Not for the faint of heart
Since my first blog post here, I’ve finished my course work, passed quals, become ABD, and all of the other “smaller” academic milestones along the way. I have even conducted meaningful dissertation research that I completely made up and directed on my own. I’ve not only learned how to write a successful conference proposal (something that eluded me my first year), I’ve even started being selective in which conferences to apply to because I don’t have the resources and time to present at them all. I’m finally an expert on something (my dissertation research), and no one on earth knows this one little thing better than I do (no one on earth cares as much as I do, either). I have failed bigger than I ever have in my life, and never before have I felt so simultaneously smart and ignorant. Truly, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.
So, here I find myself once again, writing about writing, but I’m in a very different place now. In June, I moved out of my beloved college town in which I inhabited space for 10 years, and into my mom’s basement (the “lower level”, as she likes to remind me). Livin’ the dream, folks, livin’ the dream. As I occupy a very different physical space than I did four years ago, I also find myself in a different mental space, as well.
Four years have come and gone, and taken their toll. I know what it’s like to struggle, succeed, fail, meet deadlines, and watch them go whooshing by (in case you didn’t know that it was possible to cancel/reschedule your quals 5 times, it is). I know what it’s like to be depressed, and to relate to all of those articles about PhD students and depression. I know what it’s like to have such thankfulness in your heart for life circumstances that seem ideal for being a PhD student, and then have those other things happen…those things that completely shake you and you wonder how you’re going to make it through the night, let alone a PhD program…
Life happens, and it doesn’t stop happening so that you can graduate. You have to live the life that’s happening, and re-evaluate your plan… you have to let dreams die, and find the courage to let yourself dream new ones. It takes strength that you didn’t know you had (mine comes from friends, family, and Jesus). It takes humility…sometimes to admit defeat, but to ask for another chance…or to somehow ask for help, or at least take it when it’s offered. It takes community…I would never have made it this far without my fellow PhD students and academic mentors pushing me forward, or without the prayers and support of friends and family holding me up. It takes an eye-on-the-prize determination and grit that I don’t even know if I have, because I haven’t even finished yet.
My mom likes to remind me that getting a PhD requires sacrifice. When I’m sad when I can’t do that fun/responsible/grown-up/normal-person thing because I don’t have the funds/time/energy…when my life plan takes a nosedive and I find myself back at the drawing board and with no plan at all (a scary place for me to be) …I need to be reminded that it’s worth it. That I’m called to it. That it will be over soon. That I can do it. Every time I get to that low place, and I get afraid, a beloved mentor says to me: When was the last time you did something worthwhile that wasn’t hard?
Anything worthwhile is worth sacrifice.
Getting a PhD is hard.
I’m so thankful that I get to do this hard thing.
Four years later…
Oh.em.gee. I can’t believe I’m in what looks to be my final semester of the PhD. You guys…I’m writing a dissertation! I know, you can’t believe it either. Or maybe you can. Personally, I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around how to write a dissertation, which might be the reason why it is not going very smoothly at all (*insert nomination for understatement of the year*).
I’m so thankful that the Lord has gotten me this far, but wow– there’s still a long way to go before I defend my dissertation in December (I hope and pray and hope and pray)!
It’s after midnight, and I came to my desk three hours ago to get to work. Instead of work, I found procraductivity. The first hour was spent organizing my files (how am I supposed to write about research that is digitally strewn all over my laptop?!). The second hour was spent on Facebook and Instagram, chatting with friends over text, and reading another person’s blog (which is basically how I feel like I spend most of my life lately). In the third hour, I finally decided that if I’m not going to get any actual work done, I want to at least do some writing (I set a goal this week to write 4-5 pages per day…let’s all laugh together). That’s when I remembered my own blog.
I started this blog four years ago as a new PhD student for the purpose of writing practice (and to complete a final project requirement during my first semester). People in the PhD world always say that the best way to make progress on writing is to write…ANYTHING. I guess the theory is that it is like Drano for the pipe that goes from your brain to your fingers: cleaning out the bits of your life that get stuck inside of you, flushing it out so that those beautiful-but-sticky academic thoughts can make their way down stream.
