Studying for Candidacy Exams During a Pandemic (Or, Why I Love the Show Community): Part 1 of 3

I just finished my third year of my doctoral program at Ohio State. There’s so much to write about, like teaching online during a whole year of quarantining, studying for candidacy exams, and moving into the phase of dissertation writing and the academic job market search. I’ve also been meaning to write about my academic focus on my blog for a long time now. Medical Humanities is a really interesting study, but I’ve always felt like I can’t just “write” about it, as if I’m describing what I had for lunch. I want people to feel what it’s like to study this field. For that, I’ve decided to write about my experience with all of this in a three-part series of blog posts. I hope this series gives my readers a sense of how my program is going, and I’m happy to chat about it if you have any questions. This is Part 1 of 3

After finishing coursework last year, I moved into the candidacy exam phase of my program. I complied a list of over 150 books that reflect my major and minor fields. (Major: Medical Humanities; Minor: Post-1945 American Literature, with an emphasis on graphic narratives) This sounds treacherous to some, but for me, this was one part of my program I was really looking forward to. Ever since I became a full-time student (by “full-time student”, I don’t mean starting my program at OSU; I mean back to when I decided to quit my job to pursue a career in writing, and taking Intro to Literature classes at my community college), I’ve always felt like I was years behind my colleagues when it came to being familiar with the literary canon. It feels like not that long ago, I didn’t know who William Faulkner was, or even what the word “canon” meant. Every summer, I would spend hours on hours at libraries or parks, sitting at a bench, reading the classics and other books that I felt I should be familiar with. I actually really enjoyed it! It felt like I was enriching my knowledge, climbing to the top of the shoulders of giants I’m supposed to be standing on. Now, I get to gain the specialization I’ve always wanted through doing just that. I am now posed to apply my strengths while in my program.

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Drinksgiving 2020

Years ago, when I was working on my undergrad degree, I learned about Drinksgiving. I worked at a local bar on the weekends, a place made up of mostly locals and regulars. I’ve been to plenty of bars, but working at one, and being an aspiring writer, you observe things really quickly and very astutely. Every Wednesday shift before Thanksgiving, I noticed two distinct clienteles that would show up: large groups of friends, made up of thirty-somethings from out of town seeing each other again, and the regulars, staying extra long and being a little more jovial than usual. I didn’t get it at first- why are they here? I’d rather be at home with family or a gathering at someone’s home than this place. But the more I watched, the more I noticed how they were together. They didn’t just like hanging out here; it’s like they were observing something. They stayed really long, drank way too much, yet no one ever got belligerent, and some even brought food from home for their friends, and for us working that night. (they also tip really well, so I’m not complaining) It took a couple of years to realize that this “a thing”: getting together with friends, celebrating with those we care about, becoming a kind of buffer for the next day. It made a lot of sense after working a couple of these shifts, then even more sense when it was my turn to come back home this time of year. The holidays, for some, can be difficult, dealing with unpleasant family history, hoping everything goes well, which in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for disaster, while unpacking how the year has gone, including the highs and lows.  Drinksgiving is a kind of time and space where you don’t the need to perform a kind of happiness, where you can share something free of judgement, where you could be around people you want to be around with instead of those you feel obligated to. I think we could all use a Drinksgiving night. I think after this year, we are all searching for that space.

The first half of the semester has now come to a close, and I reached some important milestones, but working through a pandemic, relegated to working from home (something I’m not a fan of yet accept it necessity), it’s hard to tell if the semester is really over, or if the last nine months was a big blob of time. My days consisted of waking up in the morning and getting dressed, only to show up to a class made up of black squares with names of students I rarely saw face to face. I’m currently in the “reading for candidacy exams” stage of my academic program. A year ago, (and I know I’m gonna get slack for this) I would have been really excited to spend hours in the library, reading books from a list I curated. I envisioned myself surrounded by pillars of books, devouring them, one after another like a hungry wolf. I love reading, and I love my studies, so to spend hours solely reading works well for me. Instead, I’m confined to my apartment, where I’ve always struggled to get any work done. I’m not a homebody. I am much more comfortable studying at a library, calling it day after, and walking home, leaving my work behind me. I can’t do that here. I wake up, and I see my work station, about three feet away. It’s not a pleasant feeling. It’s hard, and as versatile as my work experience is, I feel like I’m never going to get used to it. Some days after working in front of my computer for several hours, I feel like I need to wash the blue light off of my face, or find some errand to run just to get away from my desk. On top of all of this, I really missed seeing my friends, colleagues, and mentors, some I haven’t seen in months, and a few quitting their program. I try to find some highlight of the semester to focus on when I blog, but this one has been extra challenging. That’s where Drinksgiving kicks in.

