Near the end of my Master’s program, I had the good fortune to attend a small workshop with Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley. Dr. Tinsley was generous enough to end the workshop with a Q&A. As all private Q&As between young profs and grad students are wont to do the questions eventually turned to
“HOW ON EARTH DO YOU GET THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL WITH YOUR SANITY INTACT?!”
Dr. Tinsley said something that got me through graduate school:
Don’t lose your love of stories.
Maybe your PhD isn’t in literature. Maybe stories, in the sense of novels or films, aren’t what got you into graduate school.
But something brought you here. Specifically, it was a love of something that brought you here. (Side note: I often listen to this song on repeat while writing or doing syllabus prep.) It was a bit of wonder at the beauty of a good story or the elegance of high theory or the historical intricacies of AAVE or the nuances of social commentary in space operas or whatever the thing was that made you say to yourself, “I could definitely spend 7 years and a book on THIS thing.”
The process of graduate school can wear away that sense of wonder. It starts to slip away in your first “Intro to the Discipline” course where you read the canon and start to wonder if you can shoehorn that thing you’re so passionate about into academic jargon. It erodes a bit more in a semester where there are no classes offered related to your thing and so you have to take a bunch of other classes and write a bunch of papers about stuff that isn’t your thing. Then come prelims where you read a wide-range of books and your sense of wonder renews itself but in a negative way that leaves you wonder-ing why so many half-baked theories got published in the first place. Then comes the actual dissertation which is just so much more work than you can imagine before you actually do it and you wonder if it was a mistake to start a project that seems like it will never be finished. In short, it’s very easy to lose your love of the thing, your wonder, somewhere along the way.
There are a lot of surveys of why 50% of humanities PhDs leave their programs before completion. None of them ask about wonder. Yet, from my own observations, a lot of people who walk away do so because that sense of wonder either turns to something outside of academia or withers away. In the most difficult moments of graduate school that sense of awe or wonder, that deep devotion to your topic, is your lodestone leading you through the Forrest of No Fucks Left to Give.
Wonder is, in short, a superpower we all have access to. It can be the thing that leads you down the right path research/career-wise, and it is an easily accessible answer to many teaching questions.
I know a lot of folks reading this will be preparing a syllabus (or several) for the upcoming fall semester. If you’re putting together a new syllabus use wonder as your guide to fill in the gaps. When asking what texts to put on the syllabus ask which ones you’re dying to talk about–which ones fill you with awe/wonder? Put those in.
When trying to decide how to set up assignments you can use wonder to ways. First, what assignments really sparked your own wonder and creativity as a student? Incorporate those. Second, what types of assignments have you always wanted to incorporate or try? Incorporate those.
I can tell you from almost a decade of my own teaching reviews the feedback I consistently get from students in every class I teach is that I really love teaching that subject. Some students think I’m a great teacher. Some students think I’m a terrible teacher. Some love me. Some hate me. But they unanimously agree that I really, really love teaching that subject even if they think I’m the worst person to ever stand in front of a class.
Similarly, every award I won during grad school was some version of an audience-choice award. I used to think that meant my research wasn’t good enough to win a more prestigious award. However, I’ve come to think those audience-choice awards really mean that I did an excellent job getting people to care about my topic and I think I did that because I cared so deeply about it even at the points when I hated graduate school the most.
Now, there’s a solid chance you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, “I’ve totally lost my sense of wonder so please stop blathering on about a superpower I don’t have.”
No, I won’t stop blathering on. Wonder is a renewable resource, my friend, and I believe in your ability to reclaim your superpower.
The reason I’m going on about wonder in our summer series on rest is because rest is the only way I know to renew your sense of wonder. There are so many moments that take it away. You could argue the whole academic system is designed to take away your wonder, but you have to find the moments to renew it.
I often find that little moments of wonder occur during moments of mindlessness. When I’m waiting for the bus or walking across campus and not really thinking about anything I’ll feel a deep sense of wonder and awe that I get to be in this space. Maintaining my sense of wonder, my love of stories, is also why I read fiction every day throughout grad school. Even though my PhD isn’t in literature it was important to me to stay in touch with my love of language throughout this process.
Finally, I know a lot, A LOT, of people who tell me that wonder is definitely important for their teaching and research and they will get on renewing their sense of wonder just as soon as they are done with graduate school.
You need to take time to attempt to renew your sense of wonder, your love of the thing, often. Ideally daily, even if it’s just for twenty-five minutes, because if you don’t figure out how to make rest and wonder part of your routine now then you never will.
I’m speaking particularly to humanities PhDs who want to get TT jobs here.
Graduating is a huge accomplishment. Getting a TT job is an even bigger accomplishment. For both of those accomplishments you are rewarded with more responsibility, not less. You have more things to do, more claims on your time, and the pressure doesn’t ease up. Sure, you have more money and better insurance, and those things definitely help some, but most folks I know who have TT jobs are just as busy as they were as grad students and most are more so. The extra money and better insurance means you (barely) break even with your newly increased work load.
This isn’t meant to discourage anyone from getting a TT job. Rather, I want to encourage you to do so in way that is sustainable for your mental, emotional, and physical health. On a related note, there’s some science indicating wonder seems to be a vital component for each of those things.