The Great Divide

What’s in a concentration?

For the first year and a half of graduate school, the answer seemed to be, “nothing, really.” At least with the existing structure of my university’s MA program, declaring a concentration seemed to be pretty pointless. Our program is still rather small, especially given the size of our undergraduate program, and the course offerings for graduate students prove to be rather slim most of the time. We have three concentration tracks (writing, literature, and teaching), but the majority of the courses I have taken in the program have counted toward at least two, if not all three, of the tracks, making distinctions between the three to be rather useless. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you what most of my fellow teaching assistants’ concentrations are, and these are people I spend more time with on an average basis than my own family. It just never really made a difference.

But now it’s The Final Countdown. A countdown that cannot be ignored. The last semester before graduation. And, suddenly, concentration allegiances are starting to rise to the surface, drawing a subtle line between the graduating members of the program.

I am in the writing track. Throughout my undergraduate career and the first year or so of grad school, I’ve claimed creative writing as my field, making the blanketed “writing” track my ideal choice. At least at my school, creative writers hold a curious position within the department, successfully balancing the line between literature and rhet/comp. Creative writers deeply appreciate literature. After all, they are the ones that actually produce the literature. However, they do not fully blend in with the literature crew. After all, at their core, creative writers are writers. They don’t quite fit in with literary critics, but they don’t move completely into rhetoric and composition either. They ride the line between the two, making it easy to blend in among any group of faculty. In the Battle of the Bookworms, creative writing is definitely Switzerland.

But then, about six months ago, I started to do the unthinkable…I started to change allegiances. Working in the campus writing center my first year of grad school, attending a writing center conference, and writing about both composition and writing center issues in a summer course made me realize that I was kinda into all of this rhet/comp stuff. Actually teaching composition past semester solidified these feelings. I began to think about applying to rhet/comp PhD programs alongside MFA and creative writing PhD programs. I talked to some trusted faculty members about these feelings, about my interests, about job prospects, about what I actually wanted to spend the next fifty years of my life doing. And the more I taught, the more I did research on writing centers, the more I read about rhet/comp programs, the more my feelings intensified. By the end of the semester, I was officially 100% rhet/comp trash.

Naturally, I felt really guilty about this shift for awhile. I had been running creative writing as my platform for a solid 5+ years. That was one of my identifiers in the department. And suddenly all of that was gone. But isn’t that one of the main goals of grad school, especially at the MA level? To figure out the next step? To learn more, try new things, and see where your true interests lie? At least for me, that’s exactly what grad school has given me insight into myself and my vision of my future. I have genuine research interests in rhet/comp. I have problems I want to find solutions for. I have a vision of what I want to spend my life doing and a plan for how I’m going to get there. And I had none of those things with creative writing. I have a place and a purpose now that I never would’ve had without my master’s program and my teaching assistantship.

So, what’s in a concentration? Once you’ve found the right one…everything.

#welcometogradschool

It’s official. I’ve nearly made it. Only one semester stands between me and graduation. Only one semester stands between me and my master’s degree. The journey has been a difficult one, but it has also been a time of great learning. That’s for sure. Now, you might be thinking, “well, duh…,” and I do mean that in the academic sense, yes. But I’ve also learned a hell of a lot about myself during the last year and a half as well.  In a lot of ways, the MA program has been exactly what I expected and not at all what I expected at the same time. Here are some of the things I wish my sweet, innocent undergrad self had known about grad school beforehand:

It will feel different than undergrad. Going into grad school, I was really worried that it would just feel like another two years of undergrad, especially since I decided to complete my master’s degree at the same university where I earned my bachelor’s degree. I just couldn’t see how taking courses at the same school, with the same professors, in the same classrooms that I had just spent four years with could possibly feel a damn bit different. Thankfully, I was wrong. Like, really, really wrong. I have a whole new standing within the department, especially as a TA. At department functions, I’m regarded as something in between a student and a faculty member, a junior colleague-in-training, if you will. In the classroom, professors seem to openly acknowledge my new-found maturity. They push me to do better, to try harder, and to think of things in new ways. This brings me to my next point…

In fact, it will be a hell of a lot harder than you anticipated. When I registered for my first semester of graduate courses, I was put off by the low number of credit hours I was told to take. In undergrad I was used to taking fifteen to eighteen credit hours a semester, so to only enroll in six and a half credits seemed like a total joke. But I did a HELL of a lot more work in those first six and half credits of grad school than I ever did in a semester of undergrad, and that pace has never changed. Grad courses require so much more reading, writing, and in-class participation. Besides the amount of work, the material itself and the level of critical thinking required to tackle the material is so much higher too. It’s all much more mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting.

