On Finishing My Ph.D.


In 2005, I applied to three Ph.D. programs: Stanford’s Modern Thought and Literature, UC Santa Cruz’s History of Consciousness, and UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies. At the time, I was enrolled in an MFA Creative Writing program at the U of San Francisco, and teaching writing at an after school learning center. I hoped to get into a Ph.D. to give myself more post-MFA options.

Sadly, I was rejected from all three schools, which was not a good feeling. I graduated with an MFA in 2006, and continued working and submitting my poetry manuscript to publishers/contests. That year, I decided to apply one more time, but only to Berkeley. If I didn’t get in, I would move on.

To my surprise, I was accepted to the 2007 cohort and even received a fellowship. Yes, I felt like an “imposter,” not quite smart enough–more a poet than a scholar. Coursework was a struggle, but I managed to pass all the classes and the MA exam in 2009.

My first two poetry books were published in 2008 and 2010, thus sparking my double life as poet and scholar. I traveled (way too much) for performances and presentations in those years (to the point where I messed up my back). As my poetry took off, I neglected my orals/area exam reading lists.

What saved me during that time was receiving a Ford Foundation Fellowship, which supports scholars of color. This allowed me to not have to teach or work, and I was able to focus on completing my orals/areas, and my prospectus in 2011.

Even though I knew I was a long-shot,  I applied to a creative writing job in an English department at U of Hawaiʻi, Manoa in 2011. I never thought I would get the job, and I was applying to dissertation fellowships. When I actually got the job, I once again felt like an imposter in the white halls of academia. Perhaps because of that feeling, I worked very hard my first two years–so much so that i met all the minimum requirements of tenure by my third year (i applied to, and received, early tenure).

The downside: I rarely had time to work on my dissertation. I contemplated dropping out of the Ph.D. program. What good would a degree from a totally different discipline do for me now? Shouldn’t I just focus on my creative writing?

I decided not to quit because I had already put so much time into passing all the other requirements, and because I had received so much fellowship support. In 2014, I told myself that I would give it one more year: if i couldnt do it in 2015, then I would move on.

So I worked on it almost every day this year (even if only for an hour a day), either doing research or outlining or writing or revising. Things got done slowly, but it also built a steady momentum. Committing to and prioritizing the work was key. Also, I had a very supportive dissertation committee, in particular my chair, Beth Piatote, and committee member Elizabeth DeLoughrey. On a personal note, my amazing wife and family were also very supportive in giving me time to complete the work.

My dissertation includes a preface, intro, 5 chapters, and conclusion. It consists of about 90,000 words, 350 pages, 700 footnotes, and 400 sources. It is far from perfect. There is a university press that is interested in publishing it, but I will definitely have to do another draft (or two) to get it to that stage.

Itʻs a strange feeling to work on something so long and to finally have it done. It’s strange to come from a very small village of a small island and to earn a Ph.D. from one of the most prestigious universities in the world. The dissertation was definitely the most challenging academic and intellectual project that I have ever undertaken, and I am very proud that I was actually able to do it. I feel much more confident now that I can be both a poet and a scholar.

For those interested, my dissertation abstract is below. If won’t be available online, but i am hoping I can get it revised and published in the next few years.

Title: Wayreading Chamorro Literature from Guam


This dissertation maps and navigates contemporary literature by indigenous Chamorro authors from the Pacific island of Guam. Because Guam has experienced more than three centuries of colonization by three different imperial nations, Chamorro language, beliefs, customs, practices, identities, and aesthetics have been suppressed, changed, and sometimes completely replaced. As a result of these colonial changes, many anthropologists and historians have claimed that authentically indigenous Chamorro culture no longer exists. Similarly, literary scholars have argued that contemporary Chamorro literature is degraded and inauthentic because it is often composed in a written form as opposed to an oral form, in English as opposed to Chamorro, and in a foreign genre (such as a novel) as opposed to an indigenous genre (such as a chant). This discourse of inauthenticity, I suggest, is based on an understanding of Chamorro culture and literature as static essences that once existed in a “pure” and “authentic” state before colonialism, modernity, and globalization.

Countering these arguments, I view Chamorro culture as a dynamic entity composed of core, enduring values, customs, and practices that are continually transformed and re-articulated within various historical contexts and political pressures. Relatedly, I contend that Chamorro literature is a dynamic phenomenon comprised of an aesthetic genealogy that has also been transformed by colonialism and re-articulated by every successive generation of Chamorro authors. To understand these complexities, I enact a literary methodology that I term “wayreading,” which involves tracking how the primary themes (the content) of Chamorro literature express the survival and vitality of Chamorro language, customs, values, and practices, as well as how the primary narrative structures (the forms) of Chamorro literature embody Chamorro aesthetics, technologies, and ecologies.

While the first chapter of this project launches into a discussion of Chamorro cultural identity and literary authenticity, the subsequent chapters focus on representations of important Chamorro cultural symbols—including land, housing, navigation, and storytelling—in a wide range of contemporary Chamorro literary expressions. In the Conclusion, I assert that Chamorro literature is a symbolic decolonial act and a pragmatic decolonial tool in ongoing decolonization, demilitarization, and sovereignty movements in Guam. This dissertation is significant because it highlights a relatively unknown indigenous literature, thus contributing to the intellectual traditions of Pacific Islander, Native American, and Global Indigenous Cultural and Literary Studies. Beyond the realm of the indigenous, this study also contributes to the fields of Hispanic, American, Post-colonial, and Comparative Ethnic Cultural and Literary Studies.

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