What I Learned in Year One by Travis Rountree

Wow, so many first things I wish I knew in my first year and have learned since then.

Personal or Drama Central:

Without the support of my friends and family throughout that first year I can confidently say there is no way I would have made it.  Quite honestly, it was one of the hardest years of my life (sounds hyperbolic, but truly it was).  I moved from a mountain town that I grew to love dearly over the course of 9 years to Louisville, hours away from family and friends. Then I went through a terrible break up towards the end of my first semester. Luckily, I had friends I could depend on. I think that’s the first thing I would say when you come to PhD land.  Learn to lean on others. After the break up happened, I was in shambles and still had two weeks left of the semester. While my professors were so understanding (which was wonderful), I depended on my cohort like no other and they were there for me. From checking in over the phone daily, watching movies, or kidnapping me to get me out of my house, everyone in my cohort (and others!) helped me to make it through to the other side. Each person here was amazing and I truly appreciated it (really, thanks y’all). I also depended greatly on my family. If you have that support use it! They were tremendously supportive during that time in my first year and encouraged me to keep going all the way through this long dissertation process.

From that first year, I learned so much about who I was and how to live with and by myself (alongside my two kitties of course). One of the most significant parts of the first year was coping with change. I would highly recommend the counseling center too. It has helped me tremendously to understand who I am and to grow into a someone who now has a loving relationship. Am I oversharing? #sorrynotsorry

Professional…whatever that is:

Similar to Ashley’s earlier posting, I came into the program realizing that I didn’t know everything that my peers did.  I knew a lot from being a Writing Across the Curriculum consultant and being an assistant director of Comp., but still had lots of educational gaps to fill.  I had to be patient with myself as I adjusted to learning more. I also tailored much of what I learned to my own interests. First-year Travis did a great job of setting up Fourth-year Travis’s dissertation (Travis thinks it’s weird to talk in the third voice). From talking to my diss. director in his office about my topic to writing conference presentations that I used as the impetus for my dissertation chapters, I always tried to keep focus on what I could possibly use for the diss.

Like Rachel’s earlier post, I also had to learn that NO was not a bad word.  I’m such an extroverted person that I want to do all the things for everyone.  As I’ve moved further into the program, I’ve learn that it’s ok to say NO and use that time for self-care instead of work.

So…

After separating these things, it’s strange because the personal is professional and the professional is personal.  From Year One I’ve noticed that there is often a blurring of lines between those two. Some of the best mentors and professional friends have become the closest people in my life.  Another example of this is how I’ve recently become Facebook friends with most of the folks at my new university (including my department chair!).  I’ve come to realize that I won’t apologize for who I am (hell, at 35 I’m way past that).  I’m going to post pictures of drag shows alongside pictures of me presenting at Cs on the Facebook.  Speaking of, I have officially come out to my classes as queer (something I NEVER would have thought to do in year one) and am now publishing as a queer scholar alongside my Appalachian Rhetoric work.  Ah, so much growth and the merging of professional and personal. Huzzah!

What Travels Well…

Well, since this is one of the last “Year One” postings for this year I want to leave y’all with an excerpt from Jim Wayne Miller’s “The Brier Sermon.” I think it really represents my journey through graduate school from moving into an empty house to thinking about packing up and starting another “year one” at another place that I’ll call home:

Say you were going on a trip

Knowing that you wouldn’t ever be coming back

And all you’d ever have of that place you know,

That place where you’d always lived

Was what you could take with you.

You’d want to think what to take along

What would travel well

What you’d really need and wouldn’t need.

I’m telling you, every day you’re leaving

A place you won’t be coming back to ever.

What are you going to leave behind?

What are you taking with you?

Don’t run off and leave the best part of yourself.

POSSUM

Travis A. Rountree is a doctoral candidate in the final stages of preparing his dissertation for defense. He’s sad to leave Louisville, but is excited about the opportunities that lie ahead.

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What I Wish I’d Known in Year One: Or, On Dissertations, Assholes, Cupcakes, and Being a Person by Rachel Gramer

The dissertation is a piece, not the whole; a beginning, not the end.

The dissertation needs to be done—there’s no denying that. Outside of done, what the diss needs to be and do by the time you defend—and what it can be and do, post-defense—is up for debate.

