Recently, I earned a PhD in English. This vigorous, quite enriching process involved a commitment well beyond any other effort I’ve ever experienced in my life. From the constant studying and extensive reading to the writing of in-depth, analytical essays and dedicated teaching of composition courses as a graduate assistant, I lived and breathed my work for an intensive, five-year period. Every time that I engaged in activities outside of this endeavor, I always worried about falling behind or missing some crucial detail that required my full attention without delay. In short, my life remained supremely focused on progressing within my program to attain this degree.
As I reached the end of my studies, when I didn’t need to balance researching, writing, and revising my dissertation chapters with focused teaching and grading, I worried about the uncertainty ahead. Without the continued need to maintain an unwavering discipline that had become so ingrained, the approaching freedom loomed as a source of fear, not appreciation or even relief. Since I naturally gravitate toward anxiety, so often embracing panic over the satisfaction of achievement, I could only dwell on how uncomfortable it felt not to have this educational motivation and intellectual engagement driving my existence anymore. My options appeared frighteningly open, where the structure I’d designed for myself to obtain this schooling would no longer apply.
Furthermore, graduation signified another intimidating reality. Once I acquired this degree, I’d lose part of my identity. Almost a decade of being a graduate student while steadily advancing in my teaching skills would vanish into another form I hadn’t yet determined or even imagined as of yet.
During this period, I talked with my mother about the scary transition that I faced as well as the prospect of losing this graduate student role, forever stripping away that intrinsic learning perspective. With this degree, I’d never have to enroll in another course again. Furthermore, the well-established habit of eagerly absorbing a professor’s encyclopedic knowledge wouldn’t be an expected requirement of my life going forward. So coming to terms with this non-negotiable removal of a deep-rooted practice felt like an enormous, nearly impossible concept to accept.
But my mother responded to this flurry of concerns with her usual wisdom by explaining that graduation didn’t mean a colossal end to the learning process. Instead, she said that I should think of this passage as the anticipated path to becoming an independent learner. The many fantastic, quite awe-inspiring instructors whose courses I’d enjoyed, whose guidance I’d benefited from on numerous levels over all of these years, had trained me how to look at the world around me with critical awareness. In effect, they supplied me with the tools to remain an avid learner on my own, without the formality of an actual teacher issuing enlightenment from the front of a classroom. Thanks to their care, I’d gained the skills to develop my ideas, independently building and expanding upon these thoughts, with no professorial validation necessary.
I feel grateful to my mother for helping me see that learning and questioning shouldn’t stop just because I’m no longer a graduate student. And, in all honesty, it hasn’t. I continue to seek knowledge, striving to stay informed. It’s especially crucial now, in my view, because of this frightening political period we’re enduring, where awareness must be a top priority. With the threat of authoritarian rule lingering so closely and dangerously to our everyday lives, with our rights incrementally disappearing, with extremist, right-wing cruelty rising to normalization, learning is more important than ever. It’s the best way to navigate through this era of immense injustice, strategizing effective paths for moving beyond the darkness immediately ahead and resotring fairness in some form, eventually achieving the equality every resident in this country deserves.
Situations such as the one we’re currently facing is where eduation really, truly matters. I believe that the ultimate purpose for every critical thinking exericse that I experienced as a graduate student, including each analytical essay I’d written, each book I’d been assigned to read, each syllabus I’d been guided to design and lesson to teach, expressly involved building a sharper consciousness of my surroundings. Armed with this perception, I can better detect manipulations, more fully understand the subtext of messages that could endanger me, more easily steer clear of ideas that defy my best interests, and fundamentally discover glaring holes within propaganda polished to a glossy sheen so as to conceal its repressive intent.
As an instructor now, where I can pass along the enormous value of learning to my own students, I hope to equip them with this same kind of cognizance. Through their reading, thinking, and continual writing, I want them to build the intellectual muscles to maneuver around societal pitfalls, to question information that directly impacts their lives, to search for the truth and not simply accept statements without a clear awareness of the source.
In this way, learning never has to end. Instead, it can constantly, quite persistently develop and deepen, becoming a weapon against exploitation while also making the world a much more decent place for us all. For each of these pivotal and very much essential reasons, I’ll always be an avid learner.