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21 Sep

A difficult decision – Regular visitors here at Liminality will know that I have been working on my dissertation for the past few months, and that I have been planning on finishing by the end of the year. Well, to cut to the chase, it looks like that is not going to be happening. I am now aiming to finish next semester instead.

“Looking back on it now, I can see that I was pretty much doomed from the start.”

There was a reason that I wanted to finish this semester, despite the fact that I only finished my coursework last semester—my advisor is retiring, and this semester was my last chance to finish my dissertation under his official guidance. I have no idea what the academic environment in the States or elsewhere is like, but here things like this are pretty important.

My professor often spoke of me as his “last student,” meaning that I would be the last to finish my doctoral work under him. I have been keenly aware of how proud my professor is to have me as a student—during late-night drinking sessions with others in our field, he would always praise me. This was a little embarrassing, of course, but in the back of my mind it served, more than anything else, to reinforce how important it was that I finish my dissertation before he retired. I vowed that I wouldn’t let him down—I couldn’t even begin to imagine that possibility. On more than one occasion I said that I would rather die than disappoint him.

Well, seeing as I’m still alive, that was apparently a bit of hyperbole on my part. Although, truth be told, I’ve felt like dying for much of the week. I have been under extreme mental stress, and that has taken its toll on my body. I think I started my recovery today, but up until yesterday I literally could not breathe properly because every breath I took was met with a sharp pain in my chest. Yeah, I know it sounds pretty serious, but I’m crap when it comes to handling stress. My mind stays together, but my body goes to pieces. People can tell when I’m feeling stressed because I look even more ghostly than usual. I can’t hide it.

So, what went wrong? Well, looking back on it now, I can see that I was pretty much doomed from the start. I don’t know what gave me the impression that I would somehow be able to write my dissertation in only one semester (even two semesters is going to be pushing it, to be perfectly honest). I guess it was a case of self-deception. If I wanted to avoid disappointing my professor, I had to finish by the end of this year. Since disappointing my professor was the last thing on earth I wanted to do, I convinced myself that it was possible. In a word, I lied to myself.

Every time I attended a school-related event or function, people in my department would ask me how the dissertation was coming along. I usually replied that it was indeed coming along, if a bit slowly, but I assured them (and myself) that I would be done on time. My seniors (i.e., those who entered my department before me) told me that it was good to have a deadline, and that dissertations just didn’t get written without them. I agreed. I know myself, and I know that I need some sort of pressure to get stuff done.

And yet as time went by, I grew more and more worried. The average number of pages I would have to write in the days remaining before the pre-examination draft was due continued to rise. There were days when I didn’t write anything—not because I wasn’t working on it, but because I suddenly discovered some hole in my research that needed to be filled before I could proceed. So I would spend all day in the library reading books, photocopying articles, downloading stuff from JSTOR (this link will be more or less useless if you’re not at a library). And for every source I read, there were three more sources behind that one. Half of the challenge was simply deciding where to draw the line.

Hyunjin was very supportive throughout the whole process. She wanted to see me finish by the end of the year as much, if not more, than I did. When she came home at night I would discuss the day’s work—not as a progress report, but just to get the words out of my head and into reality. When you’re working on something like a dissertation, it’s easy to get lost in the complexity of it all, and explaining everything to someone else forces you to organize your thoughts and formulate them logically. Sometimes she would comment or ask questions, but mostly she just listened, realizing that the most important thing she could do was be a sounding board.

One day last week, though, was different. When we had finished dinner I just sat there and stared at the empty dishes. I tried to organize my thoughts, but they refused to be wrangled. All I could express was despair, because it had suddenly become evident to me earlier that day that there was no way on God’s good earth that I was going to finish the draft in time. I had a little over two weeks left and I was not even close to being done, even in draft form. Hyunjin saw this and told me what she thought. She told me that she had been supportive because she thought that was what I needed, but now she thought I needed to hear the truth: she didn’t think I was ready. I didn’t think I wasn’t ready—I knew I wasn’t ready.

That’s when the stress started—above and beyond the usual stress of trying to finish a dissertation. I was in panic mode, though, so my body didn’t begin to shut down quite yet. I called up one of my seniors, a guy I’ve been close to for years who also studied under my professor, and arranged to meet him on Monday. There was only one reason I wanted to talk to him. It had nothing to do with deciding whether or not I was going to submit my dissertation this semester—that decision was no longer mine to make—and everything to do with how exactly I was going to break this news to our professor.

This senior of mine has a talent. He is very good at reading people, and he has excellent social skills. He’s also an exceptional writer, very smart, and very funny, but that’s beside the point right now. What is important is that he probably knows our professor better than any other student. So I asked him how he thought our professor was going to take the news.

