Playing School: Case Studies in Academic (Dis)Enchantment

A few days ago, I watched my four-year-old niece sharpen each of her #2 pencils and then choose brightly colored eraser tops for them. The sharpener crunched and brought back that familiar tension as I waited for her to turn it one time too far and break the point, but she didn’t.  She quickly caught on to the joy that is the perfect pencil point and the eraser top, much to my delight.  Then, she opened her puppy-themed notebook and began to print her name. I held my breath in excitement and waited to be asked for help.  A plea never came, and I watched in rapture as she continued to draw and write all sorts of things…her name, a mermaid, a list for the grocery store.  The afternoon stood still as I watched her big, bright eyes wait for a task.  She tackled drawing shapes, coloring little pictures I drew for her, and tracing her name over and over.  The whole thing felt kind of magical, like I was reliving a part of my own childhood and watching something unfold in her, too.

The fun of playing “school” continued the next day–the last day of summer.  In order to get ready for school, my niece practiced reciting her lunch number, her address, her birthday.  Prodded by my mom’s love for teaching (my mom is her pre-k teacher, and an amazing one at that) my niece made all of us (we each had different school roles: principal, teacher, lunch lady, janitor) play along. She sharpened. She completed tasks. She recited her lunch number for the lunch lady (her mom) and received crackers for her efforts. She beamed when we ooohed and ahhhed over her “work.” In that moment, it occurred to me that we were her audience in her own little drama; the people who would pass judgement on her drawings and writings (albeit never negatively…the kid’s awesome!).

My niece’s joie de vivre–even about things unrelated to school supplies–is catching.  But watching her light up over something as simple as sharpeners, #2 pencils, and new notebooks made me feel so nostalgic for those back-to-school shopping trips, for the Lisa Frank trapper-keepers (children of the 90’s say “yeahhhh”), and for all the positive feelings that attended a new school year.  But besides just being so in love with her and her intelligence and zest for life, I remembered that it must be so nice to only be accustomed to positive feedback.

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The other day, we were my niece’s fan club. Every square she drew correctly, we rejoiced. Every time she “punched in” her lunch code, we cheered.  What a thrill to know that you have a fan club, I thought.  If she wasn’t so durn cute, I’d probably envy her.  And I don’t wish her a lifetime of only having a cheering section, either.  When it comes down to it, I hope she gains positive and constructive feedback all along her academic journey–but only the kind that builds her up and makes her better, smarter, stronger.  I want her to be criticized out of love and out of a sense of betterment for her own sake–not because of a future teacher’s ego or position of power.  I hope each grade and each school and each college course builds on its predecessor and shapes and forms her into the kind of thoughtful, intelligent young woman she’ll grow to be.

I wish all of these things for her because I love her and because the experience of watching her play school these past couple of days has really touched on something I’ve been thinking about so much recently: the question of academic audience.  I have been struggling with the format of the dissertation for quite a while now: the hoops, the endless revision, the feedback, the hoops, the endless revision, the feedback (repeat).  I feel like I’m stuck in a washing machine that won’t finish a cycle.  Part of me knows this is par for the course, and several valued friends who are on the other side of the degree have told me to hold on and buckle down.  But at what expense?

All of this is really about my voice.  When I watched my niece so favorably received by her fan club (us) the other day, it occurred to me that she was actively articulating a new experience for a group of people who enjoyed listening.  I’m not saying that anyone who reads my dissertation must have a pleasurable experience (far from it, probably), but I am saying that it makes sense for me to want to please those who read it.  And when I take out my own voice for the sake of argument, or academic prose style, I lose something.  Some part of me is erased from the draft and replaced by a well-turned academic phrase or a dry reference to another source.  And so I wonder, is a dissertation really not a narrative of the years spent making it?  If I can’t put my own spin on it, if it really must be this hoop-jumping beast of THING, what does it actually do and whom does it benefit?

The first part of this blog, about my niece’s experiences with school, seems germane enough for a blog post at the end of August, but it was also an experiment with writing a tad more creatively about an academic subject (loss of voice/self in dissertation writing…in case that hasn’t come across).  And it was hard.  I labored over most of it.  I wondered if I was being clear, if the whole thing had a point.  I worried about offending the people who calmly and collectedly read every.single.draft I turn it.  But then I remembered that those people probably aren’t reading this, and I remembered that this is a blog, and here I have a voice.  This is about finding a way to make my experience better and more productive, and I know everyone involved in this process wants that for me.  So if I have to blog about finding ways to make this whole thing run more smoothly, then that seems fair enough.

So I’m trying to come up with ways to re-insert my own voice into my writing.  If that means journaling for a bit before I start writing every morning, that seems okay.  If it means that I ask other people to read chapters for a more positive experience with my audience, then that seems fair.  What do you think?  Are there any other ways to put myself back into my writing, to light up like a four year old the night before school starts?  I really want to know.

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