My Terrible Transition Year and the Return of my Humanity by Xochitl Alvizo


Alvizo headshot smallI have called it, The Terrible Transition Year, this year of finishing dissertation, uprooting from home, moving cross-country, and starting a new full-time teaching job. Last year at this time I was in LA for a 7-8 week stay, away from home – which at the time was in Boston – writing dissertation nonstop. I spent the holidays apart from my family and shared in none of my traditional holiday celebrations as I intensely pushed forward to complete the dissertation. After (seemingly) endless edits back and forth with my advisor and second reader, I finished the dissertation just in time to successfully defended it in May.

During most of this dissertation-writing time, I never had the sense that there would be a successful end to it all. I wrote and submitted each chapter-draft always with the underlying fear that I would be told my work was unworthy, my logic lacking, and my thesis unsubstantiated. So I vividly remember the moment (I can actually still feel it) when I got definitive affirmation that my dissertation would reach a successful end. I remember the shock, the relief, and the physiological rush that coursed through my body as I read the words of approval that came in response to my last chapter. I remember my body shooting up off the chair and saying, “No!” as I read the email. It was a “No” of disbelief, as in “Can this really be?!” And it was. And only at that point did I believe my dissertation would be successful.

defense

Celebrating with my advisor, second reader, and friend who also defended on the same day

I got to celebrate the success for what felt like the briefest of moments, on the day of my dissertation defense and graduation day, before shifting my focus to the next hurdle, selling my house in Boston and moving cross-country. After 11 years in Boston, I was moving back home to LA to start a new full-time teaching job. Immediately after graduation I turned my focus to everything entailed in selling a house and moving – decluttering, taking pictures and listing it, getting it ready for open houses, which already made it seem like it was no longer my home, then actually selling it, which meant packing everything up and moving out. I was going “home” to LA, but I had taken for granted the difficulty of leaving my 11-year Boston home. I was ill prepared to say the least. I daily feel the loss.

road trip

Somewhere across the United States

After a 13-day road trip filled with calls to realtors finalizing the sale of the house in Boston and trying to buy a house in LA, I arrived in LA, set down some stuff, and flew out the next day for two weeks of travel (a board meeting, a conference, and a long overdue visit to a friend). When I returned, I jumped right into prepping for the new courses I would be teaching at Cal State Northridge in the fall semester, which is almost now over. As I sit here writing this post, I am surrounded by the 48 term papers I have left to grade from the Women and Religion courses I taught. With the semester almost over and the end of grading in sight, all I can think of are the countless of things I am behind on in every other area of my life. The many things I have neglected as I worked to survive my Terrible Transition Year.

I use to tell myself that “after dissertation” I would get to be human once again. Getting to be “human” was how I made reference to the return of those missing parts of my life and be-ing I wanted back – the many aspects of life and self I neglected during the dissertation writing season. Things as simple as responding to emails, keeping on top of my Feminism and Religion responsibilities, actively participating in the blog community, sharing time with friends, resting long enough for new thoughts to form…and the more difficult things, like not needing external affirmation to believe that I can produce good work. But that simply hasn’t happened yet – most of those things are still missing from my life. Even though I’m now “after dissertation,” there was no preparing for the toll that transitioning into full-time teaching would take. Never before had I worked so hard only to continue to be so behind on everything. The extent of my neglect of the aspects of life that help me feel human is overwhelming and disappointing.

Dissertation writing in process

Dissertation writing in process

But the thought that keeps coming into my mind these days is that I am my own problem. This is my life – and this is what I am doing with it. Yes, there are systems and structures at play that are much larger than me, which indeed play their part. I can confirm Mary Daly’s good reasoning in using the word “academentia” to refer to life in the academy. Nonetheless, I also know that I play a great part in who I am within academentia – how I allow it to shape and form me, how I resist it, and, in turn, how I will shape and form it, the small part that is within my realm.

I admit I have felt ungrounded since my return to LA. I have missed my home in Boston and have struggled to be at home here. But I am slowly realizing that The Terrible Transition Year is not created by all the changing factors I detailed above – most of these are outcomes of my own choices. The Terrible Transition Year is due to my own ungroundedness – a state of being I have existed in since I jumped deep into dissertation writing but have only begun to be more conscious of upon my return, when I expected to be able to be “human” again.

My Terrible Transition Year was not created by external forces, primarily, but was a direct result of the realities I help to create. I made choices based on both internal and external pressures and, at times, I chose poorly, contributing to the creation of circumstances that do not foster my humanity. But, the brilliant thing is, I can choose otherwise. I still have the ability to help shape my realities.

“The world can be otherwise.” This is one of the great feminist affirmations that fuel the fires of our activism and our spiritualties. It is about believing in a revolution that begins within oneself and is practiced in community; a turning that does not exempt us from the changes that need to take place, or the community that is required, if a different world is to be made manifest. The means and the ends are one; which means that I cannot compartmentalize my humanity and hope for its return at some later time. And so, here I am, taking a step in that direction, taking some time away from grading to pause and reflect – to be in conversation with myself and my community – in hope that this Terrible Transition Year may come to be a Year of Great Learning for me.

