Category Archives: school

Jana, PhD

Yesterday I finished those last final steps to doctorhood.  Afterwards it was more than surreal to walk out of the Administration Building and across the quad, recalling the time just over 20 years ago that I first walked across that same space…at the beginning of my freshman year at UCI.   So today when I walk across the stage to be hooded by my adviser, it will be the close of a long and circuitous journey that began in 1989 when I aimed to become a physician because of my medical history, and ended when I became a professional historian who researches the history of medicine.

Being a doctor doesn’t make me feel any smarter or more worthy.  Instead, it’s a testament to the fact that I persisted and knew when to call something “good enough” to be finished (after 35 years of school, one would think that it was definitely time).

As I thought about all that’s happened to bring me to this point in my life, one small story from nearly three decades ago stood out in my mind.  I was 13 and was nearing the end of my chemotherapy treatments for bone cancer.  There were warnings given to me and my parents that the treatments would have cognitive side-effects, including memory loss.

Yet that spring, as an ailing 8th-grade cancer patient wearing a wig and walking on crutches, I won my school spelling bee.  I then went on to the district level and won that match, and moved on to the state championships.

The details of that experience are dim in my mind now.  I would imagine that it must have been tedious for the audience to watch me stand up and use crutches to walk to the microphone each time I had to spell a word.  Or perhaps the judges allowed me to remain seated for the competitions because of my limited mobility?  I don’t remember.

But even though the details are fuzzy, the thought that keeps bubbling up about that moment now, is one of persistence.  I just kept at it.  Kept doing my best at spelling each word slowly into the microphone whenever it was my turn.  I wasn’t thinking too hard about what I was doing, I was just doing it.  I didn’t let the doctors’ predictions or my own self-consciousness at being a one-legged-and-bald teenager bother me.  I just spelled.

Today I’ve got the urge to take that fragile-yet-determined 13 year-old me in my arms and tell her a few things…

I want to let her know that someday she’ll be walking confidently across a stage to earn another award because she worked hard at something, and kept at it even in complicated circumstances.  I want to tell her that she will be rejected the first time she applies for graduate school, and will be rejected from most schools the second time–but what matters most is that she found one match among the many attempts.  I want to tell her that during her years of coursework she will sleep less than those years when she was caring for a newborn, but that she ought to get up when that alarm rings anyways.  I want to warn her about how tough it will be to TA and tutor and do odd jobs to pay her tuition, but remind her that she can do it even while keeping things balanced with mothering and gardening and researching.  And I’ll tell her that when she does have funding she ought to make sure to work and write everyday, that it’s a luxury she can’t take for granted. I want to explain to her that getting your PhD isn’t about doing things perfectly–often it’s about doing things as good as you can while facing down the fear of failure (oh, comprehensive oral exams, I am looking at you right now). I’ll leave some of the hardest parts out–about the drug-resistant infection that would persist for so many months that there were fears of losing her other leg and about the unraveling of her marriage. Instead, I’ll remind her that she will find true friends to support her through the long dark nights ahead, and remind her that there will always be roses (and roses and more roses).

Most importantly, I will tell her that by the time she’s earned the PhD she’ll be stronger than she’s ever been before, more satisfied with her life than she could have ever imagined, and more sure that there are great things ahead if she’s willing to just keep at it, everyday.

*Photo is from my recent visit to Tuscany, where we stayed in a villa with so many blooming roses that their petals lined every pathway. 



I was filling in the template for my dissertation file last night.  As I typed up the dedication page, I was pretty humbled by all of the people that I wanted to name–those who listened and read and helped and were just there when I needed them. (really friends, you are amazing and I owe you so much…)

But as I thought about what it meant to me to do this degree and how it impacted the lives of the people around me, I realized that getting a Ph.D. is probably the single most selfish thing that I’ve ever done.  I did this for me.  Not for my kids or for the money or for my parents or for god.

For.  me.

almost there…

Ten years ago I took the first steps to something important, this becoming-a-doctor thing.  It’s so close now, that the last step is consuming all of my mental energy and my discretionary time.  In the midst of it all I’ve left emails unresponded-to, missed appointments with friends, and have been a bit short-tempered in situations where I would usually be calm.

