History (Rhetorical Studies and History IE Pre-Grad Intern) Sophomore Michael Turner
The academic life is one of challenge, isolation, struggle, growth, and constant cycling between disappointment, fatigue, satisfaction, and achievement. It requires deep commitment, focus, and inner strength. Never in my life have I struggled so arduously with any decision than since I chose to give up my former life as a touring artist to return to school after a six-year absence - to rage against myself in a network of systems, deadlines, and bureaucracies that even in my youth presented great challenges to my natural abilities and comfort zones. In this particular regard, I suppose my path is distinct from many other undergraduates who come to college straight out of high school, and then decide on post-graduate options afterward. That process was opposite for me: attending graduate school was the primary aim of my decision to return to academia in my mid- to late-twenties, and choosing an undergraduate program was secondary to that aim; it was purely a matter of finding how to best prepare myself for the work I had already discovered I needed to do as writer, scholar, and citizen. Every step taken and every decision made since has been heavily based on the soul-searching I did before coming to UT about what part I am to play in life. What kind of impact do I want to make, and in what ways am I best suited to make that impact? What channels are available to me, which constitute the most effective path to reach my desired destinations, and how can I best navigate them? What are my own strengths and talents, and how can they be useful? What are my weaknesses, and how can I overcome them? What do I want to learn and why does it matter?
Having begun this process already, knowing the kind of work I want to do in graduate school has in some ways made it harder to be working on my lower-division coursework, wherein the disciplines between which I so desire to discover commonality stay strictly distinct from one another, and the prescribed modes of approaching them seem largely inflexible. This internship has, in many ways, been my salvation from these frustrations. Participating in it has provided by far the most valuable and enlightening resource and experience to date by which I could spend time examining my decision to return and the environments its consequences occupy.
There are three primary areas in which my thinking about graduate school and my path towards it have been challenged and my understanding deepened through this internship: the nature of the academic environment and lifestyle, the need for specificity in research goals and depth in theoretical foundations, and the role of developing analytical and abstractive skills. To the end of these changes in thinking, three activities of the internship, in particular, stand out as having been the most impactful: the faculty interview, the faculty and grad student Q & A panels, and most especially, the opportunity I had a few weeks ago to attend the annual National Communication Association Conference in Chicago with a travel grant from the program.
One personal struggle of mine this semester has been the deepening sense of isolation and loneliness that has come to accompany my studies. The reality of time spent alone in libraries conferring with inert strangers who come to me through the pages of books and who respond to neither my ardor nor my quandary has worked in part to deepen my concern that the academic life is a lonely one, and that, being a very social creature, it might not be right for me after all. Discussions with several scholars during the course of this internship have affirmed this as a very real problem facing those who seek the academic life. However, coming to understand this as I do now has not deterred me from my goal of post-graduate study, but rather has given me a much clearer understanding of the personal cost of this choice. Learning this now enables me to work to find coping mechanisms so that I can continue with my goals and hopefully, by having a more clear idea of the sacrifice required, have a better chance of minimizing the degree of sacrifice, and come to a place of peace with the reality and rewards of contemplative scholarship. I am grateful to the internship for providing a safe method for considering this very personal element of the struggle to succeed in academia.
My second major discovery about the academic environment and lifestyle is reciprocal to the first: the development of tenacity. I had a moment just this week, actually, where I felt that I had given all I had to give and was beginning to very seriously doubt whether I had made the right choice coming back to school, whether I should just march right into the Dean's office and withdraw. I spoke to one of my professors, who is now a mere semester away from finishing her book and her doctorate, who told me she had felt exactly the same way just a week before. She then told me how she made a list of everything she had sacrificed to be where she is now, all the hard work she had done, and when she saw that, she knew that surrender was not an option. That really put things into perspective for me as well, and I knew I had to press on - I will persevere and the tenacity required to do so will develop in the process. I credit the perspective, inspiration, and encouragement I have gained through this internship with my ability to engage in this kind of open and edifying dialogue with my professors.
The last major area of environment and lifestyle that has been impacted this semester is the vital importance, and also the fun of networking, which I will discuss again when I expound on my experience attending an academic conference.
Other areas of my thinking that have been affected by the internship deal with the need for specificity in research goals and depth in theoretical foundations, and the importance of developing analytical and abstractive skills. There have been a number of experiences I have had this semester that have illustrated these points to me, some through activities of the internship, and others, by coincidence, occurring independently of the internship through my coursework, but having been understood in a such a way because of the goals of the internship, having been made clear at the beginning of the semester, provided a fantastic perspective and degree of objectivity that helped me grow my understanding of the skills required to succeed as a scholar. Attending the conference, again, was instrumental to this end, as well.
In the service of challenging these areas of thinking, there were furthermore three activities of the internship which did the most to impact these changes in thinking.
The first of these was the faculty interview. I spent an hour and a half talking to Dr. L. J. Andrew Villalon in the History Department about everything from his experiences as an undergrad to the development of his interest in his field going all the way back to childhood, to my areas of research interest, to what challenges to expect in my career and what tools he has found useful in overcoming them. I could write pages and pages about the excitement I felt listening to him, engaging him, feeding off of his passion for history, culture, and science, but suffice it to say, that the experience was as illuminating to me as it was edifying.
The second activity was the faculty Q & A panel, and the grad student panel as well. It was so refreshing, and fun, to see these career academics pull back into the attics of their memories to think about, remember, and contextualize struggles which for them, may have been long since forgotten, but for me, are looming on the horizon. The meeting of the personal with the professional and political in the questions and answers made the dynamic in the room quite electrifying, and the discussion truly lively, reciprocal, and revelatory. One of my favorite moments was the suggestion, amidst all the equally important technical and logistical issues discussed, that passion be the core foundation upon which our choices must be made, informing them more than all other considerations. A scholar's life is riddled with hardships, from the long hours of solitude to facing repeated rejections from publishers, employers, and funding organizations. If your choice to be there is informed by your passion for what you are doing, that is the best way to persevere through these obstacles and find success and satisfaction in your work. I will never forget the energy in that room, nor the sense that the work in which each of them was engaged truly meant the world to them. It moved me and emboldened my resolve.
The third and easily most impactful experience I had in this internship was the opportunity to travel to Chicago and attend the National Communication Association Conference. Panel after panel of papers presented and discourse engaged dealt with a vast array of issues which have concerned me for years and are at the core of everything it means to me to be an intellectual entrepreneur, and I loved every moment. The truly mind-blowing flip-side to that, however, was the degree of difficulty I found in following and contributing to the dialogues. The depth of understanding of the kinds of language and relationships of ideas that were employed to elaborate and develop each argument and discovery - based in long histories of developments in rhetoric, theory, materialism, culture - was truly beyond me. This was possibly the most valuable experience of the internship for me because it enabled me to visualize in an amazingly precise manner exactly what my goal is over the next few years. I cannot begin to articulate how grateful I am to the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program for providing me with this opportunity.
The other really amazing thing about my trip to Chicago, as mentioned previously, was getting to meet and talk with professors and scholars from all over the country, at the top of their field, particularly those from the graduate programs and disciplines that interest me most. Being introduced and eventually taking the initiative to introduce myself to them, making their acquaintance, establishing them as future contacts, asking them about their work, and even getting feedback from them about my own research goals was an unbelievable opportunity. I hope to attend this conference every year from now on.
The summary effect of all these elements, if I had to distill them most simply, is the crystallization of my goals regarding not only graduate school, but also the way I approach the rest of my undergraduate tenure, as well, and on a more personal level, how I structure my personal life and balance relationships and commitments to achieve those goals without losing my sense of myself or compromising my goals.