Monday, May 12, 2014

Of Eggs and Baskets

Last night marked the end of my third year of graduate study at Louisiana State University. It also represented my worst performance to date since going back to school in fall 2003. With the exception of just two semesters, I have been a full time student since then – a total of exactly 10 years of full-time college now under my belt. Along the way I have earned a BA in government-journalism and an MA in communication studies, both at California State University, Sacramento. Although my performance and dedication throughout the entire span has been ebbed and flowed, it has never been as poor as this past semester. Ironically, the coursework I was enrolled in was not even required – I finished my required coursework last fall. In other words, these courses that I performed so dismally in were my choice. I made that choice for a few reasons, but key among them was that they are both subjects that interest me.

Those who are familiar with my journey know that there has been nothing “normal” about my three years at LSU. That is true even considering that there is little normal about doctoral study at any legitimately accredited university. Just getting accepted was a feat I never thought possible, but managing to balance the teaching and the study along with my “other” life proved to be quite a trick. At first, that “other” life, the one I still had back in Sacramento, was beneficial. It held a supportive, energizing function. It gave me more to look forward to than just a PhD. But that life started to fall apart almost immediately and what was, briefly, a support system became a major distraction.

Over the rest of that first year and all of my second year in Baton Rouge, I was a commuter. I returned to Sacramento on average every three to six weeks, spending anywhere from three or four days to several weeks over the summer and winter breaks. I thought that if the distance between my two lives was the problem, then my presence would be the solution. Not only was the distance not the problem, but commuting so often was creating more problems in other areas. One of them was my attention to my work at LSU. But I still managed to get through, losing sleep and sometimes my sanity trying to keep two extremely heavy loads balanced. It could not be done.

Yesterday also marks the end of my first school year at LSU in which I have been a full-time resident. That “other” life in Sacramento went through a major disruptive metamorphosis and the fallout continues to this very moment. While the day-to-day, hour-to-hour and even minute-to-minute distractive power has been eliminated, the negative aura, the residue, the intermittent but persistent invasion of my serenity and my psyche is still very much present. I have been claiming that I am stricken with plain old-fashioned burnout, but I think that is much too simplistic. I’d go along with burnout, but it has to be more of an overall physic variety rather than just being tired of being a student.

Looking at my situation from the outside, it could not be better. I am free of a toxic relationship that almost killed my academic career. I am in much better shape financially than I have been in many years. I have established a network of friends in Baton Rouge that I have much in common with. I have a beautiful house to live in and I am on the verge of completing something few do (and that means a lot to me, despite my recent claims that it no longer does). And yet, my attention span, my perseverance, my dedication and my ability to think deeply or at length is lower than I can remember it ever being.  Grades do not get posted for another 48 hours or so. This is the very first semester that I do not know if my work was good enough. Seriously. Grad school grades and grading is not like undergrad, the professors have much more latitude in determining how a student’s performance is assessed and codified. It is entirely subjective. I hope that I have shown that I benefited from these two courses, that my efforts are worthy of passing grades. If not, I will have to formulate and implement a “Plan B,” because right now all of my eggs are in this one basket.

If I make it past this milestone, some things will change in a significant way. First, I will no longer be sitting in a classroom as a student – my coursework, as far as this degree is concerned, is finished. Second, I will not be returning to Sacramento, to home, to what is left of my “other” life at all this summer. I will be living in Baton Rouge, teaching at LSU and studying for the next extremely high hurdle between my degree and me – 15 hours of comprehensive examinations. Everyone says I can do it, and although I believe it is not beyond my capabilities, if my level of dedication and perseverance does not improve, it will be beyond my reach. I am banking on this shift in focus in my graduate work to bring about a similar shift to a focus on it. When all your eggs are in the same basket, that basket must not break.