I’m told, by others who’ve done their PhDs, that this is normal.  The end is hard and intense and time-consuming.  For me, it feels a lot like when I’m almost to the top of a rock-climb and I’m exhausted and my whole body is shaking from the effort to get there.  At that point it’s all I can do to keep focused on what’s in front of me and take it one step at a time.  If I get distracted by anything other than reaching the top, it’s likely that I won’t have the energy to do that one last push to get there.

So…I apologize for my flakiness in the meantime.  Just a few more weeks and I’ll be on the other side of this and life will go back to photos and paddling and poetry and time-with-friends once again…

Legacy: “About” and “Return”

Almost a decade ago, I started keeping a blog at My first “About” is below. So much has changed, and so much is the same…It’s a bit painful to see how strongly I defined myself by who I was married to–if you’d have known me then, you would have realized that more of my conversation was about my spouse than about me.  My entire world revolved around him…That’s one thing (among many) that I’m working to change in my current and future relationships–letting them add ‘spice’ to my life without letting them dominate every facet of it.  But there is still some little-girl part of me that could easily let herself be swept away by a Prince Charming again, and invest every bit of herself in him.  That thought scares me more than just a little bit…

I wear a facade for most of my day-to-day interactions. This façade self is fairly aloof and businesslike. However I am lucky enough to have several people in my life who know the ‘real me.’ One of them is my husband of 10 years. We married very young, when we were both 21, because we knew we’d found a good thing. We’ve weathered some pretty rough storms, yet always managed to surface together. Perhaps it is not ironic that one of our favorite recreational activities is tandem kayaking where we synch our paddling rhythms together to reach a destination. I have several women friends, most of whom I correspond with via email. I don’t like talking on the phone, but love the Internet–I’d rather carry on a conversation in text than by voice.

If you were one of my best friends you might know that I enjoy gardening, waterfalls, and I only go to the beach in the winter. I’m peso-vegetarian, I love black & white movies and the smell of vanilla. Some of my favorite pastimes are listening to the music of Sting, eating red grapes, and taking naps lying on the living room floor. I don’t own a TV. I am very sensitive to violence. I hate to cry in public, but often feel like I want to–especially when parents are cruel to their children. I am a pacifist, anti-capitalist, and an environmentalist. I have ‘synesthesia’, which means that I have overlapping sensory experiences. For example, when I look at paintings in art gallery, I hear music. When I feel intense emotions, I see the colors and shapes of my feelings in my mind. My strongest sense is that of smell. I am very picky about fragrances, detergents, and so forth because the wrong one can be quite troubling to me.

Just about anyone who knows me knows that I am passionate about literature. I own thousands of books and read 4 or 5 new ones each week. I have a perfect job–I am the ‘Review Editor’ for a literary journal. This means I have dozens of books shipped to me each week that I have to read and write about, or to assign to my pool of reviewers. Through my job I get to hobnob with many excellent wrDSC_3626iters and attend literary conferences.

And here’s what I wrote, way back then, about our move to UCI–when I started back to school and ceased being a full-time, stay-at-home Mom.  I knew then that the move to campus and to graduate school would alter my life in dramatic ways.  I didn’t know that I would leave the Mormon church and divorce.  Had I known then what I know now, I’m not sure how or what I would have done differently.  My now-self thinks that my then-self was awfully brave to start on an academic path.  It has not been an easy one…



Our family is moving this week. Not to a bigger house (like my friend Brenda who showed me her palatial new 5 bedroom home today). No, we’re moving to an apartment just one building away from where John and I lived as young (and impoverished) newlyweds.

Why are we doing this? Good question. The move is borne of years of planning, prayer and hope. About 3 years ago John and I realized that our lives weren’t satisfying. John was on the corporate ladder, making a fine salary with the promise of vesting in a profitable company. I was a SAHM with 2 perfectly wonderful kids. What could be wrong? We realized that we’d lost the idealism of our youth–when the corporate world and middle-class America paled in comparison to the world-traveling, educated college professors that we intended to be. Two kids later, with college loans to be repaid, the lure of IT jobs, etc., the dream had evaporated.

