Daydreams of Grad School

Yeah, yeah, I’m behind on the blog posts.  It was a 3-day weekend, so sue me for enjoying it.

On Labor Day, I took the opportunity to sit in on one of my former professor’s classes.  I tried to get a copy of the text they were reading that day: The Survival of the Bark Canoe by John McPhee.  I couldn’t, but I brought along kolaches to charm the class & my favorite Cross pen for writing important things down.  I filled a page & a half of notes on McPhee’s technique, aspects of nature writing, & the non-fiction genre as well.

Even though I got plenty out of my time there, I felt weird.  I was coming into a class that was on their way to figuring out the focus of their work.  I knew only one person other than the professor.  And even though I could follow the conversation, I was reluctant to add anything.  It wasn’t my place & the realization reinforced, yet again, hey, this part of your life is over, girlie, move on.

Which set me to thinking, again, about what to do next.  Work isn’t as all-consuming as it has been, so I’ve actually had the mental capacity to consider what else I could be doing with my vast amounts of time & potential.  &, once again, I revisited the grad school question.

There are many, many reasons I didn’t immediately get into a program after UMW.  First, I have no idea what I want to explore.  Zero.  There are still so many gaps in my current education that I feel ridiculous.  I can critically approach a text, but fumble for the technical terms to describe its form.  My knowledge of the classics (of antiquity & the canon) is pitiful.  I have to steal glances to remind myself of the sonnet’s rhyme scheme.  I have the desire but lack the discipline.

So, that awareness of where I’m lacking keeps me from picking any focus for grad work.  Secondly, yes, I am a big chicken.  I’m afraid that the instructors & fellow classmates will chew me up & spit me out; I’ll be scattered like destroyed doll parts on the sidewalk.

Third, I have no interest in teaching.  None whatsoever.  I’ve seen what years of teaching have done to my mother & I just don’t have that strength.  It’s the same reason I don’t pursue reportage photography as a career.  I recognize that there’s a level of emotional vulnerability that I’m unwilling to reach.

The final reason is that I know I have an element of idealization about grad school.  That somehow, through another harrowing process of education, I’ll figure out something substantial about myself.  That’s not to say I wouldn’t, I just doubt it would be at the level of profundity I expect.  My main example is my daydreams about the Scandinavian Studies program at the University of Washington.  It’s the same program that Tiina Nunnally (a translator I admire) teaches in.

Why the interest?  My father’s family is Nordic; his last name was originally Olsen.  But given different factors (location, lack of funds for travel, neglect, estrangement), I’ve been cut off from that part of my family from some time.  I have some unexplained need to identify with them, but for the above reasons, find myself alone.

It probably sounds stupid: that looking to academia might help you figure out some part of your past or where you belong.  But, I found sympathy in Lan Samantha Chang’s novella Hunger, where one of the characters embraces an Asian Studies program for much the same reason.  In trying to orient herself within her family’s complicated relationships, she turns to academic study as a kind of self-knowledge.  Her mother notes:

Away from Tian and me, she seemed to have turned even more resolutely to the issues that had, at home, been cast aside: she studied the Chinese language, history, literature.  She could recite the long list of dynasties as well as I had ever been taught to do.  She had even begun to reading translation modern Chinese authors whom I had never bothered to look at.  She developed a passionate interest in China’s warlord era, and the role internal factions and coalitions had played in the events following the Japanese invasion.  I could not understand this.  Was she not interested in the present, or the future?

To be honest, this isn’t the first time I’ve felt a longing like this.  Often I’ve wished that if I had been a different person, I could have done my parents’ proud by going to BYU or going on a mission.  As if being someone different would mean I would feel this great relief, that I permanently fit into some greater tradition, instead of struggling to find that right place in fits & starts.  I know it’s an illusion, but I’m human enough to wonder.

Maybe one day, the program at UW might be the right choice.  But for now, I’ll keep it as a dream & store copious notes inside my copy of Out of Africa.


2 thoughts on “Daydreams of Grad School”

  1. I feel like I could have written this post myself pre-gread school (although much less eloquently).

    My quest for a decent job led me to grad school, and while in grad school I discovered my true passion–technical writing–and another grad school program I wish I had enrolled in instead. Whoops.

    I’ve been struggling with the realization that I am not happy. I have everything I have worked so hard and so long for, and yet it is not enough. Admitting this was tough.

    I guess what I am saying is that I think you are smart to wait until you are more sure. I wish Mary Wash had done a better job of showing me the possibilities of being an English major outside of teaching or creative writing. Grad school showed me how many career paths are available to us English nerds.

    Good luck.

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