What I wish I’d known was that my dissertation would never get or lose me any single job. I have been most surprised to discover that I was asked very few questions about my dissertation in job interviews for many different kinds of positions, programs, and institutions. It’s not that people don’t care; of course, the dissertation is a signature of sorts that shows other scholars not just what you are interested but how you think and conduct research. It’s just that there’s just no one piece of this puzzle that matters more than all the others. I was asked more interview and campus visit questions about teaching, contributing to a program/department, and being a colleague, than about my research or dissertation—regardless of the type of institution or position—because these are things that matter to the people deciding whether or not they want to work with you.

The dissertation is important. And I believe what Mary P said in my first semester here: choose something you are passionate about, not just something you’re interested in. Because we are curious, interested people who can find so many things interesting. But interest alone won’t carry you through the long haul of a 1/2/3 year project. Just like your diss won’t make or break you all by itself.

I was already a person before I entered graduate school.

This seems obvious. But let’s just say, some people (me) have found that some academics (not all, but quite a few) forget that people are people in ways that precede, infuse, and—perhaps even more importantly—exceed the bounds of being an academic and a graduate student. So many of the things that have been most helpful to me in finding a job that’s a good fit happened before I got to UofL: teaching high school, teaching two-year college, writing in/for a non-academic workplace, and gaining all kinds of peer mentoring and community building experience along the way. These experiences didn’t just shape who I am; they also helped me articulate who I am and who I want to be to any number of virtual strangers along the PhD journey.

When I use the phrase “gap year,” I try to self-correct. There is no “gap” year. There is life. And life lived outside the academy is a resource, not a deficit. Fuck anyone who makes you feel differently. Maybe they never made it out, or maybe they just forgot to check their own privilege and not assume that we all privilege the same kinds of being and doing or the singular trajectory of grad student-to-academic faculty. Sometimes all we can do is hand those folks a cupcake (even a tiny one), find ways to laugh out loud with them, and hope it helps.

Never underestimate the value of Not being An Asshole.

This is also on my list of reasons why I think I’ve done well in my job search, my dissertation process, and any number of professional activities (including publishing, co-authoring, mentoring, administration, grant writing, community engagement, and other professional development). Not being an asshole is not to be confused with being meek, weak, naïve, or nice all the time. It just means that I try to assume good intentions; and when I find myself immediately gearing up for a fight (sometimes before the scene even begins), I breathe deeply, pause, and try to be honest without being aggressive, presumptuous, condescending, or dismissive.

We all need to be honest with ourselves and with each other, but there are many ways to do so. I try to be honest while also being kind and thinking generously of others who are—not who may be—struggling in ways I do not know and cannot imagine.

Sometimes Not being An Asshole (or NAA, as folks in my circle call it) also means not choosing battles, but not seeing everything as a battle to begin with (thank you, FEMINISM). And Letting Go of what does not fill you up when you are nearing empty. What those things are is different for each of us; for me, those things are Competition and Complaint. I had to let them go in order Not to be An Asshole, for myself and to others. And I really can’t express in any blog post what a gift it has been to learn to be generous and kind toward others in such an intensely taxing, draining, constantly changing time of life during the PhD—because doing so has helped me learn to be more generous toward myself personally and professionally. And I need that, too.

Asking for help is not just OK—it can make us better people.

Like many graduate students (and many of you, I suspect), I am an introvert who learned, over a lifetime, to be an overachiever; and I was often spurred on by wonderful people who believed deeply in individualistic bootstrap models of success. This is fine (arguably), but this scenario did not give me many low-stakes opportunities to learn to ask for help. And we all need help. There is so much that is new for graduate students—in life, in work, in relationships, in writing, in budgeting, in learning how to be a scholar as a complex professional activity. And it is OK to ask for help, from your peers, your advisors, your family and friends.

Maybe some of you were raised to feel comfort and not shame at asking for help—great! I hope you help the rest of us out by modeling that behavior; meanwhile, the rest of us will keep trying to banish the knot of shame that rises up in our throats every time we even think we will come close to saying: I need help, I cannot do this alone, there has to be an easier way than suffering in silence. There is: ask for help.

