How to Get Work Done in the Summer Without Hating Yourself (Maybe)

phd comics summer

This summer, I’m trying something new: work-life balance. It’s not easy at all, especially given my tendency to be far too ambitious about how much I’ll accomplish in the summer. I usually write myself a to-do list a mile long in May, and then beat myself up in August only over accomplishing half of it. I know I’m not the only one with this problem, and I know I’m far from the only graduate student who feels guilty whenever they take time off from working, but then also guilty while working for not taking more time off — the grad school catch-22. This summer, my first as an ABD-status student, felt like a great time to hit the reset button on the cycle of overworking and guilt-tripping myself.

Given the to-do list I’ve set myself for the summer, it may not sound like I’ve cut back all that much. I am a co-organizer for a graduate student conference my department is hosting in October, so I’ve been working on putting that together with my fellow co-organizers. I’ve been finishing up a special author project and researching possible dissertation projects (my prospectus is due in September), which has involved a truly absurd amount of primary and secondary reading — much of which still lies ahead of me. I’m also writing a bit for the CAMWS GSIC blog and traveling with my husband for his summer research project. I have a half-time appointment as a research assistant for one of my professors that will run for six weeks through midsummer; I will also start my 2019-20 assistantship at the UI Press in July. Yikes.

oprah yikes

If you are a graduate student reading this, you likely have a similar line-up of jobs and projects keeping you busy (and guilty) these summer days. For us, summer “vacation” is usually anything but. It’s so hard to break out of the mentality that we need to be working all the time, especially when that expectation is handed down (tacitly or explicitly) from an advisor or other authority figure in your program. I certainly haven’t stopped feeling guilty about my measly progress on my to-do list yet, but I have gotten a liiiiittle bit better at finding balance since the semester ended. Mostly I’ve done this in three ways:

1. Lower expectations. Looking at a half-done to-do list in August, when the semester is about to ramp up again, is possibly the most depressing experience of my graduate career to date. Back in May when I started to make my usual, absurdly long to-do list, I forced myself to cut back and focus only on the essentials: finishing my special author project and choosing my dissertation topic. For the former, I set incremental deadlines during the summer to force myself to work semi-consistently. For the latter, I compiled a stack of books from the library and have started to work through them one by one.

I haven’t given myself any other school-related to-dos for the summer. Even though there are conferences I want to submit abstracts for in the fall and papers I want to revise into articles that I can submit to journals, I forced myself to formally recognize that those are secondary, even tertiary, priorities for this summer. I have reminders about those things written down in a separate place from my official summer to-dos. If I don’t get to those things by mid-August, it’s okay — I won’t have to be disappointed by those unchecked boxes on my list.

2. Set boundaries and protect them. So far this has been the hardest part of my attempt to find balance, but I think it’s the most important. I usually don’t set myself any kind of schedule over the summer, so I end up working very inconsistent hours. This month, I am spending 9:00 am to 4:00 pm in the library on weekdays, working on academic work and blog writing. I am not working after 5:00 pm this summer, period (no matter how much I may “want” to, or guilt myself into feeling I need to!). Instead I’m spending the evenings with my family and friends, trying out new breweries, re-learning to knit socks (my last attempt four years ago ended in disaster), and catching up on my movies and Netflix watch lists.

I’m also trying to keep work out of the weekends as much as possible. I know this one won’t last for much longer; once my assistantships start up, there simply will not be enough hours during the week to get all my work done. However, when that happens, I am still going to do my best to contain work to only one weekend day, leaving the other free for relaxation. Sure, I could get more done if I spent Sunday afternoons in the library, but isn’t the whole point of summer that you don’t have to spend Sunday afternoons in the library?

3. Schedule the fun! My official to-do list isn’t just about work: it includes reading one book for fun, getting back into a regular yoga habit, and several knitting and crochet projects. The purpose of summer is to give our minds and bodies a break from the brutality of the school year, to relax and refresh ourselves — why not treat those as goals and activities equal in importance to whatever academic work happens in the summer? Checking a box on the official to-do list when I’ve finished knitting a baby blanket or reading a fun book makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something important, because I have: I’ve spent time on something that renews and refreshes me.


I am not good at loosening up and letting go of things. My work to-do list and the guilt trips I put myself on for not being productive enough follow me everywhere. So this is not an “I did it and you can too” list of easy steps — this is me, as one workaholic to another, saying that I think it’s possible to be less of a workaholic and still feel good about your summer productivity. I may not get as much done this summer as I would by working evenings and weekends, but I am much less likely to hate myself and feel like I’ve wasted my break come August. And though I have snuck in some weekend reading once or twice, I already feel more relaxed than I usually do at this point in the summer. Here’s hoping I can keep it up — and here’s hoping you can, too.

