Learning As Living
I couldn’t excel in the emotionally and socially-alienating structure of high school even though I was intelligent; it was a toxic environment that led to depression, self-harm (bulimia and cutting), and suicide attempts. Upon entering higher education in 1997, I sighed with great relief. In college, I found a home to which I would spend all but one of the last nineteen years as a student, an educator, and a staff member; sometimes, all three at once.
My father encouraged my intellectual curiosity, insisting on being a life-long learner and that the longer one lived, the less one knew. As the stay-at-home-parent in my middle class, suburban, white family, he reiterated these messages often. I like to think there was something innate about me that drove me to be a learner but my upbringing, coupled with the privileges afforded it, strong encouragement from mentors all along the way, and being the younger brother of an athlete (leaving me have to find my own area where I excelled), tells me that my circumstances strongly guided my desire to be involved in academia and to pursue what might be considered excessive education (a bachelor and associate’s degree, three master’s degrees, and a doctorate).
However, four other realms strongly intertwine with my educational development: libraries, the internet, books, and writing. They all overlap and weave into one another; it’s hard to fully untie them. Living within walking distance meant I regularly visited the library throughout middle and high school, just to explore and learn new things. Not only would the library introduce me to some of my favorite authors and books over the years, but they would introduce me to audiobooks, a form of reading and learning that has fundamentally changed my life. Around this same time, I gained access to the Internet and like the library, this allowed me ample opportunity to explore the pockets of knowledge and even teach myself new things (such as website design). As a respite from high school alienation, I also took to writing fiction and creating my own worlds. Eventually, I would complete a several-hundred-page novel by the end of my junior year of high school (after re-writing it several times in freshman and sophomore years). These accomplishments and pursuits stimulated my intellectual curiosity and confidence so that upon entering college, I was already primed in some fundamental ways for succeeding (self-determination, research exploration, dedication to long-term goals, willingness to learn for learning’s sake).
I went to the local state college, though I had been accepted elsewhere. I intended to be a high school history teacher (something that changed upon entering college and realizing, returning to high school seemed a bad choice) and saw no point in accumulating unnecessary debt; I also formed the belief that learning differences between institutions was minimum. I advocated my way into the Honors Program being on the edge of qualified and here is where things came together with a strong socially, emotionally, and intellectually supportive environment among the faculty and students that made my experience quite powerful. Between mentors in the Honors Program and in my department, I soon realized by my sophomore year that more degrees would follow, a master’s degree for sure, but now the specter of a doctoral degree was formulating.
Over the twelve years of learning in higher education, I’ve realized some important aspects about my learning. I learn best when I have the flexibility to take the learning in the direction that I feel is important but that flexibility is tempered by guidance and high expectations. For instance, my final project in my American studies master’s degree allowed me to pursue a fascinating subject (transpeople representation in media contrasted with the history of transpeople), but my advisors kept pushing me to make my writing stronger through additional application of theory and revising. By contrast, my final project for my instructional design degree felt less useful in that I was able to explore what I wanted (hybrid flexible pedagogy), but received superficial feedback on my work (grammatical edits). The failure to provide strong critical feedback has always lessened my educational experiences. I believe I am a reasonably intelligent person and I’m not interested in affirmation of my intelligence (though it can be appreciated), but rather I want feedback on how to make it better or insight into what I have missed.
As a student, I become quite frustrated and devalued when artificial barriers are put in the way of my learning (something strongly influenced by my roles as an instructor and instructional designer). When I struggle with my education, I want it to be on the concepts and ideas of the learning, not with peripherals. Therefore, if the instructor is using tools, they need to make sure the tool and their use of it are as seamless as possible. Too often, I have grown frustrated with an instructor throwing 20-30 readings into a single folder in Blackboard with no consistent naming convention. The result is a few hours, downloading, renaming, and organizing the readings in a manner that allows for me to actually know what it is I have to read. Such hurdles distract unnecessarily from my learning rather than enhance it.
I thrive as a learner when I begin making connections within the discipline or area of study and how it operates and its overlay. More importantly, I feel like I’m succeeding when I begin to create new connections, hypotheses, and knowledge within that area. In my undergraduate program, as I began to consider what to explore for my Honor’s thesis, I found myself being able to interconnect my learning in several different courses (Russian history, Gender in Latin American History, Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, and Contemporary European History) to understand a historical anomaly about the Russian witch-hunt and be able to explain it, through research. Being able to speak to something that no one had covered or explored showed me that I had been successful in my pursuit of a history degree.
This reflection would be remised if I did not also consider the informal learning that has played an essential role in my educational autobiography. As mentioned the library, books, and the internet continue to be my sidekicks to learning, always present and used to further explore what I’m interested in and also to explore other subjects and cross-pollinate different subjects to look for ideas or different frames. Then, of course, there is the ways in which being an instructor and instructional designer has helped me to understand my own learning and also helped me to learn that same material to which I was teaching. That is, teaching has showed me there are entirely other ways of learning material and that it becomes one more learning tool.
In so many ways, this autobiography is insufficient to a degree that I feel like each sentence could be its own introductory sentence to a chapter in the book on my education. Everyone may experience trouble with this but my challenge is that I have above average education even for a doctoral student and have thought deeply about all of it over the years. That’s not to say this exercise isn’t useful or that I still don’t learn from it, but that I still feel constricted by doing the autobiography justice. For decades now, I have seen myself as a voracious and enthusiastic learner. I’ve come to understand learning as a fundamental aspect of life and that its pursuit is another way of maintaining one of the most powerful traits that I think humans possess, the ability to change and grow.
If you have enjoyed this post and want to learn more about my adventures in my Phd program, check out this series of blog posts.
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