Friday, December 17, 2010

The Academic Life: Perspective

I will now wax philosophical....

During my first year in the MA program, an undergraduate professor asked me to write an article on graduate school, to be read by students at my Alma mater who were considering applying themselves.  I can't remember exactly what I wrote, but I have the feeling that it was rather uninformed, and probably not very helpful.  A few months of graduate school hardly made me the best authority on the subject.

Recently, I have begun rewriting that article in my head, probably because I am almost done with graduate school, and I hope I have attained a slightly better and wiser understanding of the matter....although I can't be certain.

At any rate, I think that the single most important thing I have learned about the academic life is perspective.  Graduate school shunts you into a rather narrow paradigm, a mindset about academia that is propagated by mainstream culture as well as the academy itself.  This mindset can be broken down into the following ideas:

1) Being smart is the most important thing in the world.  There is the mindset, "We think big thoughts!  Big, important, but undervalued, thoughts!"  I remember feeling the pressure to think big thoughts - not for the sake of the thoughts or thinking or ideas, but to prove that I belonged, that I was academic material.  That I was important. 

2) Graduate school is necessarily competitive.  We must know who is the smartest!  Under certain situations, a classroom personality could emerge, a nasty, bullying personality.  Everyone trying to out-think everyone else, speaking English-ese and name-dropping obscure theorists. 

3) Graduate school is about a series of nearly impossible, soul-sucking tasks that must consume your every waking hour, as well as your dreams.  The program is set-up to try you.  The dreaded comprehensive exams.  The expectation is that in the face of such  an insurmountable obstacle, you must become a blithering zombie who gave up sleep and sanity long ago.  The dissertation is supposed to daily reduce you to tears of bitter frustration.

4)  The only point of going through this experience is to get a good job.  And, when we say good, we mean a tenured professor at a top, research university.  But, because the job market is abysmal, we will finish our work while alternating between nail-biting anxiety and spiraling despair.

There is another way.  This has not been my experience with graduate school, thank goodness.  And I don't mean this to be patronizing or otherwise self-aggrandizing.  Of course, graduate school is hard.  And, in a way, it should be - otherwise that fancy title you get at the end wouldn't mean much.  But, I think that we sometimes make things much harder than they have to be by believing the hype.

I believe that there are many, many important things in life.  The preceding list, however, doesn't make into the top ten.  I'm about to break out the Sunday School rhetoric, so get ready: God is the most important thing in life, and beyond.  How's that for perspective?  The God of the Universe, the Creator of all things, the One who save us, compared with comprehensive exams?  Puh-leaze.  Will my ability to make the smartest comment in class have eternal consequences?  Probably not.

And the amazing thing is, God gives us words and directions that help us to have perspective on things like graduate school.  He says things like, "Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat , or what ye shall drink ; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on . Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?"*  Isn't life more than your grades and your degree?  But that's not the only reason not to worry - what am I going to do if I can't get a job, what if I don't pass my exam, what if I don't finish my dissertation?  Paul writes, " But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus."**  I can relax because I know that I will be taken care of.  That doesn't mean that everything will work out according to my plan.  But whatever God wills has got to be better than anything I could have come up with.

Letting go of the hype is a very freeing experience.  It took me a while to get there, of course, and I am not now completely rid of the occasional round of worry.  But, I didn't lose any sleep over my exams.  I read some of everything on my list and actually enjoyed quite a bit of it (and what I didn't enjoy, I read as little as possible).  I am enjoying writing my dissertation.  I love my topic and I love the research and I love what I have written.  I believe that less stress actually makes you more productive.  If you say, in the long run, this doesn't really matter, you actually do pretty good work on it.  I don't work on weekends and I don't work in the evenings.  I go hiking.  I visit my family.  I read tons of good, absolutely non-academic books.  I teach a youth class, sing in the choir, and volunteer tutor.  I knit and crochet and draw and bake.  I have not had to compromise my real life for my academic life.  I recognize that this is a paradox - the best (most painless) way to succeed is to decide it doesn't matter.  This, however, does not mean that I take my work lightly.  On the contrary, I would like to think.  In fact, I consider it beyond just work, and something bordering more on craft.  But, that will have to be another post.

*Matthew 6:25
**Philippians 4:19