one student, many thoughts

I have one student in my class who comes to talk to me after each seminar. Literally, after each class. And what does he say?

During the semester, we are discussing different literary texts, dealing with quite difficult topics: the Holocaust, racism, discrimination, AIDS, homosexuality, religion, segregation, colonialism, imperialism … the list goes on. We analyze poems, plays, novels, graphic novels, and short stories.

And this student has something to say about each text, every character, every single topic. He comes to me at the end of the class (when everyone else is leaving for the next class) and starts the discussion without any prelude or ending. He would just say: “I find this character so obnoxious that it is hard to believe his way of thinking about gay people in the 1980s.” He would not ask my opinion or explain why he wants to talk about it. He would just come and blurt out everything on his mind. And then, when I get into this conversation and start analyzing with him, he would just silently agree with me with a nod and leave, almost in the middle of our talk. No byes. No closure. Just like that.

First, I found it a bit unusual. Maybe I said something wrong and he left, disagreeing. Maybe I did not answer his question. But gradually I realized it was supposed to be like that. This is his way of conversing with people.

After all, not all conversations should follow the standard formality: greeting, question, elaboration, and closing remark. Maybe some people think and speak in a different way. Maybe this is how natural and spontaneous thoughts should be expressed: without any warning or structure. It is like stream-of-consciousness, but out loud. Maybe this is the whole beauty of the conversation: you never know where it is going to start or how it will end. There is no polite small talk. No cliched phrases. Just thoughts and feelings, unstructured.

Now after each class I am eagerly anticipating this student. I never know what he is going to say or what is on his mind this day. I love how a book or class makes him feel: this need to continue talking about the topic when the class is over. This unrestrained desire to express himself.

It is just one student. But so many thoughts.

Stay humble

The semester is over. Exams are marked, and lecture rooms are empty. I am sitting inside the cafeteria and looking at my student’s card. She gave me it as a thank you for a wonderful semester. The card says one sentence: “I find you to be very humble and for that I thank you!”

I stare at this card and these few words. I have never been thanked for being humble before. Why would she think I am humble?

I have never had any special approach to this student. She was a bit behind some of the assignments and I helped her with that, but only because she was working full-time as a school bus driver. She was silent during most of our books’ discussions. She did not come to see me during my office hours. We did not have one-on-one time really. And, yet, she was the only one out of 30 students to find me after the final exam and give me this card. When she was handing me the card, she said exactly the same words as written inside: “I really want to thank you for being humble.”

Humble…this word can mean so many different things. Do I teach in a humble way? Do I speak too quietly? Some students complained about that before, so I always increase the podium microphone to the maximum. Am I teaching humble texts? Is it my behaviour, my words, or actions? I guess I will never find an answer to that.

Is being humble a compliment? In our society, humble often means having low confidence and not enough ambition. Many companies do not want to hire humble people. They want overachievers, assertive people with a high self-esteem. Nobody wants to be humble. Everyone wants to be perceived as brave and successful. Strong and confident.

But after some consideration, I realized that being humble does not negate achievement, passion, or even ambition. You can enjoy success and still be humble. You can be humble in the way you treat other people. You can be humble in the way you show yourself to the world. You can be humble in the way you think or talk about yourself. Humble means less self and more other. Humble helps you love the world around you.

Take a moment to reflect on the past year and thank yourselves for being humble in any moment of your lives. Stay humble.

PhD survivor

How to survive a PhD? Just follow these 15 simple steps:

  1. Choose the university that gives you the biggest scholarship for the longest possible time. Preferably, unlimited funding without deadline.
  2. Choose the supervisor not based on your common research interests or expertise, but based on the time it takes him/her to answer your emails. Track and measure it during Year 1.
  3. Do not make any attempt to find PhD alumni and ask about their post-PhD career paths. In fact, do not ask anyone at the department about that. The less you know, the better you sleep.
  4. Choose to live in the dorm close to fraternity houses. There will be many loud parties, and this will remind you to study harder to be able to finish sooner and finally have a life.
  5. Build your survival food system. In year 3-5, you will especially need emergency food. Fill your pantry or kitchen cabinets with instant noodles, canned food, crackers, nuts, peanut butter (lots of it!), and protein bars (brain food, you know).
  6. Start cutting all close relationships with people before Year 2. Your thesis will become your best friend, your partner … and sometimes your enemy too. The faster you cut contact with human beings, the sooner you will develop relationships with papers, articles, and books. This all will speed up the defence and graduation.
  7. Prepare to develop distaste for reading. In fact, stop reading anything a year before PhD. In this case, you can trick your brain into developing an interest for a new activity – boring reading.
  8. Do not spend money on anything. Save up and spend all your money on the best printer on the market and the most expensive chair. Office chair would especially be nice as it will give you an illusion that you are working in corporate business and making a difference in the world.
  9. Buy glasses and eye lenses in advance. Consult with your doctor on the possible trajectory of eyesight getting worse from year 2 to year 6 or 7.
  10. Apply for various grants and go to as many conferences as possible. Free travel, free food, free pens and note-pads.
  11. Visit the Buddhist monastery before starting a PhD and learn the secret of patience. You will need that a lot while waiting for the committee feedback on chapter 1,2,3 and so on.
  12. Buy a set of clothes 2-3 sizes bigger than your normal size. You will start noticing changes in Year 3.
  13. Buy subscription for all stupid comedy TV shows. It will be the only way to relax your mind and get distracted. Best mind therapy.
  14. Sign up for boxing classes. Stick the first page of your thesis on the punching ball and beat the shit out of it. It will help with anger management tremendously.
  15. And last, always remind yourself you will have a cool title “Doctor” at the end, even though you cannot really save or help anyone. It will still feed your ego and make you forget all the troubles you went through.

You can do it. I did it, so can you. I am a PhD: Proudly half Dead 🙂