Getting ready for my Ph.D. program was like the beginning of a roller coaster ride–the long wait in line, that interminable “click-click-click” of being drawn up (to a height that’s WAY farther up than it looked from down below), the mixture of excitement and dread, and the knowledge that once things got going, it was going to go by FAST. A friend of mine, who just started a master’s degree in social work, said to me the other day, “What happened to our lazy summer? I feel like I just went from zero to sixty.”
It’s true. And for me, it’s not just the crazy schedule that’s induced a sense of vertigo. It’s also changes in things like relationships, landscape, identity, time, diet, clothing. Since classes started, I’ve felt wildly off-center. Trying to find my way here means trying to forge a new persona, and that becomes harder as I get older. I remember being a college freshman 15 years ago. I was hungry for change, eager to become a new person. Welcome Week was an awesome party, classes and professors were fabulous, my dorm room was the best, my roommate was amazing, and even the cafeteria food wasn’t too bad! I was just so…adaptable. And even when certain things turned out to be not as amazing as my little Pollyanna 17-year-old self initially thought, I bounced back with aplomb.
Now I’m back in school full time after having been a working professional for the last 11 years. By the time I left teaching, I was head of my department (granted, it was a very small department, but it meant that I was able to do things my way), and everything about teaching was familiar. I wouldn’t say it was easy–teaching is never easy–but I had my voice, and I knew how to use it. Right now, I feel a little lost.
Let me give you an example. For the last decade or so, my workdays have been neatly divided up by bells. A bell rang for homeroom, for the beginning and end of each class period, for chapel, for lunch, for special assemblies, and for the end of the day. I knew what I was supposed to be doing every minute. With my lesson plans arranged in symmetrical charts and my grading stacks divided up neatly by class, even my planning hours held no mystery.
Now, there are no bells. On some Thursdays, if there’s no pedagogy class that day, I have a block of time between when I finish teaching first year comp at 10 a.m. and when my next class starts at 4 p.m. Where do I go? I have an office, but I share it with two other people, and I can’t commandeer it all the time. There are many
different study spots all over campus. Is it worth walking to a farther spot if it will be quieter, more distraction-free zone? What should I work on? At any given moment, I have about 17 different short-range and long-range items I could be working on. Every time I start one assignment, I’m plagued with doubt about whether or not I’m making the best use of my time. Sometimes I find myself just wandering around campus. And I can’t wear my cute shoes anymore. I have to walk SO. MUCH.
I know it’s just an adjustment period. I know I’ll figure things out soon. But it’s a change.
Then there’s class. I’m taking some fascinating classes from professors who are renowned in their respective fields. In the smaller schools I attended for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, it was easy to speak up and feel like I had something worthwhile to contribute to the conversation. Now if I decide to speak, I jot down an outline of what I’m going to say, and even then, my heart races every time I raise my hand, because a voice in my head is saying, “There are tons of people here who are smarter than you are, who’ve read more books than you have, and who could probably say what you’re about to say better than you’re about to say it.” It’s a tough voice to overcome. I don’t get to do things my way anymore; I do things the professor’s way. That is, after I agonize over what I think the professor wants!
I’m not saying that these changes are negative. It’s good for me to be back on the bottom of the totem pole again; it’s a humbling, perspective-providing experience. Teachers can get a little off-center when they get to be the centers of their respective worlds. It’s refreshing to remember that life does not revolve around me.
I’m also not saying that there aren’t aspects of the Ph.D. experience that are surreally, transcendently enjoyable, even in the midst of this adjustment phase. Every morning, my stroll from the bus stop to Angell Hall, where I have most of my classes, is what I call my “gawk walk.” I’m staring slack-jawed at the beautiful, old brick-and-ivy buildings around me and pinching myself because I can’t believe I’m actually here, that I really truly get to learn about things that interest me…for a living.
My office is across the street from a world class art museum. Sometimes on my lunch break, I wander into that cool marble space, and sit down in front of a painting or sculpture while I listen to music. I went to a Lang/Rhet event at a professor’s house, and I played an awkward icebreaker game with a man who had Robert Frost as a professor. (We had to guess words or phrases that were taped to our backs. He got me to guess the phrase “current and traditional pedagogies” and I got him to guess the word “vocabulary.”) Last week, I learned what demon bowls were, and I got to see a few of them that were thousands of years old. I’ve learned enough Italian that I can now read the decorative map on my bedroom wall. There are graduate students in my disability studies class from kinesiology, art, architecture, fiction, and social work programs, which creates some fascinating interdisciplinary discussions. In a few weeks, I’ll be traveling into downtown Detroit to teach at-risk high school seniors how to write excellent college application essays. Next week, I’m going to a reading of Seamus Heaney’s poetry at an archaeological museum. I’m also attending a lecture given by a deaf scholar on the rhetoric of difference. The list of cool things goes on and on and on.
Not only that, but I’m here with the world’s-most-supportive husband, who has uncomplainingly taken up the laundry, housecleaning, and dish duty so that I’m free to study each evening. He also loves talking with me about what I’m learning. And taking me out for hikes or drinks or coffee when I start to get unhinged. He faithfully speaks the gospel to me each day so that I stay centered in reality while I’m existing in a very driven, performance-based environment. Yep. Pretty special.
Sometimes, I just want everything to feel settled and familiar. I want the transition period to be over, and I want to have my confidence back. But I’m also trying to embrace this season of change for what it is and to express gratitude for even the unsettled aspects of where I am right now. My hope is that even when I’m comfortable and familiar with my new life, I’ll continue to be awestruck by it and grateful for it.