Reflections of a Commuter

img_508946,080. That’s how many miles I commuted from Orange Park to Gainesville, where I completed graduate studies at the University of Florida. These miles accumulated over a six-year period.

The drive was do-able back then because it was a little under three hours round trip; I was 31; and I knew it would end. You see, I’ve always believed that you can do anything…temporarily. So, in my mind driving back and forth to complete a degree was definitely a short-term situation. Eventually, I’d graduate.

August 7, 2010, I walked across the stage, and the very next day the girls and I moved to middle-Georgia. I’d obtained a job at a liberal arts college, which was located in Milledgeville. My classes were at a regional center in Macon. However, we lived in Houston County. This county was the best of the surrounding areas. The others were full of failing schools and lacked diversity. My children already had to adjust to a new type of southern culture. I wasn’t about to sacrifice their education as well. But, this meant another two years’ commute.

I-75-interstate-75-highway6,720. That’s how many miles I drove to and from Houston County to the Macon Center and occasionally round trip to Milledgeville for department and program meetings. Because Dwight lived in Jacksonville, there was the bi-weekly commute back there to visit. For my part, that added an extra 9,800 miles.

As ridiculous as this sounds, commuting in this way continued to be manageable because it was my first full-time academic job, so excitement floated me up and down I-75. I was just happy to be making money doing something I’d trained for and loved.

But living away from my husband wasn’t sustainable. So, I attained a job in Florida. Only this time, the commute was 360 miles round trip, door-to-door. I figured my family could stay put, while I drove up and down I-10.

57,600. That’s how many miles I commuted to and from Jacksonville to Tallahassee for three years. This time it was do-able because I was working in my niche with likeminded colleagues. But the physical and mental stress of getting there wasn’t worth it. When the Spring 2015 semester ended, I knew I was done. My soul spoke to me and made it quite clear that day in May was the last drive I’d make to campus.

A June offer at another institution in Gainesville confirmed my intuition. I figured I could do it because the commute was familiar and included fewer miles, 180 compared to 360. Plus, for the first two years, I taught at regional centers, which weren’t very far, and on top of that, the majority of my course load was online. But course loads are unpredictable, and if necessary, I have to be prepared to commute to main campus in Gainesville. That’s what happened this academic year, thus prompting my motivation to finally reflect.

12,160. That’s how many miles I’ve commuted in two and a half years to teach classes. I haven’t added additional miles required for attending bi-weekly and monthly meetings held on three separate days.

My thirteenth year as a commuter feels less enjoyable and more like a hamster wheel. I’m tired y’all. I’m tired of leaving two hours early just so I can arrive on time. I’m tired of buying new tires every 6-8 months because of wear and tear. I’m tired of the additional gas money. Plus, the older I get, the more driving up and down the highway for hours to work seems like a colossal waste of time.

img_5101Sometimes change begins with reflection. That’s what this is. I don’t have an answer right now, but I do know that I won’t be spending my remaining career on the road. Life’s too short and time is fleeting*.

Do you or have you had to commute? What was it like?

*Had to borrow from Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life.”

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Monday Notes: Cover Letter/Life as a Black Woman

If you ever plan to submit your work for publication or a contest, then you should also plan to submit a cover letter. My journalists friends initially suggested a cover letter only include two quick sentences with the title of the work, word count, and brief summary. I’ve found a letter like that was fine, until I began submitting for longer projects, like book chapters. Sometimes, those editors and publishers want in-depth descriptions, and they usually provide guidelines if that’s the case.

That’s what happened when I recently submitted to win a grant for Black women writers. Although I didn’t win, I was one of the Top 10 Finalists. Consequently, two of my manuscripts will be published with their journal as soon as this Friday.

I’ll share that publication once it’s published. In the meantime, here’s the cover letter I wrote.

img_3807The question was something like, What are the challenges of being a Black woman in America? After mulling over a few notes, here’s what I came up with:

Life as a Black Woman

I learned the importance of my blackness when I moved from Detroit, Michigan to Jacksonville, Florida. It seemed the Duval County school board hadn’t fully integrated. Consequently, the job fair I’d attended in 1997 held a surprise. On one table, there sat a white paper with the words: Vacancy Black English Teacher. After an awkward conversation about my recent graduation from a teacher education program, the white, male principal offered me a position.

That was the first time my blackness preceded my qualifications.

I learned the intricate nature of being a woman during my six-year, doctoral program. Single, childless professors rarely took me seriously once they found out I was married with two young daughters. Similar to microagressions based on race, I could never put my finger on one discreet moment. It was more intuitive. More subtle. But somehow proving I could mother, wife, teach, and learn seemed to become an integral part of attaining the prestigious degree.

