So it turns out that grad school is an exercise in self-control. “I can do this,” I tell myself. “I motivated myself through homeschooling high school and through college.” However, in the second year of grad school I have neither parents and siblings monitoring my activities nor (many) deadlines hanging over my head. I find myself going to bed at late hours, putting off productivity. And yet, when I realize that I’m embarrassingly late somewhere, I can shower and pack my lunch in a breeze, though I had previously procrastinated for hours.

(portrait of Gilbert DeBlois by J.S. Copley at Boston MFA. photographed by myself)

But think of all the *other* things I could be doing!

This is probably because in the real world, the what motivates me is what needs to get done. So I suppose what I should be asking myself is “What am I ok with leaving undone?” Am I ok if I never write for fun again? If I do not prepare sufficiently for my oral exams, do not submit grant applications, if I never set aside time to talk to God? Am I ok if I don’t comment on some aspect of my students’ lab reports? Well, maybe I’m ok with that last one.

This priorities-time management thing is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Yet, I can’t help but think that maybe it’s one of the most important things I’ve ever struggled with. I’m not giving up just yet.

(Image is portrait of Gilbert DeBlois by J.S. Copley at Boston MFA. photographed by myself)


Sometimes people do thoughtless things. In their glow of righteous judgement, they assume that their listeners agree with them on some issue because it would be unthinkable not to, and they start seemingly consensual bash fests on *other* “stupid” people. But just because I don’t say anything doesn’t mean I agree. I mean, I’ve seen the quality of the bashers’ rhetoric’s and attempting to diffuse it isn’t worth my time. Being angry about this isn’t worth my time, either.

Nevertheless, I find myself increasingly annoyed with people for reasons it isn’t quite politic to explain. As a result, what I really want to do is find someone in this state who has the substance of my values and rant to them about shenanigans. But this makes me almost as bad as the people I’m ranting about because I’m tearing them down behind their backs. Indeed, for all I know, the person I’m ranting to doesn’t share as many of my values as I think they do.

The difficulty with writing about something like this is that it tends to come across overly vague. I have mentioned no issues and named no names because I have lost count of how many times and over how many issues this has happened to me in the past few months. It’s as though I’m a magnet for this behavior. In fact, as irritating as these people are, and as often as it happens, it remains that they feel comfortable enough around me to confide their annoyances and frustrations without fear of judgement. Alternatively, they think I’m a spineless wimp rather than a highly disciplined logic machine.

Either way, I can work with this. I have genuine arguments I can pick apart on my own time, and I have friends to whom I have grown so close that a revelation of my true values wouldn’t destroy the relationship. Indeed, I’d be surprised if most of my friends hadn’t guessed already. More importantly, I have an opportunity to force myself to love people. (Anyone who doesn’t think you can force yourself to love someone probably doesn’t have a great relationship with their siblings.) And that is a skill which will likely save my job for me one day…unless I become the Hulk, an occupation to which my present temperament is much better suited.

Me Hulk

Something You Probably Shouldn’t Ask A College Student

Someone recently asked me whether I felt “victorious” in the context of checking up on my progress through grad school. I demurred, but if you think about it, that’s a really relative question.

victory First off, unless you’re talking about college students who just aced really difficult assignments, I don’t think students generally feel “victorious”. (Maybe your experience has been more special than mine.)  I don’t feel victorious, like, ever. I feel loved. I feel safe. I also feel stressed and , scared. The good news is the answer to that question does not determine how things are actually going.

This is firstly because my feelings do not determine reality and reality does not determine my feelings. Sure, there’s a strong correlation there, but it’s one which (I hope) grows weaker by the day. Secondly, we have to draw a distinction about who’s doing the winning here. If I ace an assignment, but don’t feel I’ve done my best, I’ve lost. If I ace an assignment, but have to work myself to exhaustion, both the teacher and I have lost (It’s not supposed to be that hard). If I fail, but I accomplish what God has me here to do, He’s won. If I do my best, learn a lot, and still fail, I’m not sure if I’ve won, I’ve lost, or I can draw a tie. (Also, who do I win against? Myself, the educational system, or a difficult subject?)

You’ve asked the wrong question, probably because you don’t know what you want to know. Even I don’t know whether I feel victorious. If you want to know how I am, ask directly and expect an honest answer. You probably don’t want to ask about my studies unless you want to hear jargon. I’m not going to tell you my grades. I’d rather you told me you were praying for me. I’d rather you told me about a really hard test you once took (and didn’t fail). I’d rather be a person rather than a collection of grades and feelings.

