Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Joe H. Reynolds Medical Building

(This is Stop #13 in the Texas A&M Building Writing Tour, my attempt to motivate myself on my dissertation by writing in every campus building before I graduate.)

I am so glad for my little write-every-building project. Without it, I’m sure I would have never set foot in the Joe Reynolds Medical Building, and I would have missed out on a special place. Its first surprise was on the plaque right inside the door…wow, I didn’t even know Texas A&M had a College of Medicine! Then another mystery: the name and picture of the new dean of libraries is near the door. Why would his office be in a medical building instead of a library?

(Actually, I’m still not sure whether we have a medical school. My lit review wizard mentioned it had moved off-campus somewhere. Then one of our Grad Camp speakers said the medical school had gone away during the mid-1990’s, but might be back soon. I am perfectly capable of looking it up, but somehow that feels like cheating. Plus, my complete ignorance about the buildings makes the tour more fun.)

What struck me most about the Medical Building was how LOUD it was. When I walked in, thirty people or so were gathered in the lounge talking. They left at the same time, and it momentarily fell quiet, like a normal building. Not for long. After writing here for a while, I noticed this building was different from the others I’d visited. Other buildings are full of individuals, with no connection to each other. These students actually know each other! 

They wandered through the lounge in clumps of two or three, always talking. Sometimes they talked about class, sometimes about medical topics (animal or human, I couldn’t tell). Sometimes they talked about innocuous things, like dinner plans or racquetball. A couple students were setting off to visit the new tunnel. For a brief moment, I enjoyed that feeling of superiority, which comes from knowing information other people don’t. (Completely ridiculous, but real…the human ego is untamable.) Yes, I had already discovered the tunnel. It runs under University Drive and connects the Vet Center with the Medical Sciences Library. I wonder…did those tunnel-touring students write in the tunnel, or just walk through? 

Medical school or no, these are clearly medical people. They wore scrubs, mostly maroon. They carried either nothing at all, or giant books—nothing in between. No purses. I saw “Atlas of Anatomy” on a bathroom shelf and was thankful to be an education major. Though really, when I think about it, writing a dissertation intimidates me far more than learning that atlas….if I could, I might just trade! 

While I was writing, two young men stopped by and played the piano for a while. I wish all my writing sessions had live music. Wow, what a treat!  

I was in a rush, and forgot to ask the piano players' names. I did ask, and receive, their permission to post the photograph on my silly building-writing blog. Thanks for the music, guys, you made my day!!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Harrington Education Tower

(This is Stop #12 in the Texas A&M Building Writing Tour, my attempt to motivate myself on my dissertation by writing in every campus building before I graduate.) 

I am a graduate student in education, and so Harrington Education Tower has hosted most of my classes, along with a few panic-provoking events. Somewhere in Harrington is the bare closet in which I took my prelim exam in statistics—it’s entirely possible that my tear-smears are still on the desk. Fortunately, every memory of misery is accompanied by a better remembrance—a memory of mercy. If my advisor and my committee professors really believed I couldn’t make it, they’ve had plenty of chances to tell me so. And they haven’t.  (I try to hold onto this fact during my all-too-frequent bouts of discouragement.)

My most recent visit to Harrington Education Tower was for a friend’s dissertation defense. Thanks in large part to our POWER writing group, it was a full house. Though I was happy to support my friend, I must confess that my primary motives were selfish. First, I hoped to piggyback onto her motivation—seeing someone else finish her degree might inspire me to finish my own. Plus, if there is some chance, however slim, that I will need to defend a dissertation in a year or so, it seems a good idea to have seen one. 

The presentation was surprisingly short and low-key. We visitors were kicked out for a few minutes at the beginning, and again at the end, so the committee could conduct secret discussions. During our last wait in the hallway, the committee chair left, dropping us a mysterious smile and a “be right back”. Then, from down the hall, “ding-ding-ding-ding”. The professor returned, swinging a brass bell. As he walked, people emerged from their offices and began to clap. Apparently, this bell signals a successful dissertation defense. (I don’t know if the bell-ringing tradition is universal among doctoral programs, if it is unique to Texas A&M, or if it is a quirk of this particular department.)

After a quick hug for my new doctor friend, I went downstairs to write in the lobby. Harrington’s first floor has two study/reading alcoves across from the elevators. The leftmost one fit my taste, with a casual yet elegant leather couch. Unfortunately, it wasn’t nearly as comfortable as it looked. So I moved to the other alcove, and tried the frilly high-backed Queen Anne chair. Not pretty, but perfect for writing. If my neck hurts, I can’t concentrate on writing. And I’d better write…..I want that bell to ring for me!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Cain Hall

(This is Stop #11 in the Texas A&M Building Writing Tour, my attempt to motivate myself on my dissertation by writing in every campus building before I graduate.) 

This past weekend, I wrote in Cain Hall. This is Wofford Cain Hall, not to be confused with the James J. Cain Mechanical Engineering building, on the other side of campus.

(I did write in the James Cain Engineering building back in April, shortly after drafting my write-every-building goal, but before I decided to document each building-writing session in my blog. So, I will have to revisit the Cain Engineering building, and prove my presence there with a photo and blog post.)

My reason for spending Sunday afternoon in Wofford Cain Hall is that I am a Grad Camp counselor, and Cain Hall was the site of a scheduled counselor training session. Yes, at the age of 43, I volunteered to become a camp counselor. As a teenager, I never dreamed of such a thing…why would I do it now?  I am already struggling to find sufficient time to work on my dissertation. I start data collection in two weeks, and I am way behind in job-related duties. I have recently undergone at least two dissertation-related meltdowns. It seems the height of folly to give Grad Camp two precious days of my summer vacation, plus two half-days for training. 