Then a family vacation to the UK, a re-examination of our marriage commitments, and another family member diagnosed with terminal cancer. We realized that life was just too short to be pursuing goals without passion. John downscaled his job and started working for the university. I re-entered school part-time to take the classes I would need to prepare for grad school.

And now here we are, just three days away from the final leap–a move to campus housing at the university where I will be enrolled full-time this fall. Yahoooo!!!

just like the Marquis de Sade

Last week’s NYT essay by Tony Perrottet, “Why Writers Belong Behind Bars,” suggests that the best thing that ever happened to the Marquis de Sade’s writing career was his incarceration, because “it was only behind bars that Sade was able to knuckle-down and compose the imaginative works upon which his enduring, if peculiar, reputation lies.” Perrottet offers other examples of writers whose work blossomed from behind bars, too, and suggests that contemporary writers could also benefit from a bit of self-enforced isolation:

‘A prison is indeed one of the best workshops.’ Colette declared. She wasn’t speaking metaphorically. In the early 1900s, by her own account, her caddish fist husband had stashed her in a tiny room for four hours a day, refusing to let her out until she had finished a requisite number of pages–a dramatic measure, but one that resulted in a novel a year for six years. ‘What I chiefly learned was how to enjoy, between four walls, almost every secret flight,’ she later recalled, sounding almost sentimental.

I’ve found that the focused bursts of “sprint” writing help me to maintain my focus on the task at hand–in 20 minutes there’s no time for a wikipedia diversion. But since taking on more responsibility as a single parent, and having some of my job responsibilities increase, it’s been harder to carve out the time for writing, even in short bursts.  I’ve found that when I travel, it’s a bit easier–such as writing from the parlor of a Cape Cod inn last year, or from the sanctuary of an old church this past spring.  But I can’t travel all the time, and sometimes that doesn’t work as well as I’d like–there are still all kinds of distractions and it takes time to settle into a quiet place (and to find an outlet for one’s laptop.  As a side note, I do think that if Woolf was writing about 21st-century scholars her requirements would not only include “A Room of One’s Own,” but also a steady power supply and a wireless connection…).

Thus, so far, I haven’t found the perfect recipe for a writing space.  But it seems that the search for one is part of the process–every day I keep trying to find that perfect blend of productivity and genius, and in that process I continue to make slow (and steady) progress on my writing projects.  On some level I would love it if someone ‘locked’ me away in a tower for awhile every day to  force me to meet my writing goals…but of course that would chafe in other ways that would be counter-productive.  Learning to discipline myself seems a more important, if elusive, goal.

Image above is of me (in my ivory tower office), holding the edits to a dissertation chapter.


Among the many things unearthed from John moving out of my home were some old photos. It’s been fun to look through these and remember what life was like for us when we were first experimenting with digital photography.

As an example, here’s a shot of me giving my first talk at a UCI conference in 2004. For an even more amusing view, you can see my ankle-length skirt (which, back then, was one of my favorites to wear while teaching seminary classes to Mormon teenagers):

Looking at that picture, I can remember how truly happy I was to be on the brink of beginning graduate school (I’d just barely accepted UCI’s offer for their PhD program). I’d already done several years of coursework at junior college and then took classes as a non-matriculated student for a year to prepare myself for re-entry into full-time academia. It was such a thrill to see that investment coming to fruition.  I can still hardly believe how fortunate I am to have found a career path that brings me so much joy.

Seeking Security

a family outingIn talking to a friend last night, I realized a few things about my personal and professional trajectory the past decade…

It was about a decade ago that John and I first had significant marriage problems.  At that point we’d been married for 7 years and as John was climbing the corporate ladder, he seemed increasingly frustrated with having married so young.  We had two small children at home and John was the breadwinner while I was a stay-at-home-Mom.  I was literally tied to our home given that John took our only car to work everyday and we didn’t live near anywhere that I could walk to to catch a bus or shop.  My entire world revolved around supporting him and caring for the kids.  So when things got a bit rocky with John, I was completely dependent and vulnerable.  I’d never had any jobs that paid much more than minimum wage.  I had a science degree but no lab experience to turn that degree into a marketable skill.  I had no savings of my own, no retirement money, nothing.