Awkard Silences and Being Like Jesus

I moved to a new place recently. There is a large amount of economic disparity here, especially along racial lines. There is also widespread atheism. Putting aside all policy arguments, I’ve been trying to figure out what I can do about the problems this city has using a Godly yet uncondemning approach. Jesus is the best example of how to deal with these problems. He hung around with poor and marginalized people, and although he alienated the upper crust of society, most people loved him. My question is…how?

CityI mean, Jesus was perfect. But does that imply sinlessness or complete perfection in all areas? He seems to have known exactly what to say to make people feel loved, even when he didn’t agree with them. Does perfection also mean he never had awkward moments where he didn’t know what to say to homeless people, how to talk to his teachers, or how to solve a math problem? Did he ever not know how or even whether it would be wise to talk to people about God?

On one hand, Jesus was fully human, so he had moments of extreme mental distress, exhaustion, and he had to keep in contact with God by prayer. On the other hand, God seems to have come through an *awful lot* and told him what to say when. Unfortunately, my words never seem to come out right. Perhaps this imperfection itself is not a sin, but a symptom of not spending enough time with God.

On the bright side, whatever it is, it seems to have afflicted a lot of people in the Bible. Elijah hid in a cave because he didn’t want to face Jezebel right after God had sent down fire from heaven to burn up Elijah’s sacrifice. You’d think that would have given him some nerve. Nope. He ran away and hid in a cave even after God sent an angel to feed him en route. It took God passing by the mouth of the cave and talking to Elijah in person to give him his nerve back. Even then, God didn’t yell at him: he sent him reinforcements in the form of Elisha, and allowed him to continue calling down fire from heaven.

God seems to do that a whole lot. The Bible says fear is the opposite of love, and God is love, but most of the important people in the Bible are really fearful. Peter failed walking on water and denied Jesus because he was afraid. God had Aaron speak for Moses because Moses was too scared. After John the Baptist was thrown in prison, he sent people to verify Jesus’ identity even though he had already heard God identify him. Abraham lied about his wife because he was afraid the Pharaoh would kill him. Paul doesn’t seem to have been too fearful as a Christian, but prior to that, he was a legalist, which in my experience is an expression of fear of the consequences of personal insufficiency.

The good news is that this discussion of perfection is arbitrary. Perfection is not gained via legalism by wanting to be perfect. If Elijah’s experience is relevant, the proper approach is to talk to God (sans hiding in caves), find reinforcements, and keep on trying to love people. As Paul said of legalism, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Even if the silences are *really* awkward.

Red Flags in Activism

Grass-roots activism has been a powerful force in American-history. However, there are certain common problems with activists’ arguments, which, if not obliterating that cause’s chance of being taken seriously, prevent *me* from taking them seriously.  Every organization that exhibits one of these warning signs is not necessarily foaming at the mouth, but has blind spots and should be approached with caution.

Darn Commies! (C) Paramount Pictures & Lucasfilm

Darn Commies! (c) Paramount Pictures & Lucasfilm

Persecution Doctrine is the belief that people/the establishment are actively persecuting a cause. But exactly what is persecution? Merriam-Webster defines “persecute” as

1: to treat (someone) cruelly or unfairly especially because of race or religious or political beliefs

2: to constantly annoy or bother (someone)

Often, however, no evidence of constant harassment or unfair treatment is presented. Nor does such evidence prove that either viewpoint is in the right. It only suggests that one side finds debate threatening. However, if said cause wishes to proceed in this vein anyway, I find their arguments more convincing if they document a substantial number of concrete examples of how the organization/specific people have been harassed or focus their argument on things the organization has done, rather than ways it has been disenfranchised.

Squelching Debate. Ironically, the people who complain that their viewpoint has not been given a fair hearing often deny the opposition the same thing. This may take the form of deleting criticizing comments or banning commentators from web-page. Debate suppression may take the form of ad hominem attack, building straw-men, or bulverism. Indeed, if these organizations actually believe that their opponents are “haters” whose viewpoints are dictated by the “establishment” one begins to understand their persecution doctrine. However, the correct viewpoint will not be injured by answering the opposing arguments, and will be more respected for it.

Excessive Adherence to/Refusal to Acknowledge Authorities is another warning sign. One may disagree with the authorities, but to do so, one must present reasons, and one’s own authoritative voices. Or activists may attempt to cover their back by only citing particular authorities without addressing personal experience or opposing arguments (See Squelching Debate). The potential activist should realize who their authorities are, determine whether that authority applies, and present challenges to and alternative viewpoints to their own.

Excessive Attention to Marketing need not signal duplicity, but it has been used to “crowd-out” bad stories. To establish credibility, one might address these bad stories openly, and without generalization. They won’t be as apt to pop up later.

