Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The PhD Chronicles: PhD'ese

Here I am at the half-way mark of the final semester of my first year, almost done with my fifth and sixth course.  Things are going well and I'm enjoying the different challenges the program affords.  This semester's courses offer a bit more practical exploration, though still embedded in theoretical contexts, and I'm finding that a different experience from last semester which focused more on conceptual underpinnings of higher education (though still with practical considerations)  However, this week, I noticed at two different times when it was clear that my learning was kicking in.  

These were curious self-aware moments where as I engaged in dialogue, I began to hear echoes of things discussed in class or recalled things that I had read.  My mind switched into the "what's the 360 degree higher education understanding of this subject?"  I have had these moments before when working on previous degrees but never taken the time to sit with them as I did this time.  


Word cloud of this blog post
These are powerful moments in my learning journey as they represent the absorption and application of the learning that is happening.  The semesters are so intense and often, it can feel like I am rushing to get through the readings, rushing to get through the papers, rushing to just make sure I am in the right class at the right time.  It's a bit of a chaotic whirlwind that is largely marked with grades and credits.  But these moments where I begin to speak the language of my program, PhD'ese, if you will, I realize it's more.  I can feel the paradigms changing and the filters becoming more complex.  And I absolutely love it!  It's these moments that cement me to the educational journey as much as the small progress points or the congratulations I get along the way.  

But these moments are tricky and challenging for me because they sometimes come with an awareness of changes and what assumptions others might make about those changes.  That's fuzzy, I know, but I'll get to explaining it.  

I'm in a PhD program in Higher Education.  Basically, I'm going to be a doctor of higher education, which can sound a bit meta but also for many, they see this as having one of two career paths:  Become a scholar who produces knowledge about higher education or become a practitioner in the form of a...GASP...an administrator.  For those not in higher education, "administrators" have a dubious reputation and are largely cast as one of the big ticket items as to "what's wrong with higher education!"    They are often represented as the enemy by faculty and staff.  To move into administration is to move into the "dark side."  (No lie, that term has been used in reference to moving into administration so often in the places that I've worked, that one needs only say that someone is going over to the "dark side" and everyone knows that means administration).  

I get the question regularly, "what are you going to do with that degree?" and the real question they are asking is, "are you going to become an administrator?"  I cringe at this question.  I do.  I strongly identify with faculty.  I have taught over 100 college classes, I have been teaching for 10 years and for me, the classroom experience between students and faculty is sacred.  But this question asks me to declare my trajectory.  The tension under the question often seems to suggest what they are REALLY asking is, "can I trust you or not?"  Some may suggest this is my imagination but unfortunately, it's hard not to see the vitriol geared toward administration (and I'm not claiming this is unjustified--administrators can often be aloof, insincere, disconnected, and problem-inducing) and assume that this will be directed towards me.  Maybe not at first, but by answering that question in the affirmative, I can anticipate a slow parting of the ways and that kills me.

It hits me so hard because I believe in so much, have such respect for, and much understanding of the faculty.  The idea of a wall slowly forming between me and them seems strange given how much I work with them day to day and in general believe so much in faculty-support.  The second reason is that it's these exact relationships that I need and want so that I can be a more effective and responsible administrator, if I choose to go that route (notice, I'm still not committing within this post).  By identifying my trajectory, it means losing some of the honesty and transparency that I currently enjoy and am able to do my work successfully.  It also kills me because many of these faculty are friends and I've grown to appreciate so much over the years, that on a personal level, I hate the idea of not being able to have those same relationships and interactions in the future.  

So what does this seemingly tangent have to do with my realization that I am occasionally slipping into PhD'ese?  Well, one situation had to do with two colleagues who are faculty members.  We were discussing an incident that Faculty Member A had encountered, one that included several different facets of the college.  There was one particular action that seemed to feel problematic for all of us involved.  We began to slip into sensemaking, defaulting to the old chestnut that is blaming these two administrators for being out of touch or disconnected from the real issues.  However, it's at this point that a few other thoughts that came into my mind that I began to share.  As I shared them though, I became aware that, were it not these two faculty members whom I've been friends with and interacted with outside the office for years now, that it would have sounded like I was defending the administrators' decisions.  

Defending wasn't necessarily my goal but merely to understand in what contexts they may have performed their actions and there were a few that came through.  The ideas that came through were the product of my training and learning in my program, and yet, the concern that I might come across as "defending" the administration was also generated by being in the program.  But as I shared my thoughts I could only hear the back of my mind, what might go through other people's minds when I share my learning,  "Oh, he's going to become an administrator...and he's already on his way, defending their actions."

And that's where I get a bit scared about PhD'ese, even though I enjoy these moments.  Learning at a fundamental level is change.  And the learning at the PhD level is significant change.  I want that change and I appreciate that change.  I'm a life-longer learner; it's par for the course.  But It's moments like these that I worry about those changes which may distance me from the people who I work hard to support and feel so much a part of.  

This post was meant to be a reflection on the changes I feel happening as I go through my program and I suppose it is still that, but I guess it wasn't the reflection I was thinking it would be.  I'm still glad to have written and shared it as I feel like it helped me to get something out that had been needling at me since starting the program.  So thanks for reading!


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
  8. The Existential Crisis of the Week
  9. The Balancing Act
  10. Negotiating Privilege in Higher Education
  11. Zeroing in on Research
  12. Completing the Second Semester
  13. Dissertation Journal #1
  14. Dissertation Journal #2
  15. So Starts The Third Semester
  16. My Educational Philosophy...for now
  17. Dissertation Journal #3

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