That was the first time my intellect was challenged based on the social construction of gender.

I learned what it meant to be a Black woman in academia when I applied for a permanent, tenure-track position at a research university. I submitted my application two separate times. I didn’t receive an interview. The third application was for a one-year, clinical position, teaching only. The institution hired me with a simple Skype conversation.

My new colleague was the person they’d hired in the English Education position I’d sought. He was a white man. His terminal degree was not in English Education; mine is. At the time of hire, he had one scholarly publication; I had three. He had five years of K-12 experience; I had ten. He had no years in higher education; I had two.

That was the first time race and gender intersected to create a sense of dual oppression.

To say that being a Black woman is a double-edged sword is cliché. But it must be said. It’s getting a job because I’m Black and not getting a job because I’m not white and male. It’s reading and teaching about white privilege and male privilege, nodding in agreement with textbook theories, but then having both thrown in your face by the very institutions that preach those concepts.

It’s ironic, really.

I’ve learned what it means to be a Black woman by attempting to participate in one of America’s most hopeful institutions. By attaining the highest degree possible and asking for a seat at the education table, I’ve learned that racism and sexism still exist, both as independent forms of discrimination and as collaborative acts of subjugation.

However, I have chosen to be a Black woman who uses her voice as an act of change. Neither my pen, nor my opinion can be taken from me, no matter my race or gender.

Have you ever had to contemplate your race or gender and their impact on your place in society? What’s your experience writing a cover letter? 

 

Confessions of an Overachiever (II)

Part I and Part III

It was 2009. I was conducting a study, analyzing data and giving job talks in a few states. The interview process itself was an unexpected stress. One interview lasted three full days. After talking with search committees in five states, I secured a position at a liberal arts college in Georgia. It seemed perfectly aligned with my vow to avoid stress.

There were a few challenges, though.

The institution promised to support my husband in finding a job. They never did. We still had our Florida house to sell. The girls lived with me; Dwight stayed in Florida. It was a three and a half hour drive. So while my job wasn’t stressful, the weekend commutes to have some semblance of normalcy was. For me, this meant packing up the kids and dog, and then trekking up and down I-75 every other weekend. We did this for two years. The cycle was relentless and taxing. I went back on the professor market.

To say I was desperate to move back to Florida is an understatement. My pre-teen daughters were well-behaved, but with the absence of a father, they had gotten a little lippy. We were also sustaining two households. But I didn’t feel as stressed as I had before. I mean there was no chair of a doctoral committee determining the balance of my life. As a matter of fact, I had lost weight and felt more energetic. Still, the situation wasn’t ideal and we needed to move back together, under one roof.

When the next prestigious university called me in 2012 and offered me a visiting professor line, I was overjoyed. However, I had no intentions of moving to Tallahassee. The point was for our family to reunite. I chose to commute.

“Tallahassee is a long way,” Dwight warned.

“I know. I can do it,” I said.

As I type these words, it feels arrogant. I know. I can do it. I can drive 320 miles twice a week. To be fair, droves of people I knew and didn’t know called me crazy. The truth is I really did think I could do it. It’s an innate part of my personality. I truly believe I can do anything I set my mind to. Or am I just an overachiever? The line is fine and sometimes the two collide to blur my judgment. Either way, I did it.

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The job was supposed to last only one year. It was visiting. Instead, they were soooooo impressed with me that they found a way to offer a tenure-track line. One year turned into three. Teaching classes, mentoring graduate students, advising a couple of doc students, serving on two committees, running into unexpected microagressions, conducting research, presenting at national conferences, writing, getting published in the “wrong” place, seeking grant funding, and getting rejected publications from the “right” place made for a stressful job. The out of town commute twice a week was just bonus stress. Some days I would cry all the way to the university’s parking lot. Other days I would pray all the way home for answers. In between, I looked for jobs. Nothing surfaced.

It was six years of doctoral work all over again. There was no chalazion or sleep paralysis. But I was ignoring other signs. Although I worked out whenever I wasn’t on the road, it didn’t matter.

“You run with your fists clenched,” a trainer observed. “Are you angry about something? You have to calm down and then work out. Open your fists.”

I hadn’t noticed it before. But now things made more sense. I had run a 5k, consistently practiced yoga and maintained a restricted diet, but gained 20 pounds in three years.

I made time for my family and me: movies, vacations, cookie baking, you name it. Life looked balanced, but it wasn’t. Not really. This was the most imbalanced life I’d ever lived.

But I ignored it.

Only thing about disregarding things is that they don’t really go away. My body had had enough. It was overstressed.