Daphnis’ Funeral Blues

I took a poetry course my freshman year in college that had a profound impact on the way I interact with the written word and with the world around me. Every Fall since that course, as I walk through piles of freshly fallen leaves, I recite Gerard Manley Hopkins in my head; I think of Gjertrud Schnackenberg on lonely winter nights; I call on W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas in difficult times. I can still recite the sonnet that I memorized for one of our assignments  we even had it read at our wedding last summer. I hold all these poems in my mind, and they help me express deep emotions and sensations that I would otherwise struggle to put into words. The director of the Iowa Latin program, Dr. Marcia Lindgren, summed this up beautifully last weekend in a conference presentation about a poetry recitation her advanced Latin courses do: “If you put a poem into your mind, it’s there whenever you need it.”

Of all the gorgeous poems we studied in that freshman poetry course, the one that has stuck with me most poignantly — the one that has been there whenever I needed it most — is W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues.” I was never required to memorize it for class, but I’ve reread it so many times over the years that I’ve unintentionally memorized it. The first time I read it, I was nearly brought to tears, and since then in times of loss it has helped me work through my grief. I’ve returned to it many times since my grandfather passed away last summer.

Last month I read a selection of Theocritus’ Idylls (mid-length poems on a wide variety of themes) in preparation for my PhD comps. Theocritus, an Alexandrian poet from the early 3rd century BCE and generally considered the founder of bucolic poetry, was part of the circle of intellectuals attracted to Alexandria when Ptolemy II Philadelphus built the Mouseion (which included the famous Library of Alexandria) and began recruiting scholars to make Alexandria the intellectual capital of the Mediterranean. In Idyll 1, a nameless goatherd asks the shepherd-singer Thyrsis to sing his award-winning song about the cowherd Daphnis, who wasted away and died rather than break his oath of virginity. Thyrsis obliges him, and more than half the poem is comprised of his song. In the song, animals and gods gather to see Daphnis dying and ask him what’s wrong; finally Daphnis himself gives a little soliloquy before he dies. I was so struck at Daphnis’ last words in lines 132-36:

“Now you brambles may bear violets, and you thorns may do the same, and the fair narcissus may bloom on the juniper, and everything may be changed, and pears can grow on the pine tree, since Daphnis is dying. Let the deer tear apart the hounds, and let the screech owls from the mountains rival nightingales.” (Trans. from the Loeb)

νῦν ἴα μὲν φορέοιτε βάτοι, φορέοιτε δ’ ἄκανθαι,
ἁ δὲ καλὰ νάρκισσος ἐπ’ ἀρκεύθοισι κομάσαι,
πάντα δ’ ἄναλλα γένοιτο, καὶ ἁ πίτυς ὄχνας ἐνείκαι,
Δάφνις ἐπεὶ θνάσκει, καὶ τὰς κύνας ὥλαφος ἕλκοι,
κἠξ ὀρέων τοὶ σκῶπες ἀηδόσι γαρύσαιντο.

If you followed the link to “Funeral Blues” up above, then you know where my mind immediately went:

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Of course it rings a bit narcissistic in the Idyll when Daphnis says this about himself, but the sentiment is the same: Nature will go completely out of whack because of this loss — but who cares what happens? He’ll still be dead. Nothing matters anymore.

I’ve tried not to admit this in my graduate school career because it makes me feel like a failure as a classicist, but I often struggle to connect to ancient poetry in the original language. I have never had a solid grasp on the various meters, and normally there’s so much reading to get through that I only have time to do just that — get through it — and can’t spend time trying to see what makes the Greek beautiful. But reading this Idyll was different. I always love seeing modern phrases and sentiments in ancient literature (my latest favorite is Cicero telling his BFF Atticus in a letter that he’ll facepalm at his news), but recognizing one of my favorite English poems here where I was least expecting it was simultaneously delightful and moving. Up to that point, the poem was mildly entertaining to me, but mostly just something I needed to know well enough to be able to write about it on my exam. Suddenly it became personal. It set the tone for the rest of my exam-prep Hellenistic poetry overview, in which I gave Theocritus and Callimachus a second chance and found I appreciated them much more than I had in my graduate Greek survey course three years ago.

