My seminar professor continues to remind our class that our goal for the semester is not merely to “come out on the other side a whole lot smarter,” but also to produce something tangible in terms of a research project or neat new discovery about language dialects. We’ve been spending the past several weeks reading about Californian English, and as a result, I have been thinking about possible speech perception experiments to run on my Californian friends, as well as listening a bit more closely to their patterns of speech in conversation. “There’s a lowered /æ/,” I think to myself as my housemate talks about cats and classes. “Ah, he slipped in a definite article,” I note when my classmate from SoCal explains how to take “the 5” to get to Redding.
These are just shallow, fleeting thoughts, and they usually don’t amount to much because I don’t voice them (since it is sometimes embarrassing, on my friends’ part, to have their idiolect scrutinized, and on my part, to have my own nerdiness revealed). But I am beginning to worry that I think too much about linguistics without ever acting on what I guess you could call my research impulses. One of the upperclassmen in my department keeps a little black notebook on him at all times, in which he jots down ideas for future experiments whenever they come to him. Although he will probably never get around to conducting all of them, at least the ideas have been collected and planted in arguably good soil, whereas I have a haphazard jumble of potential projects floating around in my head. Some of them I’ve tried half-heartedly to bring to fruition, but for the most part, I feel as if I’ve merely scattered them in dry dust where they will fail to amount to anything.
On the other hand, one new and interesting thing that I’ve begun this year is a grad student research assistantship with one of my professors. A few weeks ago, I had been concerned that I didn’t have quite enough to do in the coming semester, and then all of sudden I found an email in my inbox from Professor Johnson, asking me if I’d be willing to work for him. A great opportunity just fell into my lap! The GSR position has so far included testing and troubleshooting scripts for various experiments my professor is running, as well as conducting the experiments on real subjects in the lab. A lot of the tasks that have been given to me I have to figure out how to complete on the fly, since it’s the first time I’ve had to apply things I’ve learned in classes to real research.
But the other day, one of the research participants, an overeager freshman doing the experiment for extra credit in her introductory linguistics course, emerged from the sound booth where she had been pressing buttons for an hour and said, “So, can I ask you what your research is all about?” I had to tell her that it wasn’t my research, but my professor’s, and that I actually wasn’t really sure of all the details. And then it got me thinking, well, when am I going to actually start my own research, running trials and submitting papers to conferences and journals? Most of my cohort has already been able to present at conferences, including the LSA! I have to admit that I always feel just a little bit behind the curve.
I have never been sure of what’s expected of me and when I’m supposed to get things done in my graduate student career. So far the bulk of my past two years has been spent in class, getting “a whole lot smarter,” but I don’t have much to show for it yet. I wonder if that’s normal? I have to write a qualifying paper this year for my Master’s… but I have nothing to write about yet! Of course, when I eventually do get papers published, it’s the quality of my research and its potential impact in my field that really matter, not the quantity or how quickly I begin.
It is dawning on me now that the self-doubt and second-guessing I’ve already done so much of in graduate school so far is probably going to follow me for a long time. I’ll get accustomed to it; in fact, I think it’s a useful source of humility that I should keep in my back pocket even if I do become a successful academic. Sometimes, people I meet for the first time are in immediate awe that I’m doing a PhD program, and I can’t really muster up enough pride these days to entertain their rose-colored assumptions of what it’s like to make one’s way in academia. But I think that as long as I don’t know what I’m doing, I might as well couch my deficient academic output in terms of productive restlessness and big goals, instead of cynically decrying my recent life choices. That way, I can stay humble about my achievements (or lack thereof) while continuing to encourage myself and also promote higher education, which I still value very highly. And in the meantime, life is giving me plenty of opportunity to learn the virtue of patience.
Word of the Day: ouroboros, from the Greek for ‘tail-devouring snake’ (οὐροβόρος ὄφις), is an ancient symbol of a snake or serpent eating its own tail, creating a circle that represents infinity, cyclicity, or the creation-destruction dichotomy. Life’s a weird circle. As I start the second year of my (hopefully not infinite) even-higher education, let’s hope that it’s not just the same as the first!