Fear-Mongering is used as a recruiting technique. Unfortunately, these fears often rely on unproven assumptions or there are alternate means of preventing the feared outcome. To make these strategies more effective, one should ensure the feared outcomes are direct consequences of your cause’s failure, rather than one-thing-leads-to-another scenarios.

Refusal to Compromise or Leave Opponents an Honorable Out commonly prevents amicable agreements. For example, after WWI, the French insisted that the Germans shoulder the bulk of the war debt and accept responsibility for the war. Regardless on your opinion of whether the French were justified, the Germans never would have taken such an agreement had they any choice, and Hitler’s rhetoric at the beginning of WWII highlighted showing the world the superiority of the Aryan race. Policy change is essentially a treaty, so I believe in giving your opponent a way to come out of a skirmish with dignity intact. For example, Germany could have given up Alsace-Lorraine in exchange for debt forgiveness or trade agreements or something else, which might have allowed the new German administration (over which France had just become dominant) to remain in office where France could exert its sway.

Partial Falsehoods fall under the umbrella of intellectual dishonesty (unless, of course, there’s no way one could have known the truth). Activism is all about morals. What are yours?

Poor Spelling and Grammar does not imply poor reasoning skill, but look at it this way. If you can’t be bothered to proof-read or hire an editor, than why should I give you money? Quite probably, you don’t have an accountant either. If you don’t care about your cause enough to discuss it in an educated way, than why should I care?

Excessive Anger is both one of the most detrimental and most difficult problems to cope with. If you didn’t believe in this cause, then you wouldn’t be an activist. Yet anger clouds thinking and allows the opposition (if it exists) to write-off your supporters as a bunch of frothing at the mouth idiots. Rather one might formulate with possible retorts and ways to address them in a professional manner.

While these warning signs are present in a number of popular activist causes, I believe that they are the reason a lot of causes haven’t gone further: the organizers refuse to address people who value complete logical arguments or the organizers have not thought about why the opposition might oppose the movement or whether the movement’s goals are even viable.

While I find these characteristics troubling, they do not imply that an activist cause is necessarily wrong. There are some causes I support which display some of these red flags. In addition, there are many opposing outlooks on this issue. In researching some of the rhetoric out there, I stumbled across a post opining that youth activism is actually too “safe”, politically correct, cool-headed, and dependent on authority. While I agree that government-funded activism isn’t a good idea, my gripe with activism is that it is too emotionally driven, and the public makes decisions based on fear, rather than reason, while the activists place the appearance of righteousness over reason.

Why You Haven’t Seen Me in Three Months

There are three stages to graduate application.

1. Anticipation: Around October, I began thinking seriously about preparing my applications. I was in the process of writing fellowship applications to fund graduate school so I already had a lot of the material ready.

The primary barrier to application lay in the personal statement. The personal statement is an important part of the admissions process and commonly contains academic interests, future goals, reasons for pursuing graduate study, a summary of past research, reasons for applying to a particular university, and professors of interest all within 1-2 pages. That would seem straightforward enough. However there isn’t really a graceful way to say “I want to go to grad school so I can learn enough to complete the goals I’ve just mentioned.” (I didn’t say that.) Nor is it very easy to write a gripping narrative when the application instructions ask for details about research dates, results, and impacts: it’s not untoward to ask for such things, but the story turns into a laundry list.

Another complication was the GREs. Due to spending my summer at an REU, I hadn’t had a decent time to study. Then, due to difficulties deciding where I wanted to send my scores, I missed the deadline to sign up for the September 28th Chemistry GRE. That meant I got to take the normal GRE twenty-four hours before the chemistry GRE. What fun!

About the time I had a basic statement ready, I realized that I’d told professors who agreed to write recommendations for me that I’d sent them the request links as soon as possible. But it was also necessary that I tell them *when* the letters were due. Guess what? A lot of applications either don’t have a firm deadline or maybe sorta imply that it’s at the same time as the rest of the application. Unfortunately, some applications won’t send out requests until the application is actually submitted and others won’t let you input recommender names until you’ve submitted some kind of essay.

2. DesperationAbout three weeks out from my deadlines, I realized that most school deadlines fell two days after the end of finals week. To complicate things, the Hertz fellowship folks scheduled an interview in Chicago the week before finals week. So NOTHING was going to get done finals week or the weekend before. That was ok. I’d get everything in on the weekend after my interview. He he. I got stuff in before school offices opened on Monday.

