Finishing graduate school has upended my notion of time. I no longer have to be writing or thinking in the service of my graduate education. The neurotic need to be doing something all the time, to be moving forward on multiple projects, all of which feed into the Dissertation, has passed.
Well, the need to be writing and researching for the dissertation is over, but the neuroticism remains, I’m afraid.
I’ve always been plagued by the Need to Be Doing Things. I am never content just sitting still. I always want to have interesting projects in the works.
Prior to graduate school, I did. I read new books, researched, wrote frequently, took classes just for the fun of it (well, also to get back in the swing of school, since I planned many years in advance of actually going to graduate school). I took 2 semesters of German, so I could exercise my brain and learn another language. I took literature classes, one on Native American literature, which was excellent, and another called the History of Ideas on Women — tracing views of women from Plato to today. They were well conceived Harvard community college courses, and I dutifully trekked to class after working all day.
What do classes offer me?
I know I don’t have time to take classes now, but I crave what it is I got out of classes. For one thing, I love lectures. I enjoy hearing people speak knowledgeably about topics, to pose questions I hadn’t considered. I like thinking about how people formulate their talks. I listen below the surface, beyond words (sometimes at the risk of missing the actual content!). I study gestures, turns of phrases, the very structure of the lecture. My attention span is seemingly infinite in the classroom, as I always find objects to study. It is for this reason that I have often had a connection with professors and speakers, because I make eye contact and visibly nod with understanding. In short, I like observing communication and hearing how thought is structured.
It goes without saying that nothing pleases me more than to crack open a new book and absorb its contents. I love the idea of being “assigned” a book, and having the chance to learn from it. I really do need to kick the bad habit of skimming texts. This practice served me well in graduate school, but I no longer need to digest more information than I want. I get to choose how much information I want to let in. No one expects me to show my knowledge on certain topics (well, except for my Knowledge Monster).
The final topic I’ll address here about course education is the opportunity to write as a way to work through ideas. If left to my own devices, I tend to write about material I know, or that is rote for me. For example, my feelings or self-help strategies. But taking classes enables me to explore areas I would not otherwise write about. Writing helps me assimilate material, to learn what I know about it. I can focus my interest and make connections among topic areas.
Taking the learning out of the classroom.
So the question, then, is how do I experience these things now that taking a class is not feasible?
- Take a class online. Open Yale Courses offers free classes you can watch or just listen to (downloading or streaming). Open Culture is another option.
- Research a topic of interest. Then blog about it. Or journal. Or write a piece that addresses questions raised. Then research some more.
- Develop your own syllabus. Commit to learning about a certain topic, then read the material and write about it.
- Join a book club. This is one way to have an “assignment” and then an opportunity for communication (aka discussion).
- Write your article/book. This is a great way to get in the practice of research and writing. The tough part is lack of communication/interaction, making this feel like the most solitary option.
Those are great ideas, but here’s the problem. I’m all over the place. I can’t seem to focus. I’ll listen to a lecture or a great story on NPR, do some research, and then I drop it. I can’t seem to commit to any one topic long enough to feel well-versed in it.
Another challenge is I feel like I don’t even have ideas about what I want to learn. As I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve been trained to believe everything I do is for a greater goal (ie, dissertation). It’s like I feel internal pressure to continue my dissertation research, or otherwise conduct legitimate academic research. And if I don’t, everything else is fluff. Or if I don’t, everything else is a distraction from the true mission at hand – to keep doing academic research, the only legitimate work to be doing if one has a PhD.
Didn’t I write some posts about letting myself off the hook? Gah, here I am, expecting certain things from myself.
I guess I need to sit down and really think about what I want. This post is a start, as I have reminded myself of elements of learning that are especially stimulating and important to me. It would be useful now to consider how to put these into play in a way that alleviates expectations and makes me feel alive, like I have all the time in the world to learn whatever I want.