This is your brain…this is your brain on PhD

If you’re anywhere near my age (38), you’ll remember a TV spot from 1987 by Partnership for a Drug-Free America in which an avuncular, meat-and-potatoes type of guy in a kitchen straight-talks the camera:

Is there anyone out there who still isn’t clear about what doing drugs does? Okay, last time.

This is your brain. [holds up an egg]

This is drugs. [camera pans to frying pan on stove]

This is your brain on drugs.

[breaks egg into frying pan, where it immediately begins to sizzle]

Any questions?

I guess it made an impression because I still remember it 27 years later. I’m not saying I’m on drugs, of course; I’m just feeling that end-of-the-week-and-I’ve-been-staring-at-a-computer-screen-or-photocopy-of-an-article-nonstop sag under my eyes. It’s amazing how much energy and excitement you can build in your work as a PhD student, and yet how much you feel like a brittle little empty shell sometimes at the end of a stretch of awesome. I met up with a smart senior-to-me student and friend for lunch, and we were joined by a friend of hers. Terrific conversation — we talked about “discourse” and “eco-social views of education” and all this big-worded stuff (see #3 on this list of “25 Deeply Painful Ph.D. Student Problems (Besides Your Thesis)“) — and it was a major high. In the nerdy sense of the word.

I went to the library and plugged into a paper I’m working on involving more pedantically-phrased stuff, then applied for a teaching job in NYC (please please please), grinding out a stellar cover letter to sound smart, yet focused on social justice, yet grammatically correct, yet prioritizing democratic practices in the classroom over rigid dogma. Then off to class when we said more big, important-sounding things about paradigms and epistemological agendas and what-not. One more class in which we covered the gamut of topics relating to a progressive view of education and teacher unions — I believe the word “vis-a-vis” was used on several occasions — and we finally disbanded for the night.


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The high is over, I’m on the couch, and I just made soup. I’m about to watch “Queen Margot,” which from what I gather is about sexy French Catholics in the time of the Medicis who kill Protestants and vice-versa, but I’m not sure. I’m barely following the story, and that’s just fine with me. The PhD high is over for the day. I get to be a brainless fool for the rest of the night. Let’s hope it grows back by morning.

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