Monday, September 05, 2016

Not exactly the textbook method for pursuing a Ph.D.

A bunch of faculty members were sitting around chatting over our free lunch (provided to distract us from the fact that we were required to teach while the rest of the nation, including our immediate family members, were out enjoying a Monday holiday) when the topic turned somehow to the rigors of grad school. All those late nights in the library! All those papers! All that obsessive revision sparked by fear of disappointing our advisors! 

One of my junior colleagues asserted, "I wouldn't have the energy to do all that these days." And I did a little mental calculation and figured that my exhausted colleague is in her mid-thirties--about the age at which I started pursuing a Ph.D. while working a very demanding job and cooking and cleaning for my family and teaching confirmation classes and serving as an officer on the local chamber of commerce and taxiing my kids to children's choir and Cub Scouts and sleep-overs and just generally trying to have a life.

How did I ever do all that? The answer is simple: slowly. I earned my M.A. in the mid-eighties and then took seven years off to have babies, foster other people's babies, grow cabbages, try my hand at free-lance writing, and read everything I'd never had time to read in school. When my husband finally got transferred to a job close to a university that offered a Ph.D. in English and my younger child started kindergarten, I was ready to hit the books--slowly. 

Why did it take me six years to complete the Ph.D. when I'd started with M.A. in hand? Because I took one or two courses each semester, and even then they had to fit around my duties as a journalist. It was not unusual to spend three hours in a small seminar room tossing around concepts like performativity and metanarrative and heteronormativity and then get in my car and dash 20 miles down the highway so I could arrive at the village hall just in time to cover a meeting of the Board of Public Affairs, made up of three old farts whose idea of civil discourse was occasionally refraining from calling the sewer plant operator Baldy.

It was a strange and exhausting time that led me, at the tender age of 39, to my first tenure-track job, and here I am all these years later looking back and wondering how I did it. (Never mind the why. There is no reasonable answer to that question.) Could I do it again today? Not on your life--I don't have that kind of energy. 

But I have different kinds of energy instead. Think of all that work in grad school, gathering ideas and writing them up and defending and disseminating them--where do those old ideas go? My dissertation may be stashed in a cabinet somewhere, but the experience of writing it stored up vast reserves of skills and concepts I can draw on over and over as I design and teach my classes. Grad school may have worn me out, but it also built me up and set me off on a journey that gets more interesting every year.

I wouldn't want to have to start out on that journey again right now--I've come so far that the starting point has fallen over the far horizon. But if I have to labor on Labor Day, it's good to spend a moment appreciating the worth of the most exhausting labor. 

Just one moment, though. After that, it's time to get back to work.


penn said...

I taught yesterday too -- joy of boarding school. If we don't teach, we have to work anyway watching kids.

I think the energy for grad school comes from the true love and excitement to pursue the path. I started out with that and tapered off quickly as I realized I loved teaching more than research. That's why I only finished an MS and not my PhD. And, then, I went and got an MAT. I look back now and don't know how I finished; first year teaching at a new school, with rigorous classes like AP Bio on my slate, and I was pregnant with our first kid and so tired. But, like you said, you find the space and do it. You build reserves of knowledge you can then draw upon. The key part is having the drive to push you on through.

Bev said...

Yes, and I think part of that is putting ourselves into situations in which we will need to call on that drive. We commit to a course of action and then have to draw on every resource possible to get through it. So when my colleague says "I couldn't do that now," my response should be, "I'll bet you could if you had to."

Bardiac said...

Wow, you were working hard!

I think you're right: we could if we had to, probably. That's true of a lot of things!

Have a good semester!

Bev said...

You too!