27 September 2011

New students, old students

The Open University, being a non-traditional university, has no undergraduates studying on campus, making the beginning of the Autumn term a bit muted: no influx of very young people looking confused and unfettered and full of strange and optimistic visions of the future. Instead, the OU has a very small uptick in new graduate students, a much, much different sort of animal than the new undergraduate. Let me explain.

I had to return some books to the library today and walking back, I stopped into the refectory, and I noticed a few of the new students, or imagined that I did. New postgraduate students at the OU are not young, in general, but they are younger than the rest of the people at the University. In outlook, in dress, in optimistic aura. They have backpacks and are holding coffees and looking around expectantly, like something is about to happen. Lots of them have left careers, some have been quite successful, and they have let go of that. They have rolled the dice and come here to try something else. Optimism, but trepidation as well: what if this was the wrong thing?

Watch me read my experience onto everyone around me. I felt that way, I look at them and I imagine them feeling the same way. Look at all the trepidation and hope:
Well, if my experience can be read onto them, I can say this: don't worry new students, in three years you'll be less optimistic, more confused, angry, and bitter, but certainly, certainly will not want to have taken the choice back. You're doing the right thing: you would have always wondered about this path if you had stayed back. You would be ashamed of your inability to roll the dice.

Down the road, it gets less hopeful: that theory which is now so interesting and mind-blowing will grow frustratingly insufficient and patchy. That new idea you had sparked by some brilliant thinker will get tarnished in its application and by the time you have thought about it enough, you'll wonder why you thought it was anything in the first place. And then you'll read and re-read and remember and your dissertation machine (which is only one part thesis), the one you are building for your supervisors, the one you are so hopeful and sure about at this point, will come out nothing like you thought it would. But it will be good. Or good enough.

I say that, but I don't know for sure. Ask me in a year, year and a half, or two.

Let's all of us become doctors, and then unemployed doctors, and then short-term employed doctors, and then lecturers and then we'll be academics. And we'll look back with even more knowing eyes, seeing even more of the arc. I'm going to try to avoid isolating myself and getting into my thesis hole. Yes, I will go to the reception dinner for new students. Yes, I will have coffee and cake with them during the first week. And I'll listen to whatever big idea they have, and when they ask me about my big idea, I'll talk about the diminished core of my own big idea, the one that I have twisted and tortured so much, I'm not even sure what is left of it. I'm interested in antagonism now--I used to be interested in community.

I won't say that, of course, because one of the things I've learned that they haven't yet learned is how to give a compelling elevator pitch. 90 seconds and I'll have you thinking I not only have an interesting idea, but that I may have even found out something about the world. It's an illusion, of course, but I'm better at pretending.

Are you doing okay this week? the head of the department says to me today: you were a bit harried last week. Was I? More than normal? Oh, no, I said, I'm fine: I'm still a second year PhD student. Ask me next week.