Six things

Thanks to 7deadlycyns for this personal revelation, which seemed just right to me:

“I almost quit grad school half-way through the second year of my PhD program at UCLA. A professor saved me by telling me very pointedly that it was supposed to be frustrating, that I was meant to struggle, that the transition from student to scholar was always hard, but that I had what it took to get through it.”

This is a life lesson in a school instance. I was lucky enough to get this message much earlier, during my teenage geekdom, and regularly thereafter. I can barely imagine how impossible life must seem to people who never figure this out.

In context this quote was part of a meme to list six things other people probably don’t know about you. (I also totally agree with what she says about whining and babies.) I started agnostic about memes and have only become more so, so I’ll not be tagging anyone with this. But when I find one and it gives me something good, like this one, I’ll try to give back. So here goes:

1. I’m shy. Very shy. That Big Carl persona you see here and in person is a construct I operate to function effectively in social situations. Sort of like Balok’s puppet in the original Star Trek.

2. Yet, people and sociability are very important to me.

3. I love the Teletubbies. Especially the Tubby Custard machine (they pronounce it ‘tubby tustahd’) with all its little farty noises.

4. If I had to choose between wine and cheese, I’d choose cheese. Maybe that’s because I can afford good cheese better than I can afford good wine. But if I don’t have to choose there’s nothing better than a little snack of cheese, olives, chewy bread and a good red wine.

5. When I was a kid my family used to collect insects. We had a friend who was an entymologist, and we’d go tromping around in other people’s fields combing the vegetation for specimens. I’ve picked hundreds of ticks off myself from those fields, so I’m probably not as wary of Lyme disease as I should be. Our equipment was nets and ‘killing jars’ that were pickle jars with some plaster in the bottom for ethyl acetate to soak into (that was the killing part) and newspaper strips to keep the bugs from sticking to the bottle and each other. There was a tricky little operation to get the bug from the net to the jar; stakes were highest when they could sting or they were really delicate. Then we’d take the dead bugs home and stick them on pins with labels of what they were, where and when we found them, and we’d put them in cigar boxes with cardboard liners we cut out. (Real insect collecting boxes are wicked expensive.)

Once when we were on vacation our boxes were stolen from the roofrack of our car. Sort of sad to lose all those nice bugs, but really the collecting was the fun part and we couldn’t stop laughing about the thieves’ faces when they opened those boxes and saw what they’d gotten. In Venice one time I came across a guy in a tiny little shop who was blowing incredible glass insects exact in size and detail. I sat and talked with him for hours.

6. I’m lazy, and a procrastinator. But when something climbs into my head and fascinates me, I forget to eat and sleep.



  1. Hey, thanks for the connection. I guess the reason I didn’t get this message about the value of the struggle long before was because school was always easy for me up until that point. Grad school was actually hard. And so I figured (wrongly) that if it wasn’t easy for me, then I must not be good enough at it. I was disabused of this idea, thankfully. So was it my fault for not challenging myself enough earlier? Or school’s fault for not challenging me? Somewhere in the middle, probably.

  2. Hi! Yeah, I think for many of us who make it to grad school, school was a breeze until then. We’re school folk, we feel comfortable there, then we become teachers and can’t figure out why our students aren’t all happy about it like we were.

    I liked your advice so much because I think it applies to everything that feels hard, and everything that feels easy until it becomes hard. When I started running a lot some years ago, I would run a bit and feel good, then get a little tired and it got hard. If I’d given up I’d have stayed out of shape. The trick was to push through that, so that the ‘hard’ point came later and later. You said something about this in a great post about intelligence – we may not have the same native gifts, but if we work our brains out they work better.

    Maybe you could be better at catching things than you think! Thanks for stopping in.

  3. I can barely imagine how impossible life must seem to people who never figure this out.

    I’ve had this same thought – I emphasise this over and over to students, and I’m always struck by just… how depressing it must be, to get to university not having realised that… you’re not supposed to get things… instantly? It would be completely demoralising to think that there’s this world of people out there who just do this stuff effortlessly… But many of my students seem to experience things that way? It feeds into a dynamic where students request courses become easier, if they are frustrating – rather than viewing frustration as, in a sense, evidence that the course is providing a sufficient challenge… (I always feel like students should feel short-changed if they find their classes completely do-able, with the skills and knowledge with which the students enter the course: why would anyone want to take a course like that?)

