Mistakes don’t guarantee learning, but learning requires mistakes.
Earlier tonight, my friend texted me “I’m over this whole constantly chasing the homework train business.”
She was talking about grad school, and sharing a sentiment I shared back when I was earning my master’s. But, a bit to my surprise, I replied, “I miss grad school. Not to be dismissive of the woes — at all — but I just really miss that feeling. It’s different. I liked it.”
I’ve been moving so fast in the years since, I don’t spend much time reflecting on those two [intense] years. But there’s a lot to it that I hadn’t named. Our conversation continued from there, and I feel compelled to share what was bobbing around in my brain.
Grad School: The Circus
I often refer to my current life as a circus, with my manager being the ring leader and me the juggler, dancing bear, and tightrope walker. But the circus really began in grad school, and I don’t say that with even the slightest amount of remorse.
In grad school, you’re in a circus with a safety net. You’re walking a tightrope, and you’re constantly pushed outside your comfort zone, encouraged to challenge your assumptions, predispositions, and attitudes toward concepts you may’ve held firmly to your entire life, but when you falter, there are folks there to steady your step. There are professors, advisors, supervisors, and cohortmates who are there to catch you when you fall.
In grad school, you can fall and get back up — and there is a network of people there to help you do so. You get your bruises or encouragement, dust yourself off, and get back on the rope. Or don’t. You choose.
Now I’m in a different circus — not necessarily a competing one, but a different one. A traveling circus. And it’s not that any of the folks who made up my safety net in grad school would want to see me fall, but I don’t want to impose, because I know how many tightrope walkers they have in their caretaking, relying on that net.
I miss that safety net.
Grad School: If Time Machines Were a Thing
I won’t say “I’d do it all differently” because I wouldn’t. I’d do most of it the same, or similar. I appreciate my time in grad school, and cherish the relationships and influences folks had on me during that period of my life. But there are a few things I’d approach differently:
- Embrace the safety net, be more daring on the tightrope, and fail often. Grad school, and school in general, is a time where your primary, if not sole, purpose is to learn. There are few better ways to learn than by trying and failing. And there are few safer places to fail than in school.
- Ask for help more; it’s an invaluable, ephemeral resource. In school, you’re in a social contract with a whole network of people (profs, advisors, supervisors, cohortmates) who are dedicated, willing, and able to help you. That’s not a thing outside of higher ed, at least not in my neck of the woods. It’s not that I didn’t ask for help when I needed it; it’s that I would ask for help when I didn’t, because I could have used it, even if I didn’t realize.
- Remind myself constantly that I’m a student, not a professional. You’re in this brackish space, practicing what you’re learning (as GAs and RAs) while learning it. It’s important to not shirk responsibilities, but it’s also important not to overcompensate for experience you don’t have. You may be a paraprofessional, but you’re a suprastudent: you’re not just expected to learn, but to learn enough to be able to teach.
I love my traveling circus. I take risks — probably too many — but walk my tightrope with intentional, sure steps. I know that if I fall, I fall. There’s nothing there to catch me. That’s how things are now, but that’s not how they were. I wish I’d realized that then, danced along my rope instead of tip-toeing, focused less on making it to the other side and spent more time falling.
A couple months ago I ventured into the land of the podcast. A couple weeks ago I roped my friend Ian in and “Thought of the Week” became “The Hawthorne Effect.” The whole thing has been a huge learning process. After doing a number of different podcast approaches by myself, and trying a few different things out with Ian, he and I sat down tonight to reflect on what we think has worked, what hasn’t, and set a clear plan for what we’ll do in the future. I’m really excited with what we came up with.
Starting next week, I’m confident that folks who have been listening to the experiment that has been the podcast will notice a huge shift (in a positive direction) in the feel and product. While we won’t know if that’s true until next week, this reflects the way that I try to approach most new projects: experiment a bunch, reflect, synthesize, retool, then focus in.
With my writing for It’s Pronounced Metrosexual, I followed this approach. My first few things I posted were all over the place, and I had no idea what would resonate with people, and I didn’t really think too much about it. I just did a bunch of different things, really focusing on exploring the possibilities and less on doing what was “right” or “good.” After a couple months, I looked back at what was effective (shared the most, generated the most discussion, etc.) and for the past couple of years I’ve kept my focus on producing content based on those first few successful themes (e.g., the “privilege lists” on the site).
I like this approach. It works well for me. I’m going to try to do apply it to more parts of my life.