Due to spikes of COVID-19 infections in both Ohio and California, I stayed at my place instead of going back home and seeing family. It’s a bit difficult knowing that I have to wait another God-knows-how-many more months not being back home, having to hear about my friend’s and family’s life events through a medium like social media. Asking people to get together is borderline-problematic, as we’re all trying to social distance. As Thanksgiving came closer, I remembered about Drinksgiving, and it was a perfect compromise. I set up multiple Zoom meetings with friends and family, seeing and catching up with them, sharing stories and really dumb jokes, all while drinking profusely. (that was mainly me, but that’s beside the point) My favorite part was keeping up with friends while trying to figure out time zones. (I stayed up until three in the morning once!) Sure, we would all love to see each other instead of using video conferencing, but like navigating a pandemic, we are making the most with what we have. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything remarkable to say about this semester, or sage advice that is a product of working through what was probably the most difficult semester of my program. But it’s okay, because like the spirit of Drinksgiving, the point isn’t to wallow about the coming day, but to be around those you’ve waited months to see, in an effort to give yourself emotional space before the coming day. The semester came to an end, and I got to see friends and family. I have little to complain about.

Today, the first day of the new year, I’m doing the thing I’ve been working towards for years: writing what I want to write. I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow (I heard it’s going to snow again), but I think it’s going to be a good day. Below is a slideshow of screenshots during my Drinksgiving gatherings. We all laughed, shared, reflected, grieved, rambled, and drank. Also, some of there were taken after the semester was over and during the holiday season. (one was taken on my birthday- Happy Birthday to me!!!) Pandemic or not, I’m glad we found some time to stay festive, and to celebrate a holiday that is now very close to my heart, Drinksgiving.

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Happy Holidays to all who read this, and even those who don’t. I hope 2021 brings you nothing but happiness, joy, love, and a renewed perspective for things to come 🙂

First Day of My Second Academic Year, 8/21/19

It’s morning, mirrors fogged up, as I stand in front of my bathroom counter, shaving, with small traces of spice in the air. It’s my second year at Ohio State University, and today is the first day I teach Freshman Composition, a class I’ve taught dozens of times, only with different course objectives, and in a different state. I’m moving my face around to get a good shave, while muttering the things I wish to tell my students. I go back and forth about the information I wish to share with them. Do I talk about my background? That I’m a grad student? Maybe I need an opening joke to put the class at ease? I’m on the edge of a doubt spiral, until my cat jumps on the counter, giving me a look of affection. I pat him on the head, then, in Piece Brosnan’s voice, he says, “You’re going to be fine”. Then it hits me- I don’t have a cat. I look to him, then spot a red lever mounted on my bathroom wall that I’ve only noticed until this moment. It says “PULL” in large red letters. I pull the le-

7:08- I’m awake, exactly seven minutes before my alarm goes off. Do I try to salvage these seven minutes, and try to get a bit more sleep, or get an early jump on my day? Hmm….umm……Oh, I have to shave! I jump out of bed, and start getting ready.

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What Seeking Infinite Jest Means Part II: Completing My First Year of My PhD Program

Thompson Library

(to read What Seeking Infinite Jest Means Part I, click here)

A young man walks out of the Thompson Library at OSU, with a smile on his face, borderline smug, after completing his first year of his PhD program. He’s texting his friends and making plans for the break with an air of confidence that is only granted to those who have marked off accomplishments years in the making. The world is at his fingertips, walking as if he has been granted access to a kind of knowledge reserved only for the most privileged. Perched from a rooftop about a hundred yards away, invisible to everyone else, I can see this young man and his gait. I watch from the shadows, silently observing, attempting to predict his next step. I look at his jovial walk, with something between envy and resentment, and let out a whisper: “What’s going to happen to you?”