So, here I am…trying to get the pipes working again.
Four years ago me, on this blog, sounds so different than what I hear my narrative voice sounding like today. She was stressed out but determined; a little rambling yet to the point; kind of funny, and even “sunny” (a way my friend and PhD colleague describes my academic writing). Optimistic, some might say. She always had a lesson to learn or a poignant take-away for her reader. Aww. She was so cute, clueless, and had no idea what was about to hit her.
She knew something was coming, but she could have never guessed what…
When F = A: Grades in Grad School
As a second-year PhD student, I’ve gotten used to the grading system of grad school: all students get As, except when you get a B, which might as well be an F. In other words, you either cut it or you don’t. They probably should just make all classes pass or fail at this point in your graduate school career. I’m also not used to getting anything less than an A, ever. How do you think I got to this point anyway? I’m going to take a guess and say not many below-A (maybe below B+) students decide to become a career student (yes, I said “career student”—let’s just call it like it is). I took some time this week to think about the last time I got anything other than an A for a final grade. (In case you are wondering, it was freshman year of college when I blew-off University Choir in favor of naps and re-runs on TLC; yes, I got a B in choir…har har har).
This semester, however, has been somewhat of a deviation from my previous experiences. Not only am I literally barely passing a statistics course, but I also have a professor that has, thus far in the semester to my knowledge, given one student an A on any assignment we’ve had in her course. Uncharacteristically, I am not exaggerating. I have gotten Fs on my past two stats homework assignments, and homework is worth 50% of our grade. In case you’re not so good with the math (in which I apparently am no genius either), I’m well on my way to getting a grad-school equivalent of a big fat fail in this required course. Yay. As for the other class, my professor who just can’t bring herself to give any of my work an evaluation higher than a B, just gave our class a speech about how her grading reflects her honest evaluation of our work at a high-caliber institution such as ours. Oh, lovely—that makes me feel SO much better. She’s basically saying that she’s not sure why we were even admitted here, as we apparently can’t meet up to the standards. I actually thought I liked her at the beginning of the semester.
Today was a special moment in stats class. I got my midterm back, and it was a 97%. What.the.heck. Believe me when I say that after that exam, I was so confused about how I did that I had to resign myself to failing. It was not a case of, “Oh, you always do that but then you always get an A”. No, friends, this truly was a ridiculously confusing test that I apparently guessed my way through pretty well. In my mind, the A was the same as an F. I went into office hours and told my TA that I didn’t understand, but he didn’t believe me. I asked a question about the one part that I missed points on and totally didn’t understand what he was explaining to me. I, of course, sat there, nodded my head, and then told him I didn’t understand. He just smiled, shrugged, and said, “Well, you did well on the test, so I wouldn’t worry too much.” You’ve got to be kidding me.
On the other hand, in my other class, I feel like I am learning so much and am even able to apply that knowledge to my research. Yet, I can’t get an A to save my life. In that case, I don’t think the grade is at all reflecting what I’m learning, but in the opposite way. What.the.heck.
Obviously, I have to dig my heels in and try harder in both of these courses. For the one, I’m going to have to re-arrange my work schedule to make time to go to my stats TA’s office hours. Me + my TA = BFFs is my new model for statistics class. I’m hoping that the more time I spend in office hours will have a positive linear correlation to my understanding of the material (yeah…I don’t even know what that means). At this point, I just want to pass. Forget the A—just help me avoid the F. For the other course, I’m going to have to spend more time on my writing assignments, and raise the bar a little higher for myself. In both cases, what I am doing right now just isn’t cutting it. I need to change my approach (or else change my career, and we all know that it’s a little too late to turn back now).
What is the point of a grade in grad school? In both of these cases, it is not a fair evaluation of what I am learning in these courses. In some ways, it is purely an evaluation of my instructor’s expectations. I have had to adjust my own expectations, in the mean time. It’s no longer about being a straight-A student. I’m pretty sure jobs are not going to care what my GPA was during my second year of my PhD; instead, they’ll care about if I actually finished my dissertation (Lord, please don’t let me die ABD). Now, apparently, what is important is learning, and no one is keeping me accountable for that. Only I know if I am learning, and only I can make myself do that. Learning, not the grade, is what I have to focus on.
