The Good Struggle

My professor tells us: “I want you to keep thinking about our conversation and wrestle with these ideas and the perspectives that were shared into the next week. I want you to leave here with your head hurting.”

Then she quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald. She says, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” 

So that’s what I’m grappling with today, this week, every day.

Recently, I discussed the paradox that you have to get lost to find yourself. In unpacking this statement, I think I’ve realized something that is “so grad school”. I thought that graduate school would help me sort out “what I want to be when I grow up”. I expected to “refine my passions” and “hone my craft”. I’m definitely doing those things but more so I’m realizing how much I need to learn and how much there is to learn. At this rate, I could justify being in school forever! I’ll continually tell people that I feel like I have the stamina to continue to a Ph.D. but not the academic focus. I’ll probably also tell them that I revere so highly those scholars who have earned a Ph.D. and I feel like my contributions could never amount to theirs. Since I regard their work so highly why should I attempt to add anything novel to the already colorful, complex conversation? Who am I to think I could contribute more than or differently they have? [That’s the impostor syndrome talking]

Metaphorically, I view my role as a student like being a sponge. In undergrad, my only obligation was to soak up all the water, to take everything in. I figured that Sponge-Man-677713graduate school would be akin to
wringing out the sponge and keeping damp only the parts necessary for my work and my interests. Right now though, I think that the sponge is getting so heavy it may likely submerge itself below the surface level and stay there until someone fishes it out. That’s to say, I’m overwhelmed. I’m overwhelmed because everything I hear interests, confuses, inspires, challenges, motivates, and teaches me something.

One of the great parts about graduate school is that you’re extended the opportunity to take everything you’re hearing (and reading) and think critically about how it fits or does not fit with the theoretical framework you already subscribe to. It’s your privilege in this academic space to be skeptical of the resources you’re engaging with and then slowly piece together how these texts and lectures challenge or complement your worldviews, your practice, and your research.  Here’s how this works in practice. Tonight, I endured two and a half dense hours of discussion focused on post colonial theory and liberalism.  I felt like I was bobbing between drowning and keeping my head just above the water. I hoped I was making the “right” kinds of contributions. I fought my internal discourse that most cacophonously questioned if it was evident that I [felt that I] understood practically nothing from the week’s reading. I hoped I wouldn’t be “found out” and that my utter confusion wouldn’t be embarrassingly exposed. [Side note: remember, impostor syndrome creeps into the forefront in moments of perceived (or actual) weakness.] Overall, I felt like I didn’t belong in that room. I put a lot of effort into trying to appear as if I was following along intently while also honestly attempting to hear to my peers who were speaking more eloquently, articulately, and substantively than I was even thinking. They were speaking the language of anthropology. They were making the “right” connections to the text.  As the class was ending I was exhausted both from my valiant attempt to portray a role I felt I didn’t deserve and that I didn’t fit into and from the course material itself. It felt like I’d never thought that much and that quickly in my whole life. I was metaphorically drenched and actually distraught.

Then I heard that quote. For a moment, my experience of knowing nothing and feeling inadequate or like I didn’t belong subsided. Shifting my perspective allowed me to recognize that contending with so many challenging and conflicting ideas and having the ability to react to the seemingly crippling weight of the resulting confusion, is the most authentic type of learning and is a testament to my intelligence (and competence).

Now comes the part where I need to give credit where it’s due. Nearly three months ago a friend (and mentor) told me this: “You’re supposed to be questioning whether you belong and feeling like you’re in over your head. We can go on and on about women in high power places and impostor syndrome, but we don’t have time for that, and I’m not even sure if it would be helpful. So instead I’ll say this. If you felt capable, if you felt like this was going to be easy, if you felt like you were “one of them” and totally qualified, then I would tell you to leave. I’d tell you to leave because I would be confident that you wouldn’t learn and you wouldn’t grow because you thought you already knew everything.” – this is most definitely a classic case of “I told you so” or one of those moments where no matter how many times someone tells you you won’t believe it until you figure it out for yourself.

In graduate school you feel like you’re supposed to be an “expert” and yes, that’s part of it. However, I think it’s more about gaining expertise in a few areas and how through the struggle and act of constantly restructuring and revisiting what I know, what I think I know, and how these ideas shape my underlying assumptions I will be able to enter a space space of real vulnerability and discomfort, a space of learning.

I’ll still need to reaffirm my place here and there will be days when I doubt my skills, competency, knowledge, stamina, intelligence, etc. when it comes to my work as an academic but for a moment, I’m feeling inspired by this lack of direction because it illustrates for me the possibilities for growth and new realizations.

Your thoughts go here!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s