  If I found that same chapter in my mailbox three days later, not unusual for her, with the occasional query or edited sentence outnumbered by words of encouragement or praise, I continued to avoid her.  If she turned a corner in front of me, my eyes jerked away or down, my body stiffened.  If I thought in that split-second she might see me and I might have to talk about it, the chapter, accept a compliment, a constructive criticism, my first thought--no, not thought, it was more physical than that, an instinct, a reaction--was to check my professional parachute and leap out the nearest window.

Why?  Fear of power?  Okay, yes.  But included was a fear of small talk about a large thing, something so personal, so inseparable from what I was becoming without knowing what that was, without wanting to know and knowing only that I wasn't going to look directly at it if I didn't have to.  How did I write my dissertation?  Dramatically.  My advice to the inquiring dissertator?  Don't avoid your director, and if you must, don't do it in front of her.  Don't be so dramatic about everything unless you're Isadora Duncan and, trust me, you're not.  She died two years before the stock market collapsed, back when country kids really did walk ten miles through snow to get to school so they could be whacked on the hands and heads by teachers (not dissertation directors) for the slightest infraction.  If you insist on being Isadora Duncan, prove it by doing something exquisitely over the top with what you have of a dissertation.  (If you're who you say you are, you'll think of something.)  Then quit.  Go dance, become one with air, and don't come back.

If you insist on staying or, even worse, coming back, don't turn your director into your mother or your father unless you're asked to.  Don't turn your director into your director every time you turn the corner at the library or the liquor store and bump into her.  No one likes being straitjacketed except Houdini and he's as dead as Isadora Duncan.  Don't think that if you've always been dramatic about everything, including a simple hello to your director in the hallway, that you have much of a chance of changing.  The new notebooks and shiny pencils of September?  Stuff at the bottom of your locker before Halloween.  Don't waste your time wishing upon a star you'll become an efficiency expert on or about Monday morning at eight o'clock.  There are better ways to waste your time.

Terry Caesar opens a chapter called "Personal Authority, Colonial Power, and Dissertation Directors" with this sentence: "No significant figure in higher education is more conspicuously absent in its discourse than that of the dissertation director."  He goes on to make the claim that "public recognition of his or her presence in the whole project of producing a dissertation must be either consigned to a grateful line or two in the acknowledgments (if a candidate is lucky enough to get the dissertation published) or else abandoned to the more private anecdotal realm."  My "grateful line" reads, "And to Nina Baym, the director of my dissertation, I owe special thanks for several things, not least of which her patience and her speed, her expectations and her example as a productive, essential Americanist, who always writes as clearly as she thinks."  I meant every word, but mine sound rehearsed next to the ones written by her husband, Jack Stillinger, in a preface to one of his books: "My greatest obligation is to my colleague-wife, Nina Baym, with whom I have been collaborating, in her works and mine, for more than two decades (I correct her punctuation and typing errors; she corrects my thinking)."   A loving, funny tribute even funnier because parenthetical (and maybe because he wasn't writing a dissertation).  I discovered it just after depositing, and the effect was liberating.

Why do we write such things?  Often because we mean them.  Often because such statements are part of the model, as pro forma as the thanks we dole out to relatives for birthday socks.  If we don't have anything good to say, we shouldn't say anything at all.  That's what most of us are told, however unfeasible a life instruction it might be in any number of circumstances.  Many of us are also taught, for instance, to be honest, to stand up and speak our mind, to do the right thing, but here's the rub.  What is the right thing, and how many times can the meaning of the word "right" change?  I mean it when I say I'm not bothered if the organizing structure of the dissertation process is in fact a colonial model, but then my experience was good.  I mean it when I say I monitored the process.  Guthrie and Gordie and I worried together and separately over our personal GIT-tars and managed to hold onto them without much of a struggle.

One of the reasons it was so easy was that the process itself provides us with the tools we need to defuse its power.  Guthrie and Gordie can speak for themselves, but I used the university even as it used me.  I didn't exchange my former self for a new model; I simply improved the old one, and I did it in a formal process that demanded external direction but started and ended with me.  I chose my field and my director.  I chose my topic, and I chose to finish my dissertation.  And what I feel, even without my tenure-track job at some other University of Somewhere, is appreciation for the help I received along the way.  Maybe that's family training, my all-too-happy-to-be-of-service politeness or my willingness to accept the letter of the contract I co-wrote and co-signed at the beginning of my UIUC voyage.  Although I’ll periodically pine for that lost job, even occasionally go so far as to say I deserved it, I started with a boast I made often and loudly: I  wasn't pursuing a Ph.D. to exchange it for a set of goods.  I was pursuing it because it was the set of goods I wanted.  It promised greater freedom of mind and voice.  And delivered.