Confessions of an Overachiever (I)

“You can rest when you die” ~ advice from a former professor

I used to feel stress and ignore it.

There. I’ve said it. What’s so bad about that you might ask? Hopefully, you’ll keep reading to find out.

In 2004, I began doctoral work at a research university. Some programs require that you work in a cohort or group, but not this one. Not this program. At this institution, you attain a PhD the old-fashioned way, independently. Whether independent or collaborative, doctoral programs at research universities begin similarly. Your first few years include coursework. The next few years are what separate the high achievers from the overachievers. This phase includes qualification exams intended to move you from doctoral student to doctoral candidate. If you make it through this proverbial hoop, then you propose a study, conduct a study, and become Dr. so-and-so. For me, this last part took three years. Here is where I endured, and subsequently, ignored the hardest stress in my life.

The first sign is familiar. It’s how we know that being president of the so-called free world is stressful.  One day I noticed a slight tint of silver. Is this lighting? I thought to myself? Oh my God! No, there’s a gray hair! It was true. I was 34 and ill-prepared for what is called “new-growth gray.” That means every time my hair grows, it’s growing in gray, right in the front of my head, where everyone can see it. Oh, no, no, no, no way. Luckily, I had a great hairstylist who could mask this horrid sight. But once I went natural, boxes of Dark and Lovely became my friend. Because my hair grows quickly, dark brown dye is necessary every other week.

“Why is your hair so black?” My aunt once asked.

“It’s not. It’s dark ash brown. Or at least that’s what the box says.”

So my first sign was a vanity stressor. But not my second. It was 2006. I was still teaching high school English and attending graduate school full time. And being a wife and mother. Although doctoral candidacy is the expectation, it’s not always the result, especially not at UF. I’d heard horrible tales of students failing their exams and leaving with a Specialist degree instead. This would never be the fate of an overachiever. There was one re-write. But I passed. I also developed a chalazion under my right eyelid. Chalazions can appear for several reasons. However, each points to a type of illness. I’m rarely ill. If I am, then it’s because I’m stressed. My body was screaming out to me. This time an ophthalmologist rid me of this sore. Once again, I was able to cover up and ignore a sign.

The final marker of stress happened repeatedly. It only occurred at night or early in the morning. After a deep sleep, I wanted to wake up. So my eyes would pop open but I couldn’t move the rest of my body. The room was dark. I could see everything in it. My dresser. The TV. The door. But I couldn’t open my mouth. I would try screaming for help. Nothing came out. My mind raced. Sweat trickled. After a couple of bouts, I learned to calm my mind down and tell myself that everything is okay. It’s called sleep paralysis. Some believe it’s your spirit leaving. Others say demons are entering. Medically speaking, it’s something that happens when you’re under a lot of stress, which I was. Five years in and my study wasn’t being approved. My chair was offering little help. I was working full-time. Life was difficult. But I ignored it.

Part II and Part III

How to Talk to a Doc Student During the Holidays

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Do you have a doc student or candidate that’s visiting for the holidays? If so, then trust me on this one. They probably won’t tell you, but I will. Don’t ask them these three questions.

 When are you graduating?

This seems super harmless, right? It’s not. Refrain from asking any doc student, no matter where they are in the program, when she is graduating. She doesn’t know. Traditional full-time undergraduate students could probably answer this question. May, 2017, they might proudly announce. A full-time student pursuing a master’s degree might also be able to tell you. But a doc student? Unless she has successfully defended her dissertation and submitted it for university publishing and approval, then the likelihood of her knowing an actual graduation date is pretty slim.

What is your research about again?

What’s wrong with this question, you might be wondering. Well, the problem is the doc student has already spent countless hours revising and refining two or three questions that explain this very thing. She has probably been asked by nice and not-so nice committee members to consider the time of year, re-word the sentence after the comma, change the participants, or re-think the study altogether. She might even have a handy three-minute explanation of her work. But she probably doesn’t want to talk about it while scarfing down her mac-n-cheese.

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What’s taking you so long?

This question is not easy to answer. The response could be any number of reasons. She could’ve lost a committee member, or maybe her proposal wasn’t accepted. Just those two reasons alone could average a one or two semester delay. Most institutions, colleges and programs are totally different. Some doc students finish in three years because of the prof’s personal mantra; whereas, others finish well beyond five years because of the same reason. Does the doc student have a spouse? Kids? Other responsibilities? Reasons why it is “taking so long” are plentiful.

Maybe this holiday season you can ask the person a simple question, like how’s it going? Or how are you? If she wants to discuss her graduate studies, then she’ll probably slip in a success story or gripe, but if not, then just let her enjoy her eggnog and your company. The reduced stress will be a welcomed change.