Dare to Know

“Have the courage to use your own understanding” – Immanuel Kant

Easier said than done sometimes.

It kind of feels like walking out on a ledge – and a flimsy-looking ledge at that. If I screw this up, do I fall to my…doom?

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In the past 4 1/2 months of Grad school completed thus far (yes, I did have to count that out on my fingers) there has been one idea brought up over and over again in conversation with colleagues and friends: Do I belong here?

At first, this question surprised me. Easy: of course you do. And here’s why:

You got in.

They offered you a position as a TA/a scholarship or two.

Undergrads have gazed at you repeatedly with alternating complete and utter confusion and those glorious moments of “good gracious this person is smart…oh shit, can they tell what I’m thinking? Be cool…be cool.” Either that, or they avoid your eyes entirely so, magically, they will disappear into the wall and thus not get called on to answer on the values and shortcomings of the Enlightenment. (Blame their faith in the power to become invisible on Harry Potter if you like) You know why they avoid your eyes? Because you’re the TA, and you have the power to compel them to speak – whether they ultimately do or not is entirely unpredictable but, hey, those elusive reins of power have been bestowed upon you for 1-2 hours every week….and the additional several (read: billions) of hours you spend grading their essays/exams/and essays again when they disagree with their mark.

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What I imagine my office looks like. I will not be including a pic of what it actually looks like. Let’s just pretend this is it.

Oh and, the cherry on top of the Marie Antoinette-themed cake (see what I did there? Eh, eh?), the resident department deity, Joan, knows your name and professors stop by your office just to say hi and moan about when/where their next drink is coming from.

You are now a (temporary) member of the penthouse club that is 4th floor Patterson – squatting undergraduates (of which I was one for several years) not included.

You have an office! (We all have one now right?)

And finally – you now spend more time in said coveted office than you do at home (sleeping may or may not be included in this time, depending on how you view the department floors).

Regardless, you’ve made it kid.

And yet, we all have so many doubts. I’d like to think everyone’s been there – you’re halfway through a dense theoretical reading and you realize you haven’t actually read the past 20 pages – your eyes have been moving, yet that glorious brain of yours that got you through 4+ years of undergrad has failed to recognize its cue and has instead been thoughtfully mulling over the very important decision of what impressive history quote you will next tweet for your friends to marvel at and discuss (that counts as work right?) And now that’s 1 less hour you have to actually complete your ACTUAL work.

I know my personal worst moment so far came while writing an annotated bibliography last week (read: the easiest assignment imaginable). After organizing my desk, reading a paragraph for a friend, stretching out a sore back and going for tea (twice) I realized that my thesis proposal had successfully drained me of all my creative and intellectual resources and left me with the ability to mutter “I give speech” when asked what my duties as Maid of Honour at my dear friend’s wedding would be (now THAT is a story for another time).

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This is how people look when they enter this state of mind. It’s not pretty.

Disclaimer: Katie, if you read this, the delightfully primitive “Me Erin, Me Give Speech” version of me will not be making an appearance at your wedding. I’m not sure she could figure out how to roll out of the right side of the bed, much less help in any way, shape or form. 

At any rate: I was convinced that was the end. That’s it! I’m not smart enough for this game. If I can’t even get through the proposal, how in the hell am I going to survive the rest of this ride? I felt like that poor girl whose ridiculous response to what to do about education problems in the United States became a YouTube sensation overnight. Except my own, “…our education, like such as in South Africa and the Iraq, and everywhere like such as…” had much fewer prepositions and took much less breath. I was done, and the semester had just begun. Stop the real world please, I’d like to get on – academia is spinning too fast.

And yet, here I am, only 2 days later and feeling better than ever about the program. Yes my proposal may not be perfect (in fact, I’m expecting tons of criticism). Yes, I still say stupid things and make a fool of myself regularly and everything else like such as, but Grad school didn’t do that to me – I was already awkward. I know that if I truly make an effort I will indeed survive. But this message isn’t really for me. So here goes.

To All My Wonderful Colleagues:

You can do this.

You’re incredibly smart, versatile, dedicated, enthusiastic and clever to boot. And you know SO MUCH. If you ever doubt that, dig up one of your old grade school assignments (I guarantee your parents have at least a few). Let me share with you some pearls of wisdom from my younger brother in his early EARLY youth (he’s going to kill me for this): “I love Kak, kak, kak, kak… my pet is Frisky, he is so crassy.” We later discovered that Kak meant “cake” (which he does not like…at all, he learnt the art of deception early) and we’re fairly certain that “crassy” is a 6 year old’s word for “Crazy” (which our cat most certainly is. He is counting down the days until he can successfully ambush my sister). Sean, the lover of Kak, now has one of the most impressive vocabularies in the family. I can almost promise you have progressed in a similar, if not identical, fashion. Do not doubt for an instant how much you know, and how drastically your spelling has most likely improved.

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So you can’t spell “cake.” Doesn’t make you any less incredible.

Also: don’t judge what you know versus what someone else knows, or how someone else knows it! If we all thought the same, discussions would be boring and writing any sort of idea down would be futile (and in what world would that be fun?) Just take a moment to look through the union-sized community of Carleton University History Department blogs on here and bask in the awesomeness that is our different modes of operandi and thought.

Kant’s “Have the courage to use your own understanding” was apparently one of the mottos of the enlightenment, and if they had not had the courage to do so…where would we be today?

Finally, on top of your very obvious intellectual gifts: every single one of you is an absolute inspiration to me.

I honestly think this is what it comes down to. We all feel like we’re in the wrong place sometimes, like we’ve bitten off more than we can chew (especially when supervisors are pressuring you to find the stakes of your project and you just want to whine in return, “I’m writing it just CUZ, OK?! Leave me alone, meany”) But in the end we’re all here for a reason: we love what we do, and we’re here to do just that to the best of our ability.

This department has become my family. No seriously…I see you guys 5 days a week minimum. I see Mum and Dad once…maximum, and they are actually closer than school. The support system is incredible, and I learn so much every day just from chatting with you all over copious amounts of coffee and infectious laughter (here’s looking at you, Lina).

So, if you’re going to take anything from this rather long and winding post, let it be this –

Dare to know your own capabilities, because they are infinite. 

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Life is beautiful

-Erin

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