  4. Yeah. In one of a whole series of experiences like this in which I got the same good advice over and over, until now it’s pretty much internalized across a spectrum of situations, my mentor and friend Jeff Weintraub at U.C. San Diego assured me that someday if I kept reading, learning, thinking and practicing I too would be able to glibly drop analyses of current events with reference to the deep theoretical presuppositions of folks like Marx, Durkheim and Beauvoir. I just couldn’t believe how easy and natural he made it look, and now I’ve got my own students asking me the same thing.

    It doesn’t help students’ perceptions and insecurities that the final accomplishment of ‘class’ in any area of expertise requiring long, hard training is to make it look easy and natural, even to oneself. So I have to turn a hard gaze on my own process to realize how much intellectual and moral support I got all along the way. It’s not that the students are high-maintenance (although they are), but that the stuff we’re teaching is genuinely alien to everyone at first. (And of course we vary on when that ‘at first’ occurs.)

    That said, this generation of students have not been asked to work very hard, have been praised and promoted for very little, and have not been faced with failure (in school). So that’s another little culture shock for them.

  5. There are some things I gave up along the way because they were hard for me and I just assumed I would never be any good at them. Now, I kind of wish I had stuck with a musical instrument until I was at least minimally proficient and had taken more French.

    Psychologist Carol Dweck pinpoints one of the problems here: depending on how we view of cognitive ability, we may believe that we will never be able to improve on those things we aren’t good at initially. Here’s a link to a description of her work: Dweck finds that people have one of two views of intellectual ability: either it is a fixed quality or something that can be improved by effort. Those who think of their intelligence as fixed tend to stop working on tasks that are difficult for them, but those who see abilities as mutable are much more likely to persist. So, besides not having faced many demands and having been lavished with praise for minimal accomplishments, many students have been trained to think of their ability as a given, and thus think they’re not capable of mastering those things that remain difficult after they’ve put in a little effort.

  6. I enjoyed reading your list!

    Me, too, “I almost quit grad school half-way through the second year of my PhD program”. Although I had always been a brilliant student, I found the program hard and competitive. I saved myself by telling me that, before quitting, I needed to find a job. I won’t tell you the whole story, it might be boring but I am glad that I did not give in. And I am glad for you that you didn’t either.

  7. I’ve learned that if you come to class enthusiastic, full of energy, and generally in a pleasant mood, that teachers will assume you are not working hard. In this way, school is a lot like office life, where the highest earners are the grumpiest ones who “pretend” or “act” busy all the time. It *looks* serious, and it pays off!

    As was said, “grad school is supposed to be hard” so you better not make it look easy! So now I send stressed out emails to everyone to let them know I am sufficiently not-enjoying grad school :)

    Of course somewhere along the line I’d rather surround myself with people who realize one can be both serious, and happy at the same time!

  8. May, so nice to see you here, and sorry to see your own blog dormant. Please do tell your story; the ‘get a job’ stratagem is intriguing! I must admit that the threat of ‘the real world’ was often a key motivation for me in sticking through the dissertation years especially.

  9. Lol, Owen. You’re right, but you can make the devil-may-care thing work if you come out with intriguing tangential nonsense on a regular schedule… with the occasional shut-up line indicating you’ve actually done and understood the reading.

    I think this emphasis on grim hard work is so proletarian, don’t you? Before the masses invaded the academy and brought their grubby sensibilities to our gentlemanly profession it was so much easier to bend one’s education around the cocktail hour. ;-)

  10. The rest of the story is: the only job that I imagined I could do was being a high school teacher. That year there was a selection for high school teachers. I went through all the paperwork and then took the written exam which went very well. Some months later they called me for the oral exam and, although I did not have time to study, I passed it. In the end they offered me a job but my career – fortunately – was following a different path. I am nevertheless proud that I got certified as a high school teacher without any investement of time and energy.

    You can take a look at my new blog, if you wish. Just email me so that I can mail you back the site address.

  11. Yes, that is interesting and a proud accomplishment.

    Inspiring a tangent: I was just talking with a colleague about her daughter, who’s a teacher. Here in NC she is apparently expected to pay for her own substitute if she’s out sick, and to come in to school on days deemed too dangerous for the students to come.

    To my friend this seemed like exploitation, and I agreed; but I hypothesized that it might also reflect a vocational approach to teaching (in the sense of a sacred calling) rather than a profane ‘job like any other’ approach. I’ve often noted a split between these two views among my own colleagues, and even in my own family.

  12. In my country, a high school teacher (a teacher in general) isn’t paid much. By consequence, most of the teachers choose such a career if they have passion for it. So do I but university is a much more rewarding environment, in all senses.

    [I apologize for my English: it is my third language].

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