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Spring Break Catch-up and Program Update

Generational Synthetic by Beach Fossils
(click play to listen- no quarters required)

Today is Tuesday, March 12th, the Tuesday of Spring Break at OSU, and I’m doing the thing that I enjoy the most: writing. It’s strange to start a blog post dedicated to what life is like in a PhD program about how much I love writing when that’s all I do- I write papers, I read books for research for future papers, I’m always thinking about the next writing project, and it’s almost impossible to read a book, and not think to myself, “I can write about this”. It’s important for me, to write, in this silly blog, because I love it. I’m trying to dive into writing like a young aspiring poet attending his first open-mic night. I’m sharing this rather intimate insight because, well……..I’m really damn busy. This is partially why I haven’t written a new blog post in so long. I have several drafts that were supposed to turn into really nice stories and observations about PhD life, but they’ve all been brushed aside.  But I don’t wish to speak ill of my program- that’s not what this blog post is about. Rather, I was hoping to share a bit about how my program is going. And it’s definitely going. Continue reading

Guess what…..?

I GOT IN!!!!! I am writing this post after receiving my letter of admission, meeting the faculty and campus, and attending the Open House for incoming Grad Students in the Fall. Ladies and Gentleman….

I will be attending Ohio State University in the Fall as a PhD Candidate.

(Go Buckeyes!!!)

My New Campus

I cannot begin to express how all of this feels. A goal I have worked for ten years in the making is now coming into fruition. Every doubt that ever crept into my thoughts, every day that I told myself it was futile , every voice that told me to stick to what comes easy to me- all of these naysay moments have now been silenced. About five years ago, while I was working on my undergraduate degree, I was working at a local bar, and someone vomited near the back entrance. It took about half an hour to clean up. That night, on the way home, I asked myself, Is this career path worth it?

Yes, young Rolando Rubalcava- I can definitively say that it is.

I’ve been waiting so long to wear a badge like this.

Last weekend, I met the OSU English Department faculty and a few other incoming graduate students. (I guess they’re part of my cohort?) They were so supportive, and made the experience really special. My Department Chair and Graduate Advisor were very affable people, making me feel acclimated. It was a flurry of new experiences, and I took it all in, every moment, every face, every gesture that made me feel welcomed. I’m constantly asking myself if this is actually happening. A part of me genuinely doesn’t believe this is happening. During one of the days of the Open House, snow began to fall- I reached out my hand and real snow fell on my palm. It landed in my hand, melted, passing its coldness unto me, and for the first time, I felt snow fall on my skin. Yes- this is happening.

Life, up in the air, at approximately 30,000 ft.

In a few weeks, I will select the courses I will take and make the move. I guess that means I have to find a place to live. Wait- do I move all of my things? What about my job? Will I just quit and that be that? How will I get around? Where do my buy my groceries? Will I be ready to live in Columbus, Ohio by the time I move? Do I keep this blog going? I guess what I’m asking is…..

now what?

Midnight Postscript  

Hello readers! I’m writing this micro-post at about Midnight on a Monday in December. Santa Ana winds are stampeding through my neighborhood, and the cold snap of December is kicking in. I’m currently at a bar, finishing up my first drink, in the thick application submission. I submitted my first application this morning, wondering all day if there was anything I missed. I ask myself, Is this one going to be it? I don’t have an answer. My intuition sees it as misplaced will. It’s done, and there’s no going back. I also took the GRE exam today. Once the gatekeeper of my fate, I now see it for what it is- a formality. It’s just one part of this process, and whether I’m good at it or not, I have to do it. I did my best, and I owe this exam nothing. What matters is that it’s not deterring me from applying. Not again. Now, we wait.

I spent the last few weeks working on my application essays. How do you fit your entire academic history in two pages? This has always eluded me, until this year, when I decided to do what I’m good at- pouring my heart into every word, down to the last character. I printed it out it out, and it felt like it weighed ten thousand pounds. Like a marble statue, I have most of it done- now, I’m working on those last final detailed touches that will make it perfect.

Negroni by candlelight

The majority of my applications will be submitted in the next two weeks. This means I will do nothing but work on making them as immaculate as possible. A part of me already sees me celebrating. Another part of me wants to crawl into a hole, hoping to escape the outcome. Doubt lingers, bleeding through the words of support from loved ones. I want to do well, but at this point, it’s no longer up to me. I’m eating, sleeping, and dreaming application season, putting my future in the hands of graduate departments.

I’m in a Lyft, on my way home, and the song playing has a chorus that most appropriately speaks to the next couple of weeks:

I can not give you everything, you know I wish I could
I’m so high at the moment
I’m so caught up in this
Yeah, we’re just young, dumb and broke
But we still got love to give

While we’re young dumb
Young, young dumb and broke
Young dumb
Young, young dumb and broke

Plane Ride Home

This is me….on my way home…..flying back from Chicago.