My first classroom on my first day of full-time teaching

My first classroom on my first day of full-time teaching

Xochitl Alvizo, loves all things feminist. She often finds herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, and works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and what we do, down to the smallest thing, matters; it makes a difference for good or for ill.

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Categories: Academy, Feminism, General, Relationality, Resistance, Women and Work

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28 replies

  1. So glad to read your post today. I am so sorry you continue to struggle with “am I good enough” to get a Ph.D.? I too got my diss in under the wire and struggled with anxiety about writing for many years. However, I always said to myself (thinking of one or more of the less than stellar guys in my Ph.D. program) “well, if he can get a Ph.D., then surely I can too.”

    As for Cal State U, I wonder if you have 4 classes and up to 200 students as I did when i taught at SJSU. That teaching load was inhumane, and I don’t think it could be possible to do it well and stay completely sane. And double that if you are trying to reach women and students of color who have their own issues with childcare, elder care, insecurity, abuse, and, and, and. I “chucked it in” in the end, as you know. No wonder so many members of the system don’t give papers but only multiple choice exams and are just putting in their time without any real care or concern for their students. At least that is how it was then.

    Sorry for the rant. It will get better, but 4 courses a semester will never be a reasonable teaching load.

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  2. And oh yes, those desks! I always put them in a circle, even in classes of 35 or 40. One day the dean called to tell me that the next professor had complained that he could not control his classes when the students didn’t sit neatly in rows. We could move the desks, but we had to move them back–because they “belonged” in rows!!!

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    • I was wondering how a left handed student managed with those desks! Definitely needs remodeling!

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      • Yes, the desks! We do often move them around too, and luckily, no complaints yet! And there are a few desks for left-handed folks that don’t show over on the right, as well as chairs that are more flexible in how they can be used, but the whole set up is definitely not my ideal teaching/learning space.

        So the teaching load is still 4 classes a semester, but usually with 2 “preps”, 3 max. But the one nice thing is that new faculty are given a teaching load reduction the first two years, teaching only 3 courses a semester and no more than 2 preps. This semester i taught two sections of Women and Religion and one section of World Religions, which is a fully online course, for a total of just over 100 students. My Women and Religion classes are capped at 28 students and the online course to 49 (though I let a few extra in the online course). There are two fairly new faculty in my department for whim this is there third year, and they do keep encouraging my that it does all get more manageable. So I’m choosing to believe them! :)

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      • Well that’s an improvement–we had no prohibition against 4 preps and I never had only 2. Nor was there any slack for new faculty. But I think adjuncts whose numbers are legions can have 5 preps because they need 5 courses to come up to full time pay.

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  3. Congratulations to you! A formidable obstacle race to run, an insane amount of pressure, and yet you are there, you succeeded, and the next phase opens for you. I don’t know you, and like Carol wrote, the pressures given to teachers now are indeed often inhumene (after graduate school I realized I couldn’t handle it, and ran off and joined the Renaissance Faires for a living)…….but perhaps you have not been given enough appreciation for what you have accomplished. From my viewpoint I see a dedicated woman who had put herself in a position, after great effort, to make a difference in the world by teaching. May this new year be one of deep empowerment.

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  4. So good to see you and hear your voice, Xochitl! I can remember during one particularly stressful period of my life castigating myself for not managing with more grace. A wise inner voice came through: Is your nose above water? Yes. Are you breathing? Yes. Then you are doing great! (I know the last phrase is grammatically incorrect, but it was so heartening.) Congratulations on coming through the year of Terrible Transition. Wishing you deep-rooted joy in the new year!

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    • Thank you, Elizabeth. I love your inner voice. That wise voice for me came from others and I was so grateful for it too! And yes, deep-rooted joy – I love it – ditto!

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  5. You write that this Terrible Transition Year was “a direct result of the realities I help to create.” I am trying to understand what you thought you would gain by rushing through these transitions?

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    • I didn’t think I would gain anything by rushing – I wasn’t consciously trying to rush. I think part of my issue was that I just went along with the momentum that was already at play – the pace and pressure that had already developed from being in dissertation writing mode for about 12 months – which I had surrendered to thinking that things would be different once this part was over. So there were actually times during the post-dissertation transition when I put my foot down and slowed things down a bit during the selling of the house and the moving across the county, but then there were also other factors and specific “start” dates that wouldn’t/couldn’t budge. I do think what Laury says below captures some of the main issue – I had lost my grip on my right to my own self.

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  6. It is hard for me to express how hard that time of life was for me. It was harder than anything that came before in grad school. I am very happy to hear you are taking time for yourself and doing what is necessary to recognize your right to your own self. I didn’t do that. I never mastered the “work life balance.” <3

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    • I don’t think our culture prepares us for the big transitions in our lives. When my husband and I decided to build a house, I knew it would be hard, because a project like stresses the relationship a great deal. So I signed us up for a class on “Transitions” at our UU church here in Madison. The most important thing I remember from that class is that all change begins with loss, and, therefore, grief, even if it’s a longed-for change. Knowing that would help us all when we go through big changes.

