Today, I finished my third quarter of grad school. Now I’m on spring break, and then it’s just a short, seven-week push to finishing my first year. The massive vertigo I had when I started has mostly faded away. I’ve settled into ways of living and being in my new space that feel less alien, less like I’m in the middle of a giant game of pretend (“I know, let’s play like we’re getting Ph.Ds! I’ll be the doctoral student and you can be the tenured professor on my committee, okay?”)
But in some ways, I wonder if the vertigo has just moved to a deeper level, become a more fundamental unsettling of my identity. I’m no longer confused about who to ask questions to, how to find my way around the massive Angell/Mason/Tisch/Haven complex, or where to locate books in the library. I have my routines, my study spots. On the surface, I’m pretty comfortable now, especially compared to the hot mess I was in September. But just because I know my way around campus, does that mean I feel completely comfortable in my new skin? Definitely not.
At the risk of sounding whiny, or even worse, existentially angst-y, I still feel like a person stuck between two worlds. I’ll try to make it more concrete. In the high school classroom, I taught with authority (different from being authoritarian, which I definitely was not). I knew where my authority came from: 1) the parents, who had entrusted me with their children, 2) the board and administration who had hired me, 3) my educational background, and 4) my years of teaching experience. I also knew how to properly exercise my authority, without abusing it. I could teach my subject matter with confidence, provide the classroom management students needed to feel secure, write lesson plans and grade papers in ways I knew were effective and fair. In other words, I knew how to be successful.
A couple days ago, at our weekly program meeting, an alumna from the program said, that we needed to have and use authority, even as first year students. That’s probably what got me thinking along these lines. Where does my authority now come from? I am surrounded by people with longer CVs than mine, and people who hold my future in their hands, people to whom I’m beholden. Where do I get authority to add my voice to the conversation and to speak up for myself when necessary? There are times in class when I feel like the least intelligent person in the room. Where does my authority come from then? In every class, I have to prove myself all over again to a new professor and a new group of people. I can’t win them over the same way I used to try to win over my students.
These questions strike deeply at the heart of my identity. I used to know who exactly who I was. Now I am building a new version of my professional self. I cannot expect such a process to be simple, quick, or pain-free.
This is not to say that I don’t enjoy being here, because I really, really, REALLY do. I’m not blind to the enormous privilege of full-time study at an R1 university. These last few months have been some of the most interesting, eye-opening, fascinating, generative, and thought-provoking months of my life. Daily, I get to talk to and work with some of the brightest minds in the world; I still walk away from some conversations or class discussions thinking, “I’m not sure exactly what happened there, but it was pretty mind-blowing.”
In places of comfort, we stagnate. It’s when our norms are disrupted and our routines are challenged that we tend to grow more quickly. We bend and stretch and contort ourselves to fit the new spaces. We try on and cast off new ways of thinking. We learn, and we change. I look forward to using my experience at U of M to cultivate a new career-based identity for myself.
In the meantime, I have other anchors for my identity to hold me steady. I’m still a wife to the best husband in the world. I’m still daughter, sister, aunt, and friend. Most importantly, I’m still valued, accepted, and loved by the God who made me because of His Son Jesus Christ.