Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.


He paused.

“Mind,” he began again, lifting one arm from the elbow, the palm of the hand outwards, so that, with his legs folded before him, he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus–flower.

— Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

I stopped by PG’s new desk, with a manila folder and The Lollipop in hand. He took the The Lollipop, had a look at the writing, gave it back to me, and then shook my hand.

I asked him how his conference paper for Allerton was going. He told me the deadline was Friday and asked whether it was usually extended. Sometimes it was, but he seemed to hope this would not be one of those times. From personal experience, I could understand why. When I have been ready to submit a paper and discovered there was an extension, instead of submitting the paper, I would scrutinize it more carefully and end up making additional changes until the new deadline. While that ultimately improved the quality of the paper, it made it more difficult to plan and budget my time, and there were other aspects of my life that I would miss.

Then he noticed the manila folder. I showed him the certificate inside, and he was surprised. “December 19th?” That’s the date when I would be awarded the degree. He had assumed the process would be instantaneous, that everything in graduate school was building up to a final moment in which every piece fell together, and there was order again. The other point, which went unmentioned, was that this was one time in which I did not wait until the deadline– December 19– to submit.*

We proceeded to talk about the loss of structure as school has progressed. From childhood, where there is a consistent school schedule during the week and activities in the weekend, we went to graduate school, where classes slowly disappear to make way for research. The only remaining structure is the conference deadline, which can be delayed.

While there might be benefits to structure, are such artificially constructed rivets necessary? One might argue that the real test of graduate school is to handle day-to-day life without them. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow spends a significant amount of time obsessing over a lack of rivets. He wants them for his steamboat and wonders if Mr. Kurtz, who is cut off from civilization, might need them, as well. However, he eventually stops:

I had given up worrying myself about the rivets. One’s capacity for that kind of folly is more limited than you would suppose. I said Hang!—and let things slide. I had plenty of time for meditation, and now and then I would give some thought to Kurtz. I wasn’t very interested in him. No. Still, I was curious to see whether this man, who had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sort, would climb to the top after all and how he would set about his work when there.

I wonder whether I will have rivets in the next stage of my life but  am happy to know that if necessary, I can manage without them.

I just received an e-mail from PG. It contains the following excerpt:

the deadline for Allerton got postponed to Sunday

* In another sense, I followed the same pattern I usually do. I postponed my start date by two weeks, hoping that I would get two weeks of vacation before I started work. Instead, I spent much of the remaining two weeks tweaking the manuscript. Suffice it to say, I am much happier with the version I submitted.

One response

  1. Pingback: 2009: The Album « Dirty Hands

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