How the Promise Keepers Killed My Masters Thesis

Promise Keepers logoI’m a little tongue in cheek here, emphasis on cheek. Call this a cautionary tale; as it is, it’s taken me 18 years to write it down anywhere, and that is saying something for a dedicated memoirist.

There’s a lot from my early twenties that I regret, or would at least like to see in do-over. On the other hand, my many, many mistakes have brought me to my life at 42, and with a supportive, charming partner, my adorable child, and burgeoning writing career I can’t say making youthful mistakes has doomed me. But long before I learned that being respected was more important than having people like me, I enjoyed a litany of self-made errors.

Let’s take graduate school. The very reason I found applying to postgraduate work appealing was my extreme fear of entering the “real world.” This is frightening as a trope for college seniors, I get that, but in the past year I’d just come out, been gaybashed, accidentally broken my leg in three places and dealt with devastating news in my family, and trying to succeed outside of an academic institution seemed overwhelming. I’d gotten it into my head that I could stick around my now-familiar campus at Syracuse and continue to bloviate about cultural theory for another two years–and after that, I could go on and get my Ph.D. Anxiety attack solved.

Being a teaching assistant was thrilling, especially in the midst of an excited discussion with students, less so when I came face-to-face with their response papers. We were supposed to keep the curriculum contemporary in order to keep students engaged. More than one student rebelled against charged conversations about vivisection, reproductive rights, the electoral college, and the like, but I found my way through such ephemeral controversy. Even if I had to explain myself to the rhetoric and composition program director. Twice. 

When I wasn’t spending 20 hours plus a week teaching or grading, I was swimming in theory texts, which for cultural theorists, is close to everything. On the other hand, theory-heads were supposed to parse through intentionally convoluted writing from the likes of Jaques Derrida, Gayatri Spivak, and Slavoj Zizek. If I learned precociousness in my toddlerhood, I honed arrogance to a fine point at 22. When Judith Butler came to our campus as a visiting instructor, I called her theory of gender impoverished for its lack of any race analysis. Way to go, middle class white kid. If my attitude was worn in public, it masked a carload of  self-doubt.

I was due for a fall. I’d already struggled through big issues in my short existence, but I should have seen–for all of my skills of pithiness–that living at the far edge of critique and self-righteousness was dangerous. When the 1993 March on Washington rolled around, I was on a bus with 51 other Syracuse residents to sing and cheer and walk to the White House. My friend Charlie dragged me to the first Dyke March in DC in an attempt to find me a one-night-stand, but of course we didn’t locate one, which was fine for me. I was certainly not confident of my romantic appeal.

The second year of graduate school was different, mostly because unconfident or not, I’d met a girlfriend. Now I was pulled in two directions, and my ability to throw myself solely into academic work was finished. And that was stressful–since graduate cultural theory papers are not simple creatures–but it was doable. I was upgraded to teaching associate my second year, wrote a couple of semi-interesting essays about nothing that was helpful, and I set up my thesis committee with a professor I’d worked with in two classes.

And then the Promise Keepers came to campus. We, the self-declared feminists on campus, arranged a protest, via the administration which thought it was okay to bring such a group to the university, and through a staged demonstration outside their event. Simple stuff that progressives coordinate all the time (unfortunately). Only somehow this time one of the protesters found herself caught up in I don’t know, the message? The single-minded machismo? The fire and brimstone? of the Promise Keepers. Almost overnight she went from avowed lesbian feminist to Promise Keeper girlfriend.

I am not making this up. And also, she was my thesis adviser.

And then my thesis’s thesis was suspect. Every source cited in my bibliography was deemed unacceptable. None of my conclusions about my central text were viable any longer. I  talked to fellow students and other professors, and tried to think of a way around having to start all over. Nobody else was free to chair another thesis, so I punted: I could find a new adviser the following fall. Sure, that was a great idea. I just needed a “regular” job to bring in money after my stipend ended. Here is where my planning went off the rails, and that next fall evolved into the spring. Now my shame took over, paralyzing me. I tried to forget my original plan to go to Santa Cruz for a doctorate. I focused on friends, earning income, and I bounced around to more than a few therapists to work through my earlier traumas. So of course I didn’t think of my situation as an ongoing crisis. Isn’t this what everyone’s twenties are like, I pondered.

Eventually the 7-year cutoff for graduate degrees rolled around, and I partied like it was 1999. Well, I didn’t do that, but it was 1999. I had just begun to work my way up a tall ladder at a busy office in Bethesda, Maryland. It turned out to be the beginning of my adulthood, or at least it feels that way in retrospect.

Coming back to creative writing has been a reclamation of my earlier interest in literature and criticism. I’m glad I came back around to my first love, even if it sometimes brings up my earlier limitations. Because measured against my hesitation and insecurity from those days, I’m in another galaxy. Thank goodness.

See that, Promise Keepers? I may have let you take my M.A., but I’m not going to let you have my dignity! Or something.

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