Saturday, September 06, 2008

New semester, new approach to studying

Fall semester got underway about 10 days ago and I'm only taking one class this semester. This leaves plenty of time for other things, like mornings spent gardening, watching birds, watching butterflies, outsmarting armadillos (you'd think that would not be much of a challenge, but you'd be wrong). And yesterday I completed discussions with all three of my committee members about what I did over the summer and where I am now. All three seemed to agree that slowing down was a good idea (at least I think they all agree on that). The fact that I mainly got comfortable with not knowing what I want to write about, rather than finding a topic over the summer came as no surprise. I guess it takes how long it takes.

I also recognized something that was rather surprising: I think I have been looking for a topic in the wrong place. Not just copyright-wrong, but library-wrong. As much as I have tried to convince myself that the dissertation can be just a big paper, and not necessarily related to what I want to do for the next 10-15 years, I don't buy it. As such, I really do have to accept that for me a dissertation topic is a choice about what I want to do for the next 10-15 years, not just what I want to study for two years. What I was finding for most of my topics was that I didn't think I could handle them (sustain interest in them) for two years. If that's true, I sure can't handle them for 10-15.

So I came up with a different approach. I decided to put aside even imagining that I am in a PhD program, trying to come up with a topic, and instead imagine that I am taking some time off to figure out what I want to spend the next 10-15 years doing. In this time off I am taking a statistics class and still working 10 hours/week at the library, but compared to full time student, this is not a stretch to imagine that I'm taking time off to contemplate my future. Of course, I also have to put aside the fact that I thought I had already figured that out. That's what I am doing in iSchool, right? I'm getting a PhD in information studies. But I was defining that rather narrowly, it seems. I was taking as my subject matter, Libraries. Libraries and the future. Libraries and the digital environment. Libraries and preservation and access. Libraries and orphan works, public domain, fair use. Whatever. It was all focused on Libraries.

Two years in the iSchool may not have clarified for me what I want to do for the next phase of my life, but it has clarified for me what I don't want to do. I don't want to try to affect Libraries. They are what they are, and they are going to be what they are going to be. They'll be fine.

So, I start with, not a clean slate, but a slate with a question on the top: "You have, let's say, 15 years to accomplish one more thing in your life. Based on what you've done so far and knowing a lot more about your strengths and weaknesses than you did when you first chose a career as a teacher (1970) and then as a lawyer (1986), and trained carefully for each of them, and rode them where they took you, what do you want to do next?" That's the question I'm going to concentrate on answering this semester. Maybe I won't have an answer by December, but at some point I will know the answer. Then, I'll see whether there's a way to pursue that that makes a PhD in information studies make sense. I am inspired by Lance Hayden's path through all of this. His subject was one of great interest to him personally (surveillance) and he managed to find a way to look at it through an information policy/content analysis lens (discussion of red-light camera surveillance analyzed for use of metaphor).

That's several bridges to cross down the road, however. Add to those two, the bridge of the PhD being valuable enough to me personally and to my achievement in my next career to make the bureaucratic aspects worth enduring. Lots of pieces to fit together here over the next couple of months. But I'm not in a hurry anymore. Now that I fully appreciate the gravity of what I'm deciding, I am going to take my time. I took two years off, bought a 32' full-keeled ocean-going sailboat (a Westsail) and sailed around the gulf and the carribbean to decide about what my second career would be. Two years! Why should it take me less time to figure this one out?

Ah, there's a rare butterfly hanging out in my garden today, a White Angled-Sulphur. He's been around about a week. I snapped his picture, above, a couple of days ago. I have time for this. This is the life.

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