Frogging graduate school?

Sunday, 20 March 2011 § 1 Comment

In knitting, there’s this delightful term that belies the frustration of realizing a project is FUBAR: Frogging.  It’s a play on the near-homophone when we say we’re going to “rip it apart.”  Get it — rip it?  Ribbit?  Frog?  Anyhow, when you decide that, for whatever reason, a piece is not to be salvaged, you frog it.  Perhaps you’ll start over on the same project using your reclaimed yarn, perhaps it’ll be used for something entirely different.

Yesterday I saw a student from my year — not in my program, but also about to start her comprehensive exams — post on facebook something to the effect of, “I wish I could take everything I know now, go back to August 2008, and start all over.”  I was about to “like” the statement, but then paused.  To be fair, I paused trying to decide if I actually like-liked the statement, or whether it was more worthy of something like, “Amen, sister,” in the comments.  (Darn you, Mark Zuckerberg, for only allowing me to “like” rather than “sympathize” or “agree” or “hear what you’re saying.”  Why, WHY must you narrow the spectrum of my e-affect?)  But anyhow, I was trying to figure out how to affirm what she had said and realized: I don’t.

On the surface, I agreed with the sentiment: If I had known three years ago what I know now; if I had had different strategies in reading and studying; if I had better foreseen where my interests would lead me; if I had had a different framework for deciding what was important and what wasn’t; if, if, if — then maybe these exams I’m staring down wouldn’t seem so daunting.  Maybe it would feel like there had been a little more coherence, a little more direction, a lot more discipline to my approach to graduate school (or at least course work).  Maybe I wouldn’t lie awake at night thinking about all the days or weeks or projects that felt like utter false starts, wondering if I will have made up for them or whether, because of those wasted few weeks in my first year of graduate school, I am completely. and. utterly. screwed.  Maybe I wouldn’t feel such turbulent anxiety about all this.  (Though honestly?  Knowing me?  I probably would, anyhow.)  Maybe.

Since in general in life we don’t get mulligans, and since none of us would WANT to have to go through a second shot at our comprehensive exams, it’s sort of a moot point.  But let’s pretend that we could — would we actually want to?  Would we want to frog the project, soak and dry the yarn, wind it again, and cast on the project anew?  Maybe make a sweater instead of a shawl, or maybe just not screw up the shawl so badly this time?  I dare say — in the case of the graduate school project — no.  The knee-jerk reaction is simple — for me, at least.  My second year here was hands-down the worst year of my life.  I was soul-crushingly and abjectly miserable, and I would not want to relive that year for anything in the world, thankyouverymuch.  “But wait!” the reader objects.  “You can frog out all the misery of that year, too!” Hm… maybe.  I’m not sure.  But still.  I think at the end of the day — or, more precisely, at the end of the third year — the false starts have been part of (wait for it!) the process. (Why yes, this is a normative claim, and yes, I am trying convince myself of this as I write!)  Perspective comes hard-earned, and while I wish this experience felt less like a medieval Ordeal or auto-da-fé sometimes, it isn’t exactly supposed to be easy.  And I’m pretty sure that even if we had started with MAs in hand — the closest it gets to starting the PhD process with already-earned graduate school wisdom — other things would still kind of suck sometimes.

So, yeah.  If I could go back and counsel first-year Ethel Louise, I would urge myself to read The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy a little more carefully the first time through.  I would tell myself to follow my instinct and not bother with that trainwreck of a research paper my first year.  But really, I doubt younger me would listen to older me.  She’s one stubborn little pipsqueak. And anyhow, if she hadn’t agreed to present a second colloquium paper in her second year and then scrambled to pull it together and finally presented it, she wouldn’t have stumbled unwittingly onto her dissertation project.  So there.

I think what I hear my colleague saying — and this is the part that resonates with me — is, “I wish I felt more confident about this.”  And to that, amen. I wish this didn’t feel so awful sometimes.  I wish my mind didn’t spend frantic moments harping on what in retrospect seem to have been wasted time and missed opportunities.  I wish I felt a little more (okay, a lot more) confident heading into this — that my confidence didn’t feel like a facade.  I wish I didn’t have to wrest myself constantly from this vicious cycle of guilt-anxiety-panic-paralysis.  And so I’m trying to absolve myself of that guilt and redirect that energy to things like, oh, I don’t know, Franz Fanon.

“I wish I could take everything I know now, go back to August 2008, and start all over.”  “I wish I felt more confident about this.”  Mark Zuckerberg, why won’t you give me a button that lets me “kind of like, but more of a qualified like, because it’s really more along the lines of empathizing with a certain reading of what I hear you saying while also showing solidarity and support”?  Is that really too much to ask??

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