Friday, November 30, 2007

Grad School, AGAIN?

This fall, my friend Z. went on one of those alumni association tours of China. Just her, her mom, and a bus full of strangers she might not ever have spoken to otherwise. One night, she reported, on the way to dinner—in China—another tourist asked what they'd be eating and, when told about the Chinese restaurant where they'd be dining, responded with, "Chinese AGAIN?"

I laugh about this story fairly regularly. Partially because it is, as far as I'm concerned, the ultimate in clueless American tourist stories. It just captures the cliché so perfectly that it cracks me up. But I also love it with a sort of sympathy, an understanding of just how often our expectations are not met because we have failed so utterly to look around and take in just exactly where we are. So often, we wait for change without understanding our part in it. If we'd like to not eat Chinese food, it might be best to find a tour in Italy.

I sometimes think grad school is like being on a tour bus in China and expecting pasta carbonara for dinner. I chose to be here. I know exactly what work needs to be done in order to leave. And yet I am continually surprised how many of the dilemmas and challenges stay the same and how much of the work is never finished. I am continually surprised that I'm still trying to understand some fairly basic questions about my work, still trying to acquire skills to make it possible to write my chapters, still trying to negotiate academic relationships and get myself on a schedule and maintain some sense of dignity while turning in drivel that, while different drivel, feels just as bad as the drivel I turned in five years ago. I occasionally look around and think, "my god, how am I still doing this?" It starts to feel like a ride on the tour bus from hell with the same meal on my plate and a distinct craving for solid ground and something completely new and untried for dinner.

This is frustrating. Progress is so incremental that it feels like the bus isn't moving at all. It feels like an end is not only out of sight, it doesn't exist. Further, the frustration is increased by knowing that, ultimately, I'm driving. I can get off at any time. I could drive faster if I weren't so distracted by the landscape. But sometimes I feel like I don't know how. Or like I've gotten a flat tire and I'm stuck on the side of the road and I just can't be bothered to get out and change it.

And yet, somehow—somehow—things always seem to pop up that are surprising. Somehow, just when I think that things will always be the same, that I should accept them as they are, something shifts. It's actually a little painful, this reminder that you were sitting so still for so long, and now your joints ache when you finally move. I've had a truly superb week. A week in which the universe seems intent on reminding me how much can change when you're not looking. On Thursday, I woke up with $2.11 in my bank account and 48 hours until payday and no food in the fridge and at 11 am an unexpected check for nearly a thousand dollars showed up in my mailbox. And it wasn't even a mistake, a metaphor, or the only thing that's gone on since Thanksgiving. Things have shifted on all sorts of levels, and my heart is pounding a little as I try to keep up. I've gone into that Chinese restaurant and discovered that they make a mean carbonara. But I might just want the sesame chicken again, after all.

Photo by Richard Moross.


Blogger Amanda said...

Excellent post. I just realized the other day how much has changed in my grad student career. The shift from unknowing grad student to someone who has some knowledge about her field was so sudden that I feel dizzy and off-balance.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

I love the comparison! Great post.

11:16 AM  

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