If only there was something out there that institutions used to hold me accountable to learning…like a grade…-_-.
Failure: I’d Better Get Used to It
I hate failing. I know it’s a part of life, and I know it builds character. It’s not that I’ve never failed; it’s just that I avoid it as much as possible. During my senior year of high school, I wanted to keep straight A’s, so I dropped Physics class for fear of getting a B. I played violin for one year when I was 12 years old, but quit because I realized I wasn’t very good at it. I’m not afraid of failing, but I definitely don’t like it. I take risks, but it might be true that they are more calculated risks than I’d like to admit. I don’t need my life to be full of sunshines and cotton candy, but I do like to succeed, and avoid failure when possible. That’s probably normal human behavior, but as I reflect on my recent disappointment, it has been something that has crossed my mind.
Today I’m thinking about failure and disappointment because I had two conference proposals get denied this afternoon. Back in May, I worked with a few other people and submitted proposals for the annual TESOL Convention (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). It is the biggest conference in the field of TESOL, and my first time attending was last year. As I sat through several sessions over the full four-day conference, I realized that I actually had some ideas that would be valuable to some of the people that attend. As soon as I returned home from the conference, one of the people I met there emailed and asked if I wanted to submit a joint proposal for next year’s TESOL Convention. One month later, I had written two proposals that I thought were brilliant and started making plans (in my head) for how I was going to logistically make it to Houston to present said brilliant ideas next year.
The first proposal was submitted to the Intensive English Program (IEP) and Administration section of the conference. There were three of us on this panel proposal, each having different administrative roles at our IEPs dealing with activities and cultural engagement, and we had a beautiful plan to share our wealth of knowledge on this important topic to other IEP teachers and administrators. Apparently the committee that reviewed our proposal didn’t agree. We got all positive comments (there’s a website to view your specific feedback); however, there were two contradictory comments from two different reviewers. One comment said that this panel would be for a very broad audience and would have high interest, while another comment said that the audience would be too specific and we should make it more general. Not helpful, reviewers…not helpful. Discouraging, but mostly I just feel misunderstood. Poor us. Failing sometimes makes me feel like that– like the world has just misunderstood and completely missed how brilliant I actually am! Usually though, it just makes me feel like…well, a failure.
The second proposal is something similar to a presentation that I’ll be giving at a conference here on campus later this month. A co-worker and I proposed a presentation on the development of a new program geared towards incoming international freshmen students. Given that international student enrollment is such a hot topic right now in many education fields, especially in TESOL/TESL, we really were confident that the committee would see how valuable and interesting this presentation would be. Obviously, they thought differently. We got only two short feedback comments for this proposal which were completely contradictory. The first said “Interesting topic to be presented, very well presented and organized, clear abstract, congratulations.” Encouraging, right? The second said, and I quote, “Topic not knew. Very general not researched based.” I feel like if you cannot distinguish between “new” and “knew”, you shouldn’t be reviewing conference proposals for the largest convention in our professional field. I also feel like if you don’t know what is considered “new” and relevant in our field, you should not be reviewing conference proposals. Also, I feel like if you think that all 30,000 presentations at TESOL are and should be research-based, or if you don’t understand the meaning of “general”, (a presentation on the specific development of a single pilot course at one university is not my idea of “general”), …I could go on, but I won’t. I feel like failing sometimes makes me feel too many feelings.
While I am of the opinion that my conference proposals were obviously fantastic, I am also aware that the acceptance rate for proposals for large conferences can be quite low. I think the main reason for my disappointment is that I just didn’t expect the rejection. I am keenly aware of the fact that one cannot always succeed (or have every conference proposal accepted), but are we supposed to prepare ourselves for failure every time, just in case? I’m not sure it’s very healthy to live like that, but maybe it makes the pending disappointments go down a bit easier.
This is a good growing moment for me, and an experience that will toughen up my “disappointment muscles”, so to speak. I have a sneaky suspicion that this will, in fact, NOT be the only time that failure will disappoint me during my PhD student experience.
Bring it on, failure—bring it on.