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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online

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On Shadowbox(ing) Our Degree Paths

Consider the unsung mementos that humanize our academic journeys.

December 19, 2019
 
 

Deidra Faye Jackson earned her Ph.D. in higher education from the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where she teaches in the Departments of Writing and Rhetoric and Higher Education. You can find her on Twitter at @DeidraJackson11.

Ever since I was a youngster, no other holiday season has filled me with such giddy anticipation as this time of the year. Our festooned Christmas tree, the artificial mistletoe bough (which, inexplicably, to this day, still hangs year-round above the dining room doorway of my family home), the conspicuous crimson-red bows and frosted mock poinsettia displays scattered throughout, the miniature plug-in snowman with pipe figurine that comes alive thanks to a flicker flame light plugged into a kitchen outlet, the soulful holiday music that plays from my father’s vintage reel-to-reel tape recorder … all that.

I love it all.

Eons ago, this time of the year also meant my mom would drag our shadow box out of the darkness. This small drawer-size glass-front display case depicted a miniature world. To me, it was wonderful because it represented a realm, albeit an imagined one, to which I always wanted to escape. There, in that place, it was picturesque, peaceful and quiet. Our shadow box portrayed a snowy winter wilderness that, with its illuminated windows and smoke-filled chimney of a remote cabin artistically elevated and situated near the back, seemed to radiate warmth, kindness and a secure refuge from the blustery storm outside.

To the wonder and amazement of others, shadow boxes can also hold specific mementos and keepsakes arranged in distinctive ways that hold special meaning. For graduate students engaged in the academic journey, it’s worth considering what the unacknowledged, but significant, tokens and reminders among us might be. A conference lanyard from your first research presentation? That email announcing your first academic journal submission rejection? A printed word of thanks or encouragement from a student or colleague? A photocopied picture of you and your harried colleagues during a research writing group session? That out-of-town speeding ticket you didn’t need? The contact information for your computer-savvy acquaintance who has bailed you out of more than a few major IT issues?

Though unheralded and a bit cliché, these mementos depict the days of our lives. So, too, they represent bricks in the path toward our collective academic journeys. Through the stress, the uncertainty, and the malaise that life in the academy often brings, it’s worthwhile to stop and think about those meaningful fragments we’ve acquired along the way.

What keepsakes would you put in your own shadow box? What seemingly insignificant artifacts mean the most to you or hold some special relevance because of their symbolic meaning to you? For me, coffee shop aromas, empty wineglasses, personal book dreams and syllabus and assignment redesigns would figure prominently.

Most noticeably, my academic shadow box would be permeated by the welcoming scent of coffee shops, where I spend much of my time engaged in thinking, reading and research writing. The times that I escaped campus and patronized certain java shops but largely avoided purchasing their aromatic coffee and tempting refreshments to hop on their Wi-Fi and study in a safe and inviting atmosphere makes me reconsider publicly thanking them in my own research articles.

Likewise, probably dozens of wineglasses that went unfilled during my dissertating journey deserve their own heralded (un)space inside my shadow box. I was too scared to drink anything more than a taste of alcohol as a grad student, being petrified at the prospect of my mind becoming too foggy to proceed with my research. Currently lucid, however, I raise a glass to my colleagues who pop bottles to lament disappointments or to laud accomplishments in the academy.

The notes I scrawled on scraps of paper and documented virtually on my laptop illustrating new book and research ideas would occupy my shadow box, too. I call them “productive distractions.” They momentarily took my focus off one project to concentrate on the beginnings of another.

“All information in this syllabus is subject to change at any time, especially during the first weeks of the semester.” As semester-to-semester instructors, many of us feature similar language in our course guides, and during the year, we make changes to our course assignments and/or delivery methods. The modifications I made to revise lectures, plans, activities and other student engagements should get their due as additional undertakings that may be done unobtrusively but to big significance.

I thought about other indefinable remembrances that might also occupy ample space in our shadow boxes: the instinct and dedication to serve students; the fierce determination to persevere through master’s and doctoral programs; the affirmation of rewarding friendships, collegiality and other effective relationships; the unabashed capacity to reach out and seek help, be it for self-care, extended deadlines or a modest travel stipend; and the ability to process loads of information consistently and within a relatively short amount of time.

We tend to get lost staring into the best shadow boxes as time seems to stand still while we gaze into the reminders of bygone times. This holiday season, and along our respective academic journeys, may we have time to consider and acknowledge the special unheralded details that hold some special significance to us all.

What keepsakes and/or mementos would be in your academic shadow box this year?

[Photo by Tamara Menzi on Unsplash.]

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