Sunday, October 30, 2016

The PhD Chronicles #8: The Existential Crisis of the Week

Well, many readers are familiar with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the running criticism of the first season or two that wherein they encountered the "monster of the week."  Each week, the episode started with the appearance of a monster and somehow, Buffy and friends were dragged into the mix and were able to resolve the issue all within forty-two minutes of jokes, mayhem, and gumption.  Formulaic and to some degree boring.  Smallville and Supernatural also suffered from this in their early seasons before an ongoing and engaging plot could be developed that more strongly connected each episode into a larger arc.  


Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 1 Title Shot
Yes, Buffy & a PhD program have things in common.
I think this makes an apt metaphor for my experience with my PhD program right now and I would imagine the same for others in the program.  As we reach the mid-point in the first semester wherein we meet weekly, I'm flummoxed with how often I raise the question of why.  Why am I in this program?  Why do I think I can have a positive impact on this structure?  Why do the same things keep happening in higher education?  Why does it seem like the negative influences on higher education are the equivalents of Big Bads (the term used in such shows that the protagonists must ultimately face at the end of each season).    

I think a lot of it has to do with the two courses we are taking right now:  The History of Higher Education and Access & Equity in Higher Education.  They compliment each other quite well and while that is a good thing, it still can feel a bit daunting.  Access & Equity raises questions about whether we can have legitimate access if we don't have equity.  The course goes about showing how a lack of equity systematically instilled throughout higher education does severely limit access--even in (or especially in) institutes that we consider open-access institutes (e.g. community colleges).  Then in The History of Higher Education course, we are discovering the roots of higher education, the ongoing battles and the regular exclusionary practices throughout its history.  Together, they show that despite efforts and improvements in higher education, there are still significant (and purposeful) barriers to prevent students--especially vulnerable students--from succeeding.  

So as someone vested in the idea that higher education should be accessible and equitable and working at an institute (a community college) where that is part of its mission, I find myself in a challenging place.  Or rather, on some weeks, that's my existential challenge to keep going forward.  There's hope that the increasing movement towards free community college will take hold over the ensuing years, but I remain skeptical about that as a possibility.  That's not a panacea by any means and it leaves me wondering if hurdles to four year institutes will be made more challenging as a result.  

Other weeks, my question to be or stay in the program comes from the impostor syndrome.  Being second fiddle is certainly something I've struggled with throughout life, but in academia as an adjunct for a decade and now as an instructional designer, I certainly feel or am told directly and indirectly that I am inadequate compared to the "real faculty" (and like terms that I've heard people use, often unaware of my presence).  And the idea that I am doing a PhD program, which is likely to lead to an administrative role and to hear and know how much scorn is directed towards them also leaves me questioning my decision.  It can feel like I'm vested in higher education and the teaching and learning that go on, but that in all the work that I do, I'm still likely to be disregarded.  

There's also the challenge of realizing that higher education's continual shift towards consumer product and the increasing ways that academic capitalism undermines teaching and learning.  Whether it's students paying $1200 a year for textbooks or a food-company contract that keeps facutly or staff from ordering significantly cheaper and better-quality refreshments from anywhere else, it all feels like further attempts to undermine the system than to empower it.  And it seems unlikely that this is going away, rather it is only revving up.  
There are other things that make me wonder about being in the program.  Though like Buffy, one major component that keeps me fighting is my team.  My cohort, for lack of creative expression, is awesome and that makes a world of difference.  But I also have a sense that this time of soul-searching is part of the process.  That it may always be there but as it comes together, there is less and less concern about it.  Just like Whedon slowly was building towards something bigger and better, I believe too that I will end up in this new space--not just bouncing from crisis to crisis.  I've got to struggle through (just like Buffy) these early seasons to get the experience and disorientation under my belt so that I'll actually be ready for the Big Bads as they come along later.  

Want to catch up on my previous reflections about being in a PhD program?  Check them out:
  1. Acceptance
  2. Orientation
  3. Day 1
  4. Week 1
  5. First 2 Courses Completed
  6. First 2 Courses Finished
  7. Semester 2, Here We Go

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