These kinds of connections and resonances with modern literature are part of what makes studying Classics so magical, but we tend not to focus on them in our academic coursework. I wonder if Classics would find a new and enthusiastic audience if the process of discovering and drawing out these resonances were welcomed and celebrated and taken seriously in all of our literature courses, instead of only in specifically reception-focused courses. If we can connect our readings to our daily lives more intimately, we will retain them better and appreciate them more deeply. And if we can’t find connections to modern life, what are we doing? Let the deer tear apart the hounds, indeed.

PhD Comps, According to Parks & Rec

Life news for those of you who haven’t been listening to me complain for the last several months: I just took my PhD comprehensive exam last Saturday. In my program, that means a six-hour essay exam on passages chosen at random from a massive reading list of the Greek and Latin canon. It was an exhausting process, but what better way to work through the emotions and fatigue than with Parks and Rec? Behold, my comps process:

Beginning of the Fall semester, knowing I have MONTHS to prepare:

want to not do things

Beginning of the Spring semester, realizing just how long the reading list actually is, and that three months is not enough time to read everything:

too much responsibility

Wondering why I decided a PhD was a good idea in the first place:

didn't think this through


yes but I don't want to

What encouragement from my family and friends is like:

brilliant talented musk ox

When professors expect me to do classwork in addition to preparing for the comps:



made an iphone.gif

When prospective graduate students visit and ask if I like what I’m doing:

I like saying no

Acknowledging the possibility of failure and being kicked out of graduate school:

this is a fun conversation

Trying to work on a Plan B if kicked out of graduate school:

0 percent sure what to do

Deciding that having to leave graduate school might not be so bad after all:


Trying to learn all the things while still being a decent human, having friends, getting enough sleep, keep up with classwork…:

super chill

Whenever someone tries to get me to care about anything other than comps:

not interested in caring

This exam justifies eating and drinking whatever I want, right?

treat yo self

Inevitable emotional breakdown:


Pep talk with my cohort:

because we're smart.gif

Spending Spring Break cramming for the exam:

everything hurts and I'm dying

One last moment of total despair:

I'm dead

Psyching myself up on the morning of the exam:


When your cohort members show up with Girl Scout Cookies and candy to get you through:


Finding a question on a topic I reviewed just two days ago:

andy oooooo

In the homestretch of the exam, no longer in possession of enough brain power to write the last essay:

not cranky

Finally turning in the exam:

need to lie down.gif

Time to celebrate! Nunc est bibendum!

party time

Second guessing everything I wrote the day after the exam:

completely flustered

Waiting for pass/fail results:

i want it now

It suddenly dawns on me that if I pass, I will have to write a dissertation:

too lazy and stupid to write

Teaching with Circe

Wright Barker, 1889. Circe (Wikimedia Commons)

*This post originally appeared on*

Madeline Miller’s second novel, Circe, was released just under a year ago to well-deserved admiration and praise. Miller’s feminist twist on the myths surrounding Circe “never distorts their original shape; it only illuminates details we hadn’t noticed before,” as one reviewer puts it. The long, immortal arc of Circe’s life covers several of the most popular and well-known stories of myth, which Miller pulls from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Odyssey, and even Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica.

This creative faithfulness to Greek myth combined with the first-person female perspective we so rarely find in ancient literature gives Circe great potential as a teaching tool in mythology courses. Miller’s lively and brisk storytelling style gives the stories an immediacy and clarity that many undergraduates struggle to find in textbook tellings of myth, or even in myth source texts themselves like Euripidean tragedies. This post aims to give a few pointers for using popular fiction in class without feeling like you’ve somehow sold out on our rigorous (and sometimes stodgy) discipline.

In our Classical Mythology course here at the University of Iowa, we assign a creative essay to students at the end of the semester to help students reflect on the process of mythmaking, as well as how Greek myths reflect the cultural norms and assumptions of the ancient world. Students must write an original 4-5 page myth, either modifying and expanding an ancient myth plotline or inventing their own entirely; they must also write an analysis of their own story explaining how their myth reflects social and cultural norms of the society in which it is set. In the best way possible, Circe feels like Madeline Miller took our assignment and ran with it. As a class, you might use the novel to reflect on the myriad possibilities of myth and the coexistence of conflicting versions of certain stories in the ancient texts, since Miller does not follow her source texts slavishly. You could discuss what other endings to Circe’s story students could imagine, what avenues of narrative Miller pursues and which she closes off for herself through the choices she makes about Circe’s life and character. You might even use this as a jumping-off point for spinning out the stories of other minor characters in myth, such as Calypso.