However, I have made an important discovery on my meandering dissertation journey: time spent connecting with campus, and other graduate students, is a good investment. For me, every round trip to campus means three or four hours on the road (depending on whether I leave from home, or from my community college job in Houston). Those hours more than pay off in increased motivation. (The correlation between driving hours and dissertation productivity probably only holds for a certain interval—if I drove to Texas A&M ten times each week, I wouldn’t get much research done.)

Actually, I am the perfect grad camp counselor. All the other counselors are super-motivated, super-productive people. They will whiz through their coursework, ace their prelims, and finish their dissertations right on schedule. But presumably, some of the new graduate student campers will be normal people, with no supernatural powers. They need a counselor they can relate to. For at least six of my eight years in the doctoral program, I have been the perfect model of how not to do grad school. My hope is that by seeing me, the grad campers will be motivated to avoid my mistakes.

My biggest mistake (besides merely hiding from my dissertation) was failing to see the importance of writing. During my "interview" for the counselor position, I mentioned that many graduate students struggle with writing, and that I'd like to tell the campers about the university’s writing resources. My interviewer, the camp assistant director and a mechanical engineering robot-making genius, looked at me as if I was crazy--he said he'd never had any trouble writing, and didn't realize it was such an issue. Perhaps he's right...I don't actually know for a fact that most graduate students struggle with writing--my writing professor has told me so, but maybe she's just trying to make me feel less alone.

Anyway, wisely or unwisely, I am committed to be a camp counselor. The camp is next week. If I survive, and if I’m not fired for lacking party game enthusiasm, I’ll post a Grad Camp report. 

You can't tell from the picture, but my cozy writing nook is in a sunken pit around
 the non-functional's nice!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Medical Sciences Library

(This is Stop #10 in the Texas A&M Building Writing Tour, my attempt to motivate myself on my dissertation by writing in every campus building before I graduate.) 

Today I had an appointment for help with my systematic literature review (part of the contract with my Blocker Building accountability partner). I had received specific instructions: “corner of University and Agronomy…shared parking lot with West Campus Library…lots of renovations…cannot enter the library through the normal doors…go through a courtyard….follow signs to GPS zone where the library is moved for now….ask staff where my office is.”

I’m glad I left at 11:30 for my 2:00 appointment….I had allowed a 30-minute cushion, and I needed every bit of it. On the map (printed by my kind husband), I was happy to see a blue parking lot nearby. (During the summer months only, I can park for free in the blue parking lots, using my $275 Lot 50 permit.) While walking to what I thought was my building, a student asked directions to the General Services Building. Can’t he tell I’m just a tourist on campus? However, I had once visited the General Services Complex, so I did my best. Even if I got it right, he had a long hot walk ahead of him. 

At the corner of Agronomy and University was the building marked on my map. “Entomology Lab”.  I searched my memory… entomology = study of bugs, etymology = study of words. This couldn’t possibly be the library. Of course, she had said it was not in its usual location, so maybe….I went in. Narrow hall, labs, bug diagrams—no books, no people. This couldn’t be right. In spite of my cushion, time was tight—if I wandered too long, I would be late; the librarian would conclude I was unworthy of her assistance, and I would never graduate. The nearby buildings seemed small and sparsely populated—not good library candidates. 

Across Agronomy was a large building with a big parking lot—surely someone there could help me find the Medical Sciences library. In it, the signs told me I was on the right track: virology, pathology. Not very library-like, but definitely medical.  I inquired, and was told that the Medical Sciences Library was across the street. I was puzzled—I had come from across the street, and there was only a bug lab. My guide clarified—no, University was the street I needed to cross. And, I didn’t actually have to cross it—I could use the tunnel. Sure enough, there is a pedestrian tunnel under busy University Drive, and, after just one more inquiry from another friendly person, I found it. 

The tunnel is just a long hallway, as you might find in any building—you would never guess a four-lane traffic jam was taking place a few feet above the ceiling. On the walls were “High Water Alarms”, complete with phone number. Do cell phones work underwater? 

I reached the end of the tunnel. No library. My spirits sank. I had long ago relinquished my pride and was perfectly willing to ask directions, but the tunnel-end office had no people. I turned my back on it, and hooray!! Two signs: “take elevator to Medical Sciences Library” and “tunnel to vet center”. Apparently I had come from a veterinary building—that explains the beautiful old animal portraits I had admired.

Sure enough, after riding the elevator to the first floor, I saw signs for the GPS Zone and Medical Sciences Library. Yay, I made it, with five minutes to spare! Friendly people led me to the office of the systematic review magician. (And, yes, I did ask what GPS Zone meant: Graduate Professional Services). 

I am not sure what to call my new friend. “Librarian” falls far short. “Systematic literature review expert” is accurate but rather wordy. Whatever her title, she lived up to her reputation. She is a marvel.  I have homework, and will meet with her again next week. My main questions as I left her office: When my chair said my lit review seemed just fine, why didn’t I believe him? Why on earth did I ever suggest an article format dissertation and a systematic review? Is it too late to turn back? 

I never did see the courtyard, the shared parking lot, or the outside of the building. Next week, will I play it safe, taking the now-familiar route through the vet building and tunnel? Or should I seek a surface route, and accept the risk of getting lost? 

Today I wrote in the tunnel, because I liked it. I brushed the construction dust off my bench, and enjoyed the saw/hammer noises and the nice breeze from the plastic-covered stairwell. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I really like the smell of fresh sawdust. It’s hard to describe, but there’s nothing quite like it. It made me want to breathe deep, and suck that smell right down into my lungs. Surely my surgically repaired sinuses can handle it!