Tweaking the personal statement for each school was also something of an adventure. I had a difficult time narrowing my list of schools in the first place. You see, I hadn’t heard yet of the Directory of Graduate Research through which students can find professors in their area. Instead, I identified the top twenty to forty schools in my area and was painstakingly reading through all the professor bios to find people I wanted to work with. (I also tried searching people who wrote really interesting papers in my area, but a lot of them either lived in China or no longer worked in academia.) Once I had identified target schools, I had forgotten what research went with what name and had to re-read professors’ bios so I could write about where I fit into their research, in addition to tweaking my essay to better fit general application requirements.

Of course, then, each college had these unnerving questions

  • Where else are you applying? To quote Frozone’s wife (the Incredibles) “Why…do you need to know?”
  • Have you contacted any professors at this school? Will I be penalized if I haven’t?
  • What are your potential sources of funding? Why is this an issue? I’m a college student. Of course I don’t have any money. BTW, most fellowships have no firm decision dates.

3. Insanity: I am technically done with all my applications, my recommenders having been very good sports about the entire process. Unfortunately, there seem to be a whole lot of loose ends.

One interesting facet of the application process was the ubiquitous ApplyTexas application. It’s supposed to eliminate the hassle of filling out a lot of different forms for Texas public colleges. Of course, each of these colleges has supplementary requirements, to satisfy which, one must log on to that college’s website. Last week I received an email from an administrator asking me to submit such supplemental documents and inviting questions. I replied with a minor question about transcripts…and got an automated reply.

I began checking my email every ten minutes.

Hoping to stave off some of the minor panic which comes with waiting one to four months for a reply, I logged on to a popular graduate student forum…and regretted it. What with my good GRE scores, GPA, and research record, I thought I had a great chance of getting in at the schools where I applied. There were people online with nearly perfect GRE scores, publications in recognized journals, and steller GPAs from name-brand institutions. What’s more, almost every school I had applied to had already started admitting some of these bright folks, leaving me to wonder whether I had a chance.

On the other hand, academics are competitive by nature. However, what’s really important is doing good science, which isn’t necessarily the same as sounding good on paper. It also helps to realize that most students, even those competing to get into the same program at a university do not want to work with the same professors or do the same research. While I won’t go so far as to say that everyone’s research is equally valuable, researching at a slightly less prestigious university does not mean that research is any less valid or that the person researching is any less of a scientist. At least you made it through the application process. That takes guts.

Wisdom and Joy

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug comes out in December. Although this movie will (hopefully) not feature Elrond, I found myself recently thinking about different perspectives on Elrond. In The Hobbit novel, Elrond was portrayed quite differently than he is in the movies. In the book he was…happy. The general character of the elves underwent a similar transformation in the movie. In  novel, they climb trees, sing silly songs, and mock the dwarves for having beards and acting old though most elves are at least twice as old as any of the dwarves. In recent film adaptations of LOTR and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the elves have as much levity as funeral home directors.

I think this discrepancy springs from cultural ideas about wisdom. elrondWe have difficulty picturing anyone who is wise having a good time. The idea behind the old solemn sage is that anyone who gains much wisdom (often by years of experience) will be depressed by humanity’s prospects. Perhaps solemnity does impart the proper perspective on serious questions. Yet in joy, we find hope’s perspective, which is a greater wisdom still because it sees what might change with one person’s efforts, rather than what will be if that person does nothing. Moreover, that joy may be the effort which brings about the change. Gandalf provides a good illustration.

Though the movies depressed Elrond and the elves, did away with Tom Bombadil, and omitted Aragorn’s sense of humor, the movies did not entirely do away with Gandalf, who embodies the idea of hope-filled wisdom. Sure, Gandalf does silly things like making fireworks and harassing Bilbo about the phrase “Good morning”, but sometimes good things come of his silliness. Gandalf founds the expedition to the Lonely Mountain that enables Bilbo to find the Ring, which Sauron would have otherwise eventually taken from Gollum. The Lonely Mountain expedition also turns Bilbo into an adventurer, which in turn lets Bilbo raise Frodo to be adventurous enough to destroy the Ring. Frodo might have been unable to undertake such an expedition had not Gandalf been with him to give him encouragement like

“Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. in which case you were also meant to have it.”

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

If the Elrond of the movie had his way, the Ring might have been hidden away while Middle Earth made one last all or nothing assault on Mordor, where everyone died–or the ring might have found by Sauron rather than Bilbo if the dwarves’ expedition had not continued. Fortunately, the Elrond of the book was nothing like this but helped both the thirteen dwarves and the Fellowship of the Ring and named his foster son (the future king of Gondor) Estel, Elvish for “hope”.

Image from from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)