Reading and discussing the novel in class would be an excellent way to help students identify cultural biases and assumptions that are embedded in the ancient versions of Circe’s story. For example, in both Ovid and Homer, Circe transforms men into pigs out of a fearsome feminine malice. Since Circe is a creation of the male imagination in these texts, there is no consideration for what other motives she might have for treating men so viciously. When we read these source texts with students, it is easy to take such a characterization of Circe at face value; her wicked wiles are just one more obstacle on Odysseus’ journey home, one more opportunity for the “real hero” of the story to show off his own wily nature.

Miller turns this characterization on its head. She gives Circe a painfully real motivation for distrusting and transforming all men who come to her island: self-defense and the PTSD of sexual trauma. In the novel, Circe narrates her own brutal rape by sailors who take advantage of her solitude and hospitality; thus the first set of pig-men is revenge, but the rest she changes in order to neutralize the threat of harm before it becomes real. Like many survivors today, Circe keeps her story to herself; for generations, she does not tell a soul (not even Odysseus or her own son), until the end of the novel when she and Telemachus (Odysseus and Penelope’s son) have become lovers. As teachers, we must weigh the advantages of the representation of a survivor-centered perspective with the triggering potential for survivors of sexual violence among our students. It is a topic which will require careful thought and advance preparation on your part individually as an instructor as well as collectively with your class, but it is a topic which has been historically overlooked, assumed, or otherwise poorly handled in discussions of Classical texts. (Shameless plug: I’ve written with Prof. Arum Park about teaching other classical rape narratives here; we list some resources to help you get started).

The rape and its psychological aftermath for Circe is also an excellent example of how the novel treats women’s issues in general as a natural and necessary facet of Classical texts, not just a popular topic. Circe’s first-person perspective throughout the novel offers us a fictional but probable example of how it must have felt to be a woman in antiquity — to be constantly overlooked, assumed to be vulnerable and/or stupid, locked into a prescribed role in life, never able to share one’s most important thoughts and feelings. In the novel, after Circe transforms Glaucos from fisherman to sea god and Scylla from beautiful nymph to ravaging monster, she tries to confess what she has done. She explains how she used the flowers sprung from Kronos’ blood to change both Glaucos and Scylla to their true natures. None of her male relatives — her father Helios, her grandfather Oceanos, her other Titan uncles — believe her. They tell her that she and the herbs have no power, that they wouldn’t have told her where those flowers grow if they could have caused such harm (because of course these river gods assume that they know better than their niece who speaks with a mortal voice). No one will believe in her power, or the power of magical herbs, until they hear it from a male: Circe’s brother Aeetes comes home from his kingdom in Colchis and shows Helios his own magical powers.

J.W. Waterhouse, 1892. Circe Invidiosa (Wikimedia Commons)

This provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the power of the storyteller with students. Who gets to write the stories, both fictional/mythical and historical? Whose voice is heard and whose is silenced? Which version of a narrative becomes dominant and why? Are the voices of women in classical texts really women’s voices, or are their speeches simply the male writer’s perspective, ventriloquized in a female character? Circe has always been a pawn in the games of other heroes. Here she is the center of her own story, richly characterized and multifaceted.

It is important to note that our understanding of male characters stands to gain here, too. Of course Odysseus has always been “the man of twists and turns,” or, as Emily Wilson has it, simply “complicated”; Wilson’s new translation in particular has turned the focus of Odysseus’ twists away from his mere cleverness and opened up conversations on less savory aspects of his character. Miller’s novel does a similar thing: while the gods are portrayed as universally self-absorbed, not a single hero in the novel is one-sided. Odysseus, Daedalus, Minos, Telemachus, even divine Circe herself, are all multifaceted individuals, with both good and shameful things in their history and in their future potentialities. Through their conversations with Circe, Miller shows our heroes for what they are: flawed humans. Even Circe herself is open to student readers’ critique: though Miller’s Circe presents herself as vastly different from the other nymphs and gods, in some ways she is just like them, lacking in self-knowledge and quick to vindictive anger.

Teaching with popular fiction does not have to equal pandering, not even in a discipline as uppity as Classics. In many ways, Madeline Miller has done exactly what Euripides, Ovid, Apollonius, and countless other classical authors did in their works: she has taken a basic myth and put her own twist on it. Her novel thus makes an excellent comparative companion to the texts of those authors, each highlighting certain features of the other. Circe challenges readers to think through many of the same issues our original myth writing assignment does: how myths both reflect and reinforce cultural norms; how the perspective and authority of the storyteller influence the narrative; how multiple versions of myths interact to enrich the portraits of their characters. Miller has given us, bard-like, the Epic of Circe, Witch of Aeaea. We would be remiss, I think, to deny our students the opportunity to engage and challenge this modern version of her story alongside the ancient ones.