I’m in a bad way right now.
I’m waiting on the last notification regarding my admission to a graduate school for a doctorate program in comp/rhet. To be clear, this is both the fifth notification of the Fall 2012 group, and the tenth when combined with the Fall 2011 group. So far I’m 9/10 in the “no thank you” column. I’ve told myself throughout that only one has to say “yes,” but that has been less consolation each time and every single day without an answer becomes harder than the last. This is it. The last one. They have to say “yes.”
Here’s a different kind of admission: when I started graduate school in 2009, I was aimlessly returning to school because my journalism BA hadn’t been enough use in finding a career I was really interested in. I had attempted to start a career as a graphic designer because it was tangentially related to layout and design for publications, and the field seemed kinda neat, but I had quickly realized that it was a field where only the most skilled and dedicated to the art advance, and that I didn’t like any of my possible futures should I remain. I retreated to retail management for an optical chain because it paid better, but that was obviously inadequate salve to a growing sense of being directionless. I felt it was a long shot that UM-Flint would be a good place, seeing as I had been so thoroughly dissatisfied by my time at Michigan State and the related career woes, but I applied anyway. I was accepted, but under probation since my GPA at MSU had been so thoroughly average. I didn’t know where I was going, but I figured ending up with an English Language and Literature MA had to be better than where I was.
I had no idea how much better it was about to become.
I took to the program like the proverbial duck. My first semester consisted of a general foundation course and an unrelated elective, but everything clicked starting in May of 09. It was then that I took Teaching College Composition with Jacob Blumner, which led me directly onto the path that has brought me to this point. I realized that my personal love of writing, which I had always associated negatively with academics through high school and undergrad, could be channeled so much differently at the graduate level. Soon I had joined the writing center on campus and continued to grow in my appreciation for the incredible complexity of the writing process, and the myriad difficulties students face in completing writing tasks in college and beyond. Thanks to the writing center, my work with amazing faculty and fellow tutors, and the genuinely enriching classwork, I’ve grown immensely as a student and theorist. Beyond justifying the school’s faith in me (my probation was lifted by August 09, and I’ve maintained a near-perfect GPA since enrolling), I’ve redeemed my faith that there IS a direction for me.
The final school I’m waiting for word from is Georgia State University in Atlanta. This is also, in a twist of drama, the school I want most and feel the most connected to after a visit to the campus in January. For three weeks now, I’ve been checking the Applicant Status screen nearly every waking hour. Each time I submit my login and await the response, I feel suspended in a moment between two equally possible realities: in the first, my application has been accepted. I’m elated. From there it’s on to a life where I really settle into my future as an instructor of writing, and a continuing student of writing. I’m proceeding on the exact path I’ve intended to for over two years.
In the second, I find out that I’ve missed on the tenth out of ten tries in the past year and a half, and I am faced with the very ugly choice of giving up on my hopes for more study – I can go on to be a lecturer, which will still put me in touch with the writers I want to help, but I’m leaving an academic journey that I feel has only really just begun, and I can’t help but feel that I’m also missing out on a level of access to writing pedagogy that has been part of my plan for two years.
When I received the final denial of the 2011 cycle last March, I crashed hard, but I refused to let it get to me for too long. I resolved I would do what I could to fix my perceived failings and try again. Part of that was having kept to myself in the field’s discourse, so I took hold of opportunities to present at two conferences on topics related to the writing center. More importantly, I was honest with myself about two fundamental changes that had to happen internally.
First, I had erred in how I’d selected schools in the 2011 cycle. I’d chosen most of my schools based on my desire to attend the university at large, and figured any university with an English PhD would fit. Of course, the “spray and pray” method didn’t work. Those schools couldn’t see a place for me because I hadn’t articulated my place with them. That was an easy fix: for the 2012 group, I chose schools with more fitting composition/rhetoric presences where I could already see myself fitting in. The second change was far more crucial: I refined my own sense of why I wanted to study at the doctorate level. Before, I think I had been infatuated with the idea of getting a PhD. I’d romanticized the accomplishment of being accepted, and the eventual life of the professor to come after. It may turn out that the 2011 denials were for the better because I know a harsh truth about myself: my interest in a thing wanes when it gets hard unless I really, truly want something. But this? A life facilitating writing – I wanted it. Badly.
I refocused. The frustration of round one had tempered me. I immediately realized it wasn’t just the chance to live the dream of the academic wonk, but it was the chance to help people have a better experience with writing. I’d always enjoyed working in the writing center, but I better appreciated this position’s power to connect another writer with writing. Despite academic experiences in my teens and twenties that could have undermined it, I had managed to preserve my genuine love of writing. Composition pedagogy and the writing center offered a path to appreciate that not everyone was so fortunate. I was sitting next to people who had either never believed in their own writing, or who had that belief beaten out of them. Nearly every single person who lays their paper down on our chipped purple tabletops says, “I can’t write.” They genuinely believe it. I don’t pretend that I can reverse years of conditioning in 30 minutes, but nothing pleases me more than helping one of these nonbelievers see the better writing already within their draft and the better writer already within themselves.
Sometimes it takes a while to realize what you want to do. I know I’m a better applicant now. I also understand that I’m weighing in against many others who are just as, if not more, qualified on paper. What I have left at this point is a confidence in my own mission, and confidence in how I present that. I don’t just want a PhD; I want all the tools and experience possible to enable others to see beyond their writing pasts to different writing futures, just as I have. This is what I want to keep doing. This is what I want more of.