What Remains Unwritten

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It’s 3:17pm, and I’m looking at what used to be “Document 1,” now spanning almost sixty pages. It’s now saved as “Working Dissertation.” I’m nestled in a wooden sack-back Windsor armchair – the kind that you’d imagine to have been ubiquitous in the late-18th century. It’s comfortable and worn, much more preferable than the stark green plastic modernist chairs that sometimes find their way into the graduate lounge on the third floor of Alderman Library. It’s sunny outside, and I have the soft sounds of Beethoven playing in borrowed Sennheiser headphones.

Every time I go to a social gathering, friends and new acquaintances ask: “so tell me about your dissertation topic. What’s it like, you know, writing something like that?” I try to maintain a cheerful attitude, so I tend to reply that despite its challenges, it’s a fun process. This is true, but there should be much more nuance to my answer. It’s usually not the time to go into detail when you’re clinking wine glasses and eating hors-d’oeuvres.

Writing and speaking like a budding academic place many other ideas, feelings, and sentiments of mine into the margins, particularly with those I meet for the first time. There’s a pretention that comes with this line of work that is arbitrarily constructed by society. It makes people I meet for the first time fairly distant with me. I wish this were not the case as much.

As for the dissertation, it has been a constant companion since March 2018. The first time I created “Document 1,” I was in Montréal on rue Saint-Denis, drinking a latte and people-watching. I’ll never forget that the moment I started writing the title of my topic into the document, I was watching a very happy couple having a debate about Montréal city politics and urban planning. It made me smile. I, too, was beginning to make a roadmap for another lieu – hopefully one with fewer potholes.

The second, the third, the fourth, the seemingly endless times I’ve opened the document (no matter where I am, geographically-speaking), I’ve discovered that reading the words put on the page is like looking into the mind’s mirror. I like to escape from it to remain conscious of a present time that is made more relevant by “the Other” – the people, places, and experiences that make life so enriching. Looking too long in the mirror can have negative consequences. My surroundings and the people who share their time with me contribute so much to the thoughts that inspire my writing. It could not be achieved in isolation.

When I am face-to-face with my writing, I sometimes laugh at how futile my attempts were to describe something, other times I ask myself: “did I actually write that?” The strangest thing about returning to your own writing is that, in a sense, a future version of your self has returned to a past version to have a discussion and clean up thoughts that just didn’t make that much sense.

From time to time, my ‘future’ self feels proud of what I have written. Those are the good days.

There is nothing more daunting than confronting yourself and your own thoughts on a matter. I think that’s why writing as a process is so complicated. There is an intimacy that emerges, a delicacy of thought that is wrestled by reason and supporting evidence. Each word is a choice, each sentence is a manifesto.

Often the sentences clash, and the discordant clang of paragraphs pushes you to highlight great chunks of text and want to delete them. I don’t. I have a separate document called the “Great Dissertation Garbage Heap” stored in a folder called “Erroneous Nonsense.” It saves me from the pain of parting with ideas for too long. The titles of the documents make me actually want to open them. Here’s my supporting evidence:

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Humour teaches me humility. One can never be too proud when writing, particularly since there is never a final “perfect” work. Everything is a work-in-progress. Always. Even once it’s been submitted. Even if the author lived three-hundred years ago.

Writing the dissertation reminds me just how much I do not know. Many people would argue that I know much more in my position as a graduate student, and on certain niche subjects, maybe I do. But in the grander scheme of things, when I walk through the aisles of shelves, looking for the right book to support my claims, I realize that I really don’t know much. My voice on the digital pages reverberates quietly alongside the thousands of brilliant minds I encounter in print. For some reason, that to me is comforting and exciting. I am contributing, albeit in my small way.

My favourite part of writing is researching. I love encountering new ideas and authors – particularly ones I disagree with wholeheartedly. I like being challenged. It makes me realize what I do believe in firmly… but it also makes me appreciate perspectives that my biases miss. Quoting and citing other authors has helped my ideas to mature in unprecedented ways, though I still know I am only at the tip of the iceberg and likely will only make a dent of a few ice cubes in my lifetime.

What remains unwritten in those nearly sixty pages of my dissertation is how much gratitude I have for the people and ideas I am encountering along the way. I love learning from and sharing thoughts with others. I have found that the more I step back from the mirror-like nature of writing, the better I am able to return to it with fresh perspectives and encouragement.

