Graduate school has ended for me. I’ve been incredibly fortunate along the entire path, and i continue to be as i venture forward (i have officially begun a 2-year postdoc at Dartmouth). A number of incredible people (and two delightful cats) have made this journey possible, and i am forever grateful for their support, guidance, and warmth.
A year into graduate school, i made only three promises to myself. First: finish. Second: clean out my desk thoroughly when i do finish. And third: do not finish as a bitter graduate student. This last one was particularly important to my mental health. The first year introduced me to the possibility of bitterness in graduate students – the tired frustrations of finding the finish line that is constantly moving or being moved, the deep exhaustion of learning to accept failure and rejection gracefully, the sometimes imperfect but always human guidance of mentors that feels, at times, awkward, even as they urge us along to be better versions of our intellectual selves.
No lie: graduate school is grueling. But it is also exciting and beautiful. I sometimes warn graduate school hopefuls that they are seeking a journey that is not just intellectual, but also deeply personal. It is a practice that is always being perfected. It is a process that somewhat reminds me of the Phoenix – constant death and rebirth, a cyclical process of always ever-becoming.
Yet these creatures receive their start in life from others: there is one, a bird, which renews itself, and reproduces from itself. The Assyrians call it the phoenix. It does not live on seeds and herbs, but on drops of incense, and the sap of the cardamom plant. When it has lived for five centuries, it then builds a nest for itself in the topmost branches of a swaying palm tree, using only its beak and talons. As soon as it has lined it with cassia bark, and smooth spikes of nard, cinnamon fragments and yellow myrrh, it settles on top, and ends its life among the perfumes. – Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book XV
I was marveling, just a few days ago, about the ritual aspects of graduate school. Not just the high-ritual aspects – the exams and graduation ceremonies – but the centuries-old practices that are part of the process of becoming. The bonds that many of us have forged through this process will last through this lifetime – we have met our colleagues, the people who have taken this journey either before us or with us, and i look forward to the colleagues yet to come. It’s a brilliant system, really. For all its pains and struggles, there is something very solid about the process that has shaped each of us as we head into the world to shape others. It has shaped a community of thinkers to prepare to join a broader community. And i rather like the Geography community.
I had a chat with an established geographer at the last AAG conference in Tampa, FL, in which my Polly-Anna-esque sensibilities about Geography were made to seem a little less Polly-Anna and a little more grounded in reality. He noted, with some gentleness, that geographers are truly some of the most polite academics in the academy. It is not a politeness of appeasement, but rather, geography seems to attract people who truly want to think about what a better and more beautiful world might look like. And they live that process with each other.
I sometimes have thought i may not be a geographer. My undergraduate degree was in Comparative History of Ideas (which is a unique and fantastic program at the University of Washington) – a program i fell into because no other program seemed to encompass the millions of strands of thoughts i had going through my head at any given moment. I still like to cuddle up with a good historical or biographical novel. Milton’s Paradise Lost is still a favorite go-to when i’m feeling a little down. Nietzsche never ceases to make my eyes pop wide open with wonder. Spinoza teases me with his promises of monistic universalism. Judith Butler entices me with thoughts of a social ontology of relationality. Marx, Gramsci, and Luxemburg still promise a revolution, and Foucault reminds me that it will probably be a lot harder than any of us could possibly imagine. I’ve come out of the PhD experience deeply engrossed in posthumanism, and i find myself moving back towards rediscovering liberal economic theory in order to disentangle the legacy of taxonomy.
Which is to say, i sometimes think i may not be a geographer.
But two months ago, Jason and i, in a bid to read a real book (as opposed to our electronic books) while taking a few days off in the mountains, marched into City Lights Booksellers and Publishers on Columbus in San Francisco. We wandered the shelves, poking and prodding for something to keep our interest during the long car ride or while lounging by the river. I wasn’t feeling particularly excited, until i found a shelf titled “Topographies.” I started laughing out loud – i had found the geography section. Several books recommended in the past few years were all crammed into one section of the bookstore, along with several others already read and part of the Geography canon. Clearly, i was mistaken. I’m quite the geographer.
A mythical bird that never dies, the phoenix flies far ahead to the front, always scanning the landscape and distant space. It represents our capacity for vision, for collecting sensory information about our environment and the events unfolding within it. The phoenix, with its great beauty, creates intense excitement and deathless inspiration. – The Feng Shui Handbook, feng shui Master Lam Kam Chuen
Graduate school changes you. But i would argue, that with the right frame of mind, for the better. It develops a sharper sense of conviction about the kinds of ethical relations we choose to have. Rejection, though devastating still, has been so commonplace that acceptance, now, comes with a joyous celebration. Hurdles, seemingly insurmountable, now are simply difficult-to-surmount and are still maybe-possibly-attainable. My deep shyness has been replaced with academic awkwardness (success!), and the development of deeper convictions has led to a new-found skill of speaking in front of people (non-academic friends whom i have had as guest-lecutrers have marveled, sometimes breathlessly, that i am “much better” at teaching than they could have ever imagined).
Which is not to say that the day i was told, “Congratulations, doctor, you now have a PhD,” i had a moment of relief or belief – that i felt changed. I am still plagued with self-doubt and a sneaking suspicion that i may just have pulled off the greatest degree heist ever (although this is sometimes tempered by moments of gleeful giggling over a glass of wine when i remember that i’ve finished). My first email addressed to Dr. Lopez was something of a shock. I stopped working for the rest of the day in order to contemplate the absurdity.
But it is done. And now, on to new adventures, thankfully without a whit of bitterness and with all kinds of wide-eyed wonderment, bringing with me the legacy of a lineage of thinkers and writers of whom i can only hope to do justice.
They say that, from the father’s body, a young phoenix is reborn, destined to live the same number of years. When age has given it strength, and it can carry burdens, it lightens the branches of the tall palm of the heavy nest, and piously carries its own cradle, that was its father’s tomb, and, reaching the city of Hyperion, the sun-god, through the clear air, lays it down in front of the sacred doors of Hyperion’s temple. – Ovid, The Metamorphoses, Book XV