I am back in graduate school once again, this time in a writing program as opposed to a science-based (or rather, laboratory bench-based) program. During the first class last week, the professor warned us, as if I needed the warning, that just as college was exponentially harder than high school, graduate school would be exponentially harder than college. To which I just grinned ruefully and nodded.
Not that it’s any big secret on this blog, but my first jaunt into graduate school was a category-five, apocalyptic-level disaster. I was still in a lot of pain, did not know I was autistic, and had no idea that I had landed in one of the most competitive programs in the country. And by competitive, I don’t mean exclusive, although I suppose it muse have been. I mean that it was a cut-throat working environment where everyone fought to stay in the PI’s (Principal Investigator) good graces each and every week, at a lab meeting where the PI would grind anyone into powder who hadn’t produced lab results on which a paper could be based. I spent a lot of time being powder.
It was, in fact, a paper-producing operation, pure and simple, and oh, by the way, at some point you might actually get a graduate degree, if you ever had time to take a class, and pity the poor students who were student-teaching while trying to make all this happen. I was trying to take two classes and learn how to do lab experiments at the same time, and I completely fell apart. I almost failed the classes, never produced any results on the bench that were worth anything, and dropped out after a single semester in hopes of having done as little damage to my future career as possible.
To say that I had some trepidation wading back into grad school only a few years later would be an understatement. I put it off by a semester after my application was accepted. I tried three separate times this past year to talk myself out of it. I waited until a week before classes started to apply for a student loan. If there had been another way to drag my feet, I would have found it, offered it candy, and let it sleep on my futon.
Still, here I am. And it’s…not hard.
All this time, I doubted I was graduate school material. I thought I might have hit my ceiling. I thought there was no way I could add one more thing to my schedule, which, since changing careers, has been more demanding with regards to time (although far less so with regards to people, making it a net win).
I gave myself lots of time to tackle the reading material and writing assignments from last week, but I flew through them. Apparently, I’m more than capable enough as long as I’m not trying to decipher phylogenetic trees or heat maps, or genetically crossbreed worms the size of eyelashes.
Instead, it’s all language. Written articles about different forms of writing. No graphs. No figures. No two-way ANOVA tests for significance or Kolmogorov–Smirnov tests to see if the data follows a normal distribution, or any other tests for congruence or variance or whatever. Which, paradoxically, only ever told you what your chances were of not being wrong. Which, if you ask me, is a depressing way to go about one’s business.
But. Back to now. Class is fine. No trouble at all with the work.
New wrinkle. I’m so, so different from the other writers in the class.
To start, they’re all much, much younger than me, some an easy ten or fifteen years, many young enough to be my children. I don’t really have a problem with that – it didn’t matter the last time I was in school – but because of it, they have not been writing enough, or perhaps not been asked to write in such a way, to develop a style or a voice of their own. The writing is technically good, which is nice, actually, because with all the editing I’ve been doing, I had been starting to wonder if anyone ever learned to write at all any more. But it’s bland, it’s academic, it has no forward motion or sense of place; it doesn’t feel like a person is speaking. It’s just words.
Now that I’ve learned how to communicate in a socially acceptable way in interpersonal settings, the only place where I can speak like I do in my head is in my writing. And my head has Asperger’s, and is sharp, direct, unfiltered, and not nearly so concerned about offending people as I am in real life. I thought my ability to put thoughts into words in such, ahem, dramatic fashion was a feature of my writing. I thought that was what made it good.
Does it? Or does it just keep it from being useful?
I visit the student blog almost every day, looking for new posts, trying to learn about my peers, to see if there is one I have something in common with. But I can’t get a bead on them. The only one who revealed anything at all about himself was a man who’d been working as a technical writer for the better part of a decade, and had developed, whether purposefully or not, something like a voice, at least to some degree.
He also happens to be good-looking in a clean-cut-hipster-y sort of way (moustache, ugh) and one of only two males in the course, so of course, the girls are all over his posts. “So honest!” “So brave!”
No. Brave is what I do, here, on this blog. But my classmates haven’t read my blog. They don’t know what’s happened to me, how my writing developed, how I’ve learned to be unafraid to sharpen it and cut with it, drag and be dragged with it. My posts on the student blog have been open and unabashedly opinionated. After seeing everyone else’s, though, I wonder if I’ve managed to alienate the entire class in the space of a single week.
In addition to writing a couple of posts, we were also supposed to comment on one another’s work. In discussing health communication, one woman wrote how an abuse of communication is when addicts go on the internet to look up symptoms so they can go to the emergency room and get the doctors to prescribe them drugs.
There were no statistics. No citation. No other examples were provided. I responded by saying that statements without proof were dangerous and that as communicators we had a responsibility to be careful with our words and to support what we say. The volume was pretty low by my own personal standards, but it probably seemed pretty harsh to my classmates. What a bitch, they probably thought. I hope I don’t have to work with her.
There are two tracks, one for technical writing and one for science communication. I’m on the former, but I think I may belong on the latter, which involves more rhetoric, more carrying a message as opposed to facilitating an action. Not that I can’t facilitate an action, but if I’d had to write manuals for some of the products I’ve used, well…I don’t think anyone would have liked what I came up with.
I could pull my personality out of my writing, I suppose, but… I don’t want to. This is the fun part. It’s my favorite time of day. Throw open the gates and let it all go. If writing for a living means not doing that, I’m not sure that’s something I’d be capable of, day in, day out.
This time, I’m uncertain about graduate school not because I can’t handle the work, but because the work may not be able to handle me. And then what do I do?