Sunday, November 15, 2009

To B (or not to PhD)


What does that conjure up for you?

It shouldn't be an easy question. We spend many, many years in school, and very important things happen to us there. Some of my most enduring memories are of events and people from schools. Second grade teacher. A walk down the hallway that was a transfer to a different class. The six weeks my brother and I attended school in Kansas while we lived with my grandparents. Sixth grade "split" class (high sixth and low sixth all in the same room). My best friend, Cindy. I could go on. You have your own list of memories. Some good. Some bad.

But when we dream of school, it all gets very simple. Fear, anxiety, forgetfulness, failure. You've got to have had these dreams before -- you've totally forgotten to prepare for a test; you've forgotten to attend a class for the entire semester; you've arrived at school in PJ's.

I was looking for an image to illustrate this post, an image of a dream of school, and found an interesting one (see left) Adam posted with a discussion of these dreams and what they might mean to us once we're out of school. Ok. But I've been dreaming of school in a different way lately.

I had a dream near the end of May: I was a student at school in a building that seemed to remind me of every school I have attended and schools I have seen in other cities and countries. The classes were big and there was a big courtyard. There were a few people from the iSchool PhD program and a host of others whom I didn't know. It was formal education. The dream's emotional tenor was of anxiety, competition and a strange feeling of disconnection, even in the midst of a clearly social milieu. It was structured. Bells rang and classes started. I left my books out in the rain at one point. Two guys were fighting in the courtyard. It was like that -- unrelated scenes, vignettes and feelings just happened, all around me.

I headed towards a class that I wanted to attend, but not actually sign up for (i.e., audit), and sat down at the back of the class, but the professor refused to permit anyone to attend without registering. The refusal woke me from the dream.

I thought about the dream all the next day. And I keep coming back to it, again and again. Now that I am just 6 weeks from the end of the year I've taken off to mull things over, it's time to evaluate, and time to decide. Although I have always treasured learning, firmly believing that to live is to learn, somehow or another, the learning that we box up into chunks we call grades (K-16 plus graduate degrees), with classes and teachers who judge whether we learned what they thought we should, and degrees we are to acquire to enter different types of work we want to do, this learning does not appeal to me now.

Instead, the 11 months of my almost completed year off (to say nothing of the many other decades I've spent on this earth) make clear that learning goes on every minute of every day of our lives. The degree to which we seek it out, independently of formal education, characterizes us. We are adventurous, open to new ideas, explorers, curious, avid readers, eager to talk to people about what we have observed and thought about, or we are mired in routine, resistant to change, comfortable only with what we already know, averse to travel and uninterested in people who are different from us. It's a continuum of course. I'm somewhere on the end with those who like to learn, but I know that my interest in formal education is over. That presents a challenge, aside from the challenge that I'm actually in a PhD program at the moment. Formal education's packaged degree program provides a structure that learning in the wild doesn't. In the wild, there's no degree; no slate of courses; no forms to fill out; no templates for your progress reports; and no template for your terminal qualifying paper and dissertation. In fact, learning in the wild never ends. The journey is the destination. Sort of like life.

But more than this, learning in the wild makes no demand that you learn any particular thing at all (beyond what it takes to survive). You can learn that it's not worth it to sift through the granite gravel that got washed into the pebbled stream in your front yard by yesterday's wonderfully torrential rains, by actually trying to sift it and realizing that the effort outweighs the benefit, or you can sit on your deck and watch birds. You can construct detailed experiments and test hypotheses and write up your results and submit them to the public for comment, and learn even more about your results from those comments, or you can try a new recipe and see whether your childhood aversion to beets stems from their having been canned or whether beets just taste bad. You can delve into botany and learn about all the plants in the area where you live, or you can see what difference it makes to your garden to fertilize it every other week with fish emulsion and seaweed throughout the summer.

The question, "what is the point of this or that learning," gets you thinking about priorities, where to invest your time. But the question eventually collapses into "what is the point of this life," when one feels, as I do, that life and learning are one. "What do I want to learn in the next 20 years" becomes "what do I want to do with my life?" I still don't know what I want to do, but these 11 months have shown me that I don't have to know what I want to do to know that I am through with school.

