Tuesday, January 1, 2008


Yesterday was my official graduation date. Although I still need to deal with the paperwork, I'm finished with my degree program. So wow. Yeah. Ph.D. How am I supposed to feel? Woohoo? People keep asking me how I will celebrate. Celebrate? Celebrate what? My father says it took him a year before he actually believed he had the degree. Maybe I'll be excited a year from now. Now I'm just tired and a little disappointed. Wasn't this supposed to make me smart? Why then do I still have to think hard when determining my left from my right? Why do I keep trying to pull on doors clearly marked "Push"?

Since I was a very small child, I expected this of myself and have pushed myself toward it relentlessly. I used to have a rule that each chapter in my text books must be read ten times. I studied for six hours for every test and three hours for a quiz. For me any grade lower than 100 was a disappointment and any grade lower than 96 would cause my teachers to ask me, "What went wrong?" I pushed through that performance-based academic interest into a passion for the knowledge itself. I expected to earn the doctorate despite the fact that I have no business with it. I can't afford it and will probably sink in debt. But I wanted it. Badly. And now I've finished it.

One of the problems with this kind of goal is that it is so often based on the false assumption that those who have achieved it are somehow better than oneself and that by achieving the goal one will join their elevated ranks. The thing is, now that I've spent more time with people with doctorates as a peer rather than as a student, I realize that lots of them are just like me. Lots of time we're just winging it and hopng no one calls us out as impostors. I am far more impressed by native intelligence and basic kindness than with credentials now.

Still, I guess I really hoped that earning this degree would make me feel different. But I'm not any different. That's not true. I am different. But I'm not different because of the degree. That was just a stubborn refusal to give up. What changed me was the people who loved me while I worked, who lifted me up, held me close and yanked me back. An entire community of people nurtured me throughout these years of study. I can't repay them. That has changed me.

What changed me was running out of money and falling apart while trying to follow the rules...which kept changing. Learning that no matter how much my parents and husband love me, bureaucracy will still stomp on me hard changed me. Learning that depression doesn't stop papers from being due and that I CAN write in the midst of grief changed me.

Having my children while working on my graduate and doctoral degrees changed me. Bringing my readings to my birthing rooms, breastfeeding while typing my dissertation, or while giving a graduate seminar speech...these changed me. The solid, uncompromising,lavish reality of my maternal body and my primal, unreasoning response to my children provided the context and foundation of my intellectual work. Adding passion to reason changed me.

Depression, grief, poverty, joy, self-reliance, dependence, perseverence, want, desire, rage, humility...I learned about all of these in the seventeen years between my first day at community college and my last day in my Ph.D. program. I wished I'd mastered at least one or two of them.

Wouldn't it be funny if people started to take me seriously just because of this degree? God, that would be really funny-- and just so wrong.


karlk34236 said...

Dear Dr. Hystery ("Geschichte Hexe),"

Let me be the first to congratulate you among those who comment on your blogs! How wonderful that you can now have a title to help sell self-help books on Oprah, and perhaps get on her show. Now, you can legitimize being a smart-ass, much more than simply having a "mere" Master's degree.

What's more, in Japan, you now hold a higher position of status than would Donald Trump (should you two ever be seated together socially while visiting there).

Forgive my sarcasm. I'm very happy for you.


HysteryWitch said...

What's funny to me is that often I say things sarcastically but can no longer tell if I mean them that way. Like, "Oh yeah, I'm just thrilled to have this degree." Do I mean that? I don't know. Maybe I'm just being sarcastic. I've lost track.

In any case, Karl, your response made me smile and really mean it. You've pretty much summed up my feelings here. "Jack-assery," a trait I actually require of my students, is the perfect approach to this accomplishment right now. I'm trying to figure out how to downplay the significance since to admit I have the degree seems especially arrogant given my certainty that it doesn't matter that much. On the other hand, to downplay it too much is also arrogant. "What? This little degree? It was nothing!"

So I've been walking around feeling worse and worse whenever anyone congratulates me. I'm just so certain that whatever it is they've been doing for the past ten years is much more important than what I've been doing. So I'm embarassed that they should honor me with their notice. I get all tweaky and awkward and want to shuffle off in shame. Eventually this makes me surly. I'm fairly certain that "Whatever. Who the f*ck cares?" is NOT the appropriate response to "Congratulations!" lol Perhaps the right response is, "Thank you." But how dull. Where's the angst in that? I'm pretty sure the Ph.D. entitles me to angst and melodrama. It damn well better. No, wait. I don't mean that. (I guess.)

Karl said...

In the psychotherapeutic approach of Milton Erickson, he discovered that one can change self-image, and behavior will change, or, alter the behavior and the self-image will change. It would be funny for you to walk stone faced, and strategically late into your next semester's first intro class, and then loudly write "DR HYSTERYWITCH" on the board, and afterward, just sit at your desk and regard your students, as a stockyard manager would look at sheep to be chosen for slaughter. Anxious students might then show you some deference and be more eager to please you, and pray that you would perhaps notice a little glimmer of proto-rational thought dimly glimmering in their eyes. The more dull eyed ones would, I'm sure go right to the drop desk, especially if you hand out a syllabus requiring cumulative, comprehensive, essay tests, as well as an approved term paper.

You could soon be finding yourself as Dept. Head, and well on your way to Ivory Tower status.

karlk34236 said...

Schiebt deine rebellische Schwester zu dir jetzt auf und zeigt Ihnen
mehr Respekt? Der ist der reale Test (forgive the Germenglish).

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Congratulations, both on the degree, and on the lived experience that you picked up en route.

And you are quite right--that life experience outweighs any degree. But, hey, a degree is still really cool! You did a lot of work for it, and if it takes one year or ten to feel some pride, well, proud you should be.

Mazel tov!