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      • Laury, I love how you word this – “to recognize your right to your own self” – the wording really captures some of what got lost for me – exactly.
        And you are so right, Nancy, the sense of loss was one of the things I was not prepared for in all this. In my mind, I was coming home to LA, and didn’t register how much I was also leaving behind. I was ill prepared indeed!

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  7. A year and a half ago I sold my house and moved from the town I had lived in for more than 35 years. That in itself was traumatic enough! I didn’t have to write and defend a dissertation! Going from ownership to rental, I moved four times in a year before this opening came up in seniors’ housing. It’s the first place I felt at home right away and I’m not leaving until they carry me out! I hope!

    So I know a little about the moving exhaustion and fatigue and uncertainty. I think you handled things very well. Better than I have. And hopefully along the way we have picked up some new strengths and understandings.

    Congratulations, and all that’s wonderful in 2016.

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    • Wow, Barbara, that’s a huge transition! I’m glad you are settled and at home again! But yes, for some reason I really had no idea how hard it would be – I’m looking forward to the shift out of transition mode!

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  8. It’s so good to hear from you again, Xochitl. I’ve missed your voice here — and I say that NOT to make you feel guilty, but to underscore the fact of your incredible ability in the conversations here to discuss things LOGICALLY, SUBSTANTIATING everything you said, with comments that always moved the conversation forward, and therefore were WORTHY. I want you to know that you have no reason — except for that internalized voice that says that you’re not good enough — to believe that. Your voice is important to me, important to feminists, and important to the future of religion in our country. Thanks for bringing it back to this interchange. I send you a big hug way out there in California land.

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    • Ah, thank you, Nancy for your encouragement. I appreciate it :) And I have missed being part of the conversations too – I’m happy to be making the shift back!

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  9. Thank you, Xochitl, for this essay. I’m also in the middle of “transitioning,” albeit am hoping to go about it much more slowly than you. After being in one place for over 30 years, am gradually beginning to uproot. I love this part of your piece:

    “My Terrible Transition Year was not created by external forces, primarily, but was a direct result of the realities I help to create. I made choices based on both internal and external pressures and, at times, I chose poorly, contributing to the creation of circumstances that do not foster my humanity. But, the brilliant thing is, I can choose otherwise. I still have the ability to help shape my realities.”

    “’The world can be otherwise.’ This is one of the great feminist affirmations that fuel the fires of our activism and our spiritualties. It is about believing in a revolution that begins within oneself and is practiced in community; a turning that does not exempt us from the changes that need to take place, or the community that is required, if a different world is to be made manifest.”

    I am so hoping to find an affirming community in my new “place” where feminist activism can be played out.

    And let me add here that every time I’ve been in contact with you over this past year (your Terrible Transition Year) you’ve been nothing but a beacon of grace.

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    • Thank you, Esther, for your kind words and encouragement. I will be sending my good wishes your way and to finding community! A slower transition is very wise!

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  10. Thank you for commenting on how the dissertation process can be so destructive. And/or how it can become damaging to ourselves. I’ve been castigating myself for not being able to write while I navigate moves, relationships and job loss. Thank you for being transparent.

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    • For sure, Carey, the process can instill a constant sense of inadequacy – which is, first of all, false (or we wouldn’t be in this to begin with), and second, so damaging and counterproductive. My biggest life savers were my women friends, both those in academentia and those in my other feminist circles. Just by being who they are they reminded me of the kind of human I want to be in the world. They also often told me to be gentle with myself – that was always such a good word to hear. So, yes, be gentle with yourself :)

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  11. Dear Xochitl
    It is very good to hear your voice again, a voice of thoughtful care, of careful thought, of compassionate and creative hope. Thank you for your honesty in recounting your reactions – you can see from our comments how valued you are here and how unsurprised (while still delighted) we were at your PhD success.

    I was once advised to think of three people I admire and why I admire them. I was then told that I admired them because the qualities I admired in them were already present in me. Your ‘life saving’ women friends perhaps didn’t just remind you of who you want to be in the world but actually of who you are in the world.

    Take good care of your self in these days and months and years of learning how to be in this new environment and allow your friends to take good care of you too

    Margaret

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  12. How wonderful to read a new post from you! Echoing everyone else, I have missed your thoughtful, intelligent, caring, and insightful voice and I’m glad you’re able to take a few breaths again! I’ve had some “Terrible Transition Years” of many kinds and at many times in my life, and almost always I later came to see them as “Wonderful Rebirth Years” when I got taken apart, but then put back together in a way that made me a better version of who I had been. Sometimes it takes a long time to look back and see that, as hard as the work and the loss were, they were part of a necessary and beneficial process that I wouldn’t sacrifice for anything. Maybe you’ll find same is true for you as you look back on this year. In any case, congratulations on all you have accomplished and your students are so lucky to have you as their teacher, mentor, and guide!

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    • Thank you, Carolyn. I have missed you. I was sad not to get another chance to see you before I moved west. But yes, I agree with you about the possibility of being put back together in a new way – I am indeed hopeful for a wonderful rebirth :) I hope you are well and that life is going wonderfully for you!

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