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What goes around…

October 2, 2012

I used to be scared to death to go to class a few decades ago when I was an aimless university student. I knew I wasn’t exactly submitting works worthy of publication, mind you. I wasn’t interested in my courses, so I never applied myself. I’d hand in papers knowing I was doomed. But I was still sickened on those days when I’d get them back, even though I knew what to expect. I was usually right in my predictions.

A couple of weeks ago, I submitted my first essay in eight years. The last one before that was as a masters student, before a full-fledged career and heavy teaching and performance commitments outside of school. Nevertheless, I figured I’m older and wiser now. I’ve been around the block a couple of hundred times. I’m a master of time management (so I thought). I know how to write well and impress my professor. The next class after my nine classmates and I submitted our papers, the professor spent an entire session lasting nearly three hours deconstructing each paper in front of everyone, critiquing us on everything from content to punctuation. I sit closest to the professor in a round-table seminar room. He picked me as his first victim. And a victim I was, as he verbally ripped my submission to shreds as what felt to me to be an example to my much younger peers of how not to write a paper. Everyone had a copy of everyone else’s papers, so they were able to read along as he went line by line over my essay without a kind word. You could have heard a pin drop while he was doing so. I entered the room at 9:00 am with a little bit of cockiness. I left the room at noon feeling like I was punched in the face over and over again, made more painful by the public spectacle of it all.

I drove home wanting to run into every light pole and pedestrian. I wasn’t fit to look at or talk to. I was feeling completely unworthy of a doctoral program and afraid that I was flunking out of it. I hadn’t had these feelings of impending academic doom for thirty years. I had an impulse to e-mail my professor and apologize for my lacklustre work. I didn’t, because I was worried I’d come across as grovelling for his good favour. I couldn’t win.

I mustn’t have disguised my self-pity very well. Before I could completely figure out how to manage this deflating experience, I received a very kind e-mail from the professor, offering time to chat because he sensed I was feeling anxious. I took him up on the offer. We met for a very nice, long coffee chat downtown. Talked about one another’s life partners. Even gossiped a bit about mutual acquaintances. Talked about piano here, sociology there. I came to realize what I should have understood in the first place. That the nature of his course at this level is to learn how to present papers worthy to be considered for publication. He picked it apart, because his own submissions get picked apart by choosy editors in the same fashion. It was a real-life lesson. It was intended to be a constructive exercise which I was too self-centred to realize in the heat of the moment.

Then I realized something else in the course of our coffee chat: That this is not something a professor would have done for me when I was 18 going through the same sorts of feelings. There’s the difference… This time what’s at least as obvious to others as my worrying (given away by gritting my teeth, shifting in my seat and shallow breathing) is the fact that I love what I’m worrying about. My professor, who I’m sure one day will be a good friend once I survive his course, has the decency to identify and work closely with someone who is worried for all the right reasons. Truth is, I really have nothing to worry about. I worked my butt off to get into this program because I feel like I have something to give to it by way of my research interests. He wasn’t criticizing my work for the sake of criticizing. He wanted me to get into a position of taking the punches, sucking it up, learning from my weaknesses and coming back with something stronger.

It’s so funny and amazing how things happen. Another sociology professor, the one who received my proposal for doctoral studies a year ago, was actually my private piano student for seven years prior to that. Here was this highly-regarded published scholar every week in my piano studio challenging herself and nervously taking herself out of her comfort zone, relying completely on my artistic advice and experience. Seven years later, the tables are turned and I’m wanting to prove myself worthy of her academic world. And she’s returning my service to her by showing me extraordinary support and enthusiasm for my being there.

I spend anything from minutes to hours each day happily working with young people to get them through anything from learning notes in a song, to producing a show, to making a major career choice. Next thing I know, I’m in their shoes being calmed down and patiently guided by a constructively critical professor who’s been where I am… that is to say, as a middle-aged doctoral student temporarily displaced but who ended up realizing a very fine career.

Now he wants to be my piano student…

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