Frank Episale is an editor, writer, educator, and theatre artist living and working in Brooklyn. He holds a BFA from New York University, an MA from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and an MPhil from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. This is his (infrequently updated) blog. He's pretty google-able, if you'd like to know more.

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I had a meeting today with a professor/administrator because I needed permission to postpone completion of one of our department’s requirements.  Within a year after completing 60 credits, we are supposed to take our written and oral field exams (our department has two sets of exams: generalist comp exams early on and book-list based field exams later). But another regulation says I can’t take these “second exams” yet because I have not yet passed two foreign-language translation exams. So I was stuck, the only solution being to promise to take my language exam in the spring and get a waiver postponing my second exams until August.

The professor, who is also on my exam committee, agreed to the postponement but understandably wanted to get a bit of a scolding lecture in first, and to make sure I would follow through and make myself learn Spanish. We talked about the probable need to hire a tutor, approaches to scheduling, etc. Most importantly, she reminded me of the need for a certain kind of selfishness.

She told me about a mentor of hers when she was in graduate school, who had reminded her to remember that she was a student first, and a teacher second (and everything else, presumably, a distant third.) She pointed out that, as I already knew, my job at Cinema Journal and my teaching will both take up as much time and energy as I allow them to. There is no limit to how much you can prepare, how carefully you can grade, etc.  She told me to write into my calendar that from 9-11, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, for example, I would work on Spanish, and nothing/no one could take that time. “You have to be selfish,” she said.

Of course, “selfish” isn’t exactly the right word. I spend more time and energy on teaching and editing because I care more about teaching and editing. The PhD process is, frankly, a pain in the ass: Hoops to jump through, obstacles to navigate, that only occasionally further your own research.  I like teaching; I like the editing gig. These are the ends; the PhD is the means. But she’s right for the most part because, if I want to be paid a living wage for teaching I’m going to need that fucking degree. And if I want to write the dissertation, I’m going to have to learn another language.

She’s also right that the teaching stuff takes as much time and energy as you’re willing to give it. As does the editing. As does the PhD. And I need to readjust the balance of all of them, along with my social life, my home life, my physical life. My room is a mess most of the time, I’ve (re)gained an alarming amount of weight, and I don’t see my friends nearly enough. It’s great that I like my students; it’s great that I am doing so many things that will look good on my CV (conferences, publications, editing, teaching advanced classes, etc.); but it’s also true that I need to take care of myself or the other stuff doesn’t matter.

And if that’s what “selfish” means, in this case, that I need to insist on taking care of myself, then yes: I need to be more selfish.

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Reader Comments (2)

I hear you. Especially about the teaching.

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAaron C. Thomas

All true. I asked you one time why I was dragging this dark cloud around when so much was going well. You told me it was because I didn't have anything that was me. I realize this is different, as the writing and teaching IS you. However, so are the PhD, your physical self and the growth, support and pleasure of friendship. Selfishness doesn't come naturally to some. Good luck.

October 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRegge

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