I admire any number of people I've met along the way, students, peers, staff, professors, administrators.  I admire Nina Baym for the quantity and quality of her work and for telling me the truth early on: if I was going to be sophisticated by the dissertation process, I would do the bulk of the work, the sophisticating, by myself.  I did and I have, so I send a few of these admirations my own way.  I may have given up my GIT-tar for a time, if in fact I ever really lost it, but the price I paid was worth it, the voice I acquired, am still acquiring, the one that motors these sentences, was worth it, too.  If I'm going to complain about my becoming unvoiced, then revoiced in the language of Ivory Tower People, I have to remember--if I don't, someone will remind me--that I settled into grad-school culture fairly easily and went through the stages with very few wounds.  I can go home again, and when I get there, I can talk that talk, too.


If I had my dissertation to do over again, I'd join a study group, meet once or twice a month at someone's apartment for salad, discussion of some other member's work, wine, laughter, bread and cheese, general support, wine, actualities, coffee, and the occasional injustice.  There we could discuss dissertation etiquette.  Is it all right to turn in ten pages of a chapter to see how it's going?  (No.)  Do I staple or paper-clip chapters?  (Shouldn't you just ask Baym that?)  How often do you see your director?  (How often do you see yours?)  My weekly wallyball group served most of my emotional and many of my professional needs, but we rarely talked dissertation specifics and etiquette.  I regret that.

A couple summers ago, _____, a newly minted UIUC Ph.D., from the Ivory Coast, was beaten to death in an altercation with two bouncers at a bar.  Though accounts varied, we know one thing for sure: his dissertation story ended very badly.  Compare that one to this one, which began thirty years ago.  Having spent half a year with her husband and daughter in Israel, gathering information via interviews for her political science dissertation, _____ had the misfortune of catching the wrong plane on her last leg home.  It crashed in a small forest before reaching the airport in Milan, where it was to take on passengers and fuel for its transatlantic destination.  The good news is that, after x-rays for broken vertebrae and a week of treatment and recuperation, she and her husband and daughter were released.  The bad news is that the luggage carrying her research burned with the plane.  Her data, six months' worth of work and expense, was gone, her interviews with forty-nine diplomats unrecoverable.  Unfortunate accident, surely.  Horror story?  As a story about data collection, yes.

Despite the obstacles, she later finished her dissertation.  Happy ending?  We're not done yet.  By then the academic job market had taken a dive and the political science department at the university that employed her husband had, by this time, no need to hire its own graduates.  Working today primarily as an administrator of a med-school program, she did not use her Ph.D. in the way she had intended.  Unhappy ending?  We're not there yet.  A month or so after she returned home following the plane crash, she was x-rayed again to assess her recovery.  It wasn't long before she learned she was pregnant at the time of the second x-ray.  Nineteen years later, the son who was conceived in the wake of a disaster and subjected to dangerous x-rays in utero died of lymphoma.  Were the x-rays the cause?  No one will ever know.  Is this a dissertation story?  It depends on who's telling it and who's listening.

The dissertator and her husband can organize a scholarship for cancer nurses, as they have, in the name of their son.  Her husband can visit their son's grave in the campus cemetery, as he does almost daily, and read good books to him, important books.  He can tell the story of his son's life and death, as he has, in a commencement speech at the local community college.  She can tell me her version of the story, as she has, and correct the details I have wrong.  Some of them are probably still wrong.  That's the way with stories.  But no one will ever know if the x-rays caused the cancer, and even if the mystery could be solved and intellectual closure achieved, there would still be emotional closure.  And by now it's not because of the mystery.  By now it's simply a matter of death, of irretrievable loss.  Maybe they didn't want emotional closure in the first place.

I never met the young man killed by the bouncers, and it's unlikely I'll ever meet his family.  They live far away in the Ivory Coast. The dissertator whose plane crashed long ago and far away in Italy?  She and her family live here in Illinois.  In light of these two family stories, both of which involved horrible death, what can I, what should I say about my dissertation, about anyone's?  It's the one thing no one can take from us?  Our emotional and intellectual proving ground?  Someone else's killing field becomes a few paragraphs in an essay I'm writing about my dissertation?  That's it?


That's not it, not entirely anyway.  One night I had a dream.  In it, I sat on one side of a room and watched another me on the other side stand and say into a microphone, "I know Nina Baym, sir, and I am no Nina Baym."  I wrote much of my dissertation unsure of my ability to measure up, certain I was not so much a fraud as a frog who, if kissed by a successful dissertation defense, would at best become a more impressive frog.


