The second 500m

womens rowing pair
Olympic rowers – Women’s pair, as they finish a stroke.

I rowed crew my freshman year of college. In the fall, the races were longer distances and a waterfall start, so you rowed your own race and just listened to the coxswain, who did the thinking for you. In the spring, races were a 2000m sprint, and they were raced head to head. Mentally, you could break up these races into four 500m stretches. The first 500m was to get going – quarter, quarter, half, full – shorter strokes to get started. This burst of energy and intense concentration would carry you 500m before you realized it. In the second 500m, you needed to calm the adrenaline surge, settle into a pace, ease the anaerobic burn in your quads, and pull together. By the third 500m, you have a rhythm and are ready to really pull, and the last 500m is everything you’ve got to propel the boat as fast as you can. Then it’s over.

It’s the second 500m that was always the hardest for me. The adrenaline surge of the start had peaked and my mind would be jumping all over the place. My quads would burn and I’d want to quit. I remember struggling to manage my breath, which was coming shallow and fast from the jump start.

The highlight of rowing that year was winning the pair race at the SIRAs regatta. In a pair, there is are just two rowers, no coxswain. I was in front as stroke seat with my pair mate behind me. In the second 500m of that race, I had to set and settle into a stroke rhythm that wasn’t so fast we’d burn out but also not so slow we’d lose. There was no coxswain to listen to and offload the thinking, and I remember the responsibility that I felt as the stroke seat. It was up to me to calm my body and mind into a sustainable rhythm for myself and my partner.

The start to my fourth semester of graduate school feels akin to the second 500m. With three semesters behind me and the birth of our second child this fall, the first 500m jump start is behind me, and the adrenaline carried me through the end of last semester. Now I face settling into a sustainable rhythm that balances and focuses my efforts into my responsibilities as a parent and as a student.

I imagine a coxswain calling, hearing what she says as she feels the unsteady rocking of the boat. “Catch – Send!” This drops our oars into the water together for maximum efficiency, drawing the stroke through to the fullest. “Catch – Send!” This narrows our minds onto the task at hand, getting the last bit of pull off the oar. “Catch – Send!” This settles us into a rhythm to carry us on, because there is still a lot of race left to go. “Catch – Send!”

PhD Year 2

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I love the first day of classes: The anticipation of new ideas to explore, the possibilities of papers and projects, the expertly curated reading list (i.e. syllabus) handed out that will map the course through a new world.

But there is also doubt: Will I be able to understand these ideas? Will I complete these projects? Will I get the reading done and be able to speak articulately about it in class? Can I do this?

Then come the introductions: My name is… My program is… My advisor is… I’m from… I used to… and – the hardest one – I’m interested in…

As I start my second year as a PhD student, what I’m interested in researching/doing/becoming/contributing is much harder. This past year I had a pretty good answer – something about trying to understand how schools change – but it was so new, all about exploration and learning. I feel like I spent this past year backpedaling through paradigms and theories, trying to find an epistemological framework that resonates with me and a topic area that I’m passionate about and can actually study.

As my colleagues went back to work, the school year starting, I found myself longing for the predictable to do list of preparations to make for students arriving. I wanted that productive, task-oriented work where you know what you’ve accomplished. Maybe I could go back to that world?

My advisor said to me that starting your second year is when you look up and realize how far away you are from shore. I didn’t even realize that I’d been keeping tabs on the shore, the back up plan, my escape to safety – you know – in case this whole PhD/academia thing doesn’t work out.

But it will. Books will get read, papers will get written, projects will get finished. I’m sure this year will fly just as last year did, though hopefully I’m closer to identifying my interests at this time next year.

The days are long but the years are short. So I’ll tamp down the doubts and plan out my work and just keep swimming.

Reflections on my first semester of graduate school

I finished my first semester of graduate school! Hooray! It has better than I could have ever imagined, even when I started planning this 4 years ago. I feel incredibly fortunate to have found my way to this place at this time.

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Sometimes it feels like I don’t “do” anything all day. There is no immediate feedback from students or peers, no fires to put out, sometimes a meeting, usually a couple journal articles.
  2. Is it worth my time to do this? There are so many things to join, brown bags to attend, books to read, concepts to understand, MOOCs to take, blog posts to write. Should I?
  3. What will my question be? What will my research be? Is it edgy enough? Is it radical enough? Is it interesting enough? Will it get me a job? Will I like it? Will it be a profound change in the life of all people teaching in schools everywhere for ever and ever? Will I finish it?
  4. My questions change every day, if not every hour. After a lecture about the future of higher ed I debated jumping from K-12 focus to higher ed. Wait a minute. Do I want to read about it or devote my intellectual life to it? Is it interesting or fascinating?
  5. I want to stay here forever!
  6. I want to graduate at soon as possible to escape the cold weather and earn a salary.
  7. Will anyone be interested in my research? Do I even belong here? *Sigh*

This spring I’m taking four classes, one of which is public school law, which I’m super excited about. I’m not really sure why, but maybe because law school is one of those paths not taken, and this might be a glimpse in that direction. I’m also going to take an Interactive Museum Exhibit Design class, mostly because it sounds fun and I’ll get to make stuff. Onward!


As always, I am grateful for a supportive partner, who tucks the kid in at night when I’m at class and listens to me babble about things I’m thinking about. There is no way my ideas would be as good or my spirits as high or my life as full without him.