A Grad Student Struggles With Meaning and Minutiae
Carrie Kisker reflects on the myths and realities that led her to doctoral study.
I remember the first time I was struck by the desire -- no, need -- to go back to school and study higher education. It had been two years since I graduated college with a degree in psychology, and I was going through the motions in the fourth job I had acquired and soon tired of. At this particular moment, however, I was sitting in a stuffy university gymnasium in Fort Collins, Colo., listening to my brother’s high school valedictorian talk about the promise of a college education, and the challenges and opportunities awaiting the soon-to-be graduates. Despite the speaker’s nervous and self-congratulatory prose, I found myself fighting back tears, and suppressing the uncomfortable lump of emotion rising in my throat: Her words were hitting home.
Not two weeks after attending that graduation ceremony, I was poring over graduate programs and course listings, and checking out university ratings in the latest U.S. News and World Report. I began studying for the GREs with a feverish pace, eagerly slipping out of the office at lunch time to memorize vocabulary words and mathematical equations printed on the back of unused business cards. The enthusiasm and engagement I had experienced in my college education courses came rushing back, and I found myself wondering how I had possibly strayed so far from exciting words and concepts like pedagogy, access, student development and educational opportunity. On the whole, I had found the business world lacking imagination and intellectual stimulation, and counted the months, weeks, days before I would begin my study at the University of California at Los Angeles.
My naïve anticipation of a graduate career characterized by intellectual curiosity and communal investigation into the promise and potential of the American system of higher education was dealt a blow the first day of class, when I learned that I was expected to turn in (the following week!) an outline of the research agenda I planned to pursue during my time at UCLA. A research agenda? Although I had some knowledge of the issues in postsecondary education from my undergraduate studies, I had expected the first year, or at least the first month, of my program to allow for a broad exploration of the ideas that define the study of higher education.
Boy, was I wrong. I soon learned that this field -- at least from what I could glean from my own and my colleagues’ experiences -- was less about a passionate engagement with ideas, and more about carving out a nice little piece of the scholarship pie: adding an independent variable here, a variation on a theory there, and hoping that someone will find your work to be worthy of publication in a refereed journal.
Although it initially saddened me, this understanding of what it really means to study higher education sunk in quickly, and like all good doctoral students, I closed my office door, defined my research questions, and set about writing articles and attending conferences. It didn’t even faze me when a professor stated that the “limitations section is the most important part of your dissertation.” It makes sense: A scholar must define exactly what she can and cannot explain. Findings, in the study of higher education, rarely go unqualified. Okay. But what, then, does it all mean? Can we ever truly say anything? I entered graduate school hoping for stimulating intellectual debates and passionate investigations into evocative and important topics. Yet more often than not during the past two years, I have lost the meaning in the minutiae.
This realization came to me as suddenly as the decision to go back to school, as I was sitting in my writing seminar on a beautiful spring afternoon. I had just finished reading aloud a few pages of my historical analysis of the student affairs profession when I realized that somewhere in my discussion of the 1937 Student Personnel Point of View, my mind had wandered. As I stared at the last neatly typed sentence, I wasn’t sure what I had said or if it had made sense to the other people in the room. My disorientation was exacerbated by a fellow student’s polite question: “This is well written, but I guess I don’t really understand the problem you are addressing.” I froze. It wasn’t that I couldn’t articulate contemporary issues faced by student affairs administrators, or present why I believed a historical analysis was appropriate; I just, at the moment, couldn’t see why any of it mattered.
Do all graduate students -- at some point in their studies -- hit a stage like this, when the work you’re doing feels so disconnected from the reasons you were compelled to join the field in the first place? Perhaps these feelings are natural: A mid-(doctoral) life crisis of sorts, and I should just push on through. But maybe there is something to them. In focusing on the particulars and the probable we, as scholars of higher education, can easily become separated from our passions. I don’t mean to come down too hard on the scholarly community; it can be scary to write honestly about our fundamental beliefs and values in a piece that will be publicly discussed or peer reviewed. Yet it saddens me that an 18-year old valedictorian could so powerfully reconnect me to the transformative possibilities inherent in a college education, and so often in my doctoral studies I find myself grasping for the very reasons I joined the field in the first place.
Graduate school can be an alienating place. Ostensibly we all returned to the academy because higher education means something to us -- for me it is a belief in education’s ability to empower students and transform lives; for others it may be a deeply felt conviction that academe can and should assist society in becoming more socially just. But these are not the ideas we focus on in our graduate studies; instead we are trained to dissect discourse, pare down problems, and limit our attention to what is manageable in a 20-page article or 15-minute presentation.
Perhaps this disengagement from the greater meaning occurs because we -- as a community of scholars -- are constrained by the very environment we hope to change. Academic life has a way of stripping from us what is most basic to our work. Faced with impending deadlines, it becomes convenient to see methodology as procedures for conducting research, rather than as guidelines for interpreting or understanding meaningful information. It becomes increasingly easy to accept that passions and inspirations detract from empirical analysis, because employing the two together -- while it may lead to greater insight -- is exhausting and time-consuming work.
And in our haste to build an attractive resume or achieve tenure, we so often focus on the doable, at the expense of what might be possible. Our whole system is set up to create knowledge in smaller, more manageable, and more incontrovertible pieces. Yet this way of thinking brings with it the possibility that we become disconnected from the very reasons why our findings are meaningful in the first place.
Is it possible to infuse our scholarly work with more meaning? I believe it is. We can incorporate our beliefs, passions and inspirations into our work. Indeed, I believe we have a responsibility to include these big ideas; without them our contributions to the literature reduce to isolated findings and distant, scholarly implications for future research. When our writing acknowledges and draws upon these notions, however, we breathe life into our results and vitalize their importance. And then, perhaps, our work will lead to even greater change in the academy.
I have yet to meet a scholar of higher education who lacks passion for his or her chosen field. Yet in our hurry to see the world in terms of research questions and methodological limitations, it is all too easy to become alienated from the very ideas that give meaning to the whole enterprise. We need to remember what inspired us do this work in the first place -- a passionate professor, a poignant passage, or even a valedictory speech given in a stuffy gymnasium -- and allow these muses to spark in our writing our fundamental beliefs about the power and potential of higher education.
This will not be easy, of course. Staying connected to our passions and inspirations is a constant and evolving process, and one that is often overshadowed by the myriad challenges and expectations that accompany academic life. Writing this article has been, for me, a powerful reconnection to my beliefs and reasons for entering this field, but I still struggle on a regular basis to connect these thoughts and ideas to the piles of paper that each day conquer another inch of space on my desk, or the list of deadlines, inked in red pen, that is pasted to the corner of my computer screen.
Yet as I sit in my office, watching rays of sun infiltrate the vertical blinds that are nearly ubiquitous in professorial offices across the country, and listening to the electric hum of a campus alive with students moving between classes, jobs, and extracurricular engagements, I am reminded again of my faith in our system of higher education… and also of the importance of remembering.
Carrie B. Kisker is a doctoral student in higher education and organizational change at the University of California at Los Angeles.
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