It’s not just OK to ask for help—it’s so deeply deeply needed. When I have asked for help—which ranges from “Can you read these 25 pages of word vomit?” to “I need to do laundry at your house,” or “I can’t possibly meet this deadline unless…” to “Can you sit with me while I’m locked out, crying, and have a nosebleed and no tissues?”—I have let people see me struggling, received their goodwill, and had the chance to say Thank You. And that gratitude and honesty have made me a more generous peer and a better human being.

There will always be more good things to do than you have time to say Yes to.

Yep.

Grad school is a safe(r) place to figure out who you are and want to be.

I’ll end with this one because it’s perhaps the one I’ve forgotten most, often on a daily basis. While grad school is stressful, exhausting, daunting, taxing, draining, seems competitive, high stakes, and full of places to misstep–it’s also a place where people are charged with supporting you, building you up, checking in on you, guiding you in helpful ways, and giving you opportunities to try, to fail, and to fail better. And though it may not always seem like it, the stakes for any individual activity are relatively low (see #1 about how no one thing will make or break you).

And if any of these above “What I’ve Learned” statements are not your idea of what graduate school can and should do for you—that’s okay, too. I truly hope there are tiny cupcakes in your future. rachel-gramer

 

Rachel Gramer is a doctoral candidate in rhetoric and composition who is dedicated to the following: (1) not being an asshole, (2) saying thank you, (3) defending her dissertation in April, (4) getting her first tattoo on that defense date in order to keep it from being totally anticlimactic, and (5) doing work with and for others that encourages people to shine. And she has a job next year working with great people in a neat place, which is a most amazing relief and source of excitement. 

What I Learned in Year One by Megan Hartline

None of my best work happened alone.

Before starting at UofL, academia had always seemed like an individual venture to me. I had mentors and friends who would read over my papers, but the majority of what I did, I did alone. “Group work” was a scary phrase that always reminded me of projects I was forced to do in undergrad, which were never actually collaborative and always a nightmare.

That began to change during Mary P’s Community Literacy course, where I learned more about (and started wanting to do) research that happens in partnership with community organizations. Spoiler alert – community engagement is inherently group work.

My interest in community engagement led me to apply for the first year of the Digital Media Academy, and let me tell you, that is a project that is designed to be too big for anyone to do alone. Through the process of planning the pedagogy, logistics, technology, and assessment for this camp, I came to implicitly trust and rely on my team, which was absolutely necessary when it came to the craziness of enacting those plans in a two-week digital production camp for twenty sixth-grade girls. During planning, we learned to trust each other to do the work required to set everything up, and when camp started, we were ready to shift in and out of leader and supporter roles, making sure that camp ran smoothly and that none of us were overtaxed. After this experience, it’s unsurprising to me that so many of my other collaborative work has involved people I’ve worked with on DMA–people I learned to trust during the long-term planning process and the intense implementation of a major project.

Since that first DMA, I’ve worked at DMA a second summer, co-developed a community-oriented composition course, co-designed the Digital Composition Colloquium, worked with English grad students and the Council on Developmental Disabilities on Art as Memory, and collaborated with graduate students at the Community Engagement Academy on a project for the Parklands of Floyds Fork. I’ve written four collaborative articles and designed numerous workshops and conferences, and I’ve done none of this work alone.

These are the projects that I am most proud of and that I see as my best work.

And these experiences have led me to share the burden of the more independent projects, like my dissertation, with others. I join my writing group every other week so we can help each other develop our ideas and write the best work we can, and I can see how they have helped me shape and structure my project to be the best it can be.  

During my four years here, I learned not only to like but to fully embrace the group project, and I, along with my work, am better for it.

My suggestion is this: Find the people who make your work better. Talk to them. Share with them. Design projects with them. Don’t do the work of grad school alone.

Or in the wise words of Leslie Knope, another blonde go-getter trying to change the world: “Go find your team and get to work.”

Megan Faver Hartline (pictured with several of her collaborators) is a fourth year doctoral candidate in rhetoric and composition. She is in the final stages of dissertation writing, in which she is examining institutional structures for community engagement, and in the middle stages of freaking out about leaving Louisville in the next few months.