It was just about then that some things started to change in our family.   We had to buy a second car so I could drive the kids to school, which gave me a huge increase in autonomy.  I started taking classes at a local community college.  I began to think seriously about applying to graduate school.

While I can’t say for sure that my aims for advanced education were motivated by the fear that John and I would eventually split up, I think I can say that I knew I needed more security “just in case.”  I opened a Roth IRA and began depositing money into it each month.  I stopped thinking so much like Martha Stewart and took on Laurel Ulrich as my role model instead–thinking that even if it took me twice as long as anyone else to finish my graduate degree, at least I would have it eventually.  I began thinking far more pragmatically about money and my future.  Once I was in graduate school I began applying (perhaps rather ruthlessly) for as much funding as possible.  I wanted to ensure that I didn’t end up finishing my PhD with a significant amount of debt, knowing that that would only increase my dependence rather than decrease it.morning light, in my office

So maybe it’s no surprise that when I initially revealed to a friend that John was leaving me, one of the first things I said was how glad I was that I had a job!  It’s so empowering to know that I won’t be financially dependent on John for child support, health insurance, or alimony. For the first time ever, my income is larger than John’s.  I still feel quite vulnerable in today’s economy–and I know it won’t be easy to support the kids on my salary.  But I think I knew, perhaps even subconsciously, that I never wanted to be in that same awkward and dependent position again as I was when I first feared that we would split up.  It’s undoubtedly what’s kept me so aggressively focused on my educational and professional goals these past few years. 

A friend mentioned to me that when we feel powerless over the romantic aspect of our lives, we often try to take control of the financial part–because that’s one thing we can do when the rest is out of control.  That makes a lot of sense to me.  And I’m so glad that I did this so I’m not left in a financially vulnerable position now.

Open & Closed: some brief thoughts on participating in THATCampSF & OneWeek

It was hard for me to tweet this weekend for a variety of reasons, one of those being that I misplaced my phone charger cord (ack!), and another being that I was participating in an “unconference” called THATCamp Bay Area that required a great deal of attentiveness. But probably the most significant reason that I wasn’t tweeting was that I felt uncomfortable with being a part of a select group of attendees at this event, knowing that many qualified people weren’t able to attend. That took a great deal of the pleasure out of advertising my own presence. I know that’s a bit ridiculous, and if anything is counter-intuitive because I ought to be tweeting precisely because it would include non-attendees in the conversation. But I didn’t over-analyze my resistance–instead I immersed myself more wholly in being present. While at the conference I talked quite a bit about my work with One Week | One Tool, but I felt awkward about advertising the fact that I was part of this project too loudly, again knowing how many scholars vied for positions on the team and feeling somewhat self-conscious about my own good fortune in winning one of the golden tickets to participate.

Digital Humanities tends to be quite an inclusive community (as some have said, it is a “big tent”). At my core, I believe in open-source, freely-shared tools and content. I don’t like cliques and in-groups and members-only clubs. I feel everyone has a place at the table and I’ll undoubtedly continue to struggle with those moments when some are excluded because there aren’t enough chairs for everyone who wants to join the feast.

Perhaps I’m feeling overly self-conscious about my own good fortune in attending these events. Or perhaps I’m concerned that I’ll be labeled as a member of a particular inner-circle of DHers that I don’t really feel a part of. Or perhaps I’m simply insecure about my own place in the field. It’s probably a combination of all-of-the-above, as well as a recognition of how much I still have yet to learn from those around me.

And speaking of that….I’ll be in the Bay Area for the next few days meeting with scholars and friends. If you’d like to see if we can connect, drop me a note in a comment or via twitter.