You will want to quit at least once. Yes, I will admit that I’ve been that person. On more than one occasion, if I’m being honest (and this blog has a 100% honesty policy). I’ve tried to do assigned reading through the tears, sobbing, saying “I can’t do this anymore.” The extreme amounts of coursework, on top of hours of TA duties, on top of all of the multitude of other miscellaneous tasks and duties grad students have to do, has sometimes proved to be too much. I thought college was hard and time-demanding, so I didn’t know how I was going to cope with this program being so much more intense. And I’ve wanted to give up. But, every time I have that thought, I tell myself…

You won’t quit. Because you can do it. Really. Every semester there’s a paper I don’t think I can write in time, a project I don’t know how to finish, a pile of work that never seems to get any smaller, no matter how many hours I put into it. But it always gets done. Every. Single. Time. It might take a few pots of coffee to get me through it (and a couple of margaritas afterward), but it always gets done. No matter how unlikely success seems, no matter how much I want to give up, I can do it. After all, I was accepted into this program for a reason. I have to remind myself that I’m a stronger student than I give myself credit for.

You won’t completely suck at the whole teaching thing. I was pretty concerned about this point going in, because I could only attend a program funded by an assistantship (here’s looking at you, undergrad student loans). Yet, despite my complete lack of teaching experience (save for a few random tutoring gigs here and there), my complete lack of self-confidence, and my pretty solid fear of public speaking, I haven’t completely sucked at the whole teaching thing. In fact…

You will actually really love teaching.  Like really, really, really love it. And also be pretty awesome at it, if I do say so myself. I have had some awkward moments and less-than-perfect days, that’s for sure, but the positive experiences have always outweighed the bad. Teaching has been really exciting, and I’ve been surprised but how much I have genuinely learned from the students too. I have felt pretty confident about the job I’m doing in the classroom, and faculty observations and student evaluations have solidified this for me.

Grad school will make you question everything you thought you knew about yourself. When I graduated with my BA and enrolled in the MA program, I had my near-future intricately planned out. Now that I’m near the end of my program, my whole plan is entirely different. My experiences teaching composition, working in the writing center, and studying writing and rhetoric at a deeper level have completely reshaped my career interests and post-graduation plans.

And that’s a really, really good thing. For the first time (ever), I feel like I’m on the right path. I feel like I really know what I want to do, and, perhaps more importantly, why I want to do it. It’s not just because it’s something I like to do in my spare time (which is what my original plan was based around). No, now I see real problems in the field and I want to spend my career working toward solutions. I have a plan and a purpose, and that’s a really great feeling.

Basically, if I could jump back in time and tell myself anything about grad school it would be that, despite its challenges, grad school is 100% worth it. You will cry (definitely), you will scream (most likely), you will throw things in a dramatic, childish fashion (probably), but what you learn in the process makes the academic on-set depression (that’s a real thing, right?) well worth it. I’ve found the further I go in my education, the more satisfied I am. Yes, the courses are harder, the work is more demanding, and free time for anything non-school related is at a steady decrease, but there are advantages to that. You’re able to delve more deeply into each subject. You’re able, for the most part, to pursue your own topics of interest and make each course what you want it to be. You’re surrounded by like-minded people with similar personalities, hobbies, and goals. You start to figure out where the hell you belong in this vast world. And that, to me, is worth every tear I’ve shed and every hour of sleep I’ve lost.  

One of my students asked me after class one day if grad school sucks. I looked at him for a minute, deciding on my answer. Eventually, I nodded and said, “Yes, it is pretty painful…But it’s a really good sort of pain.”