He shook his head and said, “I have no idea.” I think that’s when I went from panic to horror and my body started to shut down.

We talked for a while longer and came up with something of a plan. It was all about nunchi (the art of picking up on non-verbal cues), really. I couldn’t seem too nonchalant about it or I would risk offending my professor. At the same time, I couldn’t seem too contrite about it or I would risk making him feel bad for making me feel pressured. I honestly have no idea if this is going to make sense to any of my Western readers. It makes perfect sense to me, because that’s just the way things work here. It may be the same in the West, it may not. I just don’t remember. But I really can’t explain it any better than that.

I spent the next two days desperately trying to polish up what I had so far so I wouldn’t be going in empty-handed. I also spent a lot of time staring at the wall, trying to figure out how I was going to handle the situation. I visualize a lot, and it helps me when going into stressful situations. But I just couldn’t visualize here. It was as if my brain refused to even consider what it was going to be like. And when I wasn’t polishing up my work and staring at the wall, I was trying not to cry. That’s probably going to sound a bit odd, but I was a wreck. I’m still a bit of a wreck, to tell the truth. Part of the reason I’m writing this is just to get everything out so I can move on.

Thursday came and I headed to school to meet my professor. I handed him the stack of paper I had printed out and explained what it was (basically a survey of trickster theory for the past hundred years or so). He mentioned the deadline for the draft and the moment I had been dreading had finally arrived. I stumbled through my explanation, the one I had rehearsed with my senior—I tried my best, but it was just too much to finish in one semester—and then there was silence.

“So,” he said, “You’re saying that you’re not going to be able to finish this semester?”


He was quiet for a moment, looking at the wall to my left. I knew he was avoiding my eyes. Then he said, “Doctoral dissertations aren’t easy. Doing your M.A. is one thing, but a dissertation isn’t something you can just write on a whim. And with the way the examination procedures have changed, you pretty much have to have a completed dissertation ready before they’ll even choose an examination board. If you’re not one hundred percent ready, they won’t let it go any further.”

Then he looked up at me and said, “This writing stuff, it’s difficult, isn’t it?” And he laughed.

I didn’t realize it at first, but all those things he said were intended to make me feel better. I know he was disappointed, but he also wanted to make sure I knew that I was making the right move. Not finishing this semester creates difficulties, namely having to finish under another advisor, but trying to push through a dissertation that wasn’t ready would have been far worse.

Of course, when I realized that he was trying to comfort me, I felt even worse. I wanted to explain to him that I knew how much it meant to him, and that letting him down was the last thing I wanted to do. But I couldn’t say these things, because that would have made him feel bad. Besides, there’s a time and place for words like that, and those times and places usually coincide with generous amounts of alcohol.

It was over quickly, and it happened as I knew it would happen. My professor is not a man given to displays of emotion, and no matter how disappointed he might be personally, he wants me to submit a solid dissertation. He wouldn’t be my advisor if he didn’t. Most of my fear and apprehension stemmed from my own guilt. I knew this going in, of course, but that didn’t really change anything.

When we had finished talking about the delay—a process that took maybe two or three minutes—we started talking about what I was going to do when I did finish the dissertation. This was the part that I couldn’t see in my visualizations, and it caught me by surprise. Why? Well, for the past few years, finishing my dissertation has been something of a mountain range on the horizon for me. I kept drawing closer and closer, but no matter how close I got I could not see what lay beyond it. Only when I reached the summit would I have some idea of what came next. So when he asked me what I was planning to do when I finished, I didn’t really have a good answer. We talked about some possibilities, but I’ll save that for later. The time will come soon enough.

So it’s done. I spoke to the department office earlier today and made it official. And now my life is a mess. I don’t mean that things have fallen to pieces, just that things are rather difficult to sort out at the moment. Pretty much everything hinged on me finishing my dissertation by the end of the year, and now that this is not happening I have to suddenly reorganize everything. Things that were going to be put off until after the dissertation now need to be attended to much sooner. Other things have to be put off indefinitely, at least until I get a better handle on everything. I really don’t know how it will all work out, but one thing I do know is that I am going to try to do more writing here. I’ve been pretty bad about writing lately, and that’s something I want to fix, if only for my own sanity. So look for some changes to the way I do things here, and look for them relatively soon.

Until then, I need to recover a bit, both mentally and physically. We’re having guests over tomorrow, some people I’m looking forward to seeing, so I think that will help. But I’ve done what I set out to do today, so I’m going to wrap it up here. It’s already late, so this will be going up after only a quick proofread—I’m not going to try to edit it into something neater or more palatable.

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