What has not made it to the pages of the dissertation has made it here, where the unvoiced feelings of thankfulness are muted no more.

Thanks for stopping by.

Claire-Marie Brisson

3:37pm, Alderman Library (The University of Virginia), 3rd floor.

Why I Teach – A Journey

imageStanding in front of a classroom full of thirty students might sound daunting to some, but to me, it’s the most invigorating part of life. The first day of class, the students flow into the room and sit in the sage-coloured chairs, their outfits crisp, their eyes perky, and their lips sealed. The weeks that follow, the students begin to start wearing sweatpants, their hair becomes frazzled, and they sometimes skip. At the end of it all, it’s as if they had run a marathon. Some run to the finish line confidently, others proceed with caution, and still others sit on the sidelines, procrastinating until the last minute. As I write this today, I am seeing off another talented batch of students as they finish their final exam.

Along the journey, these faces become the mosaic of a teacher’s life. From the very first moment that I taught in a high school classroom as an undergraduate student with big dreams, to where I am now teaching university students who display extraordinary determination and passion, each of my students remain in my memory. Thousands of students will stream in and out of my life in waves throughout my life, and for that I am most thankful.

Teaching goes beyond a career for me. I wake up in the morning and smile, despite any personal upsets or feeling ill. My students are like a reset button for me. Entering the classroom for me is seeing rows upon rows of individuals that I am able to educate, inspire, and motivate towards their goals. They may not always complete every assignment perfectly, but that doesn’t change my perspective of them as individuals. After they leave my classroom, some keep in contact, others leave forever. Sometimes life will create a chance encounter where you’ll meet again, and that’s the beauty of teaching – wherever my students will go, I know I’ve made just the smallest difference in the world.

It’s in helping my students that I feel the most rewarded. Teaching the subject matter is one thing, incorporating it into my students’ lives is another. When a student approaches me for extra information about a subject, advice in their general life, or simply wants to reach out and share something with me, I feel enriched.

My students leave me with a trail of cards, souvenirs, and memories, and I am forever grateful for them. They are small tokens that remind me of the good times shared in class and the smiles they brought to me. I continue to learn the art of generosity from my students. Though life may not be easy for them, particularly in their role as students, they never fail to make me feel appreciated and happy.

Though my comments may sound idyllic, many fail to recognize how much of a time investment teaching is. “You only teach for two hours every day? Oh that sounds like a dream job!” exclaim my friends who work cubicle jobs. There is indeed a lot of flexibility in teaching at a university, however, consider the time that goes into preparing lesson plans, PowerPoints, handouts, quizzes, exams, review sheets, and on top of all of that being accessible to students, and you have a whole different perspective. Moreover, most university lecturers don’t just teach at one location to make a livable wage. Teaching isn’t the easiest life path, but for me, it is certainly the most rewarding.

Out of all of the experiences in my life, I continue to be the most grateful for my career. In so many ways, the love and support that I feel while teaching surpasses the feeling of being a millionaire. Money can buy you a lot of things, but it certainly can’t buy you the chance to see so many incredible minds at work. As I look at the stack of exams that I dread checking to finish up the semester, I realize how lucky I truly am to have had such a positive experience with a myriad of stars that continue to blaze their paths through life. Thankful doesn’t even describe it.

Claire-Marie Brisson

Graduate Hoops – Defining Graduate Study

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The graduate student: a role that few outside of the realm of academia investigate. It is often said that graduate students are idealist perpetual learners afraid of the ‘real world.’

You’re so lucky you chose such an easy career path,” quipped an acquaintance with me once. “All you do is talk to students, write papers, and read.” As a graduate student, you will be confronted with these remarks for years to come.

As one can already tell, this viewpoint is as uninformed as it is stereotypical. Many misunderstand the labyrinth of ‘hoops’ a graduate student has to pass through to achieve their goals. Whether the end result is to become a professor, a researcher, or to hold another job title, the culture of graduate school is enigmatic to most.

