Upon suffering a concussion, I found myself in the hospital and attempted to convince the nurse that I was perfectly alright by holding up the copy of Pride and Prejudice that was in my bag and reciting dramatically, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Apparently, recitation of dear Jane is not evidence of a functioning brain (I had a grade two concussion after all). But the point is that even during a moderately traumatic event, literature was one of the first things to pop into my addled head.
We are in this profession because we love it. Even when juggling teaching, research, and service to the college; even upon receiving a disheartening reader’s report; even when the structure of your paper is in shambles and you’ve lost sight of the argument…. at the end of the day, we love literature.
That love is one of the greatest benefits of pursuing an advanced degree in English, but by the same token, it’s also one of the greatest hindrances to the well being of grad students. We are so eager to be here and to prove ourselves worthy. Our brains are bubbling over with ideas and anxieties, which keep us thinking and working around the clock. Not only do our own insecurities push us on, but distressing job market statistics create pressure to go above and beyond in cultivating a CV.
I’m not against working hard or striving for excellence, nor do I think we should turn down the natural love that keeps us thinking about a beloved book at two in the morning. But, I do want to make a case for loving something else too. And, gasp, sacrificing some scholarly time to cultivate extracurricular skills and relationships.
I joined the Los Angeles Triathlon Club in my first year of graduate school. Originally, I trained for a triathlon to help me cope with the stress of school. But somewhere along the way I fell in love with the sport for its own sake. Most surprising of all, I realized I was good at it! I wasn’t just a walking brain anymore, but had a body that could do something impressive too. That felt really good. So when things weren’t going well at school (you know, feeling inferior to the other geniuses in my cohort or receiving harsh criticism on a draft I thought was pretty good) I took pride in my achievements in swimming, biking, and running. On the other hand, if an injury prevented me from training or I didn’t perform as well as I’d hoped in a race, then I could always pat myself on the back and say, “Hey, that’s ok! Go re-read Frankenstein.”
Also, having friends outside of academia is indispensable. Don’t get me wrong, I adore my cohort and fellow graduate students and deeply value their support and intellectual vivacity. But, it’s also really nice to talk with people who might confuse Lord Byron for a Game of Thrones character and always use words of which you’re 100% certain of the definition. There’s a different dynamic that occurs when you interact with someone just as a friend and not a friend/colleague, which is what your relationships are at the university. It is so relaxing and so pleasurable to just have fun and not worry about being smart.
Without question, I can say that triathlon has made me physically and mentally healthier and a more successful graduate student. It’s given me confidence and joy that provides a necessary grounding when school is difficult. Perhaps I’m a Romantic Romanticist, but I really do think that mental health and professional success are founded on love. At the start of a new academic year, it’s worth reconnecting with what you love about literature and to develop other loves in your personal life with activities, friends, and family. Cherish your personal time, just like your favorite novel.