Education Reflections: The Profane Version

As I prepare to begin the dissertation phase of my journey at Fielding, I revisited my original Learning Plan (a thing I had to do at the beginning to plan classes and stuff). I have to write a new one for this thing called Portfolio Review that will get me a Master’s degree in Human Development and make me officially…something. Working on my dissertation, anyway. So this is the profane version, or something.

Observe the spiderweb. Sometimes I am the spider: I spin ideas, theories, observations, and passions into a complex web that is both solid and porous. Sometimes, I’m a fly. Stuck on the web, waiting to be eaten or to slowly desiccate, unable to move. And sometimes I’m a caterpillar, moseying slowly along a branch, hoping that someday I will reach the end of my journey and start the next.

At the end of my first class, I was excited (and scared, but mostly excited) about where my journey at Fielding would take me. I was well prepared for the first few classes: I am a good writer, am used to working in APA, and had written and published academic papers in the past. I loved grad school the last time around, and the time before that. I felt I had a running start on this whole PhD thing.

Since then, I feel as if I’ve run into a succession of brick walls, face first. Getting a PhD is very different from getting a masters degree. Getting a PhD at Fielding is also very different from my previous graduate education experiences. I was unprepared for the ambiguity, isolation, and anxiety that comes with self-directed, really expensive learning. I have had to learn to balance my need to take adequate time to ground myself in theory and integrate new knowledge with the need to finish as quickly as possible for financial reasons. The constant tension between the two is exhausting and stressful.

I also didn’t recognize that being a PhD student, Adjunct Professor, and mother of a young child would be totally different from my previous education experiences. My perfectionism used to be a mighty sword I could use to hack the shit out of my assignments and goals. Now it just gets in the way. If I try to be perfect at anything, I suck at something else. I have to let myself be good enough, which is a hard lesson. It’s hard to be a good enough (or somewhat sucky) mom. I love my kid so much, and I want to be great for her.  It’s hard to write an adequate paper. I’m good at writing, and I want my writing to be awesome, not adequate. It’s hard to realize there are vast amounts of theory and literature I haven’t and won’t read. The more I learn, the more ignorant I feel. It’s humbling in almost every way possible.

I was at a kid’s birthday party on Saturday. Several of my original mama group friends were there. Do you remember when you first had kids, and all you could talk about was baby stuff? And your childless friends would get this glazed over look on their faces as you discussed the minutiae of baby life? And how you barely noticed because you were so hormonal and sleep deprived? I have the PhD student version of THAT.

I bore the shit out of my friends, I’m constantly irritated, I don’t get enough exercise, and I spend way too much time on social media. I have insomnia and anxiety. Pretty much like having a newborn except I don’t have to clean up poop and I have constant headaches instead of hormone attacks. At the party, my friends were talking about the 10k they had run in; I was complaining about school. My friends were talking about their kids, I was complaining about school.

One of my friends is worried that my topic of study, online aggression, is messing with my head. People: reading and analyzing online aggression is sweet relief compared to the constant pressure of trying to write all my papers, read ALL THE BOOKS, and figure out how to jump through the myriad hoops I have to clear before I can even start my frakking dissertation. And don’t even get me started on the post-graduation future! Gigantic student loan payments, and a desperate bid to get some kind of full time teaching job so I can pay said loans and provide some much-needed supplemental support to my saint like, endlessly suffering family.

The hardest part, for me, is the feedback. Every prof has a different definition of “academic” and “scholarly”. To one, it means well-constructed, persuasive, and original. To the next, it means a compendium of the work of others with no perceptible trace of my personality. As you may have noticed, I’ve taken to writing the “profane” versions of papers and essays here, so I can get my ideas clear enough that I can translate them into my best guess of each prof’s “sacred”. But you just never know. And this makes me CRAY-ZAY. I’m right back at the Conservatory, age 20, with one teacher saying I’m God’s gift to opera, while another says I’m totally mediocre. But this time, I have my critical thinking cap on, and I know the game is rigged. Every person in academia has a different version of what is good and what is bad, of what is sacred and what is profane. And the problem is I really give zero fucks. I know I’m a good writer, and a good thinker, and I know I have to jump through a certain number of hoops and learn some specific ways of writing to get graduated and get published. But the range of possibilities within what is considered “academic writing” is much, much broader than most of my profs think.

The other thing I’ve realized is that, like opera, academia is peopled with people who are very, very good at one thing, and by definition, really sucky at other things. You can’t spend a big chunk of your life getting to be the expert on one thing without sacrificing something else. This is another reason why I need to embrace mediocrity; because I want to be a good teacher, a good mom, and a good researcher/writer. But I can’t do that if I want to be totally fucking amazing at one of them.

Basically, I’m tired of being trashed (I’d rather do research on people trashing each other in a vaguely egalitarian manner — go figure) and I know I’m in for a whole lot more of it before this is over. Some of it I will deserve. Most of it I won’t. This is great for my innately high levels of paranoia.

So, I’ve gained a lot of cynicism, anxiety, and dread. I’ve also gained a great deal of knowledge, I’ve written some kick-ass papers (some of which are hopefully on their way to publication, stay tuned), I’ve met a few truly inspiring people, made some friends, and figured out a research topic that is pretty darn hot. I’ve changed my major to Human Development, which is great because it means I get to study way more psychology. Win! I’ve become a better, more compassionate and humble teacher. I am much less quick to judge others. I know I’ve been developing in this crucible that is grad school, and I know some of it has been good. I’m just not relishing the uphill marathon that is the next 12-18 months, nor the scramble for work that will start before this part is over.

One day at a time, one step, one breath. I have to keep reminding myself of this. I have to remember to enjoy snuggling with my rapidly growing little girl. To have quiet moments with my husband. To continue to give as much as I can muster to my students, because they’re the reason I’m doing this in the first place. To make time to hang out with my friends. To leave myself room to feel all the big scary feels that go with feeling in over my head, all the time. In a few weeks I’ll have my third masters degree. In a year and some change, I’ll have a PhD. I will look back on this time as transformational. I will forget how freaking stressed out I am right now (probably not). It will be worth it.

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