I can see more clearly every day that teaching, research and service (education-style), or more simply, making a difference by sharing knowledge with others, in the hopes that either directly or indirectly, it will help them or their circumstances, is not the only way to make a difference. One can also make a difference by being a source of encouragement, a smile when its needed, or just an ear or shoulder to lean on. Indeed, one can make a difference by tending a garden. Someone no doubt tended the garden that Boris Vian stood in as a wind rushed through it. Many years later I can read his lovely observation that "[t]he wind cleared a path for itself through the leaves, and emerged from the trees filled with the scent of buds and flowers" (a rough translation from the french poem, L'Ecume des jours). The gardener probably never knew, but c'est la vie.

I have begun to see that the roles of teacher and student are, for me, part of being on autopilot. Being a teacher pervades my identity -- I have always taught, I think of myself as a teacher and I really enjoy it. Those sound like reasons to continue teaching. But I teach every minute of the day! In paying close attention to mental chatter this year, I find myself narrating my present moment experience, as though I am passing on what I know and observe to some invisible student, rapt student. I'm like on Twitter on steroids. What a revelation! Maybe the point for me isn't to pass things along right now. I am not expert at what I want to learn, so how could I teach it? And I don't want to spend any more time passing along the things I know already. It seems like the wrong choice right now. I'm not sure why. It just does. It will be a good exercise to stop teaching, both in my head, and in the real world.

I sense more clearly every day that the path I'm on will lead to recognition and acceptance that everything ceases. I visited my mom today and felt, once again, desperate sadness at how it is when you can't think straight, don't remember much of anything, can't make your hands carry out your wishes, can't see that well, and can't say what's on your mind, what's left of it. I still have a long, long way to go on the journey to come to terms with the loss that a disease like dementia inflicts. But if it weren't dementia, it would be something else. That is life in all its dimensions. Growth, expansion, exploration, creativity, and then contraction, decline, loss and eventually, death. Not regrettable. Just the way it is. Life and death are one and the same thing. Annie Dillard's splendid, Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek explores this phenomenal contradiction -- how can our world be so beautiful, and so filled with violent death? But no! It's no mystery. They are one and the same. Every week I get a little closer to accepting this, to not wishing it were other than how it is. I haven't managed to surrender entirely, yet. I guess I fear that I would scream out loud, or die of the pain if I actually totally accepted what is happening to her and what will happen to me and everyone I know and love, eventually. Who in their right mind would accept this if they didn't have to? Ah, but we do have to.

Two months after the "no doing school half-way" dream described above, I had another school dream, this one quite different .....

It started out being about other things (I was in a store, trying to find things that I wasn't able to find), but then I ran into a professor who asked me point blank whether I was going to continue in the PhD program. I hesitated and the professor quickly added, "We have other students that we would like to accept into the program to take your place." I answered that I had an appointment scheduled with a member of my committee. The professor responded: "Before you go, I want you to know that no matter what you decide, I love you." The professor embraced me very sincerely, very warmly and very affectionately. It was a very pure embrace, devoid of role, of selfishness and of ego. I just felt loved and accepted. The roles we had assumed as guide and student, and which had, to some degree, interfered with our relationship as friends and colleagues, dissolved. We were simply friends again, warm, loving, supportive friends.

I see the professor in these dreams as a projection of that part of myself that fears failure, rejection and loss. In the first dream, I feel that I must do what others want me to do, though I react out of conflict, emotionally, with resistance to their expectations. In the second dream, I accept unconditionally whatever I choose to do. I rest in unconditional love. Wow. I must say, it was a fabulous feeling. You know how strongly you can feel a feeling in a dream, well, the truth is, you can feel that feeling awake too. We all have our fears. We have our aims, our resistances, our anger and determination -- all driven by our egos. But we also have, at the center of our being, total, complete and unconditional acceptance and love. I can relate from that, rather than from the ego on the surface.

I have learned so much from school that it's impossible to value it all. It's priceless, in other words. But I simply could not have learned any of what I've learned this year from a book or in a class. There is no degree in this kind of thing. There is no graduation. And it won't get me a job. The knowledge just grows and deepens and expands, affecting in the end everything I know, do and say. What more could I want?