Even more puzzling is the role of the university instructor. To undergraduate students, the person lecturing at the front of the room is immediately identified as “professor.” On occasion, I receive e-mails that say “Dr. Brisson.” I will be one day, but it is wrong to assume that every instructor holds a Ph.D.. For the most part, undergraduate students are equally unaware of what the words ‘tenure,’ ‘dissertation,’ and ‘part-time faculty’ mean. Throw ‘graduate teaching assistant’ into the mix, and it becomes more puzzling.

In lieu of writing an entire book on the subject, here’s a list of terminology and a few definitions that might be helpful to a prospective graduate student.

The GRE: an exam that measures your aptitude in several areas. These include quantitative reasoning (i.e. math), writing, and verbal components. To summarize, this exam is irrelevant in its content matter for the majority of prospective students. It does give a general sense of how someone works under pressure, with most sections timed for about 30 minutes. I would not say that it allows for much creativity, save for in the writing sections.

On the test day itself, the examinee jumps through several hoops, including signing legal paperwork, being wanded by a metal detector, and having their photo taken. It’s an isolating environment which, in my view, aims to increase stress levels. I highly recommend eating a protein-rich breakfast, including eggs, nuts, and milk (‘brain foods’).

GTA/GRA-ships: ‘graduate teaching assistantships’ or ‘graduate research assistantships.’ Awarded to incoming students, this is a way that one can complete a Master’s or Ph.D. without worrying about the cost of tuition. Some programs include stipends and health care benefits. Depending on the university, these stipends can be quite inclusive or meagre. At most public research institutions, GTAs teach introductory undergraduate courses. They may also act as an assistant to a professor. Research assistants are usually employed in labs.

In my personal view, the word ‘assistant‘ should be removed from this title, particularly in the humanities. I don’t assist another instructor; I am the instructor. Though lesson plans are departmentally agreed upon, the way in which the material is taught is autonomous.

Teaching will either be a frightening or an exhilarating experience if this is your first time doing it. If you did not complete any education courses in your undergrad course of study, you could try substitute teaching to see how a classroom environment feels. Although college students are – for the most part – more docile than high school students, there are many similarities. To substitute teach in a high school, you need at least 90 credit hours accumulated within an undergraduate program.

Classes and The Program: this is the obvious expected component of the graduate student. You take, depending on your program, two to three classes per semester. Certain requirements such as readings and essays will pop up throughout the semester. As I am a humanities major, you will more than likely read a handful of books. Expectations at this point are to be able to be analytical and to postulate new ideas from synthesis of material. In earnest, this is the most exciting part of the graduate program. You will learn and grow in more ways than you expected. And to the naysayers, it isn’t easy. That’s the fun in it.

If you are not prepared to dedicate yourself to your subject in every shape and form, you are not prepared for a graduate program. Although many individuals are fantastic students, being a great student doesn’t make the cut. You have to have something beyond a love of going to classes. I’m in love with my subject, and I’m prepared to analyze it and make advancements in it for the rest of my life. There is no ‘maybe’ in graduate school. Passion is going to pull you through your exams, your dissertation, your doctoral thesis, and your publishing requirements.

Graduate programs each are structured differently. Some will not write a Master’s thesis, others will have a capstone project in lieu of an essay. Checking into different program requirements is your best bet. Personally, I will be completing a Master’s thesis, oral exams, and a defense.

The Inspiration: this is not terminology, though it is worth noting. If you’re still hesitant to apply to a graduate program, consult with a mentor. You’ll find that graduate school is academically challenging and incredibly inspiring. The quality of your work – no matter what your specialty – will ameliorate in unexpected ways. Your program will be tough, yes. You will have days where you regretted it because of your workload. But at the end of it all, it’s an incomparable experience. You will be making significant developments in a specialty that interests you, and that makes graduate study fulfilling.

Should you have any questions for me, feel free to list them in the comments below, or send me an e-mail, which can be found in the ‘about’ section.

Claire-Marie Brisson

10 things I’ve learned in grad school

20150207_1412151Autumn 2013. Freshly out of undergrad and ready for the challenges ahead, I began the long road towards my Ph.D. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, and as I look ahead to the last few semesters of my Master’s Degree and Thesis, I realize that I’ve grown in so many ways thus far during my grad school experience. Though I am far from done, here are ten things I’ve learned since starting out.

