Some Personal Observations

December 30, 2006 at 9:50 pm (Dissertation, Writing)

When I started this blog (as I’m sure I mentioned somewhere below), I had grand visions of my literary prowess, and saw artful sentences and observations spilling from my eager fingers onto the blank page, as I imagined other authors (such as my favorite, Tycho at Penny Arcade) must do. However, the reality of my writing has been… bleaker. At first, this discouraged me, until I read a comment about another famous writer in the book that I mention below, How to Write Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day, namely that this particular writer went through 10 to 20 drafts, if not more, on every piece of work! It probably sounds silly to any writers out there, but I’d forgotten that most writers have to labor over their prose, instead of creating amazing, tight content the very first time. So, I feel slightly less intimidated now to write in my blog.

My second observation is that, to my surprise, my blog isn’t entirely readerless. Perhaps it was just a trackback (a process that I don’t completely understand yet), but my comment on Violent Acres’ entry about bullies garnered my an essentially anonymous comment. This comment had two effects. First, it made me realize that my own observations, which I thought at the time were so astute, were really only one way (and probably not the most relevant way) of interpreting the initial post. Second, it made me realize that I really didn’t want to do the work that goes into writing one of these shining, manicured blogs for the yearning masses. I like the idea that I have a journal where I can just get thoughts down as I see fit and, if someone else finds it, well, great. This blog is really about me and my needs, and I need to get these thoughts out, even if they are in a less-than-polished form.

With that in mind, let’s pump out some content, and worry about literary brilliance later. I just finished reading a very entertaining book, Tyrannosaurus Canyon, by Douglas Preston, that my uncle Tommy lent me. Well written, with a tight and action-packed storyline, I quite enjoyed it. However, the story of one of the minor characters, a struggling PhD working at a museum in New York, struck me in an unusual way. She had gotten her PhD in paleontology and had labored for 5 years as a technician at the Museum of Natural History (or whatever museum it was), without any professional recognition or success. Then, a slimy researcher who needs her skills drops a unique dinosaur sample in her lap, her study of which (a) parallels the discoveries made through the rest of the story, gradually shining a light on the story’s main events on the other side of the country, and (b) is so brilliant that it makes her career in a rather dramatic fashion at the end of the book. Well and good, yay her.

But this got me thinking about my own Assyriological “career.” Scholars’ careers are made by one of two things: first, the steady and continous production of research on known material, or second, the publication of some new and exciting piece of material. As for the latter route, most of the stuff that’s been taken out of the ground and is in museum collections has been picked over to some degree or another by other scholars, far better than me. The only way I’d ever find something totally “new and exciting” would be by getting myself attached to an excavation as their epigraphist. Second, for either route to success, I’d really need to get my cuneiform reading skills up to snuff. In order to be good enough to continually produce quality research, I honestly need to be spending as much time as I would at a full-time job, 6-10 hours a day, working on things academic. And I’ve spent pretty much all of my time so far this vacation reading pulp literature.

Now, I’ve told a lot of people lately that I really don’t want to do the work involved with being a professor of Assyriology. As far as I can tell, that’s because I got into the field for what I’m temporarily going to call “the wrong reasons.” I had images of great adventurers and fabulous treasures; I was (and still am!) interested not so much in the disciplined application of science as I am in the excitement that my imagination hopes will occur. It’s the Indiana Jones view of archaeology, I’m afraid. Not that that’s a bad reason to do it, as long as you can commit yourself to the work. Let’s face it, whatever your motivation, it’s the quality of your work that matters. But I have trouble committing to any particular task (except computer coding; more about that later). I’m pretty good at doing something mechanically, as long as I have a discrete data set in front of me and have a clear set of goals and knowledge of how to reach those goals. It’s coming up with the goals and creating the research methodology that’s troublesome for me. I think that’s why I chose Assyriology over archaeology; it seemed to me (at the time) that learning langauges was easier than coming up with archaeological research questions. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I’d eventually have to come up with linguistic research questions…

So, if I decide not to go with the standard Assyriological career, then what options do I have? Here is a short list of ideas that I’ve seriously considered over the last few years/months, with or without finishing my PhD:

  1. Professor of Digital Humanities/Education: Finish my degree in Assyriology, but start publishing research in Digital Humanities and Education, perhaps about educational gaming, and build myself a career in that less prestigious but, at times, more appealing field. But I’m sure I would suffer the same problem that I do now.
  2. High School Teacher: A PhD in Assyriology, combined with my MA in Classics and an undergrad survey course or two could make me a reasonably competent teacher (if not better!) of ancient history, along with Latin or German, if I were to get them up to par. That way, I could do what I always say I WANT to do, which is teach, but I’m afraid that I won’t have the freedom that I imagine I will. I’ll also need to figure out how to minimize the actual grading that I have to do, by using computerized exams, etc., because I think I’m lazy. Plus, it requires ANOTHER degree when I finish my PhD, and I don’t think Heather is “down” with that.
  3. Writer: I’m constantly coming up with story ideas. What if I got serious about writing them, started writing either short stories or scripts for graphic novels or short films? But what would pay my bills in the meantime? Maybe I could learn how to write for magazines. Douglas Preston, the author I mentioned above, is apparently the archaeological correspondant for the New Yorker. Who knew such a position existed? If I could actually force myself to finish anything, this would be awesome…
  4. Educational Technology: I could probably swing some sort of tech support job at a local university, based on my current contacts, or even something better where I’m working with instructors and developing course content. But to really succeed, I’d want to finish my degree, and the full-time job would cut into that. Crap.
  5. Entrepreneur: Lately, I’ve been thinking about creating a company to market my game. I figure that I could get some money together to get started and cover my expenses in the meantime. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about trying to keep it within academia. Originally, I had hoped that it would help me get a job at a university, an idea that Bob seemed to think was silly. But, it’s all based on the research I do. Which takes me back to my original problem… Another idea for a company would be to conduct tours of some kind, of some part of the world of which I will one day become an expert, such as Syria or Austria/Germany. The tours would be niche enterprises, of course, archaeological or wine- or ghost story-oriented. Who knows if that market’s out there? But it would permit me to travel and keep learning languages, and both would conceivably let me work from home part or all of the time (and then I could be a stay-at-home dad, which sounds pretty cool!).
  6. Becoming an industrial archaeologist. I could swing some tramp jobs, and maybe get some work with the surveyor for whom Ann O’Connor works, or Steve Hughey, and go from there into a permanent position. Ryan was talking about the need for these people in New York, and they must be doing pretty well for themselves. But it would take a bit to get started.

The “nice” things about all of these jobs is that I imagine that I could do them with little or no extra training on my part, or that they would grow organically out of something else that I’m doing (such as studying German in Germany for the summer, or suchlike). But, for all of them, I need to buckle down and start working on them. I’m pushing 30 here, and I need to get a career started so that Heather and I can start our family. So, there must be some buckling down…

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