Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Wilderness in Graduate School



When I entered my doctoral program, I began hearing stories from my colleagues further along in the program about seasons when they sincerely considered leaving the program.  Such experiences are usually linked with sensations of purposelessness, futility, and sheer hopelessness.  Being a third generation doctoral student (and second generation off the farm on my father's side), none of these stories surprised or genuinely worried me.  In fact, its as though I've been waiting for this season since my first year of my doctoral program.

Years One & Two

Plateaus in Wyoming.  Taken during our cross-country drive from Chicago, IL to El Cerrito, CA (Summer 2011)

My first two years were filled with lots of time-consuming work for all of my courses.  Reading and writing felt easy and came naturally in comparison with suffering through the process of gaining proper competence in Hebrew, re-learning Greek, learning to read French and German as well as suffering through the boredom that was Aramaic.  I spent hours and hours with lexicons, texts, and flashcards.  Sweet Hubby was often the only reason I remembered to eat many times.  However, through all of that I knew that I could accomplish my goal, finish my coursework, and I also had a sense of purpose.  So, while the terrain was rough, it wasn't impossible.

Year Three


Salt Flats of Utah. Taken during our cross-country drive from Chicago, IL to El Cerrito, CA (Summer 2011)

I was finished with coursework, and thus entered into odd liminal space known as Comprehensive Exams.  At my particular school these are not orderly, predetermined exams.  Students compose their own exams.  For my particular program, they consist of two general exams, which are closed-book, four hour exams covering various material about the New Testament & Old Testament as well as two special exams, which are research papers of 30-40 pages each.  I had to propose my questions for general exams and my topics for my special exams.  After my proposal passed, I could begin the exam process.

 However, I was tired of being a poor student.  
So, last year was filled with a pleasant ton of actual, employed work.  I worked as a Teaching Assistant for two courses for Introduction to Old Testament as well as an Introduction to Christian Worship course.  I taught Introduction to Hebrew in a local church on Saturday evenings.  I worked as the Area Assistant for my department, taking minutes at monthly meetings, and assisting with inner-departmental communication.  Hubby procured a full time job.  The money was flowing in, times were good, and I was gloriously busy!

Year Four

I'm currently in my fourth year of the doctoral program.  I successfully proposed my exams in May and "promptly" began studying, reading, and writing.  By "promptly," I mean that without my study group for the general, closed-book, timed exams literally forcing me to work, I doubt that I would have finished those exams by the end of October.  Now, I am avoiding and trying to stop avoiding researching and writing my research paper exams.  After writing an eighty-five page masters thesis, I feel as though I shouldn't be so terrified of writing as much as I need to; however, I am.  I realize that I know nothing of child-birth; however, writing for me is the mental equivalent of giving birth.  And it hurts.  And it is joyous.  And it feels as though it takes months before its time to start pushing.  

Storm Brewing in Nebraska. Taken during our cross-country drive from Chicago, IL to El Cerrito, CA (Summer 2011)

It has been about six months since I was last in the classroom.  It has been about six months since the work I'm doing in this doctoral program brought me any modicum of joy.  Over the past several months, the sun has hidden its face, the dry air has parched my mouth, and I have truly begun to lose hope of ever reaching the end of this leg of my journey - graduation.  I have struggled with feelings of abject hopeless and the sense that what I'm about to research and write on its utterly meaningless.  

How can I impact any type of change in this world?  

How can writing on the Bible help the town of Ferguson?  How can my work on minor characters in the Bible bring any type of healing to the victims of the Ebola and HIV/ AIDS epidemic?  Even if I get a job in a seminary, teaching pastors, could I really create change in the ways that the Bible is used to perpetuate domestic violence, hatred toward LGBTQA individuals, justify the rape culture of the US, and encourage a blind eye toward white privilege?  How could I ever actually help change our society?

In this season, I have despaired at my own tiny reach, and my own small voice.  I lost my way in the darkness of the storm.  I finally admitted to myself that, quite often, I am miserable in this pursuit of a Ph.D.  I would love to give up, surrender, walk away.  But, there is no way but forward if  I am to answer my calling.  

This is how I felt walking into my field's annual conference in San Diego, CA a week ago.  SBL/ AAR (Society of Biblical Literature/ American Academy of Religion) is like an annual pilgrimage for professors, students, and pastors from all over the nation.  We gather together, share papers on all sorts of amazingly-nerdy topics, network, enjoy fantastic receptions, and catch-up with old friends.  It is supposed to be enjoyable.  I arrived in San Diego feeling like an abject failure at all things.  

However, very slowly, over the course of my three days there, after attending several sessions and meeting some amazing scholars, I began to remember, "OH!  THIS is why I'm doing this!"  (For those of you who follow me on Instagram, I'm sure you saw many of those moments!)  As a doctoral student and aspiring scholar, professor, and mentor, I am becoming a member of various communities - academic communities, religious communities, etc.  In doing so, I join with others in pursuing socio-religious change.  My small voice joins other small (and not-so-small) voices to create enough noise that we cannot be ignored.  It is through the constant practice of holding one another accountable, doing the tedious work of scholarship, and remaining connected with the current socio-political and religious climate that these communities help their individual members make a difference in the wider world.  Listening to papers and panelists talk about Rape Culture, Labor Rights, Migration, Minority Reading Approaches to the Bible, and participating in those subsequent conversations renewed my conviction that I am called into this work of biblical scholarship.  It also rejuvenated my spirit.Since I am a remarkably outgoing-introvert, I'm still recovering from all of social interaction; lots of sleep has been happening since I got home late Tuesday night. Despite my exhaustion, a residual sense of hope remains.  

I might still be in the wilderness, but now I am pretty sure I have found north.  I know where I'm heading.  My mouth has tasted sweet water, and my bones have received the energy.  Now, my challenge is to hold tightly to this hope, and begin reading & writing these 30-40 page comprehensive exam papers!


What wildernesses have you experienced?  How did you get to the other side?  Or, are you still there?  Who made a difference for you?  I'd love to hear your stories!