1. You know who your friends are.

Having a diverse friend group in undergrad is easy. With various campus events, mixers, and parties, you’re guaranteed to meet a variety of people from different programs. Grad school is a completely different animal, particularly if you find yourself in a very small discipline. My department has less than 20 people completing their Master’s or Ph.D, as an example. You begin to rely on these people as an academic family – all while your undergrad friends are faced with your never-ending stream of deadlines and research. Your true friends stick on for the long run, and you feel really grateful for them.

2. Ten-page papers seem restrictive.

As a grad student, you almost feel restricted when your professor makes you write a shorter paper if you have a lot to say on the subject. Being precise is key, and sometimes your ideas will put you a few pages over the limit. The editing process becomes more excruciating than the writing process. Unless, of course, you have no interest in the subject matter and can’t find any resources. Then that ten-page paper is going to be as much of a beast as it was in undergrad.

3. You reinterpret your world.

This is true no matter if you’re doing a Master’s in astrophysics or a Ph.D in English. You begin to reinterpret and reanalyze all aspects of your world. The sheer amount of analysis you complete in your discipline changes the way you see and interpret things. This is also a reason why so many people find grad school to be the ideal place to mature.

4. You are more prone to receive criticism from others.

“Why are you in grad school?” “Haha, you’re a perpetual student.” “Getting a Ph.D seems pretty pointless to me.” “You should’ve gone to law school.” “What do you want to do with that when you’re done?” “That seems boring.” “Like we need another professor out there.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these exact phrases said to me – among other things. For some reason, many people feel that they suddenly have the right to criticize you for your career choices. Others may give you “tips” or “life advice” for finding “a good job” instead of “wasting your time.” My response is more or less: haters gonna hate. Just brush your shoulders off and move on.

5. You find your own voice.

Grad school has empowered me in many ways. In undergrad, I felt more like a passive listener, mindlessly regurgitating information on scantrons. In grad school, particularly in the humanities, class seminars allow me to express my own ideas and learn from the perspective of peers. Class tangents are especially invigorating.

6. Dating suddenly becomes more awkward.

Especially when you have to explain how you’re a 20-something that teaches university undergrads while simultaneously writing a thesis. In my experience, I’ve been placed on some kind of pedestal when I meet new people and become intellectually untouchable. It’s quite aggravating. Going to grad school will place you at a distance with others, particularly on the dating scene.

7. You sit way too much, and you discover new ways to read in strange places.

Reading on an elliptical? Check. Reading while standing up? Double check. Reading while walking? I’ve attempted it with very bad results – namely walking directly into a concrete wall. (True story). You try to discover ways to be active while doing your research. It looks bizarre. It will always be bizarre. You will question your life choices. You’ll still do it anyway. Saying that, I forgot to mention that stationary bikes are a great place to read and take notes. You’re welcome in advance.

8. You have to plan things weeks in advance.

If you’re close to me, you know this to be true – I never seem to be able to do anything on weekends. Ever. Is it because I’ve suddenly started disliking you? Nope. It’s because my weekends are usually set aside for me 1) sleeping, 2) reading things I was supposed to read but didn’t have time to read during the week, 3) reading things I have to read for the upcoming week, 4) checking my students’ homework, 5) creating PowerPoints for my students, 6) studying in general, 7) watching Netflix and pretending that I don’t actually have a million things to do. Planning suddenly becomes very important. I specifically have Google Calendars and notifications set up so that I remember to schedule in people I care about. Finding free time is one huge downside to grad school, but it has made me very efficient.

9. You embrace solitude.

In undergrad, I felt awful if I didn’t have plans for the weekend. Now I realize that I do my best work when I’m able to sit with a coffee and think alone. You value moments alone just as much as you value others – and this is a beautiful thing. It means you’re comfortable with yourself. This doesn’t mean that I always like to be alone, but at the same time it does mean that you do appreciate a few hours of quiet.

10. You become unstoppable.

Grad school has given me a boost in confidence to say “yes I can do that.” No task seems insurmountable. You want to travel the world, read as much as you can, meet as many people as you can, learn as much as you can. You want to make your own personal splash in the ocean of life. Even as a small droplet, you know the change you can create. Your goals might seem lofty to others, but you know that when you aim high, you have a better chance of getting there. There’s no harm in trying. There’s a million paths to reach your goal, and only one person that can stop you – yourself.

Claire-Marie Brisson