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…-_-.
Online Learning: A Disastrous Beginning
“This is nice. I get to relax on my fluffy couch, be in comfy clothes, light a few scented candles, and have a snack while I participate in my online class. I think I’m going to like this online learning thing!” say I to myself as the first online class starts for the evening. It’s strange that I’m in an on-campus program and two out of three classes that I’m taking are online, but if this is where modern education is headed, I should get used to it. After all, I get to learn from the comfort of my own home. However, one hour into my first class, I wake-up to my classmates introducing themselves, and my professor never calls my name. Uh-oh. I must have slept through my turn for the introductions! I hear her call out a few other students’ names, and when they didn’t respond, there was a comment about “technical difficulties”. Whew. Looks like I got by with it this time, but this is not going to be easy.
Fast-forward to the second online class for the week, the next day. This time I am more awake, had a Diet Coke (for the caffeine), and am ready to pay attention. The class was starting late because of technical difficulties, so I decide to pop some popcorn as a snack. “This is great,” I think. “I can even eat popcorn during class! Maybe online learning is really going to be for me!” However, just as soon as the class starts up again, I race to the microwave because I realized that instead of smelling popcorn, I’m breathing in popcorn smoke! Smoke alarms going off and the whole house now having that lovely burnt popcorn smell, I try to air out the house while paying attention to what my professor is saying. Strike two for me and online learning.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one having a hard time adjusting to online learning. Later on in the class, we divided up into groups to discuss the readings that were assigned for our very first session. There were four people in my group, but only two of us were able to discuss the article. One guy types in the chat box that he can’t hear anything, so he’ll just post something on Moodle later. Another guy never responded to our inquiries at all, so we had no idea what happened to him. As myself and the only other person able to use the software correctly try to discuss the article, there are lots of awkward pauses due to the fact that only one person can talk at a time without getting major echoes and feedback. After an entire twenty minutes, we only managed to discuss the article for about five of those minutes. Maybe my group members didn’t accidentally fall asleep on their couch or distract themselves with burnt snacks, but we all were finding it difficult to engage fully in the class.
During week two of my online courses, I knew I had to approach them differently. No snacks, no reclining on the couch with soft pillows and stretchy pants. Instead, I sat at my desk with a pen and notebook in hand, headphones in to drown out other noise going on in the house, and ready to engage my mind. I was listening intently, taking notes, nodding and “hmmm”-ing when something interested me. Then, it hit me—my professor had no idea that I was actively engaged in the lecture, just like she had no idea that I had fallen asleep the previous week. When I had a question or wanted her to expand a little more on an idea, it felt strange to interrupt the lecture that I was listening to. Because I couldn’t see her face, I didn’t have any visual cues as to when she was going to take a breath or break in the lecture so that I could insert an opinion or remark. I also realized that staring at a blank screen, or a PowerPoint slide with words on it, was not keeping my attention. I was not only learning online—I was learning blindly.
I continue to struggle as I learn how to learn online. My identity as a student, as I’ve discovered, has a lot to do with my physical reactions: verbal feedback, nodding, facial expressions, etc. When I have a question or want to discuss an idea, I don’t think in well-thought-out phrases or use a high level of academic vocabulary; when I’m learning, I think and speak in short phrases, and depend on interaction with others in order to verbally process those thoughts, questions, and ideas. Online learning is totally different. My professors mainly gauge my interest and activity in class through written posts later on in the week. My posts need to be well written, well articulated, and use a certain rhetoric that is far from conversational (at least, that is the caliber of posts that have been happening in these two courses). I feel that they do not get a sense of who I am, which, I’ve discovered recently, is important to me as a student.
Interestingly, this is not my first online class experience: I teach an online class a few times per year. The biggest difference for me, apart from being in the learner’s seat, is that when I teach, I meet with my students on Skype at least once per week. The course content I teach is different, and requires brief face-to-face meetings (involving advising the language learning process and teaching different phonetic sounds). There’s no doubt that having those video Skype sessions with my students gives a more personal feel to the course. However, I do have more sympathy for my students who, for the majority of the course, have to listen to pre-recorded lectures and do other online activities. While we have seen many benefits to moving this course online versus teaching it in person, I do now understand more of the disadvantages to online learning from a student perspective.
As it’s only one month into my online courses, I might change my opinion. I’m applying new strategies, including meeting in person with the few on-campus classmates in my courses to discuss assignments and readings. As time goes by, I’m re-learning how to be engaged in courses like these, and learning how to make my posts more “me”, including more personal stories, etc. While it may not end up being my favorite form of education, it certainly is inevitable, and I’m glad to be involved in these courses not only for the content (I do LOVE what we’re learning), but also for the shared experience of online classes in a more globalized and digital age of learning.