Friday, September 30, 2011

The Final Countdown

In June the rains fell, which was very helpful, as it kept me indoors and at my computer instead of outside rationalising a picnic as a 'study break'.  I split my time between the Radcliffe Camera and the English Faculty Library, where I often saw and sat with my classmates, who all seemed to take on that haggard, careworn look that is so characteristic of English students nearing deadlines.  In the last week before my due date I took to spending my evenings in the MCR, where there were other people to keep me awake much later than I otherwise might have done.  My study buddies there included my teammate Jenny, who was studying for her exams, and classmate Emma, who was working on her own dissertation, as was Natalie, though hers was in a different subject.  We commiserated, compared word counts, debated the merits of footnoting versus endnoting versus parenthetical citation, and we generally urged each other on with words, cups of tea, and plenty of chocolate.  I did a lot of baking around this time, as it gave me something to do that had a clear procedure and immediate results, as well as being a delicious way to procrastinate, so they all benefitted from that habit as well.

This is also about the time that I applied and interviewed for my current job.  Even though I had no marketing background, and really had never considered marketing as a career path, I applied because I wanted to stay in Oxford for a while longer.  Nine months may be long enough to earn a master's degree in English (if you work really hard!), but it is not long enough to really get to know a place: to know its rhythms and movements and the way it feels to truly live there.  I wasn't ready to leave, and though I had been repeatedly told by the schools to which I had applied for teaching jobs that I would not be able to secure employment without a valid work visa, I kept looking, and when this opportunity came up, I snatched at it.  Despite all of this, it came as a surprise to me when I was offered the job, and even more so when I was told that I would need to start the day after my dissertation was handed in, so that the current postholder would have a chance to train me.  This of course threw me completely; I had by that point resigned myself to going back to the States on the 10th of July, and was even anticipating enjoying a long, lazy summer and the relaxation of living at my parents' house again.  I had intended to revel in unemployment for a month or so, and then take care of some business that had been more or less back-burnered when I was accepted to Oxford University.

On top of these considerations, I was afraid I might be ill-equipped to take on a marketing role.  I have never been much in tune with what other people find interesting or moving, and I hardly ever know what is going on in the world beyond my front doorstep.  Still, the job description asked for an English major, and I was told the role would involve writing newsletters and organising conferences and seminars, tasks I felt reasonably capable of performing.  It also promised interaction with lots of different types of people, and was a complete departure from the type of work I had been immersed in for the past year.  The salary wasn't great, and with my expenses it would be difficult to put anything away: accommodation at about £400/month, plus the £30/week bus fare to and from Chipping Norton every day, plus food, not to mention the cost of the visa to stay here, and then there would be my loan repayments.  I was completely immersed in the final week of my dissertation work, and the Oriel regatta was taking place that weekend, so I had no real time to spare for thought about it, so I did what any normal person would do: I asked everyone I could think of for their opinion.

My family, my friends, my teammates, my classmates, and sometimes even perfect strangers all weighed in on my situation.  Family tended to be hesitant, yet supportive.  Teammates and classmates were all for it, as it would mean I could stay around another year or more.  Strangely enough, it was the perspective of a person who knew me the least that helped me the most.  Xavier, while hardly a perfect stranger (as former MCR president, I had seem him at numerous events throughout the year), had never spent much time conversing with me, and we did not often interact even with the same people.  But he happened to be present in the MCR when I was complaining to the Welfare Officers, Hollie and Josh, about my decision one afternoon before dinner, and his matter-of-fact take on things made a lot of sense to me.  He said that a year in this job would be like doing another 1-year Master's degree; I would be learning new skills and working really hard and meeting new people, and instead of paying £18,000 in tuition I would be making money (really, the two years would almost cancel each other out, money-wise).  Plus, I would get to stay in and around Oxford, become an associate member of the MCR, participate in some of the fun events (including Lincoln's ball, the theme for which is Phantom of the Opera!), and maybe even continue to row a bit.  That same night at dinner, teammate Ben reminded me that the job market was pretty rough at the moment, both here and in the U.S., so having a job offer at all was a Good Thing.  And Flo and Rhea talked about how great it would be to have me around, as I am pretty well-loved by the rowing team.  All of these influences eventually coalesced into my decision to accept the job.