As part of organizing my new office at Chapman University, I’m moving most of my academic books from the shelves in my living room over to campus.  Every time I pull a history book off the shelf it brings back memories of the specific graduate school seminar where we studied that work.  So in packing the bags of books I’m also re-living much of my graduate school experience.  There are so many memories held in those pages!  Most of all, it is sitting around the seminar table in the basement of Murray Krieger Hall and grappling with the ways we imagine the past and the best practices for doing our own writing about it.  I remember failures.  And moments where I really “got” an idea as brilliantly as a lightbulb turning on inside my head.

My journey through graduate school has not been easy–balancing my family’s needs with my own need to write and study has meant major sleep derivation, and sometimes half-baked scholarship.  In those seven years since I started graduate school I’ve battled a life-threatening illness, I’ve left my Mormon community behind, and I’ve become a person that would be hardly-imaginable to my 32 year-old self.  When I signed up to get a PhD I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t all that!

So many of those thoughts where swirling around in my mind when I came across a dusty copy of The History of Tooele County.  It was a gift from Mike Davis, the historian-writer who strongly urged me to attend graduate school and was an ardent supporter of my creative nonfiction writing.  I’d written about my Utah family and their problematic relationship to the land that’s poisoned by the Kennecott mines that loom so close nearby.  Mike talked with me about the Iosepa cemetery, which is one of my all-favorite burial grounds (a close second to the Pleasant Green cemetery).  He understood the tensions I felt between my bone-deep allegiance to the place of my family and to the utopian promise of the “West,” while also validating why I felt so betrayed by the Mormon naivete that “all is well” in Zion. One day we walked along the beach in San Diego as we talked about all of this, and he asked me how I could continue to believe in the Mormon church, knowing all I did about its failings.  I looked at my kids who were running in the waves alongside us and thought of Davis’ own wife who was about ready to give birth to twins.

“I love them so much,” I said, pointing to my kids. “How could I ever live with the constant overwhelming fear of losing them if I didn’t believe in eternal families?  I can’t not believe that they will always be with me.”

He replied to me on an equally deep level, expressing his love for his children, and his fears for their futures.

There was something about walking along the rocks and sand and waves that cemented that interaction in my mind long after it was over, and all of that returned as I held the old book in my hands yesterday.  It’s been a few years since I chatted with Mike and since then I’ve faced down a lot of fear.  I no longer feel the same sense of needing to believe in Mormon cosmology to assuage my concerns about losing my children, even though I do constantly worry about their safety.

It brings to mind some favorite lines from a Mary Oliver poem, “Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith”:

And therefore, let the immeasurable come.
Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine,
Let the wind turn in the trees,
and the mystery hidden in dirt

swing through the air.
How could I look at anything in this world
and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart?
What should I fear?

One morning
in the leafy green ocean
the honeycomb of the corn’s beautiful body
is sure to be there.


Recently I heard someone make a funny comment about blogs.  They said that every time they’d ever seen a blogger write a post saying that there were going to start posting more often, it never happened.  I suspect that I am guilty of that myself.  Not so much in this space, where I seem to have a compulsive need to spew my thoughts out over the keyboard, but much more so on my History blog. However, as much as it might not work that blogging about the need to blog more does not actually inspire one to blog more frequently, I believe that blogging about goals can introduce a level of accountability that really can work.  For example, an exercise blog that I participated in a few years ago is what got me into shape after my leg surgery.

So this afternoon I just made some calculations about the biggest looming-out-there goal that I need to accomplish.  I want to finish my dissertation.  Sooner rather than later.  By that, I mean that I want to finish it by my next birthday.  At the end of May.  I have all kinds of motivation to do so.  There’s that UCI tution that’s costing me $12,000 per year.  There’s the knowing that the longer it takes to finish, the less likely it is that I will finish.  There’s that wild crazy dream of have of putting those little letters by name to show that I finished.  And, there are these history stories that I’ve been wanting to tell for too many years now.

So….my rough calculations tell me that I have 45 weeks to knock this thing out.  I think I can do it.  I’ve just learned what I can accomplish in One Week, and now I have 45 of those!

But can you help me?  Can you offer advice and ask me how things are going?  I’m going to post many of my daily and weekly goals on Twitter.  If you hang out in that space, can you follow along and give me some support?