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What I Learned in Year One by Stephen Cohen

I learned a lot of things in my first year here. I learned what an ice scraper is for (to remind people from sunnier climes how drastically, inescapably altered life is after choosing to move across the country for – of all things! – a PhD).  I also learned what snow days are for (to remind people from Southern California about the joy of an unexpected, quiet day of reading and thinking – and probably too much napping). I cried a lot, and I read LOT. Sometimes I woke up wondering why I did this to myself (sometimes I still do), and sometimes I woke up excited about the new futures this experience would open (I still do that, too). It was exhausting and energizing, and I spent probably too much time being afraid that I would somehow screw it up – that if I talked too much to anyone, they’d figure out I didn’t belong here and call the authorities.  It was confusing, and most of the time it was all just…too much.
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There are important things I learned: about self-care, about working through “impostor syndrome,” and even small strategies to make daily tasks like grocery shopping and cooking and vacuuming more efficient so that I could have the time I needed to read and write my way through the coursework. There’s plenty of writing out there about grad school and self-care though, and though it’s tempting to rehash it here, I’ll leave it up to you to go find that writing because you’re smart and a good researcher, or you wouldn’t be here.
Since you are, I’ll share that one of the most important things I learned was to be generous. With my time and feedback and other emotional and academic labor. You cannot do this alone. Nobody can. (Okay, maybe you can, but you don’t have to). And although you will find faculty who will be giving of their time and nurture your interests and talents, they won’t substitute for the collegiality and familiarity the rest of us, as fellow students, can offer. I wish I had been more generous. I would not have made it through the coursework, and definitely not through the exams, without contributing to and benefiting from conversations in study groups and at coffee shops and in hallways and offices. Other people’s willingness to read and comment on my work was astounding, and invaluable, but not as surprising as the value of the insights that grew from reading and commenting on others’ work. Ask for help. All the time. And help other people when they ask – I got much more out of building relationships here than I would have thought possible.
I am kind of a misanthrope by nature. Social interaction is exhausting and anxiety provoking. I learned to go to things anyway. There are a lot of opportunities to meet and talk to other graduate students built into the calendar here – use them as often as you are able. In my first year, I missed my home, my routines, my family, the coast – all of it. And for a while, I was so full of loss there wasn’t a lot of room for learning about what I’d gained by coming here. It was in commiserating with my cohort that I actually began exploring my new city – and accidentally started to make it home. I guess this is all just to say that, if you’re kind of a loner, you’re not alone. I was surprised at the speed and grace and good humor with which other grad students took me in. Work hard to stay open (and boy, do I know it’s hard). Let yourself be surprised by the goodness of people. That’s how I survived year one. That’s what I wish I’d learned earlier. If you need anything – I’m here.

What I Learned in Year One: A Bitter, Angry, and Shameful Adjustment Period

By Jamila Kareem 

When I opened my laptop to begin this post, I had no idea what I wanted to share. In all honesty, I’ve tried to put year one of the doctoral program out of my mind. It wasn’t that bad. It kind of reminds me of starting a new diet regimen. The first few months involve lots of bitterness and anger and shame with a few moments of celebration, when you start to think “I can do this.” Eventually, you adjust. I adjusted. I had to, or I would have diminished academically, psychologically, emotionally, and socially.

For me, adjusting meant coming to terms with my perfectionism. I found myself surrounded by people, peers, whose talents exceeded mine in many ways. I became more aware of my blackness and my otherness in those moments and wondered if those aspects would keep me from being as perfect as them. Adjusting meant squashing that nonsense, because there would be many many (many many many many) more psychological and emotional battles to fight. Adjusting in year one, meant choosing which battles I wanted to fight and which I needed to learn from. Socially, I adjusted by becoming somewhat vulnerable and opening myself up to new relationships. Even as a lifelong proud, private, and protective introvert, I know that the climb out of this Ph.D. crypt would have been a lot colder and graver.1-jamila-kareem-pic

For me, adjusting meant admitting that there are a lot of things I don’t know and that has nothing to do with my intelligence. Year one was a unique time to look for all of the opportunities to learn outside of class, outside of the department, and even outside of the university. These experiences help me push through the bitterness and anger and shame. That isn’t to say that those feelings completed dissipated, but as I adjusted to the Ph.D. regimen in year one, I embraced my otherness in ways I hadn’t been required to previously. Now, I can push this out of my mind again.

Jamila Kareem is a doctoral candidate in her fourth year of the PhD program.