Defense.  DEFENSE?  That word reminds me of another dream I used to have.  I'm sitting with my wallyball friends at Murphy's, our favorite campus bar, when someone says the D-word and I die.  When I awake, I'm floating in a supermarket the size of an aircraft carrier, first down a long aisle of nothing but Scotchgard products, then another devoted to spf 45.  At the end of the penicillin aisle, I see wagons circling on the Great Plains.  I turn around, and there's an angry mob going after the wrong cowboy.  I'm unable to think of an underarm deodorant strong enough for that man before he's cornered and I faint.  When I come to, I'm stacking the history shelves: Fort Sumter, Chickamauga, Gallipoli, the Battle of the Somme, the Bridge of Arden.  Then I'm moved to the back to do inventory and I start having visions: hourly infusions of vitamin C, prime-time public-service condom advisories, an apple a day.  At midnight there's a hold-up and I freeze in cinematic death-space like either half of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Thelma and Louise, beside me unopened cases of Dienbienphu, Khe Sanh, Hamburger Hill.


I don't have that dream anymore or the one in which I ingest an Alice-in-Wonderland wafer, shrink to the size of a ground squirrel, and struggle up onto a footstool before an elevated tribunal of warlords, conquistadors, IRS agents pre-1998, and rattlesnake-charming tent preachers.  The D-word, defense, no longer has that kind of power.  Occasionally I turn a dream corner and find myself standing atop a Central Park soapbox in my underwear, armed only with a shaky thesis and the knowledge that at least one of those tomatoes has a rock in it.  I can't help but think I probably deserve it.  But then this is only that dream we all have and it predates the dissertation, the first day in grad school, our high school prom, our first date, probably even our first case of acne.  The underwear dream is the nightmare of not measuring up, the anxiety of self-consciousness, the fear of being found out.  Though I rarely have the adrenalized supermarket version of that dream anymore, or maybe I never had it, maybe I'm playing Krebs again--either way, it's important to me because it's part of the narrative (at the very least, this narrative) of how I wrote my dissertation.

I can list any number of dissertation actualities.  Using calendars, I can count the number of days that passed between my first visit to Baym's office and my last visit to a dissertation checker in the Final Hall of Flaming Hoops, where I deposited the requisite number of copies and sundry exit forms before I tumbled out the assembly-line door and fell into The Wide Open Doctoral Space of Nothing Next To Do.  Although I have no record of how much money I spent on books and liquor, I can go back to a budget I kept and calculate how much I spent on rent, utilities, and credit cards.  I can also open a file to reveal the dollar amount of the student loans I stupidly amassed and make a phone call to discover the amount I still owe.  But these actualities, however precise, concrete, however actual they might be, will never tell the whole story.

These days I still run and I still drink, though I do neither as much as I used to and I don't keep a log.  When I take the time to look, the one-brick dumb guy's not so dumb anymore and he's not nearly so dramatic.  Someone at the Office of Causal Connections is already running the numbers: dumb guy drinks this much less liquor and produces this much more work.  I'd like to offer as evidence for the counter-argument this familiar scene: I still drink coffee and work well past midnight, as I'm doing right now, and soon it'll be sour-mash time.  (See, I'm already thinking about the taste and the ritual of a double over ice.)  These days, though, I have the confidence of a dissertation behind me, I'm enjoying the voice I’ve developed, I have the happy responsibility of three young daughters I help attend to every morning as their mother readies for work at six or so, and I haven't the recuperative powers I once had.

These days though I still enjoy my sour-mash time, I'm more often lulled to sleep by the exhaustion of another day of work or the expectation of rising to the rhythms of early morning family life.  If I don't always sleep easily, it no longer has anything to do with how I dissertated or what I dissertated about.  Now if I'm worried awake by a work-related dream, it almost surely has to do with a project deadline or a stack of ungraded papers.  And if I never get that tenure-track job, I still have a dissertation joke to tell my daughters when they're grown.

A dissertator walks into a bar three times without ever leaving.  The bartender asks him how he does it.  The dissertator says he's not the man he once was.  Neither am I.


Steve Davenport is Associate Director of the Creative Writing Program at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the author of two books of poetry: Uncontainable Noise (2006) and Overpass (2012). A recent story of his, originally published in The Southern Review, received Special Mention in the 2011 Pushcart Prize anthology. His Murder on Gasoline Lake, published first in Black Warrior Review (and later packaged as a New American Press chapbook), is listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2007. His scholarship includes an essay about Kerouac and work in Boys Don't Cry?: Rethinking Narratives of Masculinity and Emotion in the U.S. (Columbia UP) and one about Richard Hugo’s poetry in All Our Stories Are Here: Critical Perspectives on Montana Literature (U. of Nebraska Pr.). Davenport is co-author with wife Lynn of four daughters, ages 14, 12, 10, and 6 (their names, One, Two, That’s It, and This Isn’t Funny Anymore). He likes his coffee black and his George Dickel (Old No. 8) poured hard over chipped ice in the glass he tries never to wash.This essay was originally published in Bayou 40 (2003) and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.


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