academic reorganization · day in the life · feminist win · grad school

Guest Post: Hitting the PhD Running

Morning, y’all! We have a guest post this morning from Aubrey Jean Hanson:

What I want to share with you here and now (thank you for having me!) are my experiences of shifting into the academy. That is, I’ve just begun a PhD program, and a good friend suggested that I share my experiences here. I am honoured to be writing for hook and eye. How cool is this blog?
Before I can really start, I have to acknowledge the miraculous fact that I am sitting down to write. How come I am able to carve this time out now to write, to think? First, I take seriously to heart the advice I have heard from many others that we simply have to carve out these kinds of spaces and times – to do the things that aren’t strictly necessary, but that push us a bit beyond the everyday, extend our practice, feed us in a new way, bring a new kind of satisfaction, indulge a whim. I’ve heard some very admirable people talk about the happiness that they find when they just make room for these things in their days. (Here too!) In this new life of mine, I am going to experience this kind of happiness. I am doing it every day. Otherwise, why have I shifted away from a career that has been not only my life-long goal, but a source of intense and wide-reaching fulfillment?
Second, the stars have aligned. Yes, the other things are calling me (dirty floor, errands to run, kitty litter, lists of readings, course work, kids’ toys all over bedroom, piles of laundry, dirty dishes, presents to buy for birthdays, exercising, heaps of emails, grant applications, paperwork, scholarship hunting, kids watching cartoons again instead of doing something more nourishing, like, I don’t know, learning Latin…); I certainly hear them. But the coffee has kicked in, the other things are underway, the kids are quiet, my partner is out, and somehow I am alone at a clean table with my laptop. (Have laptops done almost as much for women’s autonomy as birth control? Really, so exciting, this mobility with work.) There are many days when circumstances don’t actually conspire in this good way, but today is an exception. And now, I can begin writing.
How I come to where I am is like this. I have wanted to be a teacher since I was a little girl. I had older sibling authority, I liked helping others, and I loved school (and learning too). I was awesome at school. I wanted to follow through on that and be an awesome teacher. I went directly through. I did an awesome English degree and still wanted to teach English in high schools. Most of my honours-program comrades were going on to grad school, but I was sure, and I completed my B.Ed. as soon as I could. When I finished, I was so excited to be finally there. I was ready to jump right in. Except for a couple things – the timing was not great, given the circumstances in the job market, and the opportunity came up to jump right into a Master’s degree in Sociology and Equity Studies at OISE instead. It was super fun; I loved the challenge and the people around me. So I did that, and then I started teaching in high schools. I had an awesome job; I had some great teaching years. I had a couple of kids, had some time on mat leaves, moved provinces, and did some more teaching. Part of me thought that I was just getting started as a teacher: working towards a permanent contract (put your hands up if you have had the pleasure of moving from temporary contract to temporary contract), less than ten years into the career, and still feeling joyful and optimistic about my work. But in the dark, busy middle of last winter, I put together an application to another graduate program. I told myself I was just keeping my options open, and helping myself to feel that I had agency in the choice – that is, instead of feeling trapped or victimized by my non-permanent job situation. From where I am now, I see that I was already leaving. As soon as I filled in that application, I was out the door. (I reserve the right to keep that door open, though!)
So what is my experience of coming into this PhD program, of coming (back) into the university world, given where I’m coming from? I am tempted to jump away from this to other questions. Like how do I navigate the straightness of academic spaces, when I want them to be queer-friendly spaces? Or how do I engage with the webs of power relations at work in departments and classrooms? Or how do I avoid feeling like either an imposter or a cultural informant as a Métis woman working on issues tied to Indigenous studies? Or how do I integrate my feminism into my work in a sustainable way, and why does that end up seeming invisible sometimes? But I promised to focus on this one question today: how is it, starting a PhD?
First of all, it’s not a super big leap. I am studying education, and there are many continuities in both the intellectual terrain and emotional climate. Beyond that, though, I’ve felt a visceral kind of relief to be reading and talking about things that really matter to me with new colleagues who are as interested as I am in intellectual engagement. For instance, my classmates and I just read an essay (by Yatta Kanu and Mark Glor) that, among other things, takes on the effects of capitalist imperatives on teachers in public schooling. Like, check out this quote: “Particularly disconcerting for public education, knowledge economies impose ‘soul-less standardization’ that leaves some students behind by eroding curricula and pedagogies that build on the experience, language and cultural identity of these students, decreasing teachers’ autonomy of judgment, undermining moral vision and social commitment in schools, and derailing the very creativity, ingenuity, and flexibility that schools are supposed to cultivate.” I have wanted to bring up issues like this for years, and the staffroom at lunchtime, when everyone has a thousand things to do, just never felt like the right time. (I have also encountered several spaces that I can only describe as anti-intellectual in my years in public school teaching – and yes, there are social reasons for why that sometimes happens, and yes, I think it is tragic and discouraging that many of our young people are being taught by teachers who don’t usually have the opportunities or energy, given the constraints and burdens in the job, to really think critically and constructively about learning and teaching.)
But wait, some of you will say – you’d better not be coming into university life expecting to find freedom from socio-economic constraints, unfettered intellectual engagement, and open-minded, friendly communities everywhere you go! Haven’t you seen that video on youtube, “So you want to get a PhD in the humanities”? Don’t you know that universities are just another kettle of fish, with their own slimy, smelly parts? I think that I do, as I am in touch with the lives of some very dear friends working and studying in universities, but also, I am taking to heart the good advice that I have heard from several trusted friends (and from a post here , too), that I treat my PhD as a job: a four- or five-year, not very well-paying, but challenging and enjoyable, job. I don’t have any hard and fast expectations of what will come next. I am consciously bracketing off my future; I’m not dwelling on my future job prospects, and I am open to doing different kinds of things afterwards. This PhD is a track – I will run round the course, and then see what’s next. Maybe I’ll be stronger, more tired, more competitive, sicker of races, more unrelenting, faster, dizzier, stinkier, shinier, thirstier. Going around, I hope I won’t feel that I am running away: my teaching will always be with me – I can hardly say I’m leaving education when I clearly can’t stay out of school. But I know I won’t lose the feeling of my own feet touching down, weight straining, muscles pushing, mind fighting off unwillingness, breathing step by step, body moving under my own power.

Aubrey Jean Hanson
PhD Student

One thought on “Guest Post: Hitting the PhD Running

Comments are closed.