Oxford-esque architecture at UChicago

Over the last three days, I attended the Discover UChicago program, meeting with faculty, advisors, and heads of the department in my field of academic interest. This is a program dedicated to giving underrepresented groups a chance to visit UChicago (one of my top picks) and meet the faculty and department of my my scholarly interests. As I sit in this plane, 30,000 feet in the air, I think about everything I learned, what we talked about, helpful feedback about applying to PhD programs, my research, and my position as a scholar. I’m completely vulnerable, taking the GRE soon, juggling these tasks while working as an Adjunct Instructor, as if the forces of nature are conspiring against me pursuing this. Only now, I’m armed with intellectual armory, filled with knowledge and skills this program helped hone. The people of UChicago were beautiful, giving me insight and feedback, including how to focus on my progress and research, while de-stigmatizing what PhD life is like. At one point in my preparation for applying, I felt intellectually useless, completely unqualified for the goals I have set for myself; now, on this plane, I feel like the goals I have set for myself, years in the making, are finally within reach. I want to hug my mentors, thanking them for getting me here, and I want to jump up and down, in this aluminum vestibule, never having a chance to feel this before. This trip finally made me feel something new.

I just made myself a Gin and tonic, thanks to The Carry-on Cocktail kit. (click here for more info)  I’m not drinking this as a congratulatory toast to myself, but as a final request before heading home. My work is far from over- I have the GRE exam, drafting my essays, and preparing for the worst, in the next few weeks as I work on my applications. Yet, I also have the energy to work in me- the kind that can power a city. I want to write, to do good, to move the stars and the planets that create shifts and waves in our temporal existence. I now feel like I’m in a position to do so.

I’m on my way home, 968 miles to go. But this is not a homecoming- this is my commencement. I’m going to write, and I have the tools to do this well. I’m in a vehicle that will get me there, finally feeling like good things are ahead.

The Academic Conference (Or, How I Learned to Love Myself, and, Consequently, Others)

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready
To drop bombs, but he keeps on forgettin’
What he wrote down, the whole crowd goes so loud
He opens his mouth, but the words won’t come out
He’s chokin’, how, everybody’s jokin’ now
The clocks run out, times up, over, blaow!

-from Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”

This excerpt is potentially the best representation of what it’s like when presenting your research at an academic conference. For grad students, scholars, and other professionals at varying levels, conferences are the best (or worst) places to go and discuss your research emphasis and getting feedback from like minded people in your field. Earlier this month, I attended the Graphic Medicine Conference, taking place at the Seattle Public Library, (for more info, click here) the same city where I completed a brief internship a few years ago. It was both a homecoming and a discovery as I continue to pursue my research interests.

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Negroni

That is what I want to do. I want to write the words that will guide the waters away from fear, towards goodwill, hope, and what’s right.

That was the final thought I had in my last blog post while sitting on a park bench. Today, I’m sitting at a desk, grading stacks of essays.  At that time, I was teaching a composition class during the winter quarter (sometime during the months of January and February). Teaching this class….was brutal. Three-hour class sessions, meeting

Negroni Cocktail

Negroni
I oz. Gin
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. Sweet Vermouth
Pour all ingredients into mixing glass with ice; stir; pour into chilled glass (over ice or straight up); zest orange peel into drink, then add as garnish

four days a week. Every evening consisted of me and a small mountain of work. Technically, I’m writing, and, technically, this is the job I’ve always wanted, teaching students about writing and exposing them to great authors. Yet, it doesn’t take much to remind me that this is a job, which means you wake up, go to work, go home once you’re done, then do it all over again the next day. I don’t know if Faulkner or Melville ever found themselves in  this position. What I do know is that one thing we three have in common is that we knew we had opinions and wanted to write about them. (well, they did- I just write in a silly blog) Near the end of that semester, I heard about Paul Auster, one of my favorite authors (as mentioned in one of my first blog posts) doing a public speaking event in San Francisco. On the train ride home, carrying another pile of essays to grade, I thought, You know….maybe this is just what I need. Maybe letting my thoughts ruminate away from all of this for a bit can help me put this semester into perspective, putting away this existential dread. Shortly after, I bought a plane ticket, an AirBnB (my last AirBnB, if I may be glib for a second), and took off. Once I was on the plane, I thought to myself, Teaching this course made me really value time and learning how to pack as much in a day as possible. This is a post on my three days in San Francisco.

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