I can erg and dissertate at the same time!
Two days before my dissertation was due I rowed in the Oriel regatta, accepted the job offer, and decided I would no longer sleep until I had finished the paper.  I spent long hours in the MCR, where a steady supply of tea and coffee and the energy of other people kept me going, not to mention the second bag of Peanut Butter M&Ms, which my parents had brought during their visit and which I had been saving for an emergency like this.  I finally began to see the proper shape and direction of my thesis.  Then I reformatted all of my footnotes and began to address the many notes-to-self I had written in square brackets.

One day before my dissertation was due (Trinity Sunday), I acknowledged that there were bits of my paper of which I could be proud, and tried to trick my mother into reading through it for me.  I remembered that it was Father's Day, and sent my Daddy a goodie-basket of snacks to enjoy.  At 6 a.m., in a moment of frustration at Cicero for saying in De Amicitia a lot of what I was saying about Donne in my paper (and possibly spurred on by some sugar-overload-induced real-food cravings), I made a creamy tuna-mushroom-onion-green-bean casserole, during which I realised that French cut green beans from a can smell just like an elementary school lunch room.  I also began to play "The Final Countdown" whenever I felt my determination flagging: initially every few hours, then every hour, and as the night wore on, twice per hour.  My wonderful mother read the entire 12,000-word draft and assured me it wasn't a long, incoherent ramble but actually a cogent and understandable argument that she could follow despite her complete unfamiliarity with Donne.  Maternal bias aside, I found this highly comforting.  

On the day my thesis was due I gave it all a final read-through, made a few last-minute adjustments, and put it on a memory stick to print it out.  It was 10 a.m.; the thesis was due at noon.  Plenty of time, right? Yeah.  After discovering that the Bear Lane computer lab was out of ink (I expected this) as well as paper, I went up to the Lincoln House computer room and tried to print from there.  For some reason, the  printer did not recognise my computer.  So I switched to another computer.  It still wouldn't print.  Someone in the room suggested I send it to the Library printer, which is actually a photocopier in the basement of Lincoln Library.  I tried this, then ran over to the library to check, and found the copier off.  I turned it on.  Nothing happened.  I ran back to the lab, and tried one more time from a third computer, using someone else's account.  No dice.

This hero stays calm in all paper-panic storms
Feeling panicky, I ran up to the IT guys' room and presented myself, panting and sweaty and wild-eyed, to Mike White.  Mike had seen me this way before; indeed, the technology at Lincoln College has a habit of failing utterly when I am trying to print something at the last minute.  But this time I had the extra tear-inducing injustice of having planned one hundred and nineteen spare minutes in addition to that last one, and still having been thwarted by machines.  Mike, as always, was calm, pleasant, and expertly efficient.  He was able to print two copies of the paper for me (at a printer downstairs, so he left me to cool off a bit in the room whilst he ran to get it), and even helped me collate them and find a stapler big and strong enough to bind them.  The lovely ladies in the business office (to whom he had directed me for said stapler) also provided me with an envelope and some pleasant encouragement, as I finally made my way down to the Examination Schools at about twenty minutes till twelve. 

I was greeted by a crowd of peers who had just submitted their own work and were proudly brandishing their submission slips (a sort of receipt they give you so you can prove you handed it in if they lose it).  Everyone looked a bit tired and disheveled, but relieved.  The plan was to head over to University Parks a bit later that afternoon to celebrate with some Pimm's, courtesy of the English Graduate Organisation (EGO), but I needed a shower first, as all forms of self-grooming had gone out the window about the same time as sleeping and maintaining proper nutrition had done.  After a warm, partly-cloudy afternoon spent lolling in the grass, I went home for a much-needed nap just as the rain began to fall again.  When I woke, it was just to work out the travel route